VP finalist alleges UM discriminated; UM said she was never employed

Applicant wants to join possible class action lawsuit

By: - February 24, 2023 3:33 pm

The M on Mt. Sentinel stands above Main Hall on the University of Montana campus. (Provided by the University of Montana)

A woman and recent top candidate for a vice president position at the University of Montana wants to join a possible class action case alleging gender discrimination by UM and the Montana University System.

But the University of Montana said the woman has never even been employed at the institution.

In 2021, four high ranking women sued UM and the MUS alleging gender discrimination — claims UM has strongly denied.

In a brief filed this week in U.S. District Court in Missoula, vice president finalist Vandi Theriot alleges discrimination in the hiring process.

Theriot would be one of 18 named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which alleges a hostile and retaliatory culture against women. The plaintiffs’ lawyers have identified as many as 76 women they believe could be part of a class action case.

“Similar to the other plaintiffs, Ms. Theriot’s claims are another example of the significant discriminatory culture at UM and MUS,” said the recent court filing.

UM and MUS have described the allegations as “baseless and without merit,” and they have said they look forward to “vigorously defending our institutions in court.”

This fall, federal District Judge Brian Morris denied class certification for the lawsuit. He said the claims were too broad, but he left the door open for the plaintiffs to try again if more evidence comes to light.

In a brief filed this week, the plaintiffs request Theriot be added to the lawsuit. The brief said her allegations did not occur until later in January 2023, after the Jan. 6, 2023, deadline passed for parties to join. 

The court document outlines Theriot’s complaints, and the brief said the alleged discrimination took place as the current lawsuit was already underway:

It said UM advertised a vice president for people and culture job in fall 2022, and the campus offered a salary range of $155,000 to $165,000.

“Upon information and belief, UM created this position in response to the multiple claims of discrimination against it, including, but not limited to, this lawsuit,” the brief said.

It said Theriot applied for the job and was vetted for three months, and she “excelled at every step.”

“The UM search/hiring committee selected Ms. Theriot as the best candidate,” the brief said.

But the brief said UM President Seth Bodnar wanted to hire an internal candidate instead, except the internal candidate was not qualified. And it said he quizzed Theriot.

“President Bodnar repeatedly questioned Ms. Theriot’s confidence in her ability to fulfill the role of vice president for people and culture. Ms Theriot was confident in her ability to be successful in this position, as was the search/hiring committee,” the brief said.

After the search committee approved Theriot, Bodnar requested additional references, “despite UM missing a scheduled meeting with one of Ms. Theriot’s original references,” the brief said. It also said Bodnar requested she talk with the Deputy Commissioner of Human Resources at MUS.

Around Jan. 20, 2023, Bodnar offered Theriot the job with a 16-month contract and lowest listed salary, $155,000, the brief said. It said the salary would be increased to $161,000 on July 1, 2023.

“Upon information and belief, UM’s offer to Ms. Theriot would have paid Ms. Theriot the lowest salary of its vice presidents,” the brief said.

However, UM denies Theriot ever received a formal job offer from the university. 

“Ms. Theriot has never worked at UM, nor has she ever been offered a job by UM,” said UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz in an email.

The brief said Bodnar told Theriot she would receive a “finalized contract” on Jan. 27, 2023. It also said Theriot eventually backed out of the process, and on Jan. 25, Bodnar told her UM would not proceed with “its offer and agreement.”

Leading up to the reversal, however, the brief said Bodnar had explained a “new structure” would include a new position, an associate vice president. It said he explained the internal candidate — who was not qualified for the vice president job — would accept the associate job at a salary of $120,000.

“The associate vice president position description was not posted for a public or internal candidate search; despite equal opportunity, nondiscrimination, and affirmative action obligations requiring the defendants to do so,” the brief said.

It said the position didn’t have a job description with minimum requirements either, and Theriot raised related concerns to Bodnar. However, he said “the optics of this decision were not a concern” because the internal candidate had completed a rigorous review as an applicant for the vice president job, the brief said.

“Throughout the hiring process, Ms. Theriot observed President Bodnar focus on the optics of his decisions, rather than the process, merits and content of the actions,” the brief said.

The brief also said Bodnar requested Theriot work over the weekend prior to reversing course with the offer, and she did so, but the president treated her with “distrust and micromanagement.”

The brief said Ms. Theriot is 50 years old and “not an obviously athletic woman,” and that defendants treated her differently than the “young athletic” internal candidate.

“The defendants created a brick wall for Ms. Theriot’s career,” the lawsuit said.

In an email, though, UM said it didn’t decline to hire Theriot based on her gender. It has denied any allegations of discrimination in this lawsuit.

“UM denies that the decision to not hire her (Theriot) was based on any protected class status. We remain confident that the claims in this lawsuit lack merit,” Kuntz said.

A Feb. 3 email from Bodnar to the campus shares his explanation of the reversal as a change of course for leadership of the new sector. It said UM planned to create a “People and Culture” sector to ensure a “holistic approach” to supporting employees and shaping culture at UM.

The email said UM launched a search for a vice president to lead the sector, but then, it changed direction to tap internal resources.

“Over the course of the last few months, we have learned that the initial design and launch of this new sector is best led by a team that already deeply understands UM and can efficiently and effectively shape this new sector,” Bodnar said. “So I have decided that we will not hire a vice president at this time.”

Instead, he said he would be “elevating the talent and expertise we already have here at UM.” He listed four employees he would work with to execute “People and Culture” functions, including the new associate vice president, and he said he believed that strategy would have “the greatest impact on our people.”

(The sector brings together Equal Opportunity/Title IX, Human Resource Services, and the Office of Organizational Learning and Development, the email said.)

“We will assess the need for executive leadership of the sector over time,” Bodnar said.

Filed Wednesday, the brief said Theriot may pursue claims on her own but prefers to join the group litigation.

(In the same brief, the plaintiffs seek to dismiss another plaintiff from the case for health reasons.)

The plaintiffs have not yet filed another request for class certification.

In a separate lawsuit, former UM head basketball coach Shannon Schweyen also is suing the university alleging gender discrimination.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.