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UM faces lawsuit alleging widespread gender discrimination

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Women allege widespread gender discrimination at UM
Weeks before students were set to return to the classroom, four women filed a Title IX lawsuit against the University of Montana alleging President Seth Bodnar and other higher-ups fostered a "good ol' boys club," paying female staff less than their male counterparts and blocking career progress. Now, more than a dozen other women are attempting to join the complaint and are seeking to approve it as a class-action lawsuit. Montana Kaimin Features Editor Mariah Thomas sits down with Kaimin Cast host Austin Amestoy to break down the allegations and shed some light on where the suit may go from here.

Austin Amestoy: From the Montana Kaimin, University of Montana's independent, student-run newspaper, this is the Kaimin Cast for the week of August 30. I'm Austin Amestoy. Several weeks before students were due to return to class, four women filed a lawsuit against the University of Montana alleging widespread gender discrimination.

In the complaint, the plaintiffs condemn what they describe as a "good ol' boys club" fostered at the university and strengthened under the leadership of UM President Seth Bodnar. Now, more than a dozen other women have come forward with similar allegations. This week, a conversation with the Kaimin's features editor Mariah Thomas on where the lawsuit stands and where it could go from here.


Amestoy: Hey, Mariah, how're you doing today?

Mariah Thomas: I'm good, Austin. How are you?

Amestoy: I'm doing well. Thank you. Welcome to the inaugural episode of the Kaiman Cast. How does it feel to be here? 

Thomas: Feels great. I'm so excited we're doing this this year. 

Amestoy: Yeah, me too. But as you well know, because of your reporting, it is a little bit of a heavy topic for a pilot episode. But we're gonna do it anyway. But before we get into that real fast, I thought it would be good for you to tell listeners what your role is at the Kaiman briefly. 

Thomas: Absolutely. I am the features editor of the Montana Kaiman, which basically means that that cover story that is on the front of the paper every single week is the one that I am in charge of organizing and editing. 

Amestoy: Awesome. On that note, you were in charge of the first cover for the Kaiman for this fall, and lawsuits are definitely complicated and hard to pin down. But I'm wondering, to start, if you could tell us as plainly as possible, what is this one all about? 

Thomas: Essentially, four women employees — former employees and current employees — at the University of Montana, have come forward and filed a lawsuit accusing president Bodnar's administration and the University of Montana and Montana University System of committing discrimination on the basis of sex, which is illegal under a federal law called Title IX. 

Amestoy: Okay, and for listeners who may not know and you know, I don't know if a lot of people probably know exactly what this is, could you explain a little bit what Title IX actually is? 

Thomas: Title nine is a federal law that governs university campuses that receive federal funding, which the University of Montana is, and essentially what it says is that students and employees at the University are protected from discrimination based on a whole bunch of different classes, including sex, sexual orientation, disability, race, national origin. 

Amestoy: Okay, and when exactly was this lawsuit originally filed and in what court was it filed?

Thomas: So this lawsuit was originally filed in the US District Court in Missoula on August 4.

Amestoy: Great, but of course, since then, we know the game has changed, right? 

Thomas: Yeah. Since the original complaint was filed, plaintiffs and their counsel claim that 18 additional women have directly contacted them to share experiences similar to the original four plaintiffs alleging discrimination on the basis of sex, which, essentially, has caused them to refile the suit as a class action. 

Amestoy: And, now, is the suit officially a class action lawsuit? Or have they just filed for that status.

Thomas: They have filed for that status. So a class action essentially requires that a large number of people have all been harmed by the same discriminatory practice or policy on the books, and all that that requires is just that one of the plaintiffs is named, but that one plaintiff's experience must be representative of the entire class. But, in filing a class action, the court can handle the case more efficiently, which, which is part of the purpose of doing that. 

Amestoy: Okay, great. So, we know that the scope of these allegations of sex discrimination has widened significantly since it was originally filed with just those four plaintiffs. Now, there are well over a dozen other women — close to two dozen, potentially — who are wanting to sign on to the suit alleging sexual discrimination at the University of Montana. But this suit and the text of the suit still focuses on the four original plaintiffs. So I was wondering if you could sort of run us through who each of these individuals are, maybe starting with Catherine Cole, one of the plaintiffs on the suit. 

Thomas: Catherine Cole is the first plaintiff listed on the suit, and she was the former vice president of enrollment management and strategic communications at the University of Montana under President Bodnar. At the time she was the vice president, she was the only female vice president, and essentially, what the suit alleges against Bodnar, in her case, is that he did a whole bunch of things like micromanaging her and belittling her and commenting about her appearance and weight, among other complaints, as well as she was paid lower than all of the rest of the vice presidents at the university at the time, which is significant, as she was the only female vice president.

Amestoy: And how much lower was she paid relative to some of her counterparts?

Thomas: From my own research, she made a salary of $170,000, and the other vice presidents were making $200,000 and up, which, if you do the math, is about 15% of a difference. 

Amestoy: So not an insubstantial difference between those salaries, definitely. So another name among the plaintiffs is Barbara Koostra. Could you tell us a little bit about what she alleges in the suit?

Thomas: Koostra was the director of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture from 2005 until 2018 — so, about 14 years. She would have received retirement benefits had she made it to 15 years in this position, but when she was under President Bodnar, she alleged that he asked her to house the museum's permanent collection in the Missoula Marriott Hotel downtown, and she had concerns about doing so, which she said were climate control protections for the art, that kind of stuff. She claims that afterwards, she was moved into a smaller office in McGill Hall, which had poor working conditions that she complained about on multiple occasions. In fact, McGill Hall actually later on had asbestos found in it, so she says that there was obviously merits to her complaints, but that following all of this, her position ended up being terminated due to "reorganization," and later on, a male museum director was brought on in her position.

Amestoy: Okay, so that's Barbara Koostra's story. Now, another name on the list is Mary-Ann Sontag Bowman. Could you tell us a little bit about what she's alleging in the suit? And if I'm not mistaken, Bowman is still on staff at the University of Montana. Is that right?

Thomas: Yes. So Bowman is the only one of the original four plaintiffs who is currently on staff at the University of Montana. She is a tenured professor in the School of Social Work here. And she, in the complaint, alleges that her career has hit a brick wall, essentially, at the University, due to male leadership roles being held in the College of Social Work, which is dominated by women. The current chairman of the school sought a second term in 2020, and Bowman claims in the suit that had he not done so, she would have put in an application for that position, but in doing so, she alleged that he blocked female leadership in the school.

Amestoy: And the last of the four women on this complaint is Rhondie Voorhees. Could you tell us a little bit about what she's saying?

Thomas: Rhondie Voorhees was the dean of students from 2012, so was brought on amidst UM's sexual assault scandal many years ago, and served in that position until 2018, and her story is essentially that she repeatedly and consistently brought Title IX complaints to her higher-ups at the University, but these complaints were shut down, disregarded and not listened to, and eventually, her position was also eliminated in 2018 under President Bodnar, and she claims that as a result of some of these Title IX complaints that were disregarded, she ended up suffering defamation at another university where she worked after U of M. 

Amestoy: That's a pretty extensive list of specific complaints made by each of those four women against the university and others in the university. Now, I know there's a section of the suit that kind of talks about general complaints and sort of the general gist of what they're getting at when it comes to gender discrimination at the university. So what are some of those allegations they're talking about, and what do they point to as sort of the cause for those allegations?

Thomas: The biggest allegation that the suit makes is that UM has fostered a "good ol' boys club" environment in the workplace, and the suit claims that this has been a years-long process in the making through UM athletics, through the sexual assault scandals that occurred at the university and even through the hiring of President Bodnar, who they said was a candidate who was not necessarily qualified for higher education through his prior experience, the the suit alleges.

Amestoy: No, you mentioned President Bodnar, and I'm glad you did, because the suit is pretty remarkable in that it makes some pretty standout allegations against Bodnar, specifically, and kind of, to meet to my reading, sort of seeks to impugn his standing as university president by pointing to some other affiliations — affiliations he had in his past. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that part of the suit.

Thomas: The suit discusses Bodnar's past as a senior executive in General Electric, as well as his past in the military as a West Point graduate, a Green Beret in the army — which is something that just listening to President Bodnar talk you know about him. And the lawsuit kind of draws a line between these prior experiences of President Bodnar and how GE was accused at one point of gender discrimination, and how the military in general has a really big issue with sexual assault and discrimination, and basically, points to these issues and Bodnar's former workplaces to say that he's continued those trends at the University.

Amestoy: That is fascinating to me. And I'm wondering if you could tell us now, who's actually talking about this lawsuit? Have any of those four plaintiffs or any of the other women who are signing on to the suit, are they speaking publicly? What's that been like? 

Thomas: No, none of the plaintiffs have been speaking publicly about the suit. I did reach out to some of them, and they directed me to their lawyers who are based in Bozeman, Hillary, Carls and Sherine Blackford, and naturally, I reached out to both of them, but they did not speak with me either.

Amestoy: And it sounds like from the reporting that other outlets have done that many news publications are not having success in reaching or communicating with the plaintiff's lawyers in this suit. Is that right?

Thomas: That's what I understand.

Amestoy: Yeah, so we know the plaintiffs are very tight-lipped about this entire situation. But it sounds as though the university, on the other hand, has had plenty to say. 

Thomas: Yes, the University of Montana has a spokesperson that they have designated to talk to the media about this case, and that is Dave Kuntz.

Thomas: So, I’m just gonna dive right in, if that’s okay with you.

Dave Kuntz: Yeah, let’s do it.

Thomas: He is the director of strategic communications for the University of Montana, and he spoke with me about this suit.

Kuntz: We believe that these allegations and these claims are baseless and without merit, and we really look forward to vigorously defending our institution in court. 

Thomas: Kuntz said that, essentially, the "good ol' boys club" that was alleged in the complaint is one that the university does not agree with, and pointed to some statistics about promotions of women at the university under President Bodnar as well as hiring of women at the University.

Kuntz: Since President Bodnar took over here at the university in January 2018, 78% of all university employee promotions have been female, and 59% of all new hires have been female, so when we talk about tearing down that “good ol’ boys club,” it really starts with hiring leaders that reflect the community and reflect our student population, which is majority female, too.

Thomas: The main thing that he told me was essentially that the university has spent a lot of time in the past few years specifically under President Bodnar investing time and resources into strengthening Title IX, into promoting initiatives for women's leadership on campus in order to combat some of these issues that the university has historically faced, because obviously, there is no denying the history that has been brought to light already. 

Amestoy: So with all that said, I imagine that it's not lost on many UM students — I  mean, it's  certainly not lost on us or on Missoula residents that the university does have a very, I suppose you could describe it as a sordid history of sexual assault litigation and mishandling of sexual assault cases on campus. You know, I'm thinking of the Department of Justice's investigation into how the university handled sexual assault cases in the in the 2010s, and then the book that you mentioned by Jon Krakauer chronicling rape culture on us campus, and I guess, at the end of the day, what I'm wondering is, how does this lawsuit fit into UM's legal history? I guess, what does it say about the university's handling of these sensitive issues that we're still talking about discrimination and harm on the basis of sex?

Thomas: I think that still remains to be seen. And I know that that answer can definitely sound a little bit wishy-washy. But I think that it's important that all of the facts have to be brought to light before we know where this is going to fit in this much longer history. I know that the university has said that they have invested time and energy into helping this issue, but these women have also said the issue is still prevalent on campus. So at this point, there's been no determination from any kind of a jury. And it's likely we won't get there for a long time. So I feel like it's not fair for me to make a broad judgment on it before all the facts are heard. 

Amestoy: Well, I suppose this will be something that future Kaimin reporters will be covering long after we're gone once an actual verdict is reached in this case, but in the meantime, Mariah, thank you so much for joining me. 

Thomas: Thank you for having me on the first episode of the Kaimin Cast.

Amestoy: University of Montana Civil Procedures Professor Craig Cowie told Mariah that the women seeking to join the complaint may face difficulty achieving class certification, even before the suit is heard in court. 

Craig Cowie: Because you're looking at I think that's the big question is, were these people harmed in the same way? Or was it a series of arguably discrete individual actions that weren't maybe part of a larger whole? The more it depends on like, 'x said y to me' and very specific allegations of harm that might be different between them, the harder it gets


Amestoy: You can read the Montana Kaimin's full report on the Title IX lawsuit in our paper when it hits newsstands on campus and around Missoula Thursday, Sept. 2, or online at montanakaimin.com.

The Kaimin Cast is produced and edited by me, Austin Amestoy. Reporting by Mariah Thomas. That's it for this week's episode. Next week, a look behind the scenes of a new state gun law with big implications for UM students. I'll see you there.