MISSOULA — Four former and current high-ranking female employees at the University of Montana sued the college Wednesday, alleging its administration has created a “retaliatory culture” that punishes women professionals who challenge its authority.
“UM did not create a glass ceiling for these women’s careers,” the lawsuit said. “UM created a brick wall for these women’s careers.”
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Missoula, seeks damages for the plaintiffs and a ruling that UM is violating Title IX of federal law, which forbids discrimination against women at educational institutions that get federal funding.
The suit also singled out UM President Seth Bodnar, noting that his prior career has been with General Electric and the military – two entities with a record of discrimination against women, the suit said.
“For professional women at UM, their already limited paths to professional success soon narrowed,” the suit said. “Under President Bodnar’s leadership … youth, perceived attractiveness and/or fitness were relevant factors for women navigating a successful path.
“It was well-known that under President Bodnar, the careers of athletic-built women thrived, while older, less attractive women were publicly critiqued.”
UM spokesman Dave Kuntz told MTN News that the school and the state university system – also a defendant in the lawsuit – “strongly believe these claims are baseless and without merit.”
“We look forward to vigorously defending our institutions in court,” he said in a statement. “The University of Montana is committed to providing a working and learning environment that is free of all forms of discrimination.”
While the lawsuit has just four plaintiffs now, one of the attorneys representing the women, Hillary Carls of Bozeman, said she suspects other women professionals at UM have had similar experiences, and that they can be added as plaintiffs as they come forward.
The plaintiffs who filed the suit Wednesday are Catherine Cole, a former UM vice president; Barbara Koostra, former director of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture at UM; Rhondie Vorhees, former dean of students at UM; and Mary-Ann Sontag Bowman, an associate professor of social work at UM.
All four women said they faced discrimination and retaliation – particularly after they disagreed with or disputed decisions made by Bodnar and the UM administration.
The lawsuit said UM’s athletic programs, such as the men’s football program, fostered a “good ol’ boys club” culture that excluded women from activities and benefits “regularly afforded to male counterparts.”
One of the plaintiffs, Catherine Cole, had been hired in 2018 as the college’s VP for enrollment management and strategic communication. Her job was to help UM recover from declining enrollment, in the wake of sexual-assault scandals and investigations during the 2010s, the suit said.
But despite “countless praise and accolades” for her performance, Bodnar micromanaged her, changed her job duties, told her she was “moody,” belittled her and commented on her appearance and weight, the suit said.
Cole resigned last year and the university also terminated her husband’s position at UM as a form of retaliation, the suit said.
Koostra, the museum director, said her office was moved to a building later found to be contaminated with asbestos and her contract not renewed, after she objected to Bodnar’s request to place some of the museum’s valuable art in a downtown hotel, the suit said.
And Vorhees, the former dean of students, said she was often overruled or disregarded on issues of campus safety, for students and others, and that her position eventually was eliminated in 2018, the suit said.
Sherine Blackford, another Bozeman attorney representing the plaintiffs, told MTN News that Title IX is “a pretty broad and sweeping statute” that forbids discrimination against women, in many forms.
“The way that (discrimination) can be pervasive is to create a retaliatory culture, creating an environment that isn’t necessarily black-and-white sexual harassment, but something where women don’t receive the same treatment as men, and as a result, their benefit that they would have received at the educational institution where they were employed (is) not the same,” she said.