Sex discrimination in Finance Dept.

By Reis Thebault and Emily Tate, Editors-at-Large

When Mary Elizabeth Thompson joined the Farmer School of Business faculty in 2013, she was part of a group considered to be rising stars in the finance department.

Thompson was coming off an esteemed academic career, graduating with honors from her undergraduate and graduate institutions, while receiving exemplary evaluations as a graduate instructor during her Ph.D. candidacy.

But Thompson, who teaches intermediate financial management, was employed by Miami University for less than two years before a series of microaggressions left her feeling isolated and ostracized by her male colleagues, according to court records and documents obtained through the Ohio Open Records Act.

Those incidents were made public when two female finance professors decided to sue Miami University this spring, alleging gender discrimination and violation of the Equal Pay Act.

Although Thompson is not a plaintiff in the case, the lawsuit’s initial complaint cites the treatment she received as an example of the culture of discrimination within the finance department.

One such incident came to a head on Feb. 25, 2015, when the finance department’s Promotion and Tenure Committee met for an annual review of the untenured assistant professors in the department. Thompson was among the faculty evaluated.

According to Dan Herron, a professor of business legal studies in the finance department and then-chair of the Promotion and Tenure Committee, other members of the committee found fault with Thompson’s attendance record at departmental events.

One professor, Terry Nixon, who did not respond to requests for comment, noted that Thompson had missed four afternoon seminars — a matter that he believed raised questions about her “collegiality.”

But, Herron said, those seminars are informal and not required.

“They decided to pick on her, and I honestly don’t have any idea why,” Herron said. “Nowhere does it say these seminars are required, nowhere does it say they are mandatory and they’ll affect your annual review.”

This disagreement led to a “heated discussion” between members of the committee, in which Herron noted that Colin Campbell, another non-tenured professor under review, had also “missed” several afternoon seminars, according to documents obtained by The Miami Student.

Campbell’s absences were not formally acknowledged, Herron said. However, Thompson later received a letter from the committee saying she had not met their expectations for participation in the department and should make a point to attend more of these events.

“I assert that I was clearly held to a higher standard than untenured male members of the department,” Thompson wrote in a statement to administrators.

Then, on March 1, 2015, Yvette Harman, a tenured professor in the finance department and one of the females suing Miami for gender discrimination, requested that her superiors approve an office relocation for Thompson.

Both Harman and Thompson declined to comment for this story, given their roles in the ongoing lawsuit.

“I think it is important for her to be given the chance to move to a more ‘friendly’ office,” Harman wrote in an email to then-department chair Steve Wyatt. “As her mentor, I am concerned that she is being subject to tacit, and maybe even overt, bias where she is.”

Harman explained that tenured male faculty in the department would often visit untenured male faculty in her area, socializing and whispering, but “ignoring her completely.”

“It was very juvenile,” Herron said. “She just finally had it.”

Harman ended her email with urgency, suggesting Wyatt act “sooner rather than later.”

Herron said watching these events play out prompted him to notify his superiors within the university, but he was disappointed at the response he received.

“I did my legal and ethical duty in making the administration aware of this situation from my dean’s office to the provost’s office to OEEO,” he said. “If some administrator had just had the courage to step in and say ‘stop, this is wrong,’ if anyone above me had had the guts to do that, we would have none of this today. None of it.”

Instead, the university’s Office of Equity and Equal Opportunity (OEEO) hired an outside attorney, Juan Jose Perez, to investigate the claims of gender discrimination.

In August 2015, Perez submitted his report of the investigation, which rebuffed Herron’s claims that the Promotion and Tenure Committee had violated Miami’s policy on gender discrimination.

Miami paid Perez more than $18,000 to look into the exchange from the Feb. 25 committee meeting, records show.

He wrote that, because all but one member on the Promotion and Tenure Committee had voted to hire Thompson, it didn’t make sense that they would later discriminate against her on the basis of sex.

“It is beyond logical explanation that six of the seven respondents voted to hire Dr. Thompson and then approximately 18 months later, without explanation, those same six individuals decided to discriminate against her because of her gender,” Perez’ report states.

Herron, a practicing attorney, however, said this reasoning is deeply misguided.

“That is a blatant misstatement of the law,” he said. “What Perez is saying is if you get hired by a company and a couple years later you’re subject to gender discrimination and harassment, it didn’t happen. That is one of the most ridiculous misstatements of the law I’ve ever heard. It’s just not true.”

Just days after Perez released his final report, Herron requested a review of the investigation.

The Harassment/Discrimination Review Panel Committee at Miami agreed that questions remained unanswered and requested that Perez perform an additional investigation and write up a supplementary report.

In a statement to the Review Panel Committee, Thompson testified that not only were the males on the Promotion and Tenure Committee (or, the “Respondents”) discriminating against her, but so, too, was Perez.

“The Respondents acted deliberately and maliciously to treat me in a discriminatory manner,” she wrote. “I now realize that I have been victimized twice — once by the Respondents and again by Mr. Perez with his inexplicably one-sided investigation.”

Perez did not respond to The Miami Student’s requests for comment.

In his supplementary report, Perez said a number of times that it was “beyond the scope of his investigation” to evaluate other incidents of concern in the department. These included Thompson’s office relocation and the pay discrepancy that Harman and finance professor Kelly Brunarski, the second plaintiff, cited in their lawsuit.

“The university takes allegations of discrimination in any form very seriously,” said Claire Wagner, university spokesperson. “The independent investigator concluded that there was no evidence to support the faculty claim of gender discrimination. Miami intends to vigorously defend this lawsuit and and denies it has engaged in discrimination of any kind.”

However, because Herron, Harman and Brunarski believe Perez conducted a careless investigation into their claims of gender discrimination in the department, Harman and Brunarski filed the lawsuit against Miami University on Feb. 15.

The professors are awaiting the university’s response, which is expected in the next few weeks.

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