GREEN BAY, Wis. (WOMENSENEWS)–Weary of what they call ongoing discrimination and retaliation for speaking out, women and minority employees at universities nationwide are forming groups to help them break through the glass ceiling and recover from bruises when they fall.
Wisconsin Working Women at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the Kansas University Sexism and Racism Victims Coalition are among the new organizations formed by women and minority men who have banded together to combat what they call negative and discriminatory work environments. Groups also have been founded at Stanford University, St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and at many other campuses.
“Discrimination at universities is absolutely a national problem,” said Patty McCabe, legal advocacy fund director of the American Association of University Women in Washington, D.C. The fund currently is supporting 17 cases, and at any given time, 10 to 20 cases are pending against universities, she said.
“The cases we have seen run from Ivy League schools to community colleges,” she said in an interview. “The issue of discrimination has absolutely not been overcome. Harvard’s full female roster, for example, is less than 9 percent.”
In Lawrence, Kan., Mike Cuenca, a co-founder of the Kansas University Sexism and Racism Victims Coalition, says his group of faculty and staff has “joined together to provide moral, emotional, and spiritual support for each other. Our dedication is to increasing the awareness that racism and sexism remain serious problems here and that retaliation against those who speak up is supported by the institution.”
Cuenca, who is Filipino, was an assistant professor of journalism at Kansas University. He has filed suit in U.S. District Court alleging he was denied tenure because of racial discrimination. Tension caused by the suit and another denial of tenure this spring prompted him to resign when his contract ended in May.
Rose Marino, the university’s associate general counsel, denied that Kansas University unfairly retaliated against Cuenca’s legal action. “The university has treated him fairly, but he appears not to take the same view,” Marino said.
The school maintains Cuenca’s denial of tenure was not motivated by race and that his ethnicity was actually a factor in his favor when he was being reviewed by the faculty tenure committee.
Many Women in Faculty and Clerical Staff Denied Promotions
Elaine Capelle, treasurer of Wisconsin Working Women, said that her group shares the goals of their colleagues in Kansas.
“What we have found is that many women, in both faculty and clerical positions, have been denied promotions or downgraded entirely for what appears to be no reason at all,” said Capelle, a former clerical employee at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She said the group also addresses cases of racial and ethnic discrimination.
Bernadine Vigue, a Native American and former program advisor for the Green Bay campus Cultural Center, has been waging her own battle against the university for several years and seeking emotional support from Wisconsin Working Women.
Vigue complained that the needs of minority students were not being met and were belittled by the administration, which steadily reduced staff and resources for the center. When she spoke out, she faced retaliation and eventually the atmosphere became so toxic that she resigned, she said.
“I never felt, though, that my issues were based solely on sex,” Vigue said. “But it is great to have a group that understands the frustration of going up against a large institution.”
Representatives from Wisconsin Working Women have also said that formal grievances and lawsuits alleging sex and age discrimination have been or will be filed against the Green Bay campus with the State Personnel Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
According to a Wisconsin State Personnel Report, 14 complaints have been filed against the Green Bay school since 1995, the year after Mark Perkins became chancellor. Several of those complaints have been forwarded to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal commission charged with enforcing federal laws against job discrimination. Over the same period, 29 complaints have been filed against Kansas University.
In comparison, only 60 complaints have been filed in the last 10 years against the University of Wisconsin system, as a whole, in regards to sex discrimination. This encompasses all 14 University of Wisconsin system schools.
University Says It Is Committed to Equity, Supportive Environment
While University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Chancellor Mark Perkins did not return telephone calls seeking comment on the complaints, he wrote a letter published in the May 4 issue of the Fourth Estate, the Green Bay student newspaper. It said:
“Equity is and always has been an important principle for me. … We should strive for a supportive environment in which every one may pursue individual achievement and collective excellence.”
Patricia Naze, an employee at the Green Bay University Union and bookstore, is pursuing a civil suit alleging that she was the victim of sex and age discrimination by the administration from 1997 to 2000. She has pursued civil action because she let pass a deadline for filing a complaint with the State Personnel Commission.
She said she let the deadline pass because supervisors had assured her that her needs would be addressed, but after the deadline passed, her supervisors resumed their earlier retaliation and discrimination.
The Wisconsin State Personnel Commission dismissed several of her charges only because the deadlines had not been met, she said.
“I can’t really talk about my case yet,” Naze said. “But it’s been just terrible. I can’t think about that place without crying. This is why the Wisconsin Working Women has been so wonderful for me. They have helped me keep on top of my case and have supported me when I have felt all alone.”
The Green Bay campus clerical workers, including Naze when she was there, are members of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, Local 1800. Capelle, the treasurer, said that until recently the union was reluctant to take a stand on the sexual discrimination complaints filed against the university.
Union Local, Once Wary, Now Supports Sex Discrimination Complaints
Because of this lack of support, many classified or clerical staff members have taken their problems to Wisconsin Working Women, seeking administrative resources and emotional support. Recently, however, the union has acknowledged the problems of many members. In a letter to membership, local President Steve Pfundtner said the union had to organize more tightly and present grievances as a united group. He wrote:
“We are starting to see more and more abuses in how Administrative Support Unit people are being treated. At the (Green Bay) campus alone, jobs are not being filled as they are vacated, forcing us to take over the extra duties. Many are forced to use vacation time for doing odds-and-ends tasks, when we could easily flex our work hours to accomplish these tasks. Other job classifications are allowed to do this; why not Administrative Support Unit?”
The majority of union members are women, many of them mature, who say their loyalty to the university is being used against them, because they are asked to work extra hours without pay.
In Kansas, Cuenca, co-founder of the Kansas University Sexism and Racism Victims Coalition, has been fighting to get tenure for four years and says the coalition has been “great.” In April he filed an amended complaint against Kansas University concerning racial discrimination.
“No one goes through this lightly,” said Cuenca, adding that the university uses its power and institutional status to undermine a faculty member’s credibility.
Complainant: Powerful University Vilifies Those Who Allege Bias
“You are vilified,” Cuenca said. “They are going to try to make us all look really bad. So, we support each other. We help staff and faculty who have felt the threat of discrimination access resources; help them go through the lengthy complaint processes and let them know they are not alone.”
McCabe, from the American Association of University Women, said many women in lower faculty ranks don’t feel as though there is discrimination at their institution. “However, it’s like getting a thousand paper cuts. And until they try and move up in the ranks and then hit a glass ceiling, they don’t realize that they were being discriminated against all along,” she said.
“Fighting universities is a real David and Goliath battle for many women,” she said. “The institution has deep pockets, but many of the women have lost their jobs. We try and financially support women so they can have their day in court.”
She said the association is visiting campuses and working with students, faculty and administration on ways to prevent discriminating practices from turning into court cases. It frequently sends members to assist women who have not formed their own organizations.
Some universities, like St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minn., operate women’s centers with their administration’s support. These are the types of organizations the AAUW wants to see forming at universities, McCabe said.
Stanford Complainant: Most Women Terrified Into Silence
The St. Cloud Women’s Center opened in 1989 to address safety issues and equal educational opportunities. It provides space for meetings, study and programs. It serves as a resource and information clearinghouse, offering advocacy, support and other services to all women regardless of age, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.
At Stanford University, the American Association of University Women’s legal defense fund took on the case of Colleen Crangle, who has a doctorate in computer science. She eventually won her sex discrimination case despite what she called a “poisonous” atmosphere.
Crangle had been a graduate student at Stanford, a research scientist and an acting assistant professor. The Web site on Crangle’s case says that in late 1994 she was recruited to join a project in the school of medicine as a senior research scientist, the only woman. In 1997 she complained that she was treated differently, was told her accomplishments were a “threat” to one male colleague and that she should consider herself a “girl Friday,” she said.
The day after she sent an e-mail to her dean, complaining of discriminatory treatment, her position was eliminated and she was given a few hours to clean out her office.
When asked why she sought to sue instead of settle her case, Crangle said: “I must bear witness. Stanford is a place where women encounter blatant and subtle inequities. If they take issue with them, they face swift and brutal retaliation, so that most women are terrified into silence.”
Michelle Kennedy is a syndicated columnist and the education and environment reporter for the Green Bay News-Chronicle.
For more information, visit:
American Association of University Women:
MIT study of women faculty in science:
Title IX and sex discrimination in education:
Stanford University Cases: