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NMU lawsuit continues in federal court

The Northern Michigan University sign along Seventh Street is pictured. A lawsuit by four Northern Michigan University professors alleging gender discrimination is continuing in federal court, officials say. (Journal file photo)

MARQUETTE — A lawsuit by four Northern Michigan University professors alleging gender discrimination is continuing in federal court.

A lawsuit filed Feb. 8 against NMU by the female professors alleges the university violated federal equal pay and gender discrimination laws.

In the lawsuit — filed with the U.S. District Court, Western District of Michigan, Northern Division — the instructors, Claudia Hart, Carol Steinhaus, Karin Stulz and Margaret Vroman, claim the NMU College of Business significantly underpays its female faculty compared to their male colleagues and denies them equal opportunities for tenure and other benefits.

The professors are represented by the law firm Sterling Attorneys at Law P.C., based downstate in Bloomfield Hills.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs in September 2016 filed separate charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging NMU discriminated against them on the basis of their gender by paying them less than their male counterparts.

Following an investigation into the allegations, the EEOC determined NMU discriminated against the plaintiffs in violation of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In 2018, the EEOC notified the plaintiffs and NMU of its determination and gave the school an opportunity to remedy the alleged discriminatory practices through the EEOC conciliation process.

In February, the plaintiffs filed suit.

The lawsuit alleges Hart, Steinhaus and Vroman are the only female faculty members in the College of Business with the rank of professor and currently earn about 9% less than the male professors on average. Stulz is the only female faculty member with the associate professor rank but earns roughly 39% less than the male associate professors on average.

In 2016, Hart and Steinhaus were the only female faculty members in the College of Business with the rank of professor and earned about 15% less than their male counterparts on average. Also that year, Vroman was the only female faculty member with the associate professor rank and earned on average 19.5% less than the male average professors.

Stulz in 2016 was the only female faculty member with the rank of assistant professor and earned approximately 71.5% less than the male assistant professors on average.

Brian Farrar, an attorney from the Sterling law firm, was in Marquette recently to conduct witness depositions, which are interviews under oath.

“We’ve learned a lot so far,” said Farrar, who noted the discovery period of the lawsuit ended on Jan. 21, although the involved parties are in a 30-day period of expert discovery.

Farrar said NMU officials that had been deposed include Carol John, dean of the NMU W.L. Cisler College of Business; Kerri Schuiling, provost and vice president of academic affairs; Lesley Williams, a professor in NMU’s Department of Chemistry; and former NMU President David Haynes, among others.

Farrar said that after the faculty members’ complaints made their way to Schuiling in 2016, the provost organized what came to be known as the Provost Neutral Committee, which would involve neutral parties to look into the issue of salary disparity based on gender.

He said Schuiling had Williams, who then went by the name of Lesley Putman, convene the committee, which included Williams as well as two other male faculty members. The committee received salary data, interviewed the plaintiffs and then created a report recommending the plaintiffs receive back and front pay.

Farrar alleged the report made its way to Janet Koski, NMU director of equal opportunity, and after speaking with Koski and general counsel, Williams “felt alarmed” and destroyed the report.

The committee submitted a revised report to Schuiling, Farrar said, that still recommended salary increases for all four plaintiffs and found that female faculty were underpaid compared with male faculty.

“It appears she toned down her original requests,” Farrar said of Schuiling.

He also alleged that Schuiling, after meeting with several other administrators, declined to follow the committee’s revised recommendations with one exception: the provost exceeding the recommendation regarding Steinhaus and increasing her salary. Stulz and Vroman received no increases, while Hart received an increase, but not as much as the committee suggested.

“The university really seems to be in denial, and still is in denial, that they have a problem here,” Farrar said. “Every neutral body that’s looked at this has found pay disparity.”

Farrar said NMU uses several factors to determine salary, such as rank, the number of years in that rank and the type of degree as well as College and University Professionals Association for Human Resources averages and Classification of Instructional Programs codes.

Schuiling issued this statement: “The (U.S.) Department of Justice dismissed this case. In addition, the president of the AAUP (American Association of University Professors) faculty union conducted a review of faculty pay structures on campus and stated unequivocally that there is no gender bias.

“While we take these charges very seriously, we are disappointed in any unsubstantiated allegations that suggest otherwise. Northern Michigan University is committed to equity and inclusiveness, two integral components at the core of who we are as a community. NMU will continue to defend its commitment to fairness, but we prefer to do so in a court of law rather than in public forums.”

Schuiling said that a DOJ letter dated Sept. 17 said, “After carefully considering all of the information that you have provided, we have decided to close the investigation.”

Farrar disputes this statement.

“Because NMU is a public employer, it is my understanding that the EEOC did not have the authority to prosecute the case, even though they found evidence NMU broke the law, so they had to refer it to the Department of Justice,” he said in an email. “The DOJ reviewed the EEOC’s findings and decided not to prosecute it and gave us a letter allowing us to go to federal court.

“Just like the EEOC, the DOJ declines to prosecute cases for a variety of reasons but they are not a court and cannot ‘dismiss’ a case.”

Farrar said the court has set a deadline for late March for NMU to file a motion for summary judgment, which would be an opportunity for the judge to dismiss the case. If the court denies the motion, the trial is scheduled to take place In October in Kalamazoo.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.