Gender suit not new for U

Michelle Kibiger

Shirley Johnston and Dr. Patricia Olson, two former professors in the College of Veterinary Medicine, are suing the University for gender discrimination, claiming the University doesn’t hire women for leadership positions.
Their lawsuit is one of the most controversial gender suits the University has faced. And it isn’t the first.
The “glass ceiling” concept behind the lawsuit dates to the 1970s, when chemistry professor Shyamala Rajender successfully sued the University for gender discrimination. Olson and Johnston say the University practiced discrimination in administrative promotions, but Rajender alleged the University did not give tenured positions to women. Because of Rajender’s suit, the University adopted a policy to actively recruit and hire women and developed an affirmative action policy.
The school also paid $3 million in salary adjustments to other women who had been denied tenure-track positions because the Rajender case was a class action suit. A class action suit is one that represents a group of people with common characteristics.
Originally, Olson and Johnston also pursued a class action suit. However, after the trial began the judge threw out the class action aspect of the case. Therefore, only Olson and Johnston are eligible to receive damages.
Mark Rotenberg, general counsel for the University, said taking out the class action element changes the suit completely. If other women were eligible for damages, as in the Rajender case, the University could have faced large financial liabilities had it lost an Olson/Johnston class action suit.
Although the potential financial burden to the University has decreased, the suit still brings up questions about the school’s commitment to the policy it adopted after the Rajender case.
The policy, called the Rajender Consent Decree, had two provisions. First, it prohibited the University from discriminating against female employees in areas of hiring, promotion and salary. It also ordered the University to establish an affirmative action program for female academics and a senate committee on equal employment opportunities.
The decree officially expired in 1991, but the University’s Board of Regents vowed to uphold its spirit in April 1990.
The regents passed a resolution at that time that confirmed the University’s policy that affirmative action is “fully justified and essential to excellence and vitality within the University.” The resolution also stated the University should create a “community where each individual is treated with dignity, where individual potential is fulfilled, and where barriers to attaining personal achievements are removed.”
Olson and Johnston claim that the University is not fulfilling that commitment.
In a 1994 Minnesota Daily special report, the plaintiffs of the Olson-Johnston case said they filed the suit because no woman had held a leadership position in the College of Veterinary Medicine. The story also stated that from 1989 to 1993, 18 white men, two white women, one minority man and one minority woman were hired as deans, department heads and department chairs, Universitywide.
Women made up 70 percent of the veterinary student body in 1994, but only 9 percent of the faculty.
As of June 1996, on all four University of Minnesota campuses, only nine women hold positions as chancellors, senior vice presidents, or deans. In contrast, 42 men occupy similar positions.
The Olson and Johnston suit will not pose the same financial burden to the University as some other prominent court cases.
Rotenberg said discrimination suits, like Rajender’s and the veterinary professors’, are insured; fraud cases, like Dr. John Najarian’s, are not. Therefore, the University paid the Najarian fees out of its pocket, but insurance covers costs in suits like the Rajender case and the Olson and Johnston case.
The University carries insurance for settlements in cases involving harassment and environmental problems, as well as discrimination. The policy is handled by the University’s own insurance company, called the Regents of the University of Minnesota Insurance Company.
Rotenberg said his staff looks at the University court docket, which can include as many as 230 cases per month, and reviews the potential risks. Then Rotenberg tells the regents and the insurance company about the risks so they can plan ahead to cover costs.
However, the longer a case continues, the more expensive it becomes for all parties concerned, especially when it lasts for several years. Olson and Johnston waited two years for their case to go to trial. Rajender filed her case in 1973 and waited seven years for a settlement.
Rajender now resides in California, where she practices intellectual property, immigration and some government contract law. She said she never intended to make as many waves as she did with her lawsuit.
“I didn’t start the whole thing with any lofty ideals,” she said. One thing led to another, she added, and she was so angry at the way people were hurting her reputation that she resolved to do something about it.
“I thought, ‘They’re not going to get away with it if I can help it,'” she said. “I started the process and I’m going to see it through.”
Scientific research is one professional arena that is especially resistant to change, Rajender said. “In science there are breakthroughs, but (science) practices are the most resistant to change.”
She said she thinks the younger generation is more aware of gender discrimination, and in that sense, the situation for women in the United States has improved. However, she said the “old boys network” is still in place, and it will take a new generation to move it out.
“A new fresh generation with a new fresh outlook has to come in, in order to make a difference,” Rajender said. “The department has to know that there are qualified women out there who deserve opportunities.”