Lawsuit: ‘Pervasive’ Gender Discrimination in Cornell Alumni Affairs Office

Categories Education, Ithaca, Labor

By Josh Brokaw

A former Cornell worker is pursuing legal action against the university because, she says, Cornell discriminated against her because of her gender, then retaliated against her for speaking out.

“I am a female and opposed discrimination. Because of this, I have been subject to unlawful discriminatory actions,” Julie Featherstone wrote in the first item of a complaint to the New York State Division of Human Rights, filed in July 2016.

Featherstone was the senior director of administration in Alumni Affairs and Development [AAD], Cornell’s fundraising division, until November 2016.

Her first formal complaint about workplace conditions was filed in November 2015 with Cornell’s Office of Workforce Policy and Labor Relations [WPLR].

There is “a pervasive culture of unequal treatment in employment opportunity, promotion, and pay for women at Cornell AAD under the leadership of Rick Banks and James Mazza,” Featherstone wrote. “There is also an uncomfortable measure of harassment and mistreatment of women that has created a hostile work environment at AAD.”

Banks retired in September 2016 as associate vice president of administration in AAD. He was Featherstone’s direct supervisor. Mazza is associate vice president of alumni affairs and the Cornell annual fund.

Featherstone alleged in her internal complaint that as she reported “behaviors on a case-by-case basis” to AAD human relations, “I have constantly been reminded that I’m “ok” or that I am misunderstanding, or that I should not be pushing on this because I am Rick Bank’s [sic] succession plan. I am not raising these issues because I am in trouble, rather because the work environment is intolerable.”

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Featherstone’s 41-page internal complaint describes numerous instances in which she perceived anti-woman bias in Alumni Affairs and Development decisions since her hiring in 2005.

“Gender inequity is around workload, compensation, and promotion,” Featherstone wrote.

She alleged that pay for women has not increased at the same rate as for men and there are “different job standards for the same role.” The litany of allegations also includes accounts of interactions Featherstone describes as hostile with Banks and/or Mazza in meetings. She describes conflicts with Banks over issues like where workers’ offices should be moved, and decisions on purchases and reimbursements. Featherstone wrote that she complained about interactions with Mazza to Banks three times in 18 months, with no results.

In October 2015, Featherstone and Banks met with a Cornell human relations representative to address some of Featherstone’s statements that Banks was sexist in his actions. Featherstone’s claim of retaliation stems in part from Banks giving her a lower employee evaluation score after this meeting.

Banks told Cornell WPLR investigators Laurel Parker and Rick Kuhar he gave a “4” to Featherstone rather than the “5” she usually attained “on the basis that she continued to exhibit relationship issues and difficulty working with colleagues.”

Parker, an Equal Employment Opportunity consultant, and Kuhar, director of HR at the Cornell hotel school, returned a 91-page report for WPLR in late April 2016 that dismissed all of Featherstone’s claims.

The investigators found “that subjectively for some individuals, male and female, there exists a sense of a lack of respect, civility and promotional opportunities in AAD generally, but not one based on protected status or prohibited discrimination.”

On the question of pay discrepancies, the Cornell investigation acknowledged Featherstone did have access to budgets in making her claims, but cited an analysis from Cornell’s office of Compensation Services and a 2013 audit from the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs [OFCCP] that looked at titles, salaries, sex, and ethnicity, among other factors, and granted Cornell “no apparent deficiencies or violations” in being a non-discriminatory employer.

Before they responded to individual allegations from Featherstone, the investigators said they went to Banks first, to ask why “a high-performing employee … would spend the last year organizing a complaint that covers 10 years of grievances? His response: “She wants my job.””

Mazza, who called the inclusion of himself and Banks as the only men in the complaint “ludicrous,” said Featherstone was “generally known as difficult.”

The Cornell investigation quotes Banks’ and Mazza’s versions of events at some length. The report also includes a number of anonymized responses from about 10 high-level AAD workers to direct statements from Featherstone’s complaint. For example:

“Respond to this statement by Featherstone: “The harassment and abuse of power women are subjected to fuels a hostile work environment where women are disadvantaged.”

Results: Only one out of the ten agreed with this statement. Two disagreed with “hostile … where women are disadvantaged” and instead used terms such as “difficult” or “uncomfortable” based on gender. The remainder – male and female – disagreed with the statement in its entirety, with one person asserting, “I don’t think Julie has been held back because of gender.””

Featherstone took exception to the report in her appeal to new AAD head Fred Van Sickle, calling it “vicious, offensive, and prejudiced, with a bend toward incriminating me.” She argued that the investigators took Banks’ and Mazza’s statements as fact without further interrogating their statements, while using the word “alleged” 16 times before her statements. Featherstone then appealed her case to Mary Opperman, Cornell vice president of human relations.

In that appeal, Featherstone said that she and investigators had “literally never discussed the details” of specific dates of harassment. Featherstone also asked that raw survey data from a 2016 $700,000-plus Grenzebach Glier study of AAD operations and internal climate be included in the investigation.

Opperman, with the final say at Cornell, upheld the dismissal of Featherstone’s complaint in mid-June 2016. Featherstone was offered career coaching, and Opperman held open the application window for Featherrstone to apply to Banks’ associate vice president position.

Though Featherstone had worked under the impression she was being groomed for Banks’ position since 2005, she said she was discouraged from applying on time because the investigative report had just been released, and seven of the eight people performing candidate interviews for the position were given the report. Featherstone changed her mind about applying after encouragement from several colleagues.

When Featherstone filed her complaint to the state Division of Human Rights in July 2016, the fact she was not hired as the new associate vice president of operations in AAD became a new claim of retaliatory discrimination. She said she is more qualified than the new hire, who is a woman who worked at the School of Hotel Administration, and that no one above her in the AAD hierarchy had encouraged her to apply while encouraging other candidates at Cornell.

In its response to the Division of Human Rights complaint, Cornell cited the encouragement to apply from Opperman as a factor against a finding of retaliation. Cornell attorney Jared Pittman wrote the WPLR had done an “exhaustive investigation” that “concluded that while there were workplace culture issues, there was no evidence that Ms Featherstone had been discriminated against because of her sex.”

The DHR investigation consisted of a one-day conference that involved Featherstone and several others in AAD, including Banks, all in a room answering questions in December 2016. The state’s investigator also made some calls to other AAD workers and received lengthy addendums to the record from both Featherstone and Cornell . The state DHR returned a finding of “no probable cause” on Jan. 19, 2017.

In March of this year, Featherstone filed a suit in the 6th Judicial District Supreme Court challenging the finding of the DHR investigation, a type of suit against a governmental finding known as an “Article 78.”

On Friday, April 21, Featherstone had a hearing in the Cortland County courthouse before Judge Philip Rumsey. The Cornell and DHR investigations were “arbitrary and capricious and not based on factual evidence,” Featherstone told the judge, her voice echoing in a high-domed, nearly empty courtroom.

Featherstone went on to break down averages from a salary table of 31 females and 18 males in AAD, an organization, she said, “that’s 75 percent female, 25 percent male.”

After Pittman argued that the salary math was “frankly, irrelevant,” Featherstone asked the judge to pay attention to two new affidavits from current AAD employees she included in her last response to the court.

“It has to be given weight, that they would speak up against their employer,” Featherstone said.

“Cornell’s investigators attempted to take my testimony out of context, or leave key testimony out of the statement I was asked to agree to,” one of the affidavits reads, from a woman who recused herself from participating in the investigation. This woman, along with two others, also filed separate Division of Human Rights discrimination cases about AAD practices last year, Featherstone wrote.

Featherstone also included some emails from colleagues in her latest response. One, from a woman who has since left for a position at another university, described the conversation she had with Parker as the consultant was performing the WPLR investigation:

“(I) told her it’s hard for me to know what’s gender related and what’s extremely poor leadership and buffoonery. But all they have to do is look at the optics to see there’s an issue. And who cares why or to what extent they’re assholes, [HR] has a job to give them goals around gender equality and stick to holding them accountable.”

Judge Rumsey will return a ruling on Featherstone’s suit within “a couple weeks,” according to his office. Featherstone, now working at the University of Virginia, said in court last Friday that whatever the result, she intends on pushing her case to federal court.

Both Featherstone and Cornell media relations representative John Carberry declined to comment for this story because litigation is pending.

The public record for this case so far can be found by going to the Tompkins County clerk’s site and searching index number 2017-0179.

Click here to find more information about how to file a complaint with the New York Division of Human Rights.

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Featured photo by Flickr user sach1tb via Wikipedia. Used via Creative Commons license.

Josh Brokaw is an independent reporter based in Ithaca, N.Y.

Email josh.brokaw@truthsayers.org with tips, story suggestions, and gentle criticism.

Twitter: @jdbrokaw