Lawsuit Cover

(Makena Hervey/Emerald) 

The University of Oregon contacted Monica Bray, associate dean of graduate programs at the Lundquist College of Business, on Dec. 3, 2019, to inform her that her employment would end in three months. Her position was slated to be cut as part of a reorganization within the business school, UO later said in a court filing.

Bray is now suing UO in Lane County Circuit Court, alleging she was fired in retaliation for whistleblowing, a protected activity under federal law. She filed the lawsuit on June 22, 2020, demanding a jury trial and seeking $1.5 million in damages.

The conflicts stemmed from Bray reporting what she believed to be potential evidence of discrimination in the LCB’s hiring practices and admission of international students, the court filing showed.

Bray’s complaint described an antagonistic work environment that she said caused her to develop a chronic voice disorder. The university did not reasonably accommodate her disability and revoked a prior accommodation approved by her supervisor, saying it had never existed, according to the complaint.

“The University of Oregon actively seeks to promote diversity among its student body, faculty and staff through a wide variety of recruitment and intentional retention initiatives,” UO spokesperson Saul Hubbard wrote in a statement to the Emerald. “The university is also committed to providing equal employment opportunities and reasonable workplace accommodations to employees with disabilities and for sincerely held religious, moral and ethical beliefs.”

In its court filing, UO said that Bray’s claims in the lawsuit were without merit, including allegations that the university terminated her in retaliation. “The reorganization included the elimination of [Bray’s] position in order to provide better support for the College’s programmatic and financial priorities,” the filing stated.

Hubbard said UO could not provide further information in order to protect the privacy of the university personnel involved in the lawsuit.

Several university employees named in the complaint did not respond to detailed, written questions from the Emerald or further requests for comment. Hubbard responded on behalf of UO President Michael Schill, saying he did not have any comment beyond the university’s response.

Jose Klein, the attorney representing Bray, declined to provide a comment. 

The Emerald requested public records referenced in Bray’s lawsuit seven weeks ahead of publication. Citing UO faculty records policy, the university’s public records office did not return 10 of the 13 records requested, including performance evaluations, specified emails between Bray and Schill, a grievance filed by Bray and a dated email from the university regarding her employment termination.

In addition to records of Bray’s employment termination, the office only provided a set of heavily redacted emails from Bray and other UO employees, which her complaint cited as evidence of discrimination against international students in the business school’s admissions. Nearly all references to employee concerns in the emails were obscured, and Klein did not respond to a request for matching, unredacted records.

Cause for concern?

Bray joined the LCB in August 2014 as director of graduate affairs and student experience for its master’s program. She served as interim assistant dean of graduate programs and later took over the full position. Four months after her promotion, LCB Interim Dean James Terborg gave Bray a special commendation for her “exceptional accomplishments” in the role, including her work to grow new graduate student enrollment by 50% and boost the college’s revenue “significantly beyond expectations,” her complaint stated.

After UO promoted Bray to the college’s associate dean of graduate programs in September 2017, the university’s MBA program under her direction reached national rankings, including by U.S. News and World Report and Bloomberg Businessweek, according to her court filing.

The university appointed a new dean of the LCB, Sarah Nutter, in January 2017. Nutter showed hostility toward Bray’s efforts at diversity and inclusion in the department “from the outset of her tenure at the LCB,” the complaint said. Bray believed the dean “harbored discriminatory animus” against her based on Bray’s national origin. Nutter did not respond to multiple email requests for comment or answers to 23 questions provided by the Emerald.

In May 2017, Bray forwarded an email message to LCB leadership from an official in the LCB’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, which she said complained about the college’s admission of  international students, according to her court filing. Bray’s complaint said the message also “encouraged” admissions staff to “expect more from international students” than from other applicants. The Emerald could not verify these allegations given substantial redactions in the email records.

International students made up eight — 35% — of Warsaw Center graduates in 2017, the official wrote in the email. “Would it be possible for you and I [to] make time to talk about each international student before we make an admissions offer?” he wrote. “Since it is harder to place our international graduates, and the margin for error is smaller, I would like for us to try and be on the same page.” 

He added that he wanted to discuss the “+/-” of admitting students to the general MBA program as opposed to Warsaw, “if we aren’t on the same page.”

“The WSMC did not have any admission decision authority, but hoped to weigh in on that one type of applicant,” Bray’s filing said. Bray found the email to be potential evidence of race and national origin discrimination in the college’s admissions, a violation of Title VI and UO policy.  Title VI is a federal statute that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in the spending of public funds, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The university discounted Bray’s concerns and “took no action to remedy them,” according to the filing.

In a written response to the Emerald, the LCB outlined its admissions process for both domestic and international students. The standard admission qualifications for the college’s undergraduate business or accounting majors  require two criteria: the completion of required lower division and a minimum 3.0 GPA in those courses. 

International students, however, have some additional requirements for admission. A proficiency in English is required, which is measured by tests. The LCB also noted that the business school may require a higher score for certain graduate programs. 

Federal law also requires international students to provide verification showing they can cover the cost of college, according to the LCB’s email.  

In-house friction

Nutter appointed Beth Hjelm in fall 2017 to conduct a “graduate program strategy” initiative, during which Hjelm “engaged in demeaning, aggressive and intimidating conduct” toward Bray, the complaint said. Bray reported the conduct to Nutter and requested a communication plan to facilitate future interactions with Hjelm. Nutter allegedly denied the request and “belittled” Bray’s concerns, according to the filing. Hjelm did not respond to multiple email requests for comment.

In response to her complaints of discrimination, retaliation and violations of law by university staff, UO — via Diane Del Guercio, LCB senior associate dean of faculty and research —  retaliated against Bray by issuing a pretextual performance evaluation of her “to fabricate colorable grounds to discipline [Bray] while ignoring the legitimate concerns she raised regarding the University’s conduct,” according to the complaint. The university denied the allegations in a court filing. Del Guercio did not respond to multiple email requests for comment.

In the weeks that followed, Bray’s increasingly hostile work environment and resulting stress caused her to develop a chronic voice disorder that significantly limited her ability to talk, the filing said.

In November 2017, Bray reported to UO’s Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity and its director, Tracey Tsugawa, what she believed to be unlawful discrimination in the LCB’s hiring practices. According to the complaint, she said that Nutter appointed two employees to new positions despite their lack of relevant experience compared to Bray’s, alleging that both appointments were discriminatory on the basis of her national origin and religious heritage.

Bray emailed Schill in January 2018 to complain about “the LCB’s hostile and discriminatory work environment” under Nutter’s leadership and to request a different job placement at the university, the complaint said. “Mr. Schill wrote back to summarily reject [Bray’s] request,” court documents stated.

Bray formally requested an ongoing accommodation of remote work to help manage her health condition as recommended by her doctor. The university’s ADA coordinator, Martin Stanberry, denied her request to work remotely, though he and Bray’s supervisor, Del Guercio, assured her that the university would provide her with regular breaks and would not require her to speak for more than 30-minute increments four to five times per day, according to the complaint. “Thereafter, the University failed to honor these promises,” the complaint said of the accommodations. 

In its court filing, UO said it did not fail to accommodate her “alleged disability,” adding, “When [Bray] provided the appropriate medical documentation that she suffered from a voice disorder, the University provided her with reasonable accommodations consistent with and for the duration requested by her medical provider. [Bray] chose not to provide additional paperwork to support any continuing accommodations.”

Bray filed a complaint and grievance in early 2018 alleging the university conducted her performance evaluation “with improper and retaliatory motives.” This prompted UO Law School Dean Marcilynn Burke to begin an investigation into the grievance on Feb. 8, 2018, the filing said.

Bray reported to Nutter her belief that LCB leadership intended to implement changes to the college that would “disparately and negatively impact [Bray’s] position, and that those changes were discriminatory in nature,” the complaint said.

According to the filing, Nutter responded, “I want to be clear that from my standpoint the role of Associate Dean of Graduate Programs is a mission-critical role for the College, and one that has been and will continue to be an essential one in achieving our goals in the area of graduate education.” Nutter forwarded Bray’s complaint to the AAEO in keeping with university policy.

Three months later, and during its investigation into Bray’s complaints of UO’s “unlawful discriminatory conduct,” the university reorganized its AAEO office, renamed it the Office of Investigations and Civil Rights Compliance and “abruptly ended” Tsugawa’s employment, the filing said: “The Office of Civil Rights Compliance ultimately declined to further investigate [Bray’s] complaint.”

In their response to Bray’s complaint, the university admitted that the complaint was not investigated because it was believed the allegations were unmerited. 

Burke, the law school dean tasked with investigating Bray’s complaints, issued a decision on June 6, 2018, upholding Bray’s grievance. She concluded that the evaluation “failed to comply with the University’s performance evaluation policies for Officers of Administration on several fronts,” the filing said. Burke’s investigation found that the evaluation was only supported “by incidents and evidence outside occurring outside the relevant review period,”didn’t provide guidance on how Bray could improve her performance and appeared to rely on third-party input while not identifying any contributing witnesses.

Burke ordered the university to strike the improper proportions of the evaluation and for the LCB to provide more training for employee performance evaluations. While UO issued a corrected performance evaluation, Bray alleged that Del Guercio refused to sign off on the evaluation, which left her “without sufficient resolution.” The university denied that allegation in a court filing but admitted it issued an amended performance evaluation based on Burke’s response.

In August 2018, Bray again reported to Nutter what she believed to be unlawful discrimination in the LCB’s admissions practices. She forwarded an email to Nutter that showed minutes from an LCB staff meeting about the Masters of Accounting program, which said it was a “positive” that the program had a “small international population.”  

Bray found the email to be potential evidence of race and national origin discrimination in the LCB’s admissions practices and a violation of Title VI and university policy, according to her complaint. In its answer filed in court, UO said it didn’t have enough information to confirm or deny the allegation and “on that basis denies them.”

Bray alleged that on Oct. 15, 2019, Del Guercio and Connie Brady, the college’s associate dean of finance and administration, “again retaliated” against her by issuing a pretextual performance evaluation “to fabricate colorable grounds to discipline” her, according to the complaint. She found that the evaluation was flawed, as it reflected the same issues for which Burke upheld her previous grievance.

Bray reported to the office of Employee Labor Relations that she felt the evaluation was retaliatory and she wanted to submit a grievance. However, Associate Director of Employee Labor Relations Annie Herz advised against filing a grievance, saying “‘the remedy for [your] concerns is a rebuttal, not a grievance,’” according to the complaint.

In its response, the university denied the allegations that the evaluation was retaliatory and that the contents of the report “speak for themselves.” 

Six weeks later, the university informed Bray that her employment would end on March 3, 2020, according to the complaint. Bray alleged that the LCB terminated her in retaliation for her “protected activities.” UO said that they were eliminating her position due to a reorganization of the LCB to develop undergraduate and specialized master’s programs and other strategic initiatives.

Bray formally complained to the university on Dec. 14, 2019, saying that she was being terminated for what she believed to be retaliatory and discriminatory reasons. The university denied Bray’s allegations of the reasoning behind her termination in a court filing.

In its response to Bray’s complaint, UO said the Office of Investigations and Civil Rights Compliance “reviewed [Bray’s] claims and determined that the information she presented did not meet OICRC’s standard to move forward with a formal investigation.”

University secretary Angela Wilhelms issued findings in her investigation of Bray’s October 2019 grievance three weeks after her firing. Wilhelms ultimately denied the grievance but partly sustained Bray’s allegations, finding that her supervisors again considered evidence outside of the evaluation period. She “ordered that the evaluation be reissued without reliance upon the improper evidence.”

Bray requested in her court filing an order for the university to award her financial compensation for losses including “physical and emotional injury, pain and suffering, mental anguish, humiliation, embarrassment and loss of enjoyment of life.”

In March 2020, Bray founded Silk Road Coaching and has since served as CEO and a success coach. The program offers science-based business, career and life coaching, according to its website.

Bray took a position this past November at Colorado Technical University, a primarily online university, as an associate professor and lead faculty in its economics department. 

A four-day, twelve-person jury trial is scheduled for June 22.

Editor’s note: Most parties involved in the lawsuit stayed silent when contacted by the Emerald. Klein declined to provide a comment. Del Guercio, Hjelm, Nutter and WSMC officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment, some or all of which were referred back to Hubbard. Hubbard later declined to comment on behalf of Schill beyond UO’s response. Burke, Herz, Stanberry, Wilhelms and Office of Investigations and Civil Rights Compliance officials could not be reached in time for publication.