In five years, University of Minnesota paid $449,500 in sex harassment settlements
MINNEAPOLIS - The University of Minnesota paid a student-athlete $250,000 last year to resolve her complaint related to semi-nude modeling she did for a male gymnastics coach.
MINNEAPOLIS – The University of Minnesota paid a student-athlete $250,000 last year to resolve her complaint related to semi-nude modeling she did for a male gymnastics coach.
The volunteer assistant coach, Jim Stephenson, left the team in the wake of the allegations. His wife, head gymnastics coach Meg Stephenson, resigned in August 2014 after she was accused of retaliating against the gymnast and an employee.
After Athletic Director Norwood Teague resigned last month for sexually harassing two co-workers, the Pioneer Press requested records of all sexual harassment cases involving the university over the past five years.
The U said the $250,000 payment to the gymnast in December 2014 was the largest of five settlements in that time, which came to $449,500. Hers was the only payout related to Gopher athletics. Two additional sexual harassment cases remain open, and four were dismissed.
John Klassen, a Minneapolis employment law attorney, said workplace sexual harassment takes place everywhere but is more prevalent in small businesses, where power is concentrated with a single owner. But even for a large education system, he said the U’s record of sexual harassment settlements is relatively small.
“For an organization as large as the U is, with as many employees and as many students and staffers interacting with one another … they’d probably be on the lower end,” he said.
And while the $250,000 settlement is a “significant amount” the others appear more “run of the mill” in size, he added.
U spokesman Evan Lapiska suggested the number of settlements is reasonable given the size of the five-campus system. With nearly 26,000 faculty and staff who serve about 67,500 students, the University of Minnesota is one of the nation’s largest.
“We’re talking about 11 claims of harassment against the University system over a five-year period … and of those 11, we’re talking about five that were settled for sums,” he said.
Overall, the U has paid $4.1 million in the last two years to settle a variety of claims, from employment complaints to medical malpractice.
“Wrong and inappropriate”
The gymnast told the Minnesota Department of Human Rights that she modeled for Jim Stephenson seven to 10 times over two years, beginning soon after she arrived at the U in 2011.
“The modeling included semi-nude attire, provocative poses and inappropriate touching,” she wrote in August 2014. “I was extremely uncomfortable from the outset but conceded at his direction.”
She ultimately quit modeling, which she described in her complaint as “wrong and inappropriate.”
The U investigated Jim Stephenson and found he engaged in “unwelcome verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature and created an improperly sexualized and offensive environment for gymnasts,” according to the gymnast’s complaint, which the Department of Human Rights released in response to a Pioneer Press records request. The Pioneer Press generally does not name accusers in complaints that are sexual in nature.
The U barred Jim Stephenson from gymnastics facilities, but his wife continued to coach. However, the gymnast said that Meg Stephenson began ignoring her in retaliation.
“I will go an entire practice without significant coaching from the head coach or the female assistant coach, while other gymnasts will be coached on every turn they take. This is also the case during competitions,” she wrote.
It’s unclear whether the the U substantiated the gymnast’s retaliation accusation.
But in June 2014, the U completed an investigation of Meg Stephenson, finding that she retaliated against an employee who had participated in a “prior investigation” - apparently related to the sexual harassment charges against her husband.
Meg Stephenson was given a written reprimand in July 2014 for workplace retaliation. She agreed to resign a month later and received a $98,972 severance from the U.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights began investigating the U and its gymnastics program for sexual harassment in April 2014. That investigation remains open, Lapiska said.
The U said the Stephensons each have been the subject of two internal investigations. Jim Stephenson never was disciplined, and the U said any details of his investigations are private under state law.
Only heavily-redacted records related to Meg Stephenson’s workplace retaliation were released.
Meg Stephenson did not return messages for this story.
The gymnast did not compete for the Gophers as a senior. She said in a phone message that she’s taken steps to move on.
After Teague resigned Aug. 7, the U hired an employment lawyer to examine the workplace culture in the athletics department. That review is ongoing.
The U also is investigating several recent complaints about Mike Ellis, who agreed to take some paid time off from his job as executive associate athletic director.
The cases recently released by the U predate the accusations against Teague and Ellis.
Besides the gymnastics case, none of the settled or active sexual harassment complaints have any apparent ties to Gopher athletics. Instead, they’ve been between employees and their supervisors, including two women supervisors.
- In February 2011, a female customer service specialist received $80,000 to resolve claims that never were filed in court. A settlement agreement said her female supervisor violated U policy in 2009 and 2010. Details were not available.
- In April 2015, a male research assistant received $77,500 to settle complaints he made against his female supervisor. He said she was obsessed with him and regularly made sexual comments about him; she retaliated, he said, when he spurned her advances and he complained about unpaid overtime.
- In April 2012, a University of Minnesota-Duluth student received $30,000 after complaining that a supervisor in the school wellness center sexually harassed her and several others while she was working as an instructor in 2009. The Department of Human Rights concluded the conduct likely did occur. The supervisor no longer works for UMD, Lapiska said.
- In December 2011, a facilities management employee received $12,000 to settle age, disability, race and gender discrimination charges, including sexual harassment. Case files were unavailable, and while the settlement agreement named a male supervisor, it offered no narrative of her claims.
One of the two pending sexual harassment cases is before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and is not yet public.
The other was brought in federal court by a doctorate student who left the U after accusing an older male colleague of persistent sexual advances while the two were researching animals alone together in the Alaskan wilderness in 2011. The U has said it’s not liable because the man worked for a federal agency and not the university.
The U said President Eric Kaler was unavailable last week to discuss the sexual harassment cases. However, during the Sept. 11 Board of Regents meeting, the first since Teague’s resignation, Kaler addressed the subject of workplace sexual harassment.
“This incident at our university is a reflection of unfortunately what is an everyday experience for many women in workplaces across Minnesota and the nation. No matter where such conduct occurs it is unacceptable, but at an institution that strives to be nondiscriminatory in every way … this has hit home even more painfully,” he said.
Kaler pledged to create an environment where harassment victims are supported when they come forward.