Former Utah Valley University employee says school discriminates against women, minorities and non-Mormon employees

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) A former employee is suing Utah Valley University, alleging discrimination against women, minorities and non-Mormons.

Emily Tooy remembers how her then-supervisor at Utah Valley University voiced his preference for a job candidate.

The manager pointed to the name of one finalist, a white man, and then to another, a black woman, before asking Tooy and the other members of the mostly female search committee which job candidate would be best received by the university’s deans, the former UVU employee told The Salt Lake Tribune.

“He was explicitly implying that the deans — who were all white men at UVU — would not listen to an African-American female director,” said Tooy, who previously worked as associate director for global academic programming in the Orem school’s Office for Global Engagement.

In an account that echoes claims made in a separate lawsuit against UVU, Tooy said the black female candidate was ultimately hired, but left after 16 weeks on the job, prompting another search to fill the position.

And that led to more offensive comments from Tooy’s supervisor, she said, including criticisms of the outgoing employee’s character and describing his preferred replacement as “a really cute girl.”

“[He] said to me he would never make that mistake again, implying that he hired an African-American woman and somebody who was not obedient,” Tooy said. “I had to do a little interpretation, but it was very ugly.”

It was one of several instances Tooy described of overt and implicit discrimination she said she witnessed during roughly three years on the UVU campus. Tooy said her “jaw dropped” when she learned UVU was being sued by its former Title IX director, Melissa Frost, whom Tooy had gone to with her concerns before Frost was fired.

Disputed claims

Frost’s lawsuit says administrators were slow to respond to allegations of harassment and discrimination, female employees are expected to work longer hours for less pay than their male counterparts, and job candidates who are people of color or of faiths other than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, if hired, are made to feel unwelcome.

In a written statement issued Tuesday, UVU spokesman Scott Trotter described Frost and Tooy as disgruntled former employees. He said the women are airing their claims in the court of public opinion because “it is the only place where they can play fast and loose with the facts.”

Trotter said both women’s assertions were investigated in a fair and neutral manner and found to be unsubstantiated. He added that Frost was terminated for cause but declined to elaborate due to the pending lawsuit against the school and the confidentiality of those whose cases were overseen by UVU’s Title IX and equal employment office.

“Melissa Frost is not a whistleblower,” Trotter said, “and was not terminated for making compliance recommendations.”

As to Tooy’s claims, Trotter said UVU eagerly awaits its first female president — Astrid Tuminez was selected last month to replace outgoing UVU President Matthew Holland — and that women hold leadership positions throughout the university, including that of vice president, dean, general counsel and director.

“UVU has made significant and intentional efforts toward increasing opportunities for women at all levels within the university,” Trotter said, “and we are working hard to do more.”

‘A process issue’

In her lawsuit, Frost alleges that she was fired shortly after notifying the school’s general counsel that she was looking into harassment and discrimination allegations made by three women against “white males in upper management.”

Tooy believes she is one of those women.

“When I found out that she was gone, I couldn’t believe it, because she was really going to help me,” Tooy said of Frost. “She made me feel like I mattered, and I was so sad to learn that she had been let go.”

In an interview, Frost declined to confirm or deny that Tooy’s experiences are among those alluded to in her lawsuit.

She said the effective enforcement of equal employment laws and Title IX — a federal statute that prohibits sex discrimination in education — requires anonymity and that it’s ultimately UVU’s process of investigating complaints that she is trying to address with her lawsuit.

Frost said she is still working to remedy her firing through UVU’s internal review process. While she prefers a solution that does not involve the courts, she said a lawsuit was necessary to preserve her options.

“There is a process issue that I believe needs to be corrected,” she said. “If they just gave me my job back or offered me money, that would not be sufficient.”

Frost filed her lawsuit on her own behalf. She said she has a law degree but is not a practicing attorney, and that she did not want to incur the cost of legal representation while she worked with UVU administrators on a potential solution.

She believes her rights as an employee were violated, saying the university terminated her employment without explanation.

“If we don’t have a neutral process and if we don’t have an independent process,” Frost said, “people will not come forward.”

Other ‘retaliation’

In addition to the offensive comments, Tooy said her supervisor retaliated against her when she raised accusations of harassment.

A dean in UVU’s business school accosted her, Tooy said, and after she relayed details of the incident to her supervisor, she was placed on leave.

“Next thing I know, that [following] Monday I’m being relieved of my administrative duties due to some concerns,” Tooy said. “I reported to him that I was harassed, and he responded by retaliating against me.”

She said the supervisor also regularly blurred the lines between his membership in the LDS Church and his position at the university. Mormon colleagues were given preferential treatment, Tooy said, and university resources were used to train and facilitate visa applications for LDS missionaries.

“He would make no secret that he was having these church meetings at work on a pretty consistent basis,” she said. “[It was] a huge conflict of interest that the university ignored, even after I reported this very thing to [human resources] and through the proper channels.”

Trotter said Tooy’s description of her supervisor’s work is “starved of context.” He referred to a UVU internship with the Spanish government, in which a student’s assignment included working on Mormon missionary visas. But that assignment was made by the intern’s employer, Trotter said, and not university administrators.

“UVU does not engage in favoritism,” he said.

‘Ugly’ campus culture

UVU is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for potential Title IX violations. The university also contracted with an outside investigator to review Tooy’s allegations, Trotter said.

“Faculty, staff and students throughout UVU have championed the ideal of inclusion as one of its core themes,” Trotter said, “and made this a safe, welcoming and supportive place to work and learn.”

But Tooy said she witnessed firsthand, and heard secondhand, many of the issues described in Frost’s lawsuit. And while she filed a complaint with Frost last spring, Tooy said she had not been in contact with the former Title IX director since both women left the university.

“There’s some serious compliance violations happening, and they want to keep that internal,” Tooy said. “I felt it then and I feel it even more now after reading what Melissa has put out there.”

Tooy has since left Utah for a position at a university in Illinois, where she lived before joining UVU.

“This culture that exists at UVU, it’s not something that I have ever been acquainted with, and it is ugly,” she said. “They don’t want to hear anything from women, especially non-LDS women.”

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