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Federal judge rules in favor of ISU in discrimination lawsuit

A gavel sits on a judge's bench. On top of that photo, the words "WGLT Courts" appears.
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A discrimination claim from a professor at Illinois State University will not move forward, a federal judge has ruled in a decision in favor of the school’s board of trustees.

In her 2019 lawsuit, Meredith Downes accused ISU of wage discrimination and retaliation, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act. Downes has worked as a professor in the Management and Qualitative Methods department in ISU’s College of Business since 1997.

In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mihm rejected Downes’ claims that she suffered retaliation by former department chair Roberta Trites after the professor made comments about another former chair. Mihm also dismissed claims that Downes was consistently paid less than male professors and denied opportunities offered to colleagues in the department.

Mihm noted that ISU’s process for awarding raises includes salary inversion, where newly-hired professors are paid higher salaries than long-tenured faculty based on market salaries at the time they are hired.

“Salary inversion and salary compression are systemic issues at ISU,” Mihm said in his decision.

The professor did not dispute the above-standard ratings she received in annual performance evaluations. Based on his review of ratings and salary ranges of other professors, Mihm concluded that “ISU’s merit-based system was used to determine raises, and not Downes’ gender.”

The judge also found that Downes’ retaliation claim fell short of legal requirements for a federal violation. Downes retained her position as a full professor without changes in her teaching, research or service activities, Mihm noted. Trite recommended Downes receive a “raises beyond the standard” in 2019 and 2020, said the ruling, and advocated for an endowed professor position.

Downes’ lawyer, Robert Porter with Costigan and Wollrab, and ISU spokesman Eric Jome declined comment on the ruling.

Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.