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Professor Alleges Pay Discrimination In Lawsuit Against ISU

Exterior of SF Hall of Business
Illinois State University
A tenured professor in the Illinois State College of Business has filed a lawsuit against the university.

A tenured professor at Illinois State University claimed in a new sex-discrimination lawsuit that she’s unfairly making less than her male peers and was threatened with retaliation for raising her concerns.

Meredith Downes teaches in the Department of Management and Quantitative Methods (MQM) in ISU’s College of Business. In her federal lawsuit against ISU, Downes claimed she makes less money than six of the other eight tenured, full professors in MQM, who are all male. (The two who make less are either retiring or on inactive status, she said.) Downes said she makes less despite publishing more scholarly articles and earning a higher rating on her annual performance evaluation than at least some of those male colleagues.

“Although department policies allow for equity consideration to rectify such patterns and practices, Downes has never received an equity consideration that closes the aforementioned gender pay gap, and the department has never voted on a distribution of equity-based raises in according with department policies,” Downes’ attorney, Dawn Wall, wrote in the Dec. 20 lawsuit.

The MQM department’s policies provide for faculty members to receive either a “standard raise” or a “raise above the standard increment” based on their annual evaluations, according to the lawsuit. It claims the department chair makes raise and salary decisions based on those evaluations, which come from a four-person faculty-staff committee. Downes claims she met all the criteria in her 2019 evaluation for a “raise above the standard increment.”

Downes said she raised her concerns with the current department chair, who “rejected Downes’ concerns and refused to rectify the situation,” according the lawsuit. The chair allegedly threatened retaliation against Downes by suggesting that such comments could be the basis of a defamation suit against Downes, the lawsuit claimed.

An ISU spokesperson declined comment on the lawsuit. An attorney for Downes also declined to comment.

Downes has worked at ISU since 1997. She received tenure in 2002.

Downes’ teaching interests are in the areas of international business, international management and strategic management. She has won several awards and grants while at ISU, including the Manahan Family Award for Teaching Excellence in Business (2010) and the Wilma Jean Alexander Technology Faculty Innovation Award (2004, 2000) from the College of Business.

Downes’ base salary was $120,100 for the 2019 fiscal year, with $3,800 in additional compensation, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s salary database.

Downes filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is a required step before filing a lawsuit like Downes’. The EEOC was “unable to conclude that the information obtained establishes violations of the statutes.”

“This does not certify that the respondent is in compliance with the statues. No finding is made as to any other issues that might be construed as having been raised by this charge,” the EEOC said.

Downes’ lawsuit comes as ISU conducts an equity review of tenure-line faculty salary, tenure/promotion, and performance review as related to categories such as gender and race/ethnicity. The equity review is being led by the University Review Committee, a universitywide committee which recommends appointment, salary, promotion and tenure processes to the Academic Senate’s Faculty Caucus. 

The first part of the review (looking at salary data) is underway, but the results of this piece of the study will not be available until late February or March 2020, said URC chair Rachel Shively, an associate professor in ISU’s Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. Once URC has the results of the review, it will interpret the data and report its findings to the Faculty Caucus. URC hopes to have that report completed by the end of the spring 2020 semester, Shively said. 

This is not the first time a female professor has sued ISU over pay equity. Three College of Business professors filed suit against ISU in 1995 after reportedly noticing that new recruits were being hired at higher salaries than they themselves were earning. ISU denied there was a pattern or practice of discrimination and the case moved through the courts for years. Both sides reached a settlement in 2002.

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