Chronicle of Higher Education

Program Director Who Called Men 'Sperm Donors' Found to Have Committed Bias

By ALISON SCHNEIDER
The Chronicle of Higher Education
August 6, 1999

The director of a nursing program at the Montana State University College of Technology at Great Falls discriminated against a male nursing student when she referred to men as "sperm donors," a state human-rights investigator has ruled.

The student charged that comments made by the director, Connie MacKay, had created an intimidating environment for male students. Last month, the state investigator agreed.

Scott Dion, a student in the college's practical-nursing program, filed a grievance in 1998 with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry after twice failing "Nursing Practicum III," the only remaining course he needed to graduate. He had failed the course, Mr. Dion said, because of sex discrimination.

According to the state investigator, in class and in clinical settings, Ms. MacKay had called men "sperm donors" and suggested that that was their only genuine use. She had made male-anatomy jokes, one of the milder of which was a reference to "the worthless male appendage." She had also called men "lazy," criticized them for relying on women for support, and said they should be held accountable for the lower economic status of women. "She commented that if men would keep their genitals in their pants, women would not have to deal with them," the investigator found.

Ms. MacKay did not return telephone calls requesting comment, but during a hearing before the investigator, she denied calling men "sperm donors" or making disparaging comments about their genitals. "There were 12 witnesses who said she had made these statements," said Michael Dahlem, Mr. Dion's lawyer. "She said they were all lying."

Terry Spear, the investigator for the human-rights division of the Department of Labor and Industry, concluded otherwise. Ms. MacKay's remarks amounted to sex discrimination, said Mr. Spear. "The practical nursing program allowed hostile and derogatory comments about men by its director for a period of years. This conduct rose to the level of sexual intimidation," Mr. Spear wrote in his decision. "Because of this intimidation, Dion reasonably feared that his instructors might treat him more harshly than they might treat a female student."

The state investigator ruled, however, that Mr. Dion had not proved that Elissa Orcutt, a nursing instructor, had failed him twice because of his gender, not his class performance. Ms. Orcutt had legitimate reasons to criticize Mr. Dion's performance, the investigator found. Given the subjective nature of grading, there was no way for Mr. Dion to prove that Ms. Orcutt had discriminated against him, short of an admission by her to that effect, Mr. Spear wrote. What Mr. Dion did prove was that "sexual intimidation caused or contributed to his fear of Orcutt and of failure. Dion's fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy," the decision said.

Mr. Dion wanted the state agency to order the college to change his grade to a passing one. The state declined. Instead, it ordered the college to expunge Mr. Dion's failing grade and either to refund his tuition for the nursing class or to give him an opportunity to retake the course free.

Those options don't appeal to Mr. Dion. "Would you walk back into the bear's den?" he said. "It would be senseless to go back a third time when it's been proven that they discriminated twice."

Mr. Dion thinks his chances of success are better in court. He has filed a lawsuit in state court seeking a grade change. He's also planning to file a grievance with the state nursing board.

The university doesn't agree with the investigator's findings, but it doesn't plan to appeal the gist of the decision. "Clearly, comments that we maybe wouldn't recommend anyone making were made on occasion," said LeRoy

Schramm, chief legal counsel for the university system. "But we don't think any of those rose to the level of harassment or intimidation. We think they were, at best, occasional or non-pervasive."

But Mr. Schramm added, "At some point, institutions are best off putting things behind them." This is one of those occasions, he said.

The university is appealing the investigator's decision to call Mr. Dion a "prevailing party," a label that entitles the plaintiff to recover his lawyer's fees.

Ms. MacKay is still on the faculty, and Mr. Schramm would not comment on whether she had been disciplined.

"If a male instructor had made those comments over that period of time, there is no question that he would have been terminated," said Mr. Dahlem, Mr. Dion's lawyer. "People haven't taken sexual discrimination against males very seriously up until now. It's perceived to be a problem women experience and not men."

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Section: The Faculty
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Copyright 1999 by The Chronicle of Higher Education