The ADVANCE Program is a “critical and evidence-based” component of the University of Michigan’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, according to University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald. Through workshops, trainings, consultations and annual reports, ADVANCE synthesizes data about the University’s climate and conducts research on demographics among faculty and staff to ensure the “success of a diverse and excellent faculty.”
ADVANCE also provides resources like a handbook for faculty searches and hiring, as well as support for faculty from underrepresented backgrounds through identity-based networks, among other programs.
A Michigan Daily investigation of the ADVANCE program found numerous previously undisclosed allegations of discrimination, ranging from 2012 to 2020, in an allegedly toxic workplace with high staff turnover.
In interviews with The Daily, 12 former ADVANCE employees — ten who quit or left, and two who were fired in the past four years — alleged that ADVANCE’s workplace environment hinders its ability to engage in meaningful diversity, equity and inclusion work.
Documents obtained by The Daily also indicate that employees repeatedly raised their concerns about discrimination and racism to program leadership and University administration over the past five years. In one instance, an employee alleging discrimination was offered a non-disparagement clause after her position was terminated and she brought her concerns to administrators.
When asked to comment on whether the University or ADVANCE leadership was aware of internal climate issues over the past five years, Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Daily on Feb. 25 that these concerns may have been shared anonymously and that ADVANCE is working to support its employees.
“There also may be instances where concerns are either not reported or are reported anonymously, which can limit any unit’s ability to respond,” Fitzgerald wrote. “The current leadership team and staff of the ADVANCE program is looking to the future and focusing on ways that it can continue to carry out its mission of supporting the recruitment, retention, climate, and leadership development for a diverse and excellent faculty based on research and evaluation; knowledge and skill development; community building; and resources and support.”
“There was no one to really have your back”
The University’s ADVANCE Program was born out of a 2001 National Science Foundation grant that aimed to increase the number of female-identifying faculty in science, technology, engineering and math and to promote gender equity among women at the University overall. The University was among the first nine higher education institutions to receive the NSF grant — between 2001 and 2007, it received nearly $4 million total.
The NSF grant ended in 2007, but ADVANCE continued to grow. Jennifer Linderman, professor in the College of Engineering and former associate dean for graduate education, became director in March 2016. She currently oversees the program along with Shelly Conner, director of research and evaluation, and Associate Directors Cynthia Hudgins and Isis Settles. (Conner replaced Janet Malley, previous director of research and evaluation, this past year.)
Linderman referred The Daily to Fitzgerald when reached for comment for this article. Both Malley and Hudgins declined to comment when contacted by The Daily. Conner was not employed by ADVANCE when any of the 12 employees that The Daily spoke to worked there, and all employees stressed that they had no issues with Settles.
According to the University’s 2020-2021 Budget Detail, ADVANCE received almost $2.3 million last year, making it one of the most well-funded programs overseen by the Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs. This is more than twice the amount issued to the Office of Institutional Equity, which investigates sexual misconduct claims and other claims of discrimination.
Fitzgerald wrote in the Feb. 25 email to The Daily that ADVANCE’s focus on faculty distinguishes it from programs run by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as the latter also includes issues related to student diversity.
“The original focus of ADVANCE was to increase the presence of women faculty in STEM fields,” Fitzgerald wrote. “That focus has been expanded to include a broader definition of diversity among the faculty and all areas of research and teaching on campus. But its focus continues to be on university faculty. That’s different from the DEI office, for example, which addresses all members of the university community – students, faculty and staff.”
In particular, ADVANCE produces reports that use institutional data to highlight gender and race gaps among faculty. The most recent reports focused on faculty equity during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as exit interviews as a way of understanding job satisfaction and reasons for faculty departure.
According to a 2019 report created by ADVANCE, ADVANCE programs have “positively influenced” the increase in faculty diversity and representation since 2002.
But within ADVANCE, reports of staff dissatisfaction have been left seemingly unaddressed by program directors, according to the former employees who spoke with The Daily.
In a 2017 survey mandated as part of the University’s DEI Five-Year Strategic Plan and obtained by The Daily, 50% of ADVANCE employees said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied by the program’s climate and environment, compared to an average of 21% for staff across all 49 units at the University who responded to the survey. 40% of ADVANCE respondents also said they experienced some form of discrimination in the past 12 months at work — a percentage considerably higher than the 15% University-wide total.
ADVANCE leadership received the final report in December 2017, according to the copy obtained by The Daily. All 10 ADVANCE employees employed at the time responded to the survey.
Craig Smith, former ADVANCE employee and current University library assessment specialist, worked at ADVANCE from Dec. 2014 to May 2018 as a member of the research & evaluation team when the internal climate survey took place. Smith recalled that program leadership was hesitant to discuss the results of the survey after they were sent to employees.
Smith said that a group of employees met in January 2018 and drafted a list of requests for program leadership to address the report’s results — specifically the part that showed that 50% were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the office’s internal climate.
“We had a meeting as a group to talk about (this result), and the director would only budget a half-hour for the meeting and initially didn’t want to talk about that result at all and wanted to just talk about campus-wide results,” Smith said. “And so we had to ask her specifically to start addressing the climate at ADVANCE.”
On Jan. 16, 2018, Smith met with Linderman and read to her a seven-page document he had written describing incidents of perceived discrimination and racism at ADVANCE, according to Smith. Another former ADVANCE employee confirmed to The Daily that they saw this document in 2018; The Daily has also reviewed this document.
Smith said while Linderman agreed to take these claims seriously, he never saw them followed up on or discussed after this initial meeting. Smith also alleged that ADVANCE leadership tried to undermine the survey results by saying they only reflected the opinions of a small group of employees.
“The director of ADVANCE was saying that those results were just the result of disgruntled employees who had already left,” Smith said. “But the fact of the matter is that people left because of the climate there. And so she was dismissing, in some ways, the climate itself by saying that people who weren’t happy left and now it’s fine.”
Another former ADVANCE employee, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation, also worked at ADVANCE in the years leading up to the internal report. This employee corroborated many of Smith’s claims. In this article, they will be referred to as Alex.
Alex said that many of the climate issues at ADVANCE stemmed from microaggressions — small, seemingly mundane conversations or tones of voice that made the office a hostile place for employees, particularly people of color. They said that apart from anonymous surveys like the mandated internal DEI report, it was difficult to give voice to these microaggressions given the small size of the organization.
“People were excited when the (University-wide) DEI survey happened because it felt like the first time where people could shine a light on some of the issues taking place within the ADVANCE office,” Alex said.
But even with the DEI survey, Alex said tackling these issues was difficult because of how small and hierarchical ADVANCE is.
“It was frustrating because you felt very silenced, because you didn’t have the numbers,” Alex said. “We’re the ones doing the work for the rest of the University. There was no one to really have your back if you had issues.”
Fitzgerald confirmed that an all-staff meeting took place in January 2018 to discuss the survey results. According to Fitzgerald, this was followed by individual meetings between ADVANCE employees and outside consultants in 2019, where employees had the opportunity to discuss these results as well as their issues with the climate at ADVANCE.
“There have been many additional staff discussions since, as the ADVANCE staff has worked to ensure that the unit’s climate is inclusive, equitable and respectful for all,” Fitzgerald wrote in his Feb. 25 email.
Fitzgerald said these individual meetings led to the creation of a staff handbook, a redesign of staff meetings and the implementation of drop-in hours with program directors, among other changes.
Chidimma Ozor Commer, a former ADVANCE employee from Nov. 2017 to August 2019 and a licensed social worker, confirmed that ADVANCE employees were given the opportunity to meet with an “outside consultant” in 2019 but said this person was a friend of the program’s leadership, making the meetings a potential conflict of interest. Ozor Commer also confirmed that there was a new staff handbook, new opportunities for professional development and a redesign of staff meetings — she said she did not recall drop-in hours with program directors.
Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Daily on March 15 that because ADVANCE works to address faculty climate issues, “it is expected that the ADVANCE team would have knowledge of and have a professional relationship with experts in this field, both internal and external to the university.” Fitzgerald said ADVANCE hired Vineyard Associates, a “university-approved vendor,” to meet with employees about internal climate concerns.
Smith also said a number of his former colleagues — particularly women of color — often told him that their writing was criticized for not being eloquent or effective even when the language was similar to past ADVANCE work. Smith said he received fewer comments on work that was identical to that of his BIPOC and women colleagues. Two other former ADVANCE employees contacted by The Daily corroborated this claim.
“(My colleagues) were made to feel, in very weird ways, like they were not articulate, like they were not skilled in terms of their writing and their expression, which is actually connected to some negative stereotypes around African-Americans in our country,” Smith said.
“And he said, ‘Who’s going to listen to you?’”
All former and current employees who spoke to The Daily said climate issues coincided with a high turnover rate for ADVANCE staff.
One former ADVANCE employee, who requested anonymity due to fear of professional retaliation, said they were struck by the irony of working in a unit dedicated to ensuring a positive faculty climate while they faced internal issues of retention. This source will be referred to as Taylor.
“For a unit focused on faculty recruitment and retention, there was little done to create and maintain a positive work climate within ADVANCE,” Taylor wrote in an email to The Daily. “Our retention issues were probably worse off, number wise, than faculty’s. Our staff demographics, such as the number of staff of color, their status, and their length of stay at ADVANCE, were not impressive either.”
According to interviews and anecdotal data provided by former employees, 30% of the ADVANCE team (three employees) quit in 2018 and 40% (four employees) quit in 2019. The Daily learned of one ADVANCE employee that was fired in 2020.
When asked to confirm these numbers and comment on the rate of employee departure from ADVANCE, Fitzgerald did not specifically confirm these numbers but wrote that the turnover rate is unsurprising given the small size of the organization.
“ADVANCE is a relatively small unit that typically has 12-15 employees,” Fitzgerald wrote. “With a unit this small, staff growth opportunities are limited and it’s not unusual for staff in small campus units to move to other campus positions.”
In the months after the survey results were released, numerous ADVANCE employees said they took steps to make sure employees were aware of the issues facing BIPOC in the office.
These included hosting a screening of the documentary “The True Cost” and facilitating “lunch and learn” sessions for employees to discuss white supremacy in academic organizations, according to reports written by former ADVANCE employees and submitted to the University’s Human Resources office. These reports were obtained by The Daily.
Ozor Commer began the “lunch and learn” sessions in January 2019 to raise awareness about issues facing BIPOC in the workplace and to foster a sense of community among staff. In an email to The Daily, Ozor Commer said these sessions gave ADVANCE employees a chance to do crucial DEI work within their own organization.
“The most rewarding aspect of my work was starting Lunch & Learns — informal educational sessions during lunch — in January 2019 which became an opportunity to actually engage in DEI work, unpaid of course, and was instrumental in improving the culture and making it more inclusive and collegial,” Ozor Commer wrote.
Ozor Commer said she was prompted to begin these sessions after experiencing a workplace culture she described as “racist, white supremacist, toxic, and hostile for BIPOC.”
In June 2019, Ozor Commer underwent her annual performance review, which Linderman and Malley oversaw. According to Ozor Commer, the directors told her she was not in her office when people came looking for her and was not a strong writer — claims that Ozor Commer said were not valid.
“One day I asked Jan(et Malley) what (she) would have wanted that I did not produce, in terms of my writing, and her response: clarity,” Ozor Commer wrote. “That is not constructive nor useful feedback. What would one do with that?”
Ozor Commer said she pushed back against the claim that she was never at work, noting that she was almost always in the office, but struggled with migraines and often kept the lights off. She also alleged that when she would approach Malley for clarification or feedback, she was directed to other research & evaluation team members.
“There were lies about my performance which relates directly to white supremacy culture at ADVANCE,” Ozor Commer wrote. “Mistakes are not seen as learning opportunities, questions are not answered.”
These claims of discrimination have been echoed to The Daily by two employees on the administrative team. One of them, Benita Threadgill, former senior administrative assistant at ADVANCE, received criticism about her performance in the months before her position was terminated on June 19, 2017, according to a copy of the settlement agreement issued by ADVANCE, given to Threadgill and obtained by The Daily.
Threadgill had just returned from a two-month medical leave due to foot surgery when she was placed on a Performance Improvement Plan on April 17, 2017. The PIP gave Threadgill 60 days to meet the performance goals or risk termination from her position, according to a copy obtained by The Daily.
Threadgill said issuing the PIP on the date of her return made it clear to her that ADVANCE leadership did not intend to support her recovery, which had kept her out of the office since February 2017.
“The PIP? That’s legendary across the University,” Threadgill said. “That’s how they try to dress it up. They document, document, document, document. And when they want you gone, then you’re gone … (Linderman) used it as a threat.”
The PIP advised Threadgill to meet with the directors once a week to discuss her performance. According to a report submitted to University HR Representative Linda Dabrowski in June 2017 after six weeks of meetings, Threadgill wrote she felt she had reached a “stalemate” with Linderman and Hudgins, her supervisor.
When contacted by The Daily for a comment on her involvement in Threadgill’s case, Dabrowski directed the request to Fitzgerald.
In the report, Threadgill reiterated her commitment to ADVANCE and disputed the belief that she was consistently late to work by offering several examples of her working overtime or coming to work early.
Threadgill said she was criticized for not completing tasks made difficult or impossible by her foot surgery, like greeting clients at the door or walking across the office.
“If that’s what you wanted me to do, was to come back, and I did, you should’ve had somebody else do those things,” Threadgill said. “You had student helpers, you had other people that were in there that could’ve done that. They didn’t want it to work.”
Rebekah Ashley, associate director of academic human resources, declined to comment on her involvement in Threadgill’s case due to privacy concerns. Fitzgerald confirmed in an email that Threadgill was an employee at the University from 2009 to 2017 but said there is no evidence her surgery impacted her position at ADVANCE being terminated.
“We have consulted the ADVANCE staff, University Human Resources and others and I am absolutely confident in saying, categorically, that no staff member of the ADVANCE program has ever been terminated because of a disability,” Fitzgerald wrote.
Threadgill filed a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in January 2018, claiming ADVANCE retaliated against her for her disability and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The investigation, which found that Threadgill did not have a disability as classified under the ADA and would have been placed on a PIP regardless of whether she asked for accommodations, concluded in May 2018.
Michael N. Hanna, Threadgill’s attorney at the time, continued to pursue the case and coordinated a settlement agreement with the University that said Threadgill would be unable to “demean nor disparage the University of any of its current or former employees or agents to any third party.” The non-disparagement agreement, which originally offered $4,000, was raised to $6,000 and submitted to Threadgill on Sept. 6, 2018.
“They tried to … give a concession: ‘Well, we’ll give you $4,000,’” Threadgill said. “I said ‘$4,000? For what?’ (They said) ‘You know, for it to all go away. Put a little something in your pocket.’ I said, ‘For that I will write a book, I will go to every news story, I will post it to Facebook myself.’ And (Hanna) laughed and he said, ‘Who’s going to listen to you?’”
Hanna did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In December 2019, The Daily reported that the University spent over $1.26 million on confidential settlement agreements from Nov. 2018 to April 2019. These types of agreements, which prohibit former University employees from speaking negatively about their work experience, have received criticism as veiled attempts to silence former employees.
Threadgill said leaving the University to work for a pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in Wayne, Mich. drastically reduced her income, which she said made her attorney and the University believe she would more easily accept the settlement offer. Even so, Threadgill ultimately decided to decline the offer and never signed the agreement.
“I might be hungry, I might be losing everything, but I have my integrity and I have my character,” Threadgill said. “And I’m not going to be bought for that.”
“Without an organization that’s willing to listen … I don’t see a lot of hope for change”
Former employees said they were not sure how ADVANCE should address these equity issues, many of which employees said are so ingrained and commonplace that they feel unchallengeable. Some acknowledged that while the data collection and analysis ADVANCE does is crucial to diversifying departments and supporting BIPOC faculty, the department needed to change internally before it could ethically carry out its mission.
Alex said ADVANCE leadership needed to learn how to talk about race and racism in ways that promoted equality and included the voices of the BIPOC employees within the office. Without this kind of understanding, they said, nothing would change.
“Their ability to really have meaningful conversations when it comes to racial equity was nowhere near where it needed to be,” Alex said.
Another former ADVANCE employee, who requested to remain anonymous due to fear of professional retaliation, said they also did not see the culture at ADVANCE changing without a major institutional shift. The former employee will be referred to as Morgan.
“I didn’t have very much hope for ADVANCE changing, just because leadership seemed to be particularly defensive and were not really open to hearing or really understanding the challenges that their staff were facing in that environment,” Morgan said. “So without an organization that’s willing to listen, is open to change and (is) reflecting on (how) maybe they haven’t been great, I don’t see a lot of hope for change.”
Threadgill said the treatment of ADVANCE employees, especially BIPOC employees, was ironic and offensive given the stated values of the organization. She echoed many other employees in arguing that ADVANCE had to address internal climate issues and racist practices if they wanted to effect real change on campus.
“We’re expected to promote this work-life balance,” Threadgill said. “We’re expected to respect employees. But you didn’t do it for me, and you didn’t do it for anybody who works for ADVANCE.”
Managing News Editor Liat Weinstein can be reached at email@example.com.
Started in January 2021, Focal Point is The Michigan Daily’s dedicated investigative reporting team and main outlet for investigative longform content. Focal Point reporters spend months interviewing multiple sources and gathering documents to produce complex, nuanced content. In many cases, Focal Point uncovers stories that those in power have sought to repress.
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