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Erika Ventura, former animal husbandry technician at Michigan Medicine’s Unit for Laboratory Animal Medicine, was terminated from her position on May 8. Ventura alleges the termination was a result of her discussing LGBTQ+ issues in the break room while at work. During the public comment section of the May 18 Board of Regents meeting, Ventura and her former colleagues spoke about Ventura’s termination and offensive social media posts allegedly made by Julie Whitbeck, assistant manager of husbandry services at ULAM.

“I was terminated from my position 10 days ago because I was talking out loud in my break room about LGBTQ+ issues,” Ventura said. “I’m a member of the Queer community who has just beat cancer and I have an autistic child to support and I’ve been terminated.”

Ventura said she has reported Whitbeck’s social media posts to various institutions at the University of Michigan since the posts began in 2020. The posts, presented to the Board of Regents at their May meeting and obtained by The Michigan Daily, spanned from June 2020 to as recently as April of this year. The content of the posts included Whitbeck’s opposition to transgender athletes participating in women’s sports, LGBTQ+ representation in the media and education on gender and sexuality in schools. Whitbeck also previously updated her profile picture to include a filter reading “law enforcement lives matter” and shared a post directing racially insensitive comments and imagery at former U.S. Rep. Krystle Matthews, D-S.C. At the regents meeting, Ventura expressed her disappointment in the lack of action taken in response to her reports.

“I am disappointed in the constant backlash my coworkers and I have received when making our concerns about these biases known to other superiors,” Ventura said. “I’ve reached out to the University of Michigan Spectrum Center for more support on this matter as well as the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX offices and human resources. Absolutely nothing has been done in over three years.” 

University Spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen told The Daily in an email that per U-M policy, the University cannot confirm or deny the existence of these complaints or any investigations that may have resulted from them.

“It is U-M’s standard practice to neither confirm nor deny the existence of a complaint or an investigation into any form of misconduct,” Broekhuizen wrote. 

According to a statement on ULAM’s website, the laboratory is committed to providing a workplace environment where employees of all backgrounds feel welcomed and respected.

“ULAM is firmly committed to anti-racism; fostering an environment where every team member — regardless of their myriad identities — feels like they belong, they are valued, and they are safe; and the continued pursuit of deliberate initiatives to ensure that differences are welcomed, and mutual respect is given at all times and in all circumstances,” the statement reads.

Stephanie Barnett, an animal aid at ULAM who has worked for the University for over 22 years, provided more detail to the regents about Whitbeck’s alleged role in creating a hostile work environment at ULAM.

“(Whitbeck) stated that she can say what she wanted because these were on her personal page, and if we did not like what her posts said, she suggested that we refrain from looking at them,” Barnett said. “We feel that with her upholding the title of manager, which is a form of leadership, she should have not made these disturbing posts public. With the job title that she holds, she represents not only our department, but the University of Michigan as a whole.”

Cheryl O’Banner, another animal aid at ULAM, said posts by Whitbeck have made her feel uncomfortable in the workplace as a woman of Color.

“Over the last three years, our manager Julie Whitbeck has been posting very hurtful and hateful posts on social media sites attacking the African American community and also the LGBTQ+ community,” O’Banner said. “In the 28 years I’ve been employed here, never have I experienced such hatred because of the color of my skin. My coworkers and I feel that we have targets on our backs.”

In an email to The Daily, Beata Mostafavi, public relations manager for Michigan Medicine, said Michigan Medicine does not take action against employees based on their actions outside of work, as is the case with allegations against Whitback involving her personal social media posts.

“Michigan Medicine does not restrict the free speech of employees through formal employment action even when it is contrary to the University’s values, as long as the speech or expression does not occur on work time or using work equipment or otherwise pose a substantial disruption to University operations,” Mostafavi wrote. 

Mostafavi said Michigan Medicine remains committed to the well-being of their employees and to advancing organizational diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Michigan Medicine is firmly committed to ensuring that our workplace community is a welcoming, supportive, and inclusive space,” Mostafavi wrote.

Julie Whitbeck did not respond to requests for comment.

Correction 6/7: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Ventura was discussing Whitbeck’s social media posts in the break room. Ventura was not discussing the posts specifically, but rather her opinions on broader LGBTQ+ issues.

Summer Managing News Editor Mary Corey can be reached at mcorey@umich.edu