Former U-M employee accuses University of wrongful termination after filing harassment complaints

Wednesday, January 16, 2019 - 8:18pm

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Design by Christine Jegarl

This story was updated on Jan. 17 at 11:19 am to clarify some statements made by Tessier.

Gwen Tessier, University alum and former Student Administrative Assistant Intermediate for the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, alleges her employment was terminated as a result of reporting sexual harassment at the University of Michigan.

Tessier worked for the University from 1998-2004 and in ICPSR specifically from 2009-2015. ICPSR is an international research consortium providing training on data access, analysis and curation for social science research.

She filed a complaint with the University’s Office of Institutional Equity on July 2, 2015 regarding the continued sexual harassment by her supervisor, Research Area Specialist Inter Dieter Burrell.

Fitzgerald confirmed Burrell is still employed at the University. Burrell did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Tessier’s employment was terminated May 15, 2015. University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said Tessier’s position was terminated due to financial concerns.

Gwen Tessier's position at ICPSR was one of six positions eliminated in 2015 as part of a reduction-in-force, cost-cutting effort at ICPSR,” Fitzgerald wrote in a statement to The Daily.

Tessier met with Adriana Ovalle, OIE Investigator, on July 2, 2015 to discuss the inappropriate behavior of Dieter Burrell and her firing.

According to an Office of Institutional Equity report provided to The Daily by Tessier, OIE began investigating the matter on July 14, 2015. Tessier sad she began interacting with lawyers on June 19, 2015. NachtLaw Attorney Charlotte Croson was assigned Tessier’s case in March 2016 but dropped it in Jan. 2018 due to a conflict of interest. Tessier said NachtLaw did not explain what the conflict of interest was.

Croson declined to comment because she does not currently represent Tessier.

Tessier claims the harassment was enabled by former ICPSR director and Michigan State University Professor William Jacoby, who has been under investigation recently by both MSU and the University for sexual harassment against former students. University Spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald could not confirm or deny whether the investigation was still occurring, but stated that Jacoby was not involved with the 2018 summer program and will not be involved in 2019 either.

Jacoby did not participate in the 2018 program and he will not participate in the scheduled 2019 program,” Fitzgerald wrote in a statement. “The university does not provide confirmation of an investigation nor does it comment on investigations. It’s important to note that the university takes every allegation of sexual harassment or misconduct very seriously. Every report we receive is carefully reviewed so that appropriate action can be taken.”

Jacoby also resigned from his role as Editor-In-Chief at the American Journal of Political Science after proclaiming his innocence on the journal’s website without proper authorization. According to the Detroit News, Jacoby is currently looking to appeal an MSU report detailing an investigation into the allegations against him.

Michigan State University Media said Jacoby retired from the University on Jan. 1.

Jacoby also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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Tessier’s OIE report details numerous comments Burrell made about women to other ICPSR employees, including “I would like to get a sex kitten like that” in February 2011 and “sex with a younger woman is better than exercise” in September 2012.

In the report, Tessier complained of Burrell’s behavior towards her and accused ICPSR of employment discrimination. An example of this included favoritism towards younger female workers, who Burrell allowed to work on other projects not related to ICPSR. Tessier said she was not allowed to do this.

Burrell explained in the report that he was called into an informal meeting with human resources and another unnamed official in 2011 regarding complaints of harassment and inappropriate language while at ICPSR. At this meeting, he recounts he was told to “be careful” about coming into physical contact with other people, and cautioned against even brushing against them as he passed.

Tessier said one of the first instances of harassment she experienced was at a reception for the ICPSR program attendees in the summer of 2009, where Burrell allegedly began touching her without her consent.

“For some reason he just started pinching my arm up and down, so I just left,” Tessier said. “He’s tipping a beer in one hand and grabbing me with the other. I left immediately and felt silly, I really did.”

Tessier stated she did not know if Burrell was intoxicated.

Tessier also said she noticed Burrell would concentrate on her breasts and genital regions when speaking with her. Tessier said a co-worker also addressed these concerns to her. A legal timeline sent to The Daily by Tessier confirms both of these statements.

Tessier explained that she approached Jacoby, who was director of ICPSR at the time, in March 2010 about the incidents that had occured with Burrell up to that point.

“I said to Bill (Jacoby) ‘These things happened. Can you help me with this?’ because I was getting all this hostile attention and stuff from Dieter (Burrell) and I didn’t want it,” Tessier said. “It was bizarre … His only response was ‘Well, I told Dieter not to do those things.’ In response to the repetitive integration, Bill said ‘Well, that was his doing.’ In other words, Bill had instructed Dieter to keep questioning me over and over again.”

Another incident with Burrell occured in the summer of 2011, when Burrell allegedly yelled at Tessier for using a copier in the office, and then beginning to poke her body.

“It’s a trivial thing but I’m being reprimanded for something that’s completely trivial and it’s part of your whole job process,” Tessier said. “At the end of this tirade, which I was actually crying at the end of … he pokes at me on my collarbone and my chest and then around the belly and hip area and then brushes the tops of my shoes.”

She said Burrell told her he was picking lint off of her clothing.

“I said ‘What are you doing?’” Tessier said. “It happened so fast and he said ‘I’m just picking lint off of you’.”

According to Tessier, she also complained to Rita Bantom and Diane Winter, both in the ICPSR Human Resources department at the time. Tessier said Bantom and Winter told her to tell Burrell off when he touched her and to keep record of these encounters.

Bantom and Winter have not responded to requests for comment.

Tessier addressed this with Burrell and Bantom via email, and Bantom said she would look into it. Email threads sent to The Daily confirm this. Tessier does not believe anything came of her request.

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Courtesy Gwen Tessier

Tessier said she was given negative performance evaluations by her superiors following her complaints, criticizing her for taking time off even though that time was for two separate periods of medical leave. One was for a shoulder surgery in May 2014. Tessier said she needed the surgery after overusing her shoulder from work related activities. Another leave was for a nervous breakdown she experienced on August 9, 2013. Tessier notified ICPSR her doctor requested medical leave on August 12, 2013.

Tessier said posters detailing how to recognize sexual harassment were placed in the break area when she returned from medical leave in January 2014. But beyond that, she said there were no positive outcomes resulting from her complaints. In fact, she said the atmosphere of her job changed for the worse, and her work-related tasks were significantly altered without her acknowledgment.

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The OIE investigation was completed on Jan. 12, 2016 and determined Burrell had not violated University policy. OIE recommended Burrell receive one-on-one training regarding acceptable work behaviors by OIE. According to the OIE report, Tessier’s claims of discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation were not supported by a preponderance of evidence.

A performance review attached to the report covering Nov. 1, 2012 through Oct. 31, 2014 said Tessier’s time off for health concerns negatively impacted ICPSR’s summer program, alleging she did not notify them ahead of time. Tessier said in the evaluation she notified the office both times ahead of her leave and this was the first-ever performance review she received since her hire.

“Much of the material presented here is taken out of context,” Tessier’s comments from the evaluation read. “My work performance over this period of time is misrepresented. This is my first Work Performance review since my hire date in March 2009. My supervisor has never discussed a work plan with me.”

An individual listed as Witness 2 in the report said Tessier described the issues she was facing to them, but Witness 2 did not see these actions directly occur. Tessier said this person was a friend of hers, and she felt betrayed by the responses made during the investigation.

Tessier complained that the OIE report was an extremely inaccurate portrayal of her case. She said OIE did not respond when she emailed her concerns.

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In emails and documents obtained by The Daily from Tessier, a non-disclosure agreement offering a $10,000 settlement was authored by U-M General Counsel David Masonn on April 9, 2018 in response to Tessier’s lawsuit. The agreement, which Tessier refused to sign, asked Tessier to agree to not demean or disparage the University or its former and current employees and that the University would deny all liability towards her. The agreement also would not have allowed Tessier to sue the University Regents, the Institute for Social Research and their agents and employees for all claims.

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Courtesy Gwen Tessier

Emails and documents obtained by The Daily through the Freedom of Information Act confirm the exchange between Masonn and Tessier’s lawyer, Ahmad Chehab.

The FOIA request also confirms Fitzgerald’s claim that Tessier was fired for reduction-in-force and cost-cutting efforts.

Tessier initially agreed to sign the agreement, but then decided not to because she felt she would then be complicit to her experiences.

“I changed my mind because it would mean I would carry the burden of being complicit in my own destruction and by any other person dealing with these same issues,” Tessier said. “Underneath it all everything was so rotten so I felt much better when I decided to reject their offer.”

Tessier said she also felt pressured by Chehab to accept the offer in an attempt to put the incident behind her.

Attorney Deborah Gordon, who was not involved in this case but has argued several other high-profile cases related to the University, said non-disclosure agreements in the private sector are drafted when the company wants to keep a lawsuit out of public, employee and stockholder knowledge. Gordon said public sector cases are different because they involve public tax dollars because the University is funded through public money and would pay for non-disclosure settlements with this money.

“I do feel when you’re suing the University of Michigan, this is public tax money,” Gordon said. “In a private company, it’s up to the board to decide if they want to go down this road but when you’re talking about public dollars, it’s different.”

Tessier said OIE offered to give her case a secondary investigation into the way her situation was handled by ICPSR administrators, but she declined because she had lost faith in the help offered to her. An email from Ovalle, the OIE investigator assigned to Tessier’s case, sent to The Daily by Tessier confirms this.

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Tessier is not the only woman to allege experiences of sexual harassment within ICPSR. In addition to her complaints and those that have been recently raised against Jacoby, Valerie Sulfaro, professor of political science at James Madison University, accused Jacoby of sexual harassment during her time at ICPSR. Sulfaro served as a teaching assistant for Jacoby from 1990-91, and according to Sulfaro, Jacoby asked her to have an affair with him and had given her a computer disk with nude photos of himself on it.

Sulfaro also said Michael Berbaum, University alum and ICPSR affiliate, made sexual advances towards her.

According to Sulfaro, Berbaum constantly pursued her for dates, even after she said no. At the time, Sulfaro did not feel she could complain to then-director of ICPSR Hank Heitowit, so she voiced her concerns to Jacoby instead.

“He was constantly asking me out whenever we were in a public setting (I did not take any of his courses), and he wasn't taking no for an answer,” Sulfaro wrote in a statement to the Daily. “I felt very threatened and cornered. Hank Heitowit was the director in the early 90s, and I did not feel that I could complain to him. So, I complained to Jacoby —  since he was ostensibly my mentor, and also from my home institution. And, at the time, he was also involved in a personal relationship with me. Jacoby was extremely dismissive, asking me why I didn't just go ahead and go out for dinner or drinks with this person — what's the big deal?”

Sulfaro explained in an email to The Daily that, similarly to Tessier’s account, Jacoby did not seem concerned when she brought this discomfort to his attention.

“I was harassed by someone else (not Burrell), and reported it to Jacoby, who wondered why I wasn't just doing what the harasser wanted,” Sulfaro wrote. “He exhibited no concern for me whatsoever. He wasn't director at the time, but perhaps it exhibits a similar lack of empathy for a power imbalance overall, and a tendency to view women's role as that of an object to be pursued by men.”

Berbaum did not respond to multiple requests for a comment.

Tessier reported names of other current ICPSR employees she alleged experienced similar harassment to her. When The Daily reached out to them, University Public Affairs responded on their behalf, saying they could not comment on OIE investigations.

Rebecca Gill, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, also said she was propositioned for a relationship by Jacoby while studying under him at ICPSR in 2002.

Jacoby told her at the end of the summer program that they would both be working at MSU, according to Gill. Gill said he told her to consider having an affair with him to boost her career.

In a previous article in The Daily, Gill said when she addressed the matter with Jacoby, he told her she was mistaken about the conversation.

“I expected him to say, ‘Oh I never meant to make you feel that way,’” Gill said. “But, he just said, ‘That didn’t happen. You must be mistaken.’”

Sulfaro and Tessier see the harassment they suffered at ICPSR as a result of a larger institutional issue. Sulfaro feels that because ICPSR functions more independently from the University than other programs, the University does not exert strong enough control over what happens during the program.

“U of M exerts little to no oversight over this program,” Sulfaro wrote. “I think for most attendees, if they cannot complain to the director of the summer program, they have no recourse. Or, at least, it is not clear to them that they do. In going to the director, you're complaining about one of their friends, and that's going nowhere.”

Tessier feels ICPSR wanted to protect themselves, and that she was punished for speaking out.

“I think it’s all about them protecting themselves,” Tessier said. “I just wanted this stuff to stop, but instead I was just hounded and persecuted for doing so.”

Tessier said the experience has caused harm to her mental health because she felt people would not listen to her. She said those who experience discrimination or harassment in the workplace should keep a record of their experiences and tell the person to stop, but often times this is not enough.

“The only advice I have is the advice I was given by the human resources person,” Tessier said. “You should tell the person to cease and desist and keep a record, but what else can a person do? It seems like if you speak up about it, you’re just gonna get kicked out.”

Grace Kay and Alice Tracey contributed to this article.

The Daily has created a new tip line just for these kinds of stories — tipline@michigandaily.com If you are a survivor on campus, if you faced challenges during your Office of Institutional Equity investigation or if you have faced barriers to reporting at all, please consider sending us your story.  This is a private tip line viewable by a small team of reporters committed to this work.