Diversity matters at the University. University President Mary Sue Coleman declared this after the passage of Proposal 2 in 2006, and now that assertion is its own link on the University website – ironically right under the link for the Big House renovation project. But as more lawsuits assert that the University has discriminated against disabled football fans, gay law school professors and, most recently, female health system employees, it seems more concerned with finessing its arguments than with addressing the underlying concerns. If the University wants to retain its bragging rights as a defender of diversity, then it needs to prove that it can back up its words with action.
The latest example of the University’s apparent hypocrisy was revealed last month in a lawsuit filed by 30 women employed by the University Hospital and University Health Service. The women, who are nurse practitioners and physician assistants, say they have been paid less than their male counterparts who perform the same tasks, a violation of the Equal Pay Act of 1963.
Although University Hospital spokesman Drew Jarvis asserted in a statement that the pay discrepancies in question have been “carefully studied” and are not unequal, gender salary studies have shown discrepancies based on gender at the University and in society at large. In 2005, the University’s Office of the Provost conducted a study in the Medical School and found that, even when controlling for factors like rank and years of education: “Men’s average salaries are consistently higher than those of women.”
If the University were truly committed to diversity and equality, it would take painstaking steps to investigate and rectify the situation, despite the lawsuit. Should the problem lead to litigation and the University feels justified in its actions, it should fight to prove its case, which shouldn’t be hard if it is being true to its word. Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be the case.
In the past few years, there have been two prominent examples showing that the University is more interested in winning first and upholding its values second. When former law Professor Peter Hammer sued for being denied tenure, claiming members of a committee discriminated against him for being openly gay, the University went on the wrong defensive. In response to Hammer’s accusations, the Office of General Counsel at first tried to argue that the University’s non-discrimination policy on sexual preference is more of a guideline than a legal obligation. The University eventually reversed its position and is now arguing that it simply didn’t discriminate – just a couple tries too late, though.
In the lawsuit about the construction at Michigan Stadium, the University has been confronted by the U.S. Department of Education, sued by the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and castigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, yet it is still clinging onto its argument that the Big House “repairs” don’t require ADA compliance.
For the University, these court cases should be principled fights to defend its values, not attempts to squirm out of legal consequences. More importantly, the principled fight shouldn’t stay in the halls of the courthouse. If the increasing number of these high-profile lawsuits is any indication, preventing discrimination has become an issue worthy of a more drastic response from the University like a special commission.
It’s not enough for the University to claim it is a diverse and tolerant institution, concerned with equal rights for its employees and supporters. It must act like one too. Lawyers shouldn’t stand in its way.