Former CGS Director Files Lawsuit Against University, Chancellor and Vice Chancellor

Heather+Johnson%2C+director+of+the+Center+for+Gender+and+Sexuality+listens+to+a+speech+during+Take+Back+the+Night%2C+an+event+designed+to+take+a+stand+against+sexual+violence.+The+event+was+hosted+in+part+by+CGS+and+organized+with+the+help+of+Johnson.+Chancellor+Debasish+Dutta%2C+whom+Johnson+is+now+suing%2C+stands+next+to+her.+

Santiago Ochoa

Heather Johnson, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality listens to a speech during Take Back the Night, an event designed to take a stand against sexual violence. The event was hosted in part by CGS and organized with the help of Johnson. Chancellor Debasish Dutta, whom Johnson is now suing, stands next to her.

Heather Johnson, the former director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality, has filed a Title IX lawsuit against the University of Michigan Board of Regents, UM-Flint Chancellor Debasish Dutta and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Christopher Giordano. 

Filed on Thursday, Feb. 13, Johnson claims the defendants violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which protect employees in educational institutions that receive federal funding from being fired or excluded because of their sex. Additionally, the suit claims the defendants violated the Affordable Care Act for the same reason. 

Johnson is seeking the repayment of lost wages, damages and reinstatement of her old job as director of CGS. 

When reached out to for comment, the university declined, citing the lawsuit is a personnel matter. 

The allegations brought forward in the suit point to several instances of misconduct by UM-Flint’s administration, dating all the way back to Johnson’s first few days in office in July of 2018.

Under her directorship, CGS went from one of the smallest organizations on campus to one of the largest and most active. During this time, CGS hosted over 90 events, hired new student peer educators and secured a $125,175 grant from the State of Michigan.  

“I’ve been at the center for two years now … and for the first semester, I was there, I only worked four hours there on average a week. We had maybe like an event once a month,” said Joshua Cambri, a former CGS peer educator.

He noted how the center improved under Johnson’s leadership. “And then to see that go from once a month to one event a week. By winter 2019 … we tripled our numbers from the first semester I started to the fall of 2018 semester,” said Cambri. 

Johnson also co-chaired UM-Flint’s Women’s Commission, an organization whose goal is to ensure the university is not only meeting the needs of women but to promote a culture of equity among everyone on campus.

“All of my experience with her was basically amazing. She was just an incredibly smart advocate for people who needed a smart advocate and she was very well connected across the country,” said Emily Feuerherm, PhD, Johnson’s co-chair on the Women’s Commission.

The first signs of disagreement came in April of 2019. According to the lawsuit, Johnson and her staff had learned several transgender students were denied service by the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services. CAPS workers had even admitted to Johnson and others they simply did not have the knowledge or training to meet the needs of transgender students seeking their help.

In an interview with Johnson, she said that she believes CAPS is understaffed. Currently, two social workers and an administrative assistant handle UM-Flint’s student body.  

“I think that they are doing the best they can with what they have been given,” said Johnson. “This is a systemic failure. This is a failure because we haven’t had a director in there for over 10 year or don’t have five or six therapists.”

According to the lawsuit, Johnson, knowing that LGBTQIA+ students are much more susceptible to suicidal ideation, brought this to Giordano’s attention on April 23 and again through email on April 25. The lawsuit alleges Giordano told her he would “look into it,” but despite repeated follow-ups, never did, even directing Johnson to never ask about the issue again and if she did, it would be insubordination.

In October of 2019, Johnson eventually filed a formal complaint with Human Resources, voicing her concerns with CAPS.

Additional issues arose throughout 2019.

In May, Jennifer Alvey, PhD, chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice, program director of Women’s and Gender Studies and at the time a co-chair for the Women’s Commission, submitted a glowing performance review for Johnson. 

According to the lawsuit, Giordano, Johnson’s direct boss, submitted a review that “did not reflect the evaluation provided by Professor Alvey.” When Johnson wanted to question Giordano on this issue and get an explanation, Giordano told her to “take it up with HR.”

Problems were further compounded when Dutta and Giordano announced the formation of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative on campus. DEI’s objective is to promote an environment of diversity, equity and inclusion around campus for everyone, following closely along Ann Arbor’s model.

According to the lawsuit and corroborated by Feuerherm, Johnson was specifically excluded from participating in helping form DEI. When two faculty members recognized this and confronted Giordano on the issue, the lawsuit further alleged, he responded by saying he needed a “team player” and in his words, Johnson “was not a team player.”

Johnson’s repeated confrontations with Giordano extended all the way back to when she was hired. Between August 2018 and November 2019, Johnson worked closely with Information Technology Services and other administrators to rework the system to allow students to indicate their preferred pronoun, an important issue for many LGBTQIA+ people. 

Faculty and staff at all three University of Michigan campuses already had access to this feature, including all students at the Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses. Only students at UM-Flint did not.

According to the lawsuit, in October and November 2019, in their regular meetings, Johnson repeatedly asked Giordano to approve the new system’s implementation. The lawsuit further alleges that despite the system being ready and only waiting for approval, Giordano refused “to authorize the tech services team to ‘flip the switch’ that would turn on the option for Flint students.”  

While many of these issues have negatively impacted the LGBTQIA+ community, many other UM-Flint students have also been hurt by this breakdown in communication, teamwork and policy. 

“We need to be better. We are not providing the care that we should be providing to our LGBTQ students or to our women or anybody that is an individual that may have experienced sexual violence,” said Johnson 

According to University of Michigan policy, all first-year and transfer students across all three campuses are required to undergo sexual violence prevention training. 

Even though the training is mandatory, less than 10% of these students went through with the training at UM-Flint while nearly all new students at the Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses did so. 

Additionally, the lawsuit alleges that “UM-Flint’s process of reporting incidents of sexual assaults, was not compliant with the laws and regulations that these reports remain properly confidential,” and “that the University’s reporting on sexual violence prevention was not compliant with state and federal requirements, as well as the University’s own policies.”

The lawsuit also alleges Giordano and Dutta actively sought to avoid training efforts “because they were concerned that such issues would upset new students and threaten enrollment numbers,” an issue UM-Flint has been facing since 2014.

The lawsuit continues, saying “In the process of compiling a report on student trainings regarding sexual violence prevention, Johnson discovered that Defendants [Giordano and Dutta] had erroneously quoted the numbers for students who received training, rather than the key personnel, in its report the Michigan State House and Senate regarding what training was provided to key personnel at UM-Flint.”

According to Johnson, when she questioned Giordano on the issue, he did not respond to her concerns over the report. 

Things finally came to a head on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019. That morning, Dutta met with Johnson and Feuerherm to discuss their work on the Women’s Commission. “He had not attended any of our meetings. And so the first interactions that we had directly with the chancellor since him coming onto this campus was in that meeting,” said Feuerherm.

“When we met with the chancellor, we gave him information about our work up until that point, about our … reporting structure, reporting directly to him. And we were planning to share with him our directions and plans for the remaining academic year,” said Feuerherm.

That’s when Dutta informed them the Women’s Commission was going to be permanently dissolved. While they were not given a direct answer, Feuerherm said it was part of the larger effort to incorporate former Women’s Commission members and others into DEI, an organization the co-chair of the Women’s Commission, Johnson, was allegedly excluded from specifically.

DEI currently only has one former Women’s Commission member on their board. Feuerherm also questioned why the Women’s Commission and DEI couldn’t coexist at the same time.

“This committee was not formed in an inclusive manner because Heather was excluded. And the Women’s Commission was excluded. If you’re going to have a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative, it should be inclusive in more than just name,” said Feuerherm.

Later that same day, Johnson was asked to meet with Giordano and HR Director Beth Manning. At the meeting, Johnson was presented with an ultimatum: accept a settlement offer, sign a non-disclosure agreement, promise never to seek re-employment with the University of Michigan and to resign her position.

Two days after this meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 4, Johnson had been scheduled to be awarded a “Distinguished Diversity Leader Award” from the University of Michigan, one of only 10 to be awarded amongst the entire university system. 

Johnson was given 21 days to consider the offer, which she eventually refused to sign. In a Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020 disciplinary hearing between her, HR and Girodano, she was formally terminated. 

According to the lawsuit, “All of the purported reasons provided by Defendants [Giordano and Dutta] for terminating Johnson’s employment are pretextual, since in reality Defendants terminated Johnson in retaliation for Johnson’s having reported violations of federal and state law.”

This came as a shock to her colleagues and students, especially those who worked in the center with her. “In my experience, working with Heather … she was never rude with students. She always pushed students to engage, always pushed to do better. That was her philosophy,” said Cambri.

Johnson’s sudden departure had not been communicated to those with close ties to the situation and left many confused behind the reasons why she had been terminated. CGS’s advisory board had no input on the process.

“But then we get this update that basically doesn’t tell us necessarily what’s happened with Heather but that Tess Barker is the interim director and that … they were in the process of a national search,” said Erica Britt, a member of the advisory board for CGS. “As an advisory board, we didn’t get any communication after the HR hearing.”

Johnson’s termination also prompted the publishing of several open letters from various organizations and individual students. 

Cambri, who left CGS in part due to Johnson’s firing, wrote “Furthermore, from my communications, I have met with many people within the campus community who rely on Director Johnson as a means of support. They have been blindsided by her departure. It is unacceptable that such a key figure on campus like Director Johnson has been dismissed without much of a reason articulated to students and the campus community.”

The Women and Gender Studies Program, headed by Alvey, also wrote their own open letter expressing their concern over Johnson’s firing. The letter is signed by Feuerherm, Britt and other faculty and staff from UM-Flint.

“We can’t just hire and hire and hire. It’s really important we have key people that not only bring that high-level expertise but also through their lived experience, their own identity can really help attract people to them in the service of improving their educational experience,” said Alvey. “I don’t know how to say how great a loss this is because there really isn’t anyone on campus like her.”

Cambri noted how the loss of Johnson will only serve as a detriment to UM-Flint, saying “She was always making sure that she’s providing opportunities for growth, making sure that students are aware of it. And, you know, I think she really valued that. I mean, I wouldn’t be here, in many respects, if she didn’t allow me to grow and push me in the ways that she did.”

Despite losing her job, Johnson said she is more worried about the students and colleagues she had to leave behind.

“This type of work is tied very closely to who I am. I’m not a perfect person. I could tell you the things I could do better. I could tell you … about all the different ways I do something. But I’m incredibly proud of what I did,” said Johnson.