Washington State University plans to hire an outside lawyer to review how administrators treated the school’s former provost, who described receiving sexist performance evaluations and other resistance before leaving the position last fall.
Mitzi Montoya served as WSU’s provost and executive vice president for less than two months before she left the job in September, keeping a separate position as a tenured professor.
As provost, Montoya reported directly to President Kirk Schulz, served as a liaison between the faculty and the administration and oversaw teaching and research across WSU campuses. The provost is often described as the university’s “chief academic officer.”
Few details of Montoya’s departure were made public until last week, when Whitman County Watch, a local news website run by journalist Jacob Jones, published internal emails in which Montoya described meeting with a consultant, Jean Frankel, who had been hired to guide the university’s strategic planning efforts.
“I had another session with Jean today wherein I learned that there are major concerns about me – I need a personality transplant, I need to be more feminine and conforming in my communication style, and I need to be less intelligent,” Montoya wrote to Schulz in a Sept. 22 email published by Whitman County Watch.
The emails also describe tensions arising from poorly defined administrative roles and budgeting procedures across WSU campuses.
The Spokesman-Review last week requested the same emails and records that WSU provided to Whitman County Watch. The university’s public records office had not provided them as of Thursday, citing a backlog of other requests.
Montoya and Frankel declined to comment this week, referring questions to WSU spokesman Phil Weiler.
On Wednesday, Weiler confirmed the university was preparing a contract with a lawyer to review how Montoya was treated during her time as provost. Weiler said officials were working out details about the scope of the investigation.
Montoya started the job on Aug. 1 after she was selected through a nationwide search to replace Dan Bernardo, who spent nearly 15 years in top leadership roles at WSU.
Montoya previously was the dean of Oregon State University’s College of Business, where she was credited with boosting enrollment and making strides toward gender equity: On her watch, the college’s MBA program enrolled more women than men for the first time.
At WSU, Montoya quickly developed a reputation as a change agent, launching initiatives aimed at research, enrollment and creating more leadership opportunities for women. She also explored ways the university might clarify the roles of deans, vice presidents and chancellors, who lead WSU’s branch campuses.
“The root cause of our problems is that we have misaligned governance, misaligned control of budget and competing administrations,” Montoya wrote in a Sept. 15 email to Craig Parks, a vice provost. “As a result, we do not invest in people, programs or facilities strategically. Our investments are driven by internal politics and conflict, neither of which results in strategic coherence.”
Parks echoed Montoya’s concerns in a report finalized in November, which describes WSU’s management structure as “an evolutionary holdover from an earlier era, when WSU’s goals and ambitions were modest and student body smaller.”
According to Whitman County Watch, some WSU chancellors resisted proposed changes to the management structure. In her Sept. 22 email to Schulz, Montoya indicated she had received mixed messages.
“(Frankel) also indicated that you said there will be no changes that affect Chancellors in any way,” Montoya wrote to Schulz. “You wrote and confirmed this for one, so I trust she was accurate in her statement for all. It seems I need to quickly stop a lot of projects … ”
Concluding her email, Montoya did not explicitly resign but suggested she no longer could serve as provost given the pushback she was experiencing.
“I was going to write and ask if we could talk about the concerns Jean relayed about me. But I think the conclusion is that I am not a fit for what you need here. … I’d like to discuss how we can transition me to a better role – e.g., back to the faculty to do good outreach like AWL, my teaching and research,” Montoya wrote, using an abbreviation for “advancing women in leadership.”
News of Montoya’s departure came four days later, surprising many faculty members who usually receive advance notice of such high-level administrative changes. In a brief statement at the time, Schulz said he and Montoya “have discussed this decision and we mutually agree that this realignment is in the best interest of the university.”
During an October meeting with WSU’s faculty senate, Schulz said he and Montoya had agreed not to discuss her departure in detail, but he acknowledged the need to evaluate the university’s management structure.
“We’ve never really defined well what the system-level roles are for our deans, for our chancellors, for vice presidents and things like that,” Schulz said. “Inevitably, we work really well together in certain spaces. In other spaces, there’s quite a bit of conflict because roles are very nebulous.”
One administrative role changed after Montoya was hired but before she officially took over as provost. WSU Spokane Chancellor Daryll DeWald was given the additional title of vice president of health sciences in July, assuming the same level of authority as Montoya over the three WSU colleges based in Spokane.
In addition to her role as a professor in WSU’s Carson College of Business, Montoya was named as a special assistant to the college’s dean in October. In a statement at the time, she said she would continue her “research on the drivers of success and failure in organizational innovation.”
Greg Crouch, the chairman of the faculty senate, said faculty members were involved in selecting the outside investigator that the university plans to hire.
“Just to be clear, President Schulz is committed to uncovering all facts surrounding these allegations as well as to making the investigator’s report publicly available,” Crouch wrote in a post on the faculty senate website.
WSU has launched a search for another provost and has compiled a preliminary list of candidates. Bryan Slinker is serving as interim provost.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.