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Settlement says WSU provost was ‘terminated without cause’

Washington State University has hired a Seattle law firm to review Mitzi Montoya’s brief tenure as provost and executive vice president, including claims that she was a target of sexist criticism. (Washington State University)
Washington State University has hired a Seattle law firm to review Mitzi Montoya’s brief tenure as provost and executive vice president, including claims that she was a target of sexist criticism. (Washington State University)

Washington State University’s former provost continues to work as a professor under the terms of a legal settlement that guarantees her a $460,000 salary for one year, even if she finds a new employer.

Mitzi Montoya served as provost and executive vice president for less than two months before leaving the position in late September. Recently uncovered emails show she described receiving sexist performance assessments as well as resistance from other WSU administrators.

The settlement agreement, which surfaced Thursday in a report by the news website Whitman County Watch, shows Montoya waived discrimination claims and other grounds to sue the university in exchange for her current position in WSU’s Carson College of Business.

The settlement also provided Montoya an office in Seattle, the option to work remotely “as desired,” tens of thousands of dollars in moving and discretionary funds, and a recommendation letter that she can show to future employers, signed by WSU President Kirk Schulz.

The seven-page document outlines a yearlong transition period slated to end in late October. During that time, she is a tenured professor and holds the title of “special assistant” to the dean of the business college.

The agreement describes her current position as a “100% research assignment with no teaching, service or other responsibilities, except that the dean of the Carson College of Business may assign (Montoya) to special projects and, if applicable, assign her to prepare for assuming designated teaching and/or other responsibilities in spring semester 2021.”

Montoya is guaranteed to make $460,000 during the transition period. If she quits and finds a new employer before Oct. 28, WSU will pay her the remainder of that amount in a lump sum. If she stays at WSU after that date, her salary will drop to $250,000.

She has access to $15,000 in discretionary funds that are subject to university policy, plus more than $57,000 in relocation funds, most of which comes from her prior employment contract.

Montoya was recruited from Oregon State University after a nationwide search. As provost, she reported directly to Schulz and oversaw teaching and research across WSU campuses.

She started the job on Aug. 1 and 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.

WSU this month hired a Seattle law firm to review Montoya’s departure after internal emails surfaced in news reports, raising questions among faculty members.

The emails revealed power struggles among WSU administrators. In one message to Schulz days before her departure was announced, Montoya described receiving sexist performance evaluations through a consultant guiding the university’s strategic planning efforts.

“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.

She appeared to offer her resignation in the same email, though the precise nature of her departure has not been clear.

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.”

The settlement agreement states Montoya was “terminated without cause.”

She and WSU also agreed to the language used in a university news release about her special assistant position.

WSU said the law firm’s inquiry will focus on three areas of concern, including any gender bias against Montoya, any “improper influence or pressure” surrounding the decision to end her appointment as provost, and the role a consultant, Jean Frankel, played in the decision.

The university is searching for another provost who would start the job on Aug. 1. Bryan Slinker, formerly the dean of WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, is serving as interim provost.

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