The characterization of University of Arizona Provost Andrew Comrie in a $2 million federal lawsuit filed by former Dean Patricia MacCorquodale has sparked controversy among faculty and administration at the school.
The lawsuit, filed against the Arizona Board of Regents claiming there is systematic gender discrimination at the UA, said that MacCorquodale was consistently underpaid during her many years as the Honors College dean compared to male colleagues despite her longer experience.
MacCorquodale, now a tenured professor at the school, said in the lawsuit that she went to Comrie and previous provosts seeking equal pay to her male colleagues, but outside of two salary adjustments, her requests were disregarded. She also claims she was retaliated against for complaining about the pay differences.
Comrie, who is not listed as a defendant in the suit, is named throughout as the primary decision-maker responsible for MacCorquodale’s dissatisfaction by having the authority to make dean appointments and to set salaries. The lawsuit also accused him of perpetuating a sexist culture as provost.
The lawsuit was made public Monday. The same day, UA President Robert C. Robbins announced in an email to the campus that Comrie had decided in early January to step down as provost and return to a faculty position. The UA maintained that it was not a result of the lawsuit. The school named an interim provost who will take over the position by early March.
“Not the Andrew I know”
“That’s not the Andrew I know,” was the general refrain from some faculty and administrators who spoke in support of Comrie this week. The Star interviewed several administrators and faculty members who spoke favorably about Comrie, including Mary Peterson, cognitive science program director; Gail Burd, senior vice provost in the Office of Academic Affairs; Bio5 Institute Director Jennifer Barton; Regents Professor Diana Liverman; and Marcia Rieke, associate department head of astronomy.
They said Comrie was always helpful, supportive and respectful. They also said Comrie went out of his way to ensure women’s voices were heard, countering claims in the lawsuit that he disregarded the opinions in meetings of female administrators.
“I have never heard him make a sexist comment,” said Liverman, who just had a research paper on women in climate science accepted for publication.
Liverman recalls the many times Comrie has “gone beyond supporting women and diverse people. That said, I’m not saying that universities in general don’t have deep problems on gender and other issues, and you can blame anyone leading a university for not fixing those, but Andrew would not do anything to exacerbate them.”
Lynn Nadel, the faculty senate chairman, defended Comrie in a blog-like posting sent out to faculty called “Chair Talk” on Tuesday.
“I have never, not once, seen Andrew treat anyone with disrespect as a function of gender, race, sexual orientation, status — you name it,” he said in the posting. His statement was also published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, which wrote an article about MacCorquodale’s lawsuit.
Nadel said he has worked with Comrie for many years and that he was a good provost, “one who gave it his all every day, and did so with the utmost of integrity and fairness.”
Nadel did write that his support of Comrie did not mean that the university didn’t mishandle the issue with MacCorquodale’s demand for equal pay.
Some on campus, however, saw Nadel’s use of his position as faculty senate head to publicly defend Comrie and seemingly dismiss the claims stated in the lawsuit as an inappropriate and inaccurate representation of faculty opinion.
“It has nothing to do with the merits or lack thereof of Dr. Comrie and his tenure as provost. It has everything to do with the culture fostered at the UA,” said Nolan Cabrera, associate professor in the center for the study of higher education.
Cabrera said this could silence those who might come forward with serious complaints against the university: “If they see that MacCorquodale is one of the highest ranking women in the institution and this is how the UA treats her, how do you think the most vulnerable people on campus are going to respond?”
Nadel’s defense of Comrie send the message that “when women report unfair treatment, they may be dismissed or even disparaged, because it appears as if it’s coming from the institution,” said Andrea Romero, professor in the school of family consumer science.
“Central administration is closing ranks right now around this issue. Maybe they feel like they need to for this specific lawsuit, but the larger issue at play is that it’s creating a culture of silence,” Cabrera said. “I don’t think they’re intending to do this, but that’s the consequences.”
Cabrera also said it doesn’t take “overtly sexist behavior for gender-based pay inequities to continue at the institution.”
As of Friday, nearly 90 professors have signed an online petition calling for Nadel to either retract his statements on “Chair Talk” or step down from his position as faculty senate chairman.
In response to the backlash, Nadel released a second “Chair Talk” this week in which he invited all faculty members to voice their concerns of pay inequity at the school via a report due at the end of the semester.
Nadel told the Star when asked for comment that he said everything he needed to in this “Chair Talk.”
Elections for the next faculty chair as well as faculty senate seats will take place this semester. “I repeat my exhortation that you consider running for something, including chair — I have run unopposed twice now and I would rather there was an actual choice,” Nadel said in the follow-up “Chair Talk.”
Comrie would not comment to the Star.