The head of the University of Minnesota Duluth's mathematics and statistics department announced he will step down from the leadership role come August, after two years of chairing a department through the aftermath of a gender-discrimination investigation.

Sellers announced his decision to his department during a meeting on May 21, prior to the contract year ending on May 23. The News Tribune obtained a recording of Sellers's announcement through an anonymous source who attended the meeting. The News Tribune typically does not allow sources to go unnamed, but makes exceptions on rare occasions.

"We've faced many challenges together, especially over the last three semesters, which have been impacted by COVID," Sellers told the department. "I've also personally dealt with a number of opportunities and challenges over the last two years here at UMD."

James Sellers (Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota Duluth)
James Sellers (Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota Duluth)

UMD hired Sellers to chair the department in 2019 after a national search. By that point, the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action had already begun investigating complaints filed during the 2018-2019 academic year regarding a hostile work environment toward women in the department.

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Shortly after associate professor Tracy Bibelnieks announced she'd be resigning from the department in April, the News Tribune reported that the investigation found the collective conduct "by a number of department members" did violate the university’s policy prohibiting discrimination and created an environment "that was intimidating, hostile or offensive to female department members."

Sellers did not respond to the News Tribune's request for comment. In his announcement speech, he said he will continue to work in the department as a faculty member and hopes he will be able to continue to serve as a leader "at an informal, yet extremely important level."

In the last few months, Sellers said he learned of instances in which faculty members have communicated with each other as well as people outside of the university "with the goal of framing my work in a negative light."

"In one case, correspondence of a similar nature was sent directly to the Mathematical Association of America where I serve as a member of the national board of directors," Sellers told the department. "The harm intended by these communications cuts deep for me personally."

Sellers said he began discussing those communications with Swenson College of Science and Engineering Dean Wendy Reed in February, when he also shared his intent to resign from department head.

Kris Snyder, who resigned from the math department in 2018 as a result of a hostile work environment, has stayed connected to the people and to what's happening in the department. She remains invested in affecting "positive change."

"I have a niece who's a math major, not at UMD, and one who's going into vet school. It's too late for me, but it's not too late for them," Snyder said. "I am invested because it's a way to be invested in the next generation."

Kristine (Falk) Snyder (Submitted photo)
Kristine (Falk) Snyder (Submitted photo)

While she wouldn't admit on record who contacted a mathematical professional organization about Sellers, Snyder said she's familiar with what was communicated.

"Nothing negative was said about James Sellers unless you consider the truth negative," she said. "It is important to deal with these matters in an objective, accurate, complete manner rather than denying some or all of what actually occurred in an attempt to revise history and avoid responsibility and therefore change."

According to Snyder, people outside the department who have conducted gender bias trainings within the department assessed that the math faculty lacks empathy on the issue and that the department head was unwilling to take a leadership role.

"I hope that the next department head is willing and able to look at all of the factors that contribute to the hostility toward women in the department, including those they themselves bring to the table through what they do and do not do," Snyder said.

UMD spokesperson Lynne Williams said the university is hoping to be ready to announce new leadership plans in the next few weeks, after communication happens internally.

Williams said whoever is selected to fill the role will be expected to lead a cultural change in the department.

"The dynamics of what's going on (in the math department) definitely require a very special and experienced leader to help with that because there's clearly a need for a cultural change," Williams said. "That leadership role is really important in helping to do that."

She said department chairs typically serve three years at UMD. While the math department investigation had not yet been completed when Sellers started, Williams said Dean Reed was clear with him about the department's gender equity issues.

This story was updated at 12:20 p.m. May 28 to clarify an assessment of the math department made by an outside group. It was originally posted at 8:41 a.m. May 28.