'I just want women to be safe': Women who resigned from UMD math department speak out about sexism
A University of Minnesota investigation found that the “collective conduct” of a number of male department members was hostile to women.
When Tracy Bibelnieks was promoted to a tenure-track assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Duluth's mathematics and statistics department, she said the harassment and gendered discrimination she faced from some of her colleagues in the department — all senior, tenured and male — escalated.
"I think it was very clear that there were certain members of the faculty who felt I did not deserve a tenured faculty position at the college," said Bibelnieks, who was a tenured faculty member at a different school prior to starting at UMD in 2014.
While working in an environment that she said harmed her physical and mental well-being and affected her family relationships, Bibelnieks drafted many resignation letters. She never sent them to the people they were addressed to. Instead, she would remove their email addresses and just send them to herself. It made her feel better.
During this time, her health declined and she was diagnosed with acute stress disorder. "Microaggression" and "gaslighting" became part of her vocabulary.
Ultimately, it was commitment to her students that kept her from leaving. She would have resigned last summer had it not been for four women graduate students she wanted to see through their graduation.
"I have to see student success. Everything I do, my entire academic career, has been student-focused," she said.
On March 24, she sat down to rewrite her resignation letter. She read her newest draft multiple times. Then her 20-year-old cat, who sits in the crook of her arm while she works, got up and walked across the keyboard, hitting just the right buttons to send off the letter.
“I had not intended to send it at all,” she said. “I was sitting there deciding: ‘Do I choose my job or do I choose my life?’”
At first, she scrambled to undo the email in the 30 seconds she had. But then she took her hands off the computer and watched those seconds expire.
“For the first time in two years, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief: ‘I don’t have to be victim to the harm anymore. UMD will never validate the harm,’” Bibelnieks said. “This time my cat decided, 'Dammit, you're gonna send it.' I have a strong faith and I don't know what poked my cat to get up and walk across because usually he just sits there. It was intervention in some way, from my cat, from God or whatever. But that was the right moment to do it.”
Bibelnieks is far from alone in her experience. Three years earlier, Kristine (Falk) Snyder resigned from her faculty position in the math and statistics department. She started in 2015. She said she never felt welcome.
“We were made to feel like a burden from Day 1,” Snyder said. “There wasn’t a time when sexism wasn’t present. I got much better at recognizing it.”
In 2019, the University of Minnesota’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action began an investigation into claims of a hostile environment toward women in the department. The EOAA put out a summary of its findings in March 2020.
It stated that no single person in the department violated university policy, but that the collective conduct “by a number of department members” did violate the university’s policy prohibiting discrimination. It also said those people did not seek to cause harm.
The letter read: “Still, EOAA found that, taken together, their conduct, at times, had the impact of unreasonably interfering with some women’s work performance and creating an environment that was intimidating, hostile or offensive to female department members.”
The investigation concluded that women in the department were at times expected to take on more service and administrative tasks, as well as interact less assertively and in a more friendly manner, than their male colleagues. It also found that women in the department were at times interrupted, talked over “or subjected to offensive gendered comments.”
The report also concluded that the math department is not alone in facing these issues.
Neither Snyder nor Bibelnieks wanted to dive into the details of what they went through.
Both said there are tenured men in the department who have not contributed to the hostile environment and that less-senior, male faculty members have not either, but have stood up for them. The department is made up of 27 faculty members. Eleven of them, including Bibelnieks, are women.
“It's been a really real struggle for me, because we're not allowed to name who's in the report,” Snyder said. “What that means is there are men who are tarred with this brush who don't deserve it. And that has been really difficult for me.”
Three years have passed since Snyder left UMD, and more than three years since just one boiling-point incident, after which she told her husband they needed to leave Duluth. Three years later, she choked up thinking about it.
Both Snyder’s father and grandfather taught at UMD. She grew up on the campus. She raced on its track, took classes there as a high school student and interned at its Large Lakes Observatory as a college student. In her words, UMD is home. She expected to live in Duluth for the rest of her life.
She currently lives in Colorado.
“It’s been almost three years. I’ve been watching from afar as people I worked with and really care about have to further go through this,” Snyder said. “Nothing they have done has actually effectively addressed what’s happened in terms of the department.”
Snyder added: “I really wanted to give them the chance to fix it quietly. All I really want is for no woman to have to go through this again; I don't want UMD to get bad press. I just want women to be safe. That's all I want.”
Bibelnieks agreed. She said that while there has been good intention as well as more action and attention on promoting equity, both campuswide and within the Swenson College of Science and Engineering, that action has been “working around, not within the department of mathematics.”
“There has been action that did not exist on the campus until our newest dean of the College of Science and Engineering,” Bibelnieks said.
Snyder added: “This is a problem that Dean Wendy Reed did not create and is clearly trying to fix.”
For two years, Bibelnieks said women have asked for accountability, acknowledgement of the damage that has happened and a committed statement from the offenders to the women saying they’re willing to change.
After Bibelnieks' resignation, UMD Chancellor Lendley Black, Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Fernando Delgado and Reed sent a letter to the math department.
The leader said that restorative practices will begin in the department in the coming months and will continue through the next academic year. An outside consultant will meet with the department monthly.
"We acknowledge and accept that transparency and communications around our responses may not have been as clear and consistent as faculty, students, and staff in the department and college may have wanted," the letter said.
UMD administration is now coordinating with the U of M System President's Office to facilitate monthly sessions for the department to make space for questions, concerns and feedback.
In response to the investigation findings, James Sellers, department head for the math department, said the department has worked with Reed to develop a plan to improve the climate. That includes bystander intervention training as well as changes to department policies and practices.
"Working to make real cultural change takes time and effort, and the commitment of everyone in the department, to see such change come to fruition," Sellers said. "I am hopeful that the faculty and staff in the department will collectively bring about such change and reap the benefits of an improved climate."
Asked if there has been any repercussions or follow-up with the men who were found to have contributed to the hostile work environment, Delgado said in a statement that immediate action was taken and that it continues.
"However, there are clear standards that need to be met in order for formal discipline to occur with any individual employee," Delgado said. "When that threshold is not crossed, the university must still work with the faculty to build a more positive culture from within. That is complex work."
Regardless of what action has already been taken, Bibelnieks emphasized that she had yet to see any meaningful change.
“We ask for transparency and knowing what’s going on. You say you’re affecting change in the department. We don’t see it," Bibelnieks said. "We don’t see metrics. We don’t see measurements. We don’t see evidence. Give us some transparency and what you’re doing so we have some hope to hold on to.”
Reed was hired by UMD, in part, for her experience with campus climate issues. In a statement to the News Tribune, she said the college has addressed the misconduct and continues to build toward a culture that supports people.
"Shifting a culture is hard, and necessary. It is unacceptable and we lament that people in our college have experienced harm," Reed said. "I am committed to ensure that all SCSE faculty, staff and students feel welcomed, safe and respected."
The University of Minnesota Board of Regents has policies in place on sexual harassment and discrimination.
Aaron Shepanik, an instructor in the mathematics department, said Bibleniek’s recent resignation as well as Snyder's are big losses to the department and the college at large.
“Losing another female data scientist, renowned award-winning educators, you’re pulling off one of the most important limbs. There’s plenty of me out there. There’s a lot of white guys with glasses who can teach mathematics,” Shepanik said. “I could never relate to female students the way a female faculty member can. I am replaceable.”
From Shepanik’s point of view, the response from campus leaders to address the issues in the department has largely centered around training and how to treat people better moving forward.
" We can all click through online training modules about discrimination and equity in the workplace. Literally, you can click through it without any honest effort," he said. " The university might have good intentions, much like an individual might, but it needs to do things that make an impact, like disciplinary measures, or policies that can be and are actually enforced."
Students form group
After senior biochemistry student, Kari Olson, found out Bibelnieks had resigned, she formed a student group called "Students for Accountability and Equity in STEM."
“Once Tracy resigned, it was such a clear symptom of ongoing discrimination and sexual harassment that we were like, ‘What are we as students going to do?’” Olson said. “We saw an opportunity to really start this conversation. It so clearly highlighted the need for this conversation.”
The group's main mission is demanding more transparency around how the university is handling discrimination and harassment cases. A week after forming, the group consisted of about 15 students from across UMD colleges.
Olson is enrolled in a data analytics course taught by Bibelnieks, who will finish all her courses this semester and officially resign at the end of the spring term.
“I love UMD because of the students," Bibelnieks said. "I love living in Duluth. This is a gem of a school, a gem of an opportunity, but we screamed into an echo chamber for so long and saw that there was not going to be this validation of harm."