Blackburn President Dr. Julie Murray-Jensen is under investigation for potentially discriminatory comments that may have resulted in a Title VII violation. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
The comments in question were made during an April 17 search committee meeting where the members were discussing the ideal candidate to replace Director of Marketing and Public Relations, Pete Oswald, who plans to retire later in the summer.
Former Executive Director for Philanthropy and Stewardship Mark Zobel (a Blackburn employee since 2014) was one of the staff members present at the search committee meeting. He recalled three separate statements that were made in the meeting. Zobel’s account was verified and validated by several other faculty and staff members who wish to remain unnamed.
“Jensen made a comment about wanting someone who was very energetic… What I recall was that she said this position would probably not be filled by a ‘typical small, timid, Asian woman.’ This is a racial stereotype being used as a disqualifier for employment. This is a clear violation of Title VII,” said Zobel. According to Title VII guidelines, it is illegal for colleges to use race or sex as criteria for hiring.
Zobel said, “We [Blackburn] have a diversity and inclusion statement that goes with all of our job postings. Dr. Julie Murray-Jensen was concerned about the inclusion of that statement, thinking that it might… deter white applicants.” According to Zobel, Murray-Jensen cited her personal experience in this case, as the same statement was on her application when she applied for the position of president last year.
“The other big violation was, later in the conversation we had all of this criteria and qualities that we wanted in an individual. She [Murray-Jensen] likes to use a bonus category where, maybe if we had a person of color that would be a bonus,” said Zobel. While this remark seems to be supportive of campus diversity, under Section 2000e-2 of the employer practices in Title VII, it is illegal, “to limit, segregate, or classify employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect their status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” This means that race cannot be considered in a negative or positive manner.
Zobel’s last day as a Blackburn employee was Friday, May 10. He made it evident that these comments have nothing to do with his new job or his decision to leave Blackburn. He also wanted it known that he has no ill will towards Murray-Jensen or the Blackburn administration and was simply doing his job as a mandated reporter. “I’m not going on a witch hunt here or trying to take down Dr. Murray-Jensen or the administration,” he said. “I am legally obligated to report this kind of thing.”
After receiving the report from Zobel and others in the meeting, Provost John McClusky shared his concerns with the Blackburn Board of Trustees before discussing the incident with Murray-Jensen. “Was I perfectly comfortable?” he said in regards to his conversation with Murray-Jensen, “No, it’s gonna be a challenging conversation, but my role and my duty is to have this conversation.” McClusky said he believed Murray-Jensen’s intent was to highlight, “…an illustration of how there may be a bias, or maybe a stereotype that would be ill founded and an example of why there’d be a problem.” He said, “The intent [of what she said] and what was heard were certainly different.”
Zobel addressed this argument and said, “I think that if it had just been one of us that had said something you could make the argument that she was misunderstood, but there were four of us who filed on this. Are we all wrong…?”
Some witnesses at the meeting were hesitant to give any information about the meeting because they were concerned with administrative retaliation. McClusky said that Murray-Jensen and the Blackburn administration wouldn’t punish faculty and staff for talking about the issue and that college employees should address the issue if they see fit. McClusky said he believes an administration (and president) who would dismiss employees for disagreeing with them is an example of bad leadership.
In the future, McClusky encouraged Blackburn faculty and staff to communicate their frustrations informally before reporting them, but said he understood the concerns of the faculty and staff who were in the meeting. He said, “I’ve spent hours a week working with her, and they’ve seen her for maybe an hour or so, so they haven’t really had a chance to get to know who she is and what she’s like.” He said “everyone screws up sometimes,” and if he were in her shoes he would rather be corrected immediately so he could learn from his mistakes.
After McClusky reported the incident, the board decided to open an investigation. McClusky maintains that Murray-Jensen’s statements do not qualify as discriminatory hiring practices because the committee wasn’t actually near the point of hiring a particular candidate. He did say, however, that presidents at other institutions have lost their jobs for discriminatory statements. McClusky described the investigation as more of a conversation about what Murray-Jensen said and what her intentions were.
The investigation was conducted by a law firm that specializes in equal employment and discrimination cases. To avoid a conflict of interest, McClusky said the board chose to hire an independent consultant who isn’t a part of Blackburn’s current legal representation but came recommended by them. But according to one witness who wishes to remain unnamed, this may not be entirely true. The investigator, Christi Swick, introduced herself as an employee of Sandberg Phoenix & Von Gontard P.C., a firm that has represented Blackburn in the past. “The investigator who interviewed me was hardly independent,” the source confirmed.
McClusky confirmed that the report should be issued to the board on Monday, May 13, and a summary will be issued to faculty and staff in the following days. When approached regarding the investigation, Murray-Jensen said, “It’s not appropriate while it’s going on for me to discuss it, but I can say that I welcome any scrutiny of any part of my position or anything at the college that we’re doing.” She also said it was “inappropriate” for The ‘Burnian to be writing about this issue and that she would “really discourage” any reporting before the end of the investigation.
Editor’s note: The ‘Burnian has only relied on the contextual testimony of unnamed sources twice in the modern history of the publication. The first instance was a sexual assault memoir written by the victim. The confirmation of Zobel’s claims and the quote regarding the investigator in this piece are the second. As the editor-in-chief of this newspaper and a believer in ethical journalism, please know that I did not take this decision lightly. Normally the ‘Burnian would not endorse anonymous sourcing, but when taking into account the preferences of the unnamed faculty and staff members and the power dynamic evident in this situation, I felt it appropriate to honor their wishes. Please note that should any of these individuals decide to go on the record this article will be edited to reflect that.
UPDATE: The investigator’s report found that no policy violation occurred.