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Campus diversity program accused of having toxic environment

University of Michigan’s ADVANCE program has been hit with allegations of discrimination, with former employees accusing its leadership of allowing microaggressions and a toxic environment to fester, among other claims.

The program employs about a dozen people and is focused on faculty recruitment, retention, climate and leadership development as it works “to address necessary institutional changes to support the needs of a diverse faculty in all fields,” its website reads.

An investigative piece by The Michigan Daily, the school’s student-run newspaper, found 12 alleged instances of discrimination and a hostile work environment spanning eight years from 2012 to 2020.

Among the allegations was that women of color were told their writing was not eloquent or effective and that microaggressions were common, according to the March 16 report.

“There were lies about my performance which relates directly to white supremacy culture at ADVANCE,” said Maria Ozor Commer, a former program employee and a central source in the Daily’s investigation.

ADVANCE employees declined to comment to The College Fix and instead directed inquiries to campus spokesman Rick Fitzgerald.

“The ADVANCE program, like most programs on our campus, is continuously looking for ways to improve its operations in a manner that respects diversity, equity and inclusion,” he wrote to The College Fix in an email.

Fitzgerald did not answer any of The Fix’s specific questions, such as whether or not the university administration or the ADVANCE leadership team had a position on the truth of any particular allegations.

The only allegation in which Fitzgerald explicitly denied was that an employee had been fired for her performance while recovering from foot surgery.

One of The Daily’s sources, Benita Threadgill, was placed on a “Performance Improvement Plan” after she took medical leave from the surgery. She alleged that her superiors erroneously claimed that she was often late to work.

According to Threadgill, her bosses criticized her “for not completing tasks made difficult or impossible by her foot surgery, like greeting clients at the door or walking across the office.”

But the administration provided a rebuttal.

Fitzgerald told The Daily and reiterated in an email to The Fix, “We have consulted the ADVANCE staff, University Human Resources and others and I am absolutely confident in saying, categorically, that no staff member of the ADVANCE program has ever been terminated because of a disability.”

Fitzgerald did not comment on the case of Ozor Commer.

Ozor Commer had told the Daily: “There were lies about my performance which relates directly to white supremacy culture at ADVANCE. Mistakes are not seen as learning opportunities, questions are not answered.”

Two members of the program’s current leadership team are black.

The university conducted a survey of employees across the university, in which 50 percent of ADVANCE employees reported that they were “dissatisfied or very dissatisfied by the program’s climate and environment,” the Daily reported.

The investigation also revealed that the ADVANCE team saw a 30 percent turnover rate in 2018 and a 40 percent rate in 2019. However, as the piece notes, the team is quite small, so the exact number of employees who quit was three and four, respectively.

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Charles Hilu is a student at the University of Michigan studying political science. His work has appeared in The Michigan Review. He serves as secretary of his Young Americans for Freedom chapter.