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Complaint against UW-EC administrator alleges discrimination

A UW-Eau Claire administrator is under UW System investigation following a complaint by a former employee who resigned as a result of alleged gender-based workplace discrimination.

As a result of what the complainant referred to as an exodus of strong women leaders, UW Shared Services is overseeing an investigation into Albert Colom, UW-Eau Claire vice chancellor of enrollment management.

Angie Swenson-Holzinger, a former associate director of advising, filed a formal complaint against Colom on Feb. 3, Swenson-Holzinger’s last day as a university employee. Swenson-Holzinger is at least the sixth employee to resign under Colom’s management since he began his role during the 2018 fall semester. Five women filed their resignation notices within three days of each other in January 2019.

The Spectator, UW-Eau Claire’s student newspaper, first reported the story.

Swenson-Holzinger’s complaint describes a culture of fear and bullying that led to a toxic work environment under Colom’s leadership. Swenson-Holzinger alleges she was “spoken to with a pattern of disdain and treated as if I was not competent.” The complaint also alleges that Swenson-Holzinger never heard Colom criticize male campus leaders but he “regularly disparaged other female leaders on campus.”

A Leader-Telegram email sent to Colom seeking comment was referred to Mike Rindo, UW-Eau Claire assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations.

Rindo said these types of complaints are not uncommon for a university the size of UW-Eau Claire, which he said has more than 1,300 employees. Rindo declined to comment on any specific incidents regarding Colom, saying the university does not publicly discuss personnel matters.

Rindo said UW-Eau Claire takes formal complaints seriously and refers them to the proper entities to ensure due process is followed. Regarding Swenson-Holzinger’s complaint, UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt said during a Feb. 11 University Senate meeting that the investigation will be handled by UW Shared Services. The investigation will begin within the next two weeks.

Colom remains working on campus, according to Rindo, who cautioned against speculation until the investigation concludes.

“Let’s let the fact-finding inquiry take its course and make sure that Albert Colom … is given due process,” Rindo said.

‘Toxic workplace’

During an interview Thursday with the Leader-Telegram, Swenson-Holzinger described Colom’s management style as “divisive, bulldozing (and) bullying.”

The complaint alleges that during a conversation in November 2019, Colom said he hadn’t seen evidence of Swenson-Holzinger’s occupational competence. She asked what competence would look like, and Colom cited three things: “He said I needed to agree with his ideas, ‘have his back over the backs of the team’ that I supervise and ‘play a more active role in the division.’”

“He was always asking for blind loyalty,” Swenson-Holzinger told the Leader-Telegram.

Swenson-Holzinger said it will likely be extraordinarily difficult to prove gender discrimination because many of the conversations with Colom she found most troubling occurred during individual meetings behind closed doors.

“At the minimum, it’s definitely a toxic workplace,” Swenson-Holzinger said.

Swenson-Holzinger said several employees told her that if she filed an official complaint she must be willing to never work at UW-Eau Claire again. Swenson-Holzinger called that frightening to hear but said it strengthened her resolve to ultimately file a complaint.

“If I see something that’s not right, I have to do something, whatever the costs,” Swenson-Holzinger told the Leader-Telegram.

Swenson-Holzinger stressed the difficulty involved in her decision to resign.

“Prior to this hostile work environment, I had planned to retire from UW-Eau Claire,” she wrote in the complaint, adding that “being in this environment was starting to break my spirit.”

Heather Kretz and Heather Pearson, two of the five staff members who resigned in January 2019, had similar long-term plans to stay at the university. Those plans began to change in fall 2018.

Kretz, the former director of admissions, resigned Jan. 11 and stayed on until March. Pearson, the former associate director of admissions, resigned Jan. 14 and worked her final day in May. Both of them previously adored their jobs, but under Colom’s management, they eventually came to dread going to work.

Kretz reported directly to Colom and said his “toxic behavior was mostly behind closed doors” during several individual meetings she had with him every week. She said Colom often seemed paranoid and valued personal loyalty from his subordinates above everything else. When the two of them convened after meetings, Kretz said, Colom often used vulgarity to insult the people they had just met with.

Pearson reported directly to Kretz and thus did not have as many direct interactions with Colom. Based on her limited exchanges and conversations with colleagues, though, Pearson concluded she couldn’t work under a vice chancellor who “exhibited those characteristics that just didn’t fit with my own morals and ethics.”

Current concerns

Swenson-Holzinger emailed her complaint to UW-Eau Claire affirmative action officer and Title IX coordinator Teresa O’Halloran, Human Resources Director David Miller and Peter Hart-Brinson, an associate professor of sociology, communication and journalism and president of the United Faculty and Academic Staff of UW-Eau Claire.

After Swenson-Holzinger’s resignation, Hart-Brinson reached out to the people who had resigned and was struck by the similarity of their stories. They all mentioned bullying and fear of retaliation for disagreeing with Colom.

“Everyone seemed to be telling their own version of the same story,” Hart-Brinson said. “In all my (15 years) doing union work, I’ve never seen something like this.”

Hart-Brinson said former employees expressed sadness and anger at feeling “pushed out of a job that they loved.”

Swenson-Holzinger wrote in the complaint that “I am now able to accept that this job that I loved no longer exists.”

After Swenson-Holzinger resigned, Hart-Brinson heard from faculty and staff who said employees from other UW System universities were asking them what was going on.

“Word had gotten out, and the university’s reputation was suffering,” Hart-Brinson said.

Colom’s position was created in 2018 following comprehensive restructuring undertaken by university leadership to better meet long-term recruitment and retention challenges. However, Hart-Brinson fears Colom’s managerial style may be having the opposite intended effect, since employees in the admissions and advising departments are directly responsible for recruiting and retaining students. If some of the best people in those positions are leaving, Hart-Brinson said, that “threatens the university as a whole.”

Hart-Brinson said it is likely that some current employees are scared to talk to him for fear of retaliation. Hart-Brinson expressed similar personal concerns but largely feels secure as a tenured faculty member; academic staff, who cannot receive tenure, have more tenuous job statuses.

“This is a scary moment for our university,” Hart-Brinson said.

As union leader, Hart-Brinson has made himself available to other employees if they want to talk with him about similar workplace issues. He ultimately chose to speak out so faculty and students understand what is happening to some staff members and “because the well-being of the entire university is at stake.”

He said the UFAS-UWEC is showing support and trying to protect current staff members to ensure that the university doesn’t lose any more of its talented employees as a result of a poor workplace.

“We’re trying to create an environment where people support each other, because that environment has been lacking up to this point, obviously,” Hart-Brinson said.

Staff photo by Dan Reiland  

Howard Thompson of Snow Trek Sled Dog Adventures of Mondovi gives a ride to UW-Eau Claire freshman Frank Satnik on Thursday during the university’s Winter Carnival. It was an appropriately frigid day for the activity: the high was 7 degrees, and the low sank to 9 below zero, according to AccuWeather. Today won’t feel tropical either, with the expected high of 14 degrees and low of 8. By contrast, a high of 33 degrees is forecast for Saturday. For more weather information, see Page 8B. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

Senior Center fundraising hits $1.1M, gets funding match

A day before its deadline, a fundraising campaign to expand the L.E. Phillips Senior Center at 1616 Bellinger St. has reached a goal of just over $1 million.

For reaching a $1.1 million goal by today, the L.E. Phillips Family Foundation has said it will match the same amount in a contribution to the project.

“(On Thursday) we were about $2,000 short, and everybody started giving again to make sure we hit our goal,” said Mary Pica-Anderson, Senior Center executive director.

The center began its fundraising campaign in late October.

It hopes to raise $3.6 million to add a 4,000-square-foot fitness center on the facility’s ground floor.

The project would also reconfigure the basement level into a 7,000-square-foot community center for meeting rooms and partnering with groups like the Aging & Disability Resource Center and Chippewa Valley Learning in Retirement, according to Leader-Telegram records.

Sitting at $2.2 million, the campaign still has about $1.4 million to raise to hit its overall goal of $3.6 million. It must raise $900,000 to reach $3.1 million, at which point the center could begin construction on the addition.

The Senior Center is continuing to work toward raising that $900,000 this year, the center board President Jim Deignan said.

The center is still designing the addition and hasn’t yet put the project out to bid.

In fall 2019, the Senior Center board’s goal was to put the project out to bid this summer and “start mobilizing for construction in early summer and late fall (2020),” Deignan said.

“This is a project that we fully expect could be built about eight months from when we start, based on the architect,” he said, noting that the campaign will continue to fundraise in 2020.

Pica-Anderson and Deignan said they’re delighted with the support the project has garnered.

“This part of fundraising was a very short period of time, basically 3½ months,” Pica-Anderson said.

The project had been “running into a lot of push-back, respectfully, from the community” because of timing, Deignan said: The campaign began to fundraise over $1 million in the fourth quarter of the fiscal year.

“We were challenged. But there’s been some significant groundswell of support internally within the membership at the Senior Center,” Deignan said. “They’ve been just tremendous, wrapping their arms around this capital campaign.”

At least six entities made “significant contributions” to the campaign as well, Deignan added.

“We have intent and desire to get more intimate with the community as we go through this next year, and have more conversations that aren’t so expedited because of that tight time frame,” he said.

People can donate to the Senior Center project through the Eau Claire Community Foundation at eccfwi.org/funds/fit-for-the-future-fund.

District looking for ‘short-term relief’ for crowded schools

While the Eau Claire school board mulls a referendum that could add more capacity to crowded south side schools, a panel of parents, community members and teachers is searching for ways to relieve the pressure as soon as this fall.

Meadowview and Putnam Heights elementary schools currently sit at over 90% student capacity, and Manz Elementary is near that mark; the district expects enrollment in those three schools to grow, school administrators have said.

“We’re looking to find some relief at those schools because we don’t have any place that would have space for them in that area,” said Kim Koller, executive director of administration.

“What do we do as early as next school year, to try to ease existing capacity challenges?” said Joshua Clements, who chairs the Demographic Trends and Facility Planning Committee.

“If we determine we need more capacity … that’s probably a three-year proposition before that actually happens, short of bringing a mobile classroom in.”

If the school board decides to pose a referendum question in spring 2021 — and if that referendum were successful — construction may be able to begin in summer 2022, Koller said in January.

But a successful referendum wouldn’t help ease overcrowding in the short term.

Two options could relieve those schools: make boundaries at Meadowview and Robbins flexible, or redraw boundaries between the two schools, committee members said Thursday.

If it added flexible boundaries, the district could assign new students and kindergartners to either school based on capacity.

If the committee recommended redrawing those two schools’ boundaries — and the school board approved the measure — it would require giving families a year’s notice. That option is not feasible for fall 2020, Koller said.

“It seems to me, the relief option for Meadowview is Robbins,” said Dave Fitzgerald, committee member, proposing a study to see if shifting students to Robbins would ease the strain at Meadowview. “We have to look at another component, which is where growth is coming. I think if we have people moving, that changes everything.”

Crowded schools put pressure on students and teachers, Koller said.

“When schools are over 90% capacity, it’s difficult for them to run as efficiently as other schools,” she said. “Classroom sizes might be higher in those schools simply because we don’t have space (to add) another teacher.”

It becomes harder for the school to bring students together for meals and assemblies, since cafeterias and common areas become cramped, Koller said.

Moving forward

The committee is asking the city and county for information on where real estate development is planned in the area, Clements said.

“That would give you a strong indication of where new families may be in the next two to three years,” Clements said. “Anecdotally, I think we know where things have happened recently, but that may not be where things will continue to occur.”

Eau Claire’s south and west sections had the most new residential construction in 2018, according to the city’s annual development report.

Eighty-one new residential units were built in the city’s south sector in 2018, mostly multi-family units. The city’s west sector got 120 new units last year, according to the report.

The committee is also charged with recommending long-term solutions to south side crowding. It’s slated to send a report to the school board in October 2020.

Worries about south side schools come after changes for seven other elementaries on the north side.

Those seven schools will undergo boundary changes starting next fall, aimed at keeping school capacity between 75% and 85%. About 178 students attending Roosevelt, Sherman, Lakeshore, Longfellow, Sam Davey, Locust Lane and Northwoods schools will be affected. The plan keeps Roosevelt open as a two-section school.

The school board also met Thursday evening in closed session to discuss the search for a new superintendent, agenda documents show.

A regular school board meeting is slated for Monday.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story reported the Eau Claire school district's fall 2020 plan to change boundaries at seven Eau Claire elementary schools would cost between $31.5 and $35.5 million. Re-drawing those schools' boundaries is cost-neutral. The $31.5 to $35.5 million price tag formerly included money to add a secure entrance at Roosevelt, and expand capacity for the 4K program and south side schools, but the school board has not approved any funding for 4K or south side expansion.