Professor Leah Hollis has built a career studying workplace bullying in higher education, examining how it affects women and people of color.
At Morgan State University, she alleges in a federal lawsuit, she experienced that subject firsthand.
In a complaint filed this summer, Hollis says the school has paid her tens of thousands of dollars less than men in her department “despite credentials that parallel or exceed those of her male colleagues” — and then denied her tenure and blocked her promotion to full professor when she complained about unequal pay.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland alleges that Hollis’ situation is not isolated at the historically Black institution, but that the university systematically denies equal pay, promotion and academic benefits to Black women professors. She is represented by the head of the civil rights clinic at Georgetown Law.
“Dr. Hollis is far from the only Black woman faculty to be treated as a second-class citizen at Morgan State; she is just one of the few to complain publicly that to be a Black woman faculty in the School of Education and Urban Studies at Morgan State is to write more and publish more and yet be paid less, and be promoted less than male faculty,” her lawsuit states.
Morgan officials have denied the allegations in court filings. Spokesman Larry Jones declined to discuss the lawsuit, citing a university practice not to comment on litigation.
Morgan President David Wilson and the university are among the defendants.
“Defendants deny that they have harassed or failed to pay Plaintiff equally,” an assistant state attorney general representing Morgan wrote in a court answer to the complaint.
In 2019, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that there was “reasonable cause” to believe that the university had discriminated against Hollis on the basis of sex and subjected her to unequal pay in violation of the federal Equal Pay Act.
The commission also found evidence that the university subjected Hollis to unlawful retaliation, including harassment, by denying her tenure and threatening to terminate her, among other things.
It was only after Hollis filed the EEOC complaint that the university granted her tenure in 2019, according to the lawsuit. Officials declined to promote her to full professor in 2020 and 2021.
“However, similarly situated men with less grant money earned and significantly fewer peer reviewed articles were promoted to full professor in the same review cycle in which MSU denied Dr. Hollis promotion,” attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.
Hollis’ attorney, Aderson Francois, said Morgan officials declined to enter mediation after the EEOC determination.
“Once they did that, Dr. Hollis felt she had no choice but to bring the lawsuit,” Francois said.
Hollis declined to be interviewed about the case.
In court filings, the attorney for Morgan said university officials declined the EEOC’s recommendation to resolve the dispute “because the proposed terms were inconsistent with the underlying facts of [Hollis’] hiring, the setting of her compensation, and the fact that she was granted tenure.”
Morgan administrators also deny that the granting of tenure to Hollis was motivated by her EEOC complaint and reject the contention ”that Plaintiff’s sex was the basis” of their decision not to promote her, the court documents state.
Hollis first filed the federal lawsuit in 2019. An amended complaint was filed this summer.
According to the lawsuit, Morgan hired her in 2014 as an assistant professor in the Department of Advanced Studies, Leadership & Policy, at a “non-negotiable” salary of $60,000. At the time, she had a decade of teaching experience at the doctoral level, had chaired several dissertation committees, had written three books and co-authored a fourth.
Today she makes $63,000 — less than every male professor in her department, including those at lower ranks and those hired after her, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit includes a chart showing 10 men whose salaries range from $64,250 to more than $103,000.
The lawsuit alleges that six women in the department receive unequal pay, suggesting that these pay practices “are an ongoing and systemic problem that Morgan State has failed to address.”
It also says three men applied for full professor between 2019 and 2021 and all were granted. Meanwhile, two women applied during the same time period and were turned down. Another woman who applied in 2015 was also rejected.
The lawsuit claims Morgan “has consistently failed to abide by even the bare minimal standards of a research institution, flouted its own promotion and tenure policy and procedures, invented non-existent practices to shield administrators from accountability, and violated state and federal Civil Rights laws.”
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Francois has previously advocated for HBCUs in a long-running, landmark case about inequitable treatment of Maryland’s historically Black universities. When he was director of the civil rights clinic at Howard University’s law school, he was among the first attorneys to bring the lawsuit against the state on behalf of HBCU students and alumni. The case eventually led to a $577 million settlement this year.
“I was happy all these years to basically fight for” Morgan, he said.
But Francois said some Black women join HBCUs only to encounter the same “patriarchal and racist tendencies that they thought they were escaping.”
The lawsuit describes how Hollis was pleased to work for a university with Morgan’s “stated commitment to social justice and civil rights.”
“She feels betrayed, if you will, by the very people, by the very institution that she initially trusted most,” Francois said.
Besides the university president, other named defendants include several high-ranking women at Morgan, including two who later became presidents of other universities.
No court hearing for the case has been set.