A former University of Michigan-Flint employee has filed a federal lawsuit against the university, alleging she was fired for advocating for better resources for LGBTQ students.
Heather Johnson was the director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality at UM-Flint. She was hired in July 2018 by then-Vice Chancellor Barbara Avery and then-Chancellor Sue Borrego.
Part of Johnson’s role was to bring together UM-Flint’s Women’s Educational Center and the Ellen Bommarito LGBTQ Center to create the CGS. Sue Borrego said she was a perfect fit for the role.
“She was more [successful] than I could have imagined.” She said she never experienced any issues with Johnson.
“During my time on campus with her, people would stop me and thank me, and talk about how hopeful they were about the kind of work she was doing," Borrego said. "I had to tell her to go home sometimes, because she was there until 7:30 at night. In fact, I felt that she handled the really difficult issues really well.”
In her first year, Johnson secured a grant of $125,175 for the Center for Gender and Sexuality, a dollar amount greater than anything earned when it was two separate centers.
Johnson also was selected as one of ten recipients across the entire UM system of the Distinguished Diversity Leader Award. In May 2019, she received her annual review from professor Jennifer Alvey who was the co-chair of the women’s commission.
The report was positive, and described Johnson as “highly effective and a widely welcomed addition to the Flint campus.”
Just after Johnson was hired, in August of 2018, Christopher Giordano replaced Vice Chancellor Avery. A year later, Debasish Dutta replaced Borrego. Giordano gave Johnson a review that was drastically different from Alvey’s. Johnson says when she asked to discuss it with him, he declined the request and told her to “take it up with HR.” In January of 2020, Johnson was dismissed from her position.
Johnson says that during this timeframe, she raised a number of concerns about resources available to LGBTQ students and staff on campus, and these concerns went largely unheard and ignored.
“When I raised a question, it wasn’t to criticize the institution, but it was to make it better. Like to say ‘hey, we need to be better, we cannot have a counseling department that doesn’t serve queer students,’ they see me criticizing the institution, not trying to help it,” said Johnson.
She brings up several of these issues in her lawsuit. One of these issues was with student mental health services, called Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS. Johnson said several students came to her and told her they had been denied treatment at CAPS because they were LGBTQ. The staff at CAPS admitted that they had little knowledge as to how to treat LGBTQ individuals, and a nurse practitioner corroborated the statement. Johnson says that Giordano pledged to “look into it,” but says no concrete actions were ever taken.
She says the new administration under Giordano was less open to change, saying, “I have no reason to believe that [the current administration] understand the amount of support it takes to do this work.”
Johnson also said she was treated differently because of her identity. She said her supervisors, particularly Giordano, would avoid making eye contact with her, would interrupt her and cut her off, and would provide only terse replies to her statements.
“I am a gender nonconforming woman, I identify as queer, and I am a lesbian. Sometimes me, showing up in space, threatens people in the sense that they're just not open, or don't know how to deal with a woman that asks a question or a queer person in a space,” she said.
Emily Feuerherm is an English professor at UM-Flint, and was a co-chair of the women’s commission with Johnson.
“I was always always blown away by the quality of the work and her knowledge. She had a lot of deep knowledge about the legal needs of an institution like UM-Flint when it came to sexual violence or assault and the kinds of training programs that students, as well as faculty and staff would need to complete," said Feuerherm. "I know as a faculty member, I and other faculty definitely turned to her for information and guidance in our classes. In fact, she was going to be teaching a women and gender studies course this semester.”
In her lawsuit, Johnson asks to be reinstated to her position as director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality, as well as her teaching position for women and gender studies. She’s also asking for lost wages and compensation for attorney fees. She says this lawsuit is bigger than that.
“When you do this work, and you’re an advocate in this manner, it’s my job to take the heavy artillery. It was my job to be the visible queer woman that was a leader, to stand up, to be that professional, to be a role model for students," said Johnson. "When I am dismissed unfairly, without due process, that has a chilling effect on everyone who I represent. There’s a part of me that needs to stand up and make sure there’s sunshine.”
Johnson says she’s received support from the women’s commission, the Women and Gender Studies department, and many of her colleagues. Sue Borrego expressed her support for Johnson as well.
“I’m sorry it got to this point: for her, for the community she serves, and for the university. I don’t want to see her career ruined. She has so much to offer, and cares so much about students being served,” said Borrego.
UM-Flint declined to comment on the case because it is a personnel matter.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Giordano gave Johnson a review that was drastically different from Alvey’s. An earlier version mistekenly said the reviews were similar. Giordano and Dutta's start dates as vice chancellor and chancellor have also been corrected.