by Geoff Rushton
A former Penn State assistant professor of dance has filed a federal lawsuit against the university, alleging she was subject to retaliation and discrimination after she voiced concerns about physical assessments in the school’s musical theatre program.
Donna Dunmire, who was a faculty member until June 30, filed the suit on Sept. 5 in U.S. Middle District Court and claimed the university’s actions violated federal civil rights laws and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. She alleges her contract was not renewed because she complained about the effect the assessments had on students.
According to the court filing, shortly after Dunmire began her employment with Penn State, she was notified in September 2014 by multiple freshmen in the musical theatre program that as part of a freshman seminar they were required to undergo an off-campus physical assessment.
At a faculty meeting, Dunmire says she expressed concerns that the assessments “were degrading and made the students feel uncomfortable, and that they are not, and never have been, a prerequisite” for the program.
Dunmire was allegedly told by Elisha Halpin, head of the dance program and associate director for instruction, who was one of three faculty members to conduct the assessments, that “the students were being overly sensitive and needed to ‘get over it.'”
After raising the issue, Dunmire claims she was subjected to a hostile work environment that included Halpin not allowing Dunmire to choreograph a faculty dance show. At a performance evaluation in May 2015, Dunmire alleges she complained to then School of Theatre Director Dan Carter about the alleged “unlawful retaliatory conduct,” but that no action was taken.
Dunmire says that in August 2015, freshmen received an email from Halpin stating they were required to undergo the physical assessment at an off-campus location. Female students were directed to wear fitted shorts and sports bras and male students were told to wear fitted shorts and tank tops, according to Dunmire.
Female students who were considered overweight were allegedly told to “remove their clothing and were photographed from all angles while wearing only a sports bra and fitted shorts.” Some were told afterward to go on diets and exercise daily, Dunmire says.
The filing claims the assessments had a negative emotional and psychological impact on some of the students, that one student’s eating disorder was “significantly exacerbated,” and that several students “were caused to self-harm.”
Penn State spokesperson Lisa Powers said the university could not comment on ongoing litigation. She said in a statement, however, that assessments are important for training and instructing musical theatre students.
“Our musical theatre program does perform physical and vocal assessments as an essential part of training on a class-by-class basis,” Powers said. “The musical theatre program is meant to prepare artists for professional careers as performers, and assessment of flexibility, strength, range of motion, posture and physical and vocal development are part of that process.
“The purpose of the screening is to chart a student’s progress in a physically demanding course of study and adjust individualized instruction as appropriate.”
Dunmire reportedly received several complaints from students, which she took to her supervisors, who told her they were hearsay until a student came forward. Dunmire says a student did then make a complaint and was told the assessments were for research. Dunmire alleges that she was subsequently told by supervisor Cary Libkin that she “was losing her credibility with her colleagues and to ‘ watch it.'”
Carter allegedly told Dunmire in January 2016 that complaints had been made about her by a fellow teacher. In May 2016 she was told her contract would not be renewed when it expired on June 30, 2017, though her performance was rated “very good,” according to the court filing.
Dunmire claims a male faculty member hired at the same time as her was treated “more favorably,” had his contract renewed and was “not subjected to the same level of scrutiny and unlawful, retaliatory behavior…”
Dunmire is seeking compensatory and punitive damages and reinstatement of her position or payment of the equivalent of lost salary and benefits.