The women of the University of Minnesota Duluth speak: Kristine Snyder’s story

Editor’s note: A colleague of mine recently read the essay of the Undergraduate First Place Winner of the AWM/MfA 2022 Student Essay Contest, which describes the upward trajectory of Tracy Bibelnieks’ mathematical career, but upon further research learned of her resignation in April 2021 and Kristine Snyder’s earlier in 2018, both at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). This story has been reported upon in detail here and here last year, but to our knowledge has barely registered in the mathematical world, even a year later. In giving voice here to the women of UMD, we hope that this serves as a warning and a rebuke to the mathematical community, for our complicity and ignorance. This is Part 1; read Part 2 and Part 3.

The first time someone causes harm, that can be unintentional, but when an investigation finds that person’s behavior harmful, and they choose not to examine and change that harmful behavior, any further harm that their behavior causes is intentional because they chose not to change. Furthermore, while it might be painful for those who cause harm to face it, telling the truth about an environment that has been shown to be harmful does not harm those who create it, but not warning other people about said harmful environment when it has proven to be one, that inaction itself often leads to further harm.

Part 1: What happened?

“I couldn’t have lived without the science, but I wouldn’t live through this again.” Prof. Nancy Hopkins in Picture a Scientist

My name is Dr. Kristine Falk Snyder. I was a third generation University of Minnesota Duluth professor in the Mathematics and Statistics Department from 2015 to 2018, where I held a tenure-track position. In 2018, I left the department, largely due to consistent patterns of sexism and misogyny, ending 70 years of my family educating there. I started cautiously talking about these issues in an exit interview I initiated before I left, but, because the whistleblower policy at the university distinctly did not provide sufficient protection for current employees, after I left, I also sent an email to administrators in August of 2018 outlining the university policies and Title IX and what I had experienced and observed in the department in the way of gender bias and discrimination, stating that I wanted to allow them to fix the situation quietly so as not to risk having more funding pulled by UMN, which I had seen occur during my previous almost 4 decades of having an insider’s view of the funding situation. My goal was always to stop the harm, to stop any woman from continuing to experience what I did, to assure equal access and treatment across gender for students, staff, and faculty, keeping the big funding picture in mind because I had seen how pulling funding had affected students negatively. (Equal treatment across race does not and absolutely should occur in the department, college, and university, but I am white, and, though I certainly saw racism cause harm there, I am far less qualified to talk about the full extent to which it exists and the harm it causes. Other voices should be listened to above mine around those issues.)

Reports from other female faculty triggered an investigation started in February of 2019 that ended in September of 2019 and found the department “hostile and offensive to a reasonable woman,” but, though this environment was created by a subset of individuals and not all men in the department, the report given to the department did not name the names of the men who caused and continue to cause harm. The administration brought in a department head from outside the university to attempt to fix things, but continued reports from female faculty and students have shown that behavior has not changed, and seems to instead have gotten worse. The findings were released inside the department in September of 2019, but the public report on the findings of the investigation was not released outside the department until March 17, 2020, right as quarantine started. This release date was also immediately after the end of the year-long statute of limitations for a hostile work environment in MN relative to when the investigation started and therefore when the last incident that could be included in that investigation would have occurred. While trainings were offered that addressed the behavior outlined in the report, to my knowledge no required additional trainings were offered for the department beyond what was necessary for all university employees, and problematic behavior ranging from apathy, to antipathy and defensiveness, to claiming to identify as female for the day were demonstrated by various members of the department.

When I shared this document with someone trained in mediation and law around these issues for unrelated purposes, they were appalled that the public release had no avenue described for change, no consequences for those who caused the environment, and that intent was described at all.

While some of the behaviors exhibited are outlined in this letter that my older brother wrote on my behalf, I will list some of them here. Women were and are talked over by men in the department, in both department meetings and beyond. Women’s voices are often ignored altogether, or women are told they do not know what they’re talking about. My husband asked me why I’d all but stopped talking some 5-6 months after starting this job; it was because I’d been talked over and ignored and dismissed so often that silence had become my survival strategy. In telling someone who deals with it for a living that story, he responded by saying “That’s what oppression does.” Men’s successes are celebrated, but women’s are often ignored, to the point that one woman’s tenure was not celebrated to protect the feelings of the men who had voted against her for being too “strong-minded” and who had questioned her legitimate publications. Women have been given more administrative tasks. Women are consistently treated as less capable, less smart, less skilled, less worthy, even when the evidence shows otherwise, both female students and faculty, all at an institution with the policy statement: “Making assumptions that men or women are better suited for a particular kind of job is prohibited.” Women were outright told their research leaves were for “a break” rather than research, whereas men’s were assumed to be for exactly what they were intended for. I was actually told by the then-department head when I left that I was “never really there,” when I had been rooted in Duluth for over a decade before he even moved there. Those are a few examples of thousands of microaggressions that I and other women experienced while there. Virtually every day there was something nasty or dismissive or condescending or gaslighting from one of the male professors, and, even on the rare day you might be lucky enough to get through without one, you would have to be on guard because they happened so often. As anyone who understands basic calculus knows, integrating over two dimensions adds up very quickly, and in this case, harm was integrated over time and the number of people who cause harm. Anyone who understands basic neuroscience knows that repeated smaller magnitude harms often cause more damage than one large one.

Kristine Snyder holding a pen, grading papers with a cat on her lap

In March of 2021, over 2.5 years after my email, 2 years after the investigation started and over 1.5 years after the report came out, Prof. Tracy Bibelnieks resigned, citing the same behavior, the same problems of misogyny and sexism, the same harm. Her resignation letter was the first time students, non Math/Stats faculty, and deans outside of Swenson School of Science and Engineering were made fully aware of the investigative findings, and the students stood up for their professors, papering the university and city with posters, asking what was happening in the department that it continued to lose professors, in a way the university could no longer try to shove these problems under the rug. The subsequent interviews given by students, Tracy, and myself outlined the issues, and we did our best to protect the term faculty (what UMD calls adjunct faculty), who on the whole do not actively contribute to this hostile environment but whose jobs are continually most at risk. The university administration stated their response in terms of minimal trainings (those that offered education on what was non-harmful behavior but indicated problematic dynamics and apathy in the department), long overdue actions that affected term vs. tenured faculty but not issues around gender, and overall long-term changes in the school and university policies, not the department, while giving no actual evidence for any change in the department’s environment. Most recently, the department has engaged in what the university has called “restorative justice” that members of the department have found more harmful than helpful, which does not seem to include some of the fundamental tenets of restorative justice, but does allow the worst actors to hold forth with at times downright disturbing beliefs. (An email outlining how restorative justice actually is usually administered in situations like these was sent to the appropriate parties in 2020, but this circle does not include that structure or those elements.) 

While the department has been informed that the environment is hostile, has been given the opportunity to change, there has been no data indicating change, with the same men doing the same and sometimes worse harmful things and claiming that the harm does not matter as much or at all because it is unintentional, despite the fact it has been 2.5 years since the original report showing these men’s behavior is harmful came out, despite the fact trainings have been offered about what is and is not harmful, despite the fact that once they were informed what was harmful, these men have knowingly, intentionally harmed women by engaging in the same behaviors. The men who have caused and continue to cause the most harm have also claimed that women publicly talking about the report or posting about it harms them, when it is nothing more than sharing the truth of what happened after years of hiding that truth and no measurable change has led to continued harm.

Part 2: Who is it?

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”  – James Baldwin

One of the fundamental barriers to fixing the problems at UMD and one that runs counter to the ideas behind restorative justice is that people in power at multiple levels have acted in ways that suggest they are more focused on hiding the issue than on working together to fix it, which I find ironic, given that my intent in not speaking up publically right away was to give them the chance to focus all their energy on change, rather than image management. No men have been officially named by the university, and women have been given circuitous, unclear, and inconsistent answers around whether we can name the names of the men who committed the actions in the report. There are reports that describe the behavior of specific people, multiple individuals in the department who did harmful things, and it has never really been discussed by the administration or the department. Instead, this information is an additional burden on the women who experienced and continue to experience harm.

Very little positive change and even less justice starts from a place of secrets, dishonesty, and obfuscation.

This brings up one of the reasons I did not sue. The biggest, as I’ve stated before, is that I didn’t want more funding to get yanked from UMD by UMN because of another lawsuit, which hurts the students, who I am working to center here at all times, most. Do not forget that I had well over three decades of evidence of this pattern of funding reduction and consequent student harm when I left. I was unusually informed as a third-generation UMD professor. However, another reason I did not sue is because I would never sign a behavior-based NDA because they hide people’s damaging patterns rather than fixing them, thus virtually ensuring continued harm. Remember, this was all occurring as Weinstein’s history was coming to light, and I had plenty of evidence to support this conclusion.

If we ever want to make progress, we need to be able to be open and honest about the behaviors exhibited; who exhibited, who allowed, and who intervened with those behaviors; what harm was caused and is still being caused; and what has and has not changed.

I still am not certain I can name who is in the report, but I do know I legally can share my observations and experiences. I will leave you to draw your own evidence-based conclusions about whether it is more likely that there are even more men who cause harm in the department outlined in the report than the ones I describe or that the union and intersection of that group and the one I describe are the same. The men who I saw and continue to see (with the exception of those who are no longer part of the department) cause the most harm are the male full tenured professors, along with their protegés, and the two most recent department chairs who are also Math/Stats profs. The only current male full professor who I have never seen actively cause harm is Marshall Hampton. The department chair hired from outside the university added to this by acting on behalf of and identifying with those who were/are harmful rather than those harmed. It took him 17 months, almost a year and half after his arrival, to even talk to the women harmed about their experiences. His behavior was analogous to someone with reckless driving habits ignoring and forgiving them in others because it means he does not have to see or face or change them in himself. The blame for this chair’s behavior is not entirely on him; it is partially on the administration. It is clear he was not qualified in experience or temperament to make the changes the department required, nor were he and the dean allowed or empowered with the ability by the upper administration to make the changes that actually would have led to reduced harm.

There is plenty of accountability to go around in terms of what has and has not happened for the last 4 years. That doesn’t make any one of the parties mentioned not responsible; it just makes it easier for each of them to pass blame and responsibility for making the necessary changes that would actually eliminate harm and to close ranks and blame the whistleblowers instead.

We all saw how that pattern also led to continued but preventable harm with the opioid epidemic; passing the buck when a group of people all owe a quarter or a dime or a nickel does not pay off a debt.

“One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient. In fact, a man convinced of his virtue even in the midst of his vice is the worst kind of man.” – Charles M. Blow

These men I have mentioned do not focus on behavior or harm but continually center themselves and see themselves as victims, an inaccurate assessment that is allowed to exist because they hold power, an attitude they reinforce in each other, one we are not allowed to correct or refute by revealing what is in the report, and this inaccurate belief continues to cost everyone around them. They are not victims, any more than people who continue to drive recklessly in ways that harmed people and a report has been written about it proving that it happened, are victims. They are the people who originally caused harm, and, because the administration has not individually called them in or out or assigned/allowed repercussions or done anything that changed their harmful behavior or moved them to somewhere they can cause less harm, women continue to be harmed. From all I’ve learned since this happened, best practices in cases like these in terms of actually changing the environment are to release a detailed report to the public about what was found and address the harm immediately in a way that does not further harm those who have already experienced it.

These men may not have initially intended this harm, but the fundamental point is that the harm to female faculty, to female students, to the university has not stopped because these men’s behavior has not changed, at least not for the better, since the report came out, has not changed even as they have been informed what is harmful. That’s like committing “involuntary” manslaughter, which is a crime because effect matters more than intent, over and over and over again because you’re unwilling to stop reckless behavior after having been informed of it.

Is a crime really involuntary the second time you commit it after you’ve been found guilty of it once and continued the behaviors that caused it? The third time? The fourth?

They have neither acknowledged nor apologized for the harm they caused, which means there is no guarantee of it not happening again (the evidence actually shows the opposite, that the harm has very much continued.) They’re so dug in to the idea that they did not cause harm, even though that’s what the investigation found, that they are continuing to cause it because they’re focusing on their identities rather than their behavior and its effects. If you want another analogy other than a car accident, it’s like a surgical team that botched a surgery, for whom accumulated perhaps unintentional mistakes led to permanent harm in a patient, continuing to practice, continuing to make those unintentional but absolutely harmful mistakes after they’ve already been identified as harmful, with no repercussions, and then getting angry that the people harmed by their mistakes are talking about it to prevent that harm happening to someone else. Maybe they didn’t mean to do it, but they still caused harm. And, more importantly, once the evidence showed they had caused harm, their behavior didn’t change, and that harm continued.

The original harm may not have been intentional, but continuing the same behavior after it was shown to be harmful, IS intentional, chosen harm.

I want to acknowledge outright the other harm that is caused by the report’s attribution of harm to the entire department without naming the individuals responsible. There are many good men and women in that department, and some absolutely exceptional term faculty. They don’t deserve to be tainted by this or have their jobs put at risk. This is like a group project where everyone gets assigned the same grade, but the people getting the least credit (the term faculty) are doing most of the heavy lifting, and yet, because the people with the most power (the men mentioned earlier) did a horrible job, whatever they intended, the whole group got a failing grade. Then those with power refused to do the makeup project because they didn’t want to accept their failure, while the teacher (the administration) just does not do anything when nothing gets better, and those doing the work still have to carry that failing grade they never deserved. 

And yes, people have different sensitivity levels, or, more accurately here, awareness and analytical skill levels, often because they developed those skills to survive because of the way the world treats them. I know men, including more than one in this department, with the kind of awareness levels where the evidence indicates they may well not have survived were they women. Further, what’s been shown to be effective with ending harm due to discrimination and bias is zero tolerance. That means you want the most sensitive equipment you can find so you can identify every instance and absolutely eliminate it, and that means hiring and keeping people with high levels of awareness and good analytical skills and believing them, not ignoring them and forcing them out to avoid having to face the problems. But the fact is that you do not have to be that sensitive to be aware that the department has problems. Seven tenure-track/recently tenured faculty in this department have chosen to resign since 2018, six of whom are women and/or people of color. This department cannibalizes its young, especially those least privileged, and, like any group that sacrifices its future for the past, it will not survive if it does not change.

Part 3: What is the broader view?

“Something I’ve learned through this process. There is very little gain in speaking your truth to the public, other than the potential for greater change. Going public with my truth was the decision I made when my calls for help were being swept under the rug. It was when I exhausted every possible outlet for change and nothing happened. It takes immense bravery and resiliency to speak your truth to friends, acquaintances and strangers. You lose friends, you receive angry calls and texts, you don’t sleep, you are torn apart by strangers, you see mean comments about you, you are constantly imbued in the trauma, etc. There is quite literally nothing fun or rewarding in the process until you see real change occur – which unfortunately doesn’t happen for everyone.” – Rosie Cruz

I did eventually go public, first in a LinkedIn post in September of 2020, when no change had occurred a year after the report was released, and then with the media when Tracy Bibelnieks resigned in April of 2021, and I did it for the same reason I do everything around issues of discrimination and bias: to tell the truth and to do my best to ensure those after me never have to go through what I did, to therefore minimize harm and increase equality. I did it because I learned the hard way that sunshine really is the best disinfectant. I did it because I am one of the only people who left who still cares about UMD and its students because I grew up there, because I know it can be better than this. The department and administration were given years to change their behavior before I did anything public, years of me painfully watching other women be harmed the same way I was.

As much as it hurt me to experience the harm myself, it was so much worse to watch others continue to be harmed when it could have been prevented.

The administration had ample time and resources to investigate. I also gave individuals the benefit of time to acknowledge and change their behavior. The harm continued unabated even after being found credible by a formal EOAA investigation. It was after those three years, after Tracy was forced out by the continued harmful behavior, that I decided it was time the larger community knew that harm was occurring and no changes had taken place. It was time that others could make informed decisions about whether to involve themselves in an environment such as that, one not only hostile but uninvested in changing that hostility. Despite my history, I never would have gone to UMD had I known how toxic the department is, and I wanted to avoid the harm that happened to me happening to other women because they were kept ignorant. Everyone has the right to make an informed decision, but they cannot do that when the truth is hidden.

And the truth is that the hostility in the department is just as much a part of the male full professors’ legacy as is their research; it is just not a part of their legacy they want anyone to know or talk about.

As for intentional vs. unintentional harm with regard to this situation, if you are not even aware enough to know that you’re causing harm, you’re more likely to cause it. Therefore, if diminishing overall harm is your goal but you’ve been shown to be doing so unintentionally, learning to recognize what causes harm and how to avoid doing that is how you get there. That means listening to the whole truth, and absorbing all the data, not hiding it or hiding from it. You do not find out you have typhoid fever and keep cooking for people, getting more and more and more people sick. This reaction of denial and dismissal has led to continued harm. Now, if diminishing overall harm is not your goal, then that has profound implications for the safety of others in your presence that may suggest the need for you to, until that changes, not live in community.

Dr Kristine Snyder, sitting on a mat on a grassy area legs outstretched, barefoot

The female faculty may have spoken up most about this toxic environment, but they are not the only ones who have noticed or been harmed by it. They are just the only ones who have gone public and therefore received backlash. One of my male students called the department a “good ol’ boys’ club.” Female students to this day go out of their way to avoid taking classes from certain male professors, basically a passive way of the department not being Title IX compliant. There have been numerous complaints, some taken to Title IX and some not, from female students who have been treated differently, graded differently, and given different or fewer opportunities due to gender. At least one male professor is no longer allowed to advise female students due to continual evidence of bias. Because this is occurring in a Math/Stats department, which teaches classes required for all STEM and many other degrees, it affects all students in Swenson College of Science and Engineering (SCSE) and many beyond it, not just those in the department, and it also affects other faculty and staff outside the department. Further, because nothing effective has been done in this department, even after it was found hostile, female faculty and staff have been hesitant or outright refused to report problems with gender discrimination and sexual harassment elsewhere in SCSE because the evidence shows nothing will happen but denial, ineffectual trainings, and victim-blaming. Various trainings have found the department’s dynamics particularly problematic and their attitudes apathetic.

The behavior in the department is not merely a reflection of society’s biases; it is an amplification of them due to the personalities, beliefs, and behavior of the combination of people in power. Whether these biases against women are expressed aggressively or benevolently does not matter because both harm women.

What matters is that the behavior causes harm that has effects and implications far beyond just the individual department and that it has to end.

When it comes to what I do around these issues, I am continually doing my best to put the greater good, especially for the next generation, first, even ahead of myself. That’s why my older brother had to tell me I couldn’t help anyone if I was dead for me to leave UMD. That’s why I told my husband the one thing that would make me stay is my students begging me to. And it is heartbreaking to look at the student reviews from my final semester where that happened, too late for anything to change. I have lost my job, a chunk of my family, my hometown, and my health over this situation. But if the next generation of women has a safer place to be in STEM,  you had better believe I think what it’s cost me is worth it. I have sunk costs that I can prevent other women having to pay, but not if things at UMD and in the wider mathematical and academic community don’t change. I will continue to act in such a way as to protect students and women and others who may have less power from people who cause harm, even when those people continually deny the harm they cause, even after it’s shown in an investigation, and then look to accuse me of hurting them for telling the truth about what happened and call that justice. An equal opportunity environment, especially one in STEM, does not sacrifice women’s opportunities or health for men’s views of themselves when those views do not match the data. And a true community cannot be built around people who continually put their own disproven images of who they think they are ahead of the greater good, the evidence, and the whole truth.

I also believe things can change for the better, and that if people really want to fix this, they will identify those who actively cause harm, those who have done nothing to stop or prevent it, and those who have spoken up, and pull those who are problematic out individually, not together, for private training. (This is not new advice; the administration received it over a year ago, plenty of time in which to change policies to allow this to occur, rather than changing those policies to not even formally investigate situations like this anymore.) I’m not saying fire them. I’m saying they need to be temporarily moved until they are no longer harmful, kind of like removing pipes that are leaching toxins into the water and lining them to assure they can no longer do so.

I believe in redemption, in people’s ability to change for the better, but I have yet to see it happen without humility, education, and empathy.

If these men can change their behavior enough to stop causing harm, they can come back. I’m guessing someone will argue that UMD will lose too much institutional knowledge if you move everyone problematic, given their positions. I promise, you can remove the hostility with great margins (using the surgery example) without losing much institutional knowledge, the most important of which lies in people like the longtime term faculty and the administrative staff anyway. It would behoove the university to bring in a new graduate director and a truly aware permanent department head. Information around the graduate program and certain types of research will be the only information lost by removing problematic people, but the fact is that the undergraduate and graduate programs badly need an overhaul so that they are individually sustainable, and research opportunities need to be guaranteed to be equal across race and gender. That can only be done by bringing in someone not entrenched in the current hostile environment who has the awareness, guts, and fortitude to do what is right, even when it is not what is easy. 

I am going to bring up the other elephant in the room: tenure. I am not anti-tenure. I believe in tenure for academics who put the greater good ahead of themselves, who use the freedom tenure provides to better the world, rather than to better themselves or those like them at the expense of those less privileged. Tenure was created to protect scholars from administrators who would abuse their power to remove said scholars if they did research that challenged the powerful. Tenure was not designed for nor should it ever be used to protect academics who use the job security it provides to harm or shut out others, especially those less privileged than themselves, who use it to amass rather than distribute power. Right now, tenure in the Math/Stats department is leading to continued harm because the most problematic, the most harmful, the most privileged people in the department have its protection, and that allows them to continue to harm those who are less powerful. Tenure prevents the administration from imposing repercussions sufficient to change their harmful behavior. If there is one thing my time in academia has taught me, it is that tenure is not inherently bad, but any tool, even one designed to protect, can be used to harm when wielded by those who would choose to use it that way. It has led me to wonder if there should be moral/ethical requirements for granting tenure in addition to academic requirements.

Part 4: What do we do now?

“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.” – Desmond Tutu 

As for me, the only apology I really want at this point consists of accountability and behavioral change, for UMD to be somewhere my nieces could safely go, somewhere they would be treated equally to my nephews, for the university and union policies to change accordingly, not for those policies to change to make certain types of harm non-investigable, as has been the case recently. Nobody can give me back my time, my energy, or my health, but they can make sure nobody else loses theirs. There needs to be true accountability for and apologies from the individuals who are contributing to the hostility. There needs to be concrete evidence of behavioral change in those individuals. Accountability can be painful because it makes us face the parts of ourselves and the things that we do that we’d rather not see or acknowledge, but it is not harmful long-term, as are the actions men continue to take if they’re not held accountable, like the harm that happens when men who have not done anything harmful assume or are treated as if they have. Accountability is just a temporarily painful prerequisite to allow for permanent positive growth. It is necessary for peace and justice and should not be confused with public shaming. It may need to be public to have an effect on behavior, but that doesn’t make it shaming, just acknowledgment that harm occurred rather than hiding it.

It’s not the initial unintentional harm that is the biggest problem; it is the absolutely intentional years-long choice to continue to be harmful and allow harm to occur rather than to change.

This is not what I wanted, not what I wanted to happen and not who I wanted to be. I never wanted to be a whistleblower, a woman who became a poster child for sexism in STEM, a cautionary tale. I wanted to be a multidisciplinary professor (I have 5 degrees in 4 fields, 3 fields if you group pure and applied math together.) I wanted to do the same thing every good Minnesotan does: learn as much as I could and take what I’d learned and give back to my community. I wanted to quietly do good work. I wanted to teach the students who grew up in my home state and city. I wanted to continue the kind of research that earned me an NSF postdoctoral fellowship, that has allowed me to work with some of the best researchers, athletes, and scholars in the world, in my hometown. I wanted to hold my girls’ neuroscience camp every summer so that girls like I used to be would get to see real science before high school or college. I wanted to be the mentor who got and kept women in STEM, the one I had already been for over a decade, to be like the woman who first reached me. I wanted to run the trails at Hartley until my legs were splattered with mud. I wanted to swim in Lake Superior even on days it was so cold it knocked the breath from my lungs. I wanted to ski Lester Park when it was -20˚ F. I wanted to really get to know the cousin who was kept from me as a child. I wanted to watch my lifelong friends’ kids grow up in person, not over social media. I will never have those things. I will probably never go home, and if I do, I will never see my hometown the same way. Those things were stolen from me and, more importantly, the whole next generation of girls by men who create a “hostile and offensive” workplace, something that it is considered illegal to create or allow in the state of Minnesota and unethical by millions of people. And even worse, because these men are choosing to continue these same harmful behaviors, they continue to prevent girls like the one I used to be from getting the equal education the law guarantees and women like the one I am now from having a safe, non-hostile workplace. 

No, this is not what I wanted, but it is what happened, and it is who the world needed me to be, and I am not often nowadays one to take the easy way out when I see other people getting hurt. When I did public interviews in April, it was the first time many people knew why I had really left Duluth. I’d stayed really quiet to allow UMD time to change, sometimes at the expense of my own relationships. One of my Duluth connections who is Quaker, sent me this Dorothy Hutchinson quote upon finding out what had happened: “A Quaker social concern arises as a revelation to an individual that there is a painful discrepancy between existing social conditions and what God wills for society and that this discrepancy is not being adequately dealt with. The next step is the determination of the individual to do something about it -not because s/he is particularly well-fitted to tackle the problem, but simply because no one else seems to be doing it.’ We call this integrity.” Despite a consistent presence at Quaker meetings due to shared fundamental values, I’m not a huge believer in God in the way many think of that entity because I have seen too many people use a higher power to justify harmful behaviors not supported by the evidence. But I am absolutely a believer in justice and integrity and that the only way to achieve the former is to have the latter. In the last four years, I have challenged people’s certainties and identities. I have made people angry. I have made people upset. I have made mistakes I regret, things I have done my best to make up for. But I have also tried to be as honest as I possibly can be (except when backed into lies of omission by the university), and I have and will continue to do my utmost to put the greater good, especially for the next generation, especially for people who are afterthoughts rather than centered in society, first. If enough others have the courage to do the same, I have confidence that eventually things will change for the better.

In terms of what I want the wider mathematical and academic community to do with regard to UMD, I want them to take action in whatever way their influence allows to ensure a change in this hostile environment and limit the chances of it occurring elsewhere.

I want them to do the actions outlined in this letter. I want them to share the public report widely. I want them to encourage women, people of color, and supportive allies of all backgrounds not to work with or take classes from any of the full male professors until there is solid proof that this environment has changed. I would ask that no state or federal funding, no taxpayer money, go toward people who contribute to this hostile environment; there are plenty of qualified, equitable faculty in STEM who deserve funding, including those who study these very problems. I would like there to be asterisks next to the names of the men who contribute to this hostile environment anywhere they are listed or honored unless they apologize and there is sufficient evidence the hostility they create has ended before they retire because it is part of their actual legacy unless/until they choose to change that. I would like some sort of guarantee of broader support from the wider mathematical community of the term and other non-harmful faculty at UMD. I would like policies in SIAM, AMS, MAA, and AWM that allow for censure or suspension of men who exhibit this behavior and then do not change. I would like outside pressure on the UMD union to rework their policies to assure it is a union for term faculty, women, and people of color and not just tenured white men, in addition to the inside pressure from women there. I would like there to be discussions about and policies that determine what level of discriminatory and other bias-based harm it would take for tenure to be suspended or revoked, not necessarily by the university, but by a truly diverse group of faculty trained to determine whether/when it is necessary. I want people to be aware that, given the funding/hiring patterns over the last 40-50 years, there are many departments with bimodal age/power distributions where this kind of damaging, misogynist environment can arise. UMD is a single sample of a real subgroup. I would encourage people to read the policies at their own universities to find and fix the loopholes that exist and allow for discrimination there and assure investigations around these issues are designed to protect those harmed, not retraumatize them. I would encourage people to recognize that group dynamics and capacity for empathy matter in hiring, especially when hiring people with the potential to get tenure.

I would encourage people not to have the typical “That could never happen here/I would never do that” response, but rather the “How do these kinds of things happen here/What problematic behaviors do I have?” response about their own institutions and behaviors.

Above all, I would ask people to make their default be to believe women, people of color, and especially women of color, when they point out bias and discrimination and to understand that not changing in a way that perpetuates harm is as bad for the world as changing in a way that creates it. I would like them to understand that, in a society like ours that is traditionally sexist and racist, bias exists until it is countered, and those on the wrong side of it learn to recognize it as a survival strategy, that a Bayesian approach as well as that which minimizes overall harm is to believe the less privileged on issues of bias until they are disproven. I was not listened to or believed by multiple people I tried to talk to about my experiences for the three years I was at UMD, including those I absolutely should have been able to trust to believe me, and my reality of being ignored and disbelieved was one reason why I felt I had to leave to be heard, for anything to change. On the other side, I had a student who went through weeks of racist treatment before they told me because they understandably were not sure a white woman would believe them. So believe the women and people of color who speak up the first time they say something about bias because it costs that individual to speak up, but it benefits everyone from their underrepresented group and society overall when their words are heard and believed and lead to positive change. 

Part 5: An Example to Follow

“It takes courage to speak up against complacency and injustice while others remain silent. But that’s what leadership is.” -Rosabeth Moss Kanter

The narrative from the department and UMD is denial and diminishment of what occurred and to just throw up their hands and say, what else do you want me to do? As it happens, I have an example of both the core values and the practices that need to be followed for things to change. My experience in my Ph.D. program at University of Colorado Applied Math was not like mine at UMD, but it was not pleasant or discrimination-free either, with me outright being told if I got something it was only because I was female within my first week, working largely on my own or with other women because the majority of male students treated female students as less smart or capable than them, and being asked constantly how to make things better for women but not able to speak up about anything due to precarious funding, funding that somehow disappeared after I said something deemed “defensive.” I had officially reported my experiences in 2019 when I told a friend who was on the faculty in a different area something that they felt triggered CU’s new-to-me mandatory reporting policy. Then, when I ran into one of my professors from Applied Math almost a year ago, one who had been consistently honest and attentive, it took me some time to muster up the trust and courage to email him, tell him briefly what had happened at UMD, and also that, I would not go to that Ph.D. program if I could do it over again because of the behavior of male professors and students meant that it had ultimately cost me more than it gave me. 

Instead of denial or the “I’m sorry you experienced that” non-apology I have gotten from other people and other places, I got a pleasant surprise. He believed what I experienced and wished it could have been better and is working to make sure that does not ever happen again. He is now department chair and has been focused on changing the faculty and culture to be truly diverse and inclusive. I knew some things were changing, as I had seen more females and people of color hired as professors, including one of the women who had been in the graduate program with me. I will not lie; one of the reasons I trusted him enough to email him, but also why I was concerned was unfairly overloading someone already dealing with oppression by emailing him, is because he is Black. I won’t say I know what it is like to be Black in Boulder because I never will, but I have heard and believed experiences from my friends of color and seen things with my own eyes that show the city’s progressive self-identity is all-too-often not even skin deep. I trusted him to accept and believe subtle sexism because I know he has experienced many types of racism and because he was genuinely good to and honest with me during my time in graduate school. There is nobody actually still in the direct line from the Math/Stats faculty on up at UMD whose behavior has indicated that I can or should trust them the same way.

Here is what triggered his actions and what he has done. He received a document anonymously recording experiences of women in the department back in 2018 from one of the female faculty. Instead of denying it occurred or arguing about what was intentional, he believed the reports, was upset that people in his department were experiencing this, and communicated with his Divisional Dean and the OIEC (Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance) at CU. They already knew about the document and were currently observing the situation. (Note: a problem with all offices like this, whatever they are named, is that they publicly state the importance of DEI, but are also responsible for legally protecting the university. These two are often at odds, and this puts those who work there in a nearly impossible position, and makes it difficult for those reporting to ever really trust their intentions.) Instead of observing, he took action, knowing that the health and future of the department depended on it. He made sure to listen to his young faculty, that the department was somewhere they could feel empowered to speak up and be heard. They are the future of the department, and he is focused on putting that future first. He has made hiring diverse faculty a focus and has not had a hard time with it, saying that they are often the most qualified. These faculty have a focus on diversifying the field, in the kind of research they do, who they do it with, and the manner in which they do it. He has pushed the administration for more hires, coming very close to hiring a senior female professor, but not being able to due to delays above him. He is still trying for a more senior hire from an underrepresented group so that new young diverse faculty can have effective in-house mentoring. He has focused on recruiting more diverse students and working to assure those who are underrepresented the kind of guaranteed funding that does not put them at risk. He has assured funding for programs like the Association for Women in Mathematics and other associations for traditionally underrepresented groups. A far cry from the few in my incoming cohort, of whom I was the only one to stay to get a Ph.D. at CU, or the zero the year before, he has achieved half female students multiple times and not had any struggle retaining them. I am sure it is not perfect, but what matters is acting immediately to end harm, listening to those who speak up about it, and making continued, measurable forward progress.

If a department is really to change discriminatory patterns, the person at the top needs to realize that the future of the department depends on that change, to continually take action to fight for DEI themselves, and, above all, to listen to and empower the faculty, tenured or not, and students to do so without fear of repercussions.

If people from underrepresented groups are punished for speaking up, if nothing changes when they do, if they are shown that they cannot trust those in charge, those who can will leave, and those who cannot will suffer in silence. If not addressed, this leads to a slow death of the community, but if addressed and fixed, it can lead to shared purpose, revitalization, and hope.

2 responses to “The women of the University of Minnesota Duluth speak: Kristine Snyder’s story”

  1. Thank you so much for this well written and thoughtful writing. You’re doing important work.

  2. People are punished for speaking up. Don’t make any mistake about that. I cried when I read this post.

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