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When Roger Ondoua first arrived in Conrad in 2015, he was taken aback at the geniality he felt from local residents. He remembers an unfamiliar man waving from his porch, prompting Ondoua to think he was acknowledging someone else. Eventually, he realized it wasn’t uncommon for drivers to issue friendly salutes from behind the wheel.
“I was surprised that even little kids wouldn’t be afraid,” Ondoua said. “There were not a lot of Black men in Conrad, but they weren’t afraid.”
Ondoua had moved to northern Montana from Canada to take a research job at the Western Triangle Agricultural Research Center, part of a network of remote stations at Montana State University. As an assistant professor of agronomy and soil nutrient management, Ondoua’s job was to study how the growth of certain crops, such as wheat, barley and lentils, is impacted by various factors including nutrient levels and soil drainage.
Originally from Cameroon, Ondoua received his Ph.D. in soil fertility from the Université Laval in Quebec in 2004. After years of teaching college courses, Ondoua saw the position at WTARC as a promising opportunity to conduct his own research at an American university and eventually publish his findings.
“I was only interested in having, for the first time, a budget to design my experiment, control everything,” Ondoua said. “And I knew that once my research was out, that would be an equalizer.”
But Ondoua said the camaraderie he first encountered in Conrad was a stark contrast to his professional environment. In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Great Falls, Ondoua describes racist harassment, discrimination and retaliation from several of his colleagues at WTARC, and an attitude of disregard and blame from MSU administrators who were made aware of his working conditions. In January 2017, Ondoua’s contract was not renewed. He and his lawyers allege he was wrongfully terminated and is due significant compensatory damages.
Christopher Abbott, the state’s assistant attorney general representing MSU, declined to comment on pending litigation.
The suit, which Ondoua filed in January of 2018, has generated more than 20,000 pages of evidence, witness declarations and hours of deposition testimony. The parties are scheduled to appear in court Tuesday, Aug. 11, for a confidential settlement conference. If negotiations are unsuccessful, the case may proceed to a jury trial.
In late July, U.S. District Court Judge John Johnston vacated a previously scheduled hearing on motions for summary judgment, in which the state argued that counts against the defendants be dismissed. The defense filings, in part, claim Ondoua does not have evidence to prove that the actions he alleges, including the failure to renew his contract, were the result of racial animus.
“Whatever the merits of any individual allegation Ondoua makes about either matter may be, however, the Court need not delve into the details because there is a common weak link: no evidence of a racially discriminatory motive,” attorneys for the defendants wrote.
Ondoua and his attorneys disagree, citing numerous examples of a hostile work environment in which Ondoua was the target of discriminatory actions, both by his colleagues at the research station and by supervisors and human resources employees who had the purview to investigate and respond to Ondoua’s complaints.
“When looking at the totality of the employment circumstances two things become clear,” attorney Daniel Jones wrote in an October filing. “First, Ondoua was passionately committed to his scientific research. Second, the Defendants, collectively, enabled an absolutely toxic work environment from which Ondoua was continuously refused any reprieve, the result of which was Ondoua’s ruined […] career.”
Montana State University employs roughly 4,250 faculty and staff members, including graduate student assistants, and is widely recognized as a powerful research engine statewide, funneling $154 million toward research expenditures in fiscal year 2019. Ondoua’s case, beyond the possibility of securing monetary damages, has the potential to increase scrutiny about how discrimination complaints are handled within the institution and across Montana’s higher education system.
“It just looks like they not just permitted discrimination and harassment and a hostile work environment, but they almost encouraged it. They enabled it,” Jones said in a recent interview, referring to MSU administrators and supervisors. “And that’s really the disturbing part.”
Ondoua said the first time an MSU employee made him feel uncomfortable was during his interview for the research position in April 2015. He was driving from Bozeman to Conrad with Barry Jacobsen, whose title was then interim head of the department of research centers. On the drive, Ondoua said, Jacobsen began asking Ondoua about his political beliefs and party affiliation. Ondoua dodged the questions, responding that Canada doesn’t have the same party system as the U.S.
According to the complaint, Jacobsen went on to say, “All Blacks support Obama. … I like the man, but I hate his policies. … you sure you aren’t one of his supporters?”
Ondoua said he again attempted to evade the question, responding that he held “some conservative values.” In an interview with Montana Free Press, Ondoua said he found the comments unsettling.
“I knew that it was unprofessional. Unethical. During an interview, don’t probe people about their political affiliation — I knew that he was probing me.”
Attorneys for MSU conceded that Jacobsen stated his feelings about Obama, but denied that he mentioned race or inquired about Ondoua’s political affiliations.
Soon after Ondoua accepted the position, his complaint states, instances of bigotry and discrimination became overt. Ondoua said he was chest-bumped and verbally assaulted by another employee in late July 2015, an incident he said was witnessed by the then-superintendent of WTARC, Gadi Reddy. In a later email about the altercation, Reddy responded that he had had a meeting with the associate, John Miller, and hoped that conversation would help “resolve the issues,” according to copies of the emails included in legal filings.
But for Ondoua, the work environment continued to deteriorate. The next month, the complaint states, a different employee posted a hostile racist meme on Ondoua’s office door. The image was of a Black man’s face with the caption, “Did you ever look at one of your coworkers and be like, how the fuck you still work here?” Attorneys for MSU conceded that the employee had displayed the meme at her desk, but denied the remainder of the allegation.
Around the same time and in the months that followed, Ondoua began documenting a slew of equipment failures and alleged interference with his research projects — an irrigation pump handle and a facility truck suddenly turned up broken or damaged, inhibiting his program’s field work. He again reported the incidents, this time alleging sabotage in a complaint with the university’s human resources department about the employee he believed to be involved. No one from the department responded, according to Ondoua’s complaint.
There were also several instances in which Ondoua complained about intentional misapplication of herbicides on and around his research plots, alleging they were detrimental to his experiments. Attorneys for MSU mostly dispute that the incidents took place. In some cases, attorneys denied that incidents were maliciously intended.
MSU supervisors were, however, responsive to a complaint filed against Ondoua by a field mechanic in the spring of 2016 alleging that Ondoua had mishandled the application of a potent pesticide. Jacobsen later reiterated the claim in a letter of warning issued to Ondoua, who denied that the incident ever occured.
Equipment failure and malfunction continued to vex Ondoua’s ability to conduct his research, although WTARC and university officials disputed the extent of the problems. According to Ondoua’s complaint, the mechanical seeder issued to him was defective, prompting Ondoua and his crew to work the fields by hand. While doing so, Ondoua described multiple instances in which fellow employees or passersby made racist comments toward him, including an interaction in which Miller, the research associate, asked Ondoua how it felt “in the plantation.” In documentation detailing his work environment, submitted as part of a pre-lawsuit complaint to the Montana Human Rights Bureau, Ondoua said it was only afterward that he realized Miller was “comparing me to a slave.”
As with many of his other concerns, Ondoua sent several written complaints to supervisors and administrators about his frustration with the equipment and the lack of support from farm mechanics and field technicians. MSU’s attorneys contend that the defendants did try to fix the mechanical problems that were brought to their attention; some of the defendants have countered that it was actually Ondoua who was incapable of handling and maintaining mechanical equipment.
In April 2016, Ondoua’s request to use another available seeder was denied in a WTARC staff meeting, according to his own recounting. The following month, Ondoua reached out to staff members at external research centers to request access to some of their equipment. According to their email exchanges, some of those employees expressed confusion about why Ondoua was not able to use available equipment at WTARC and raised concerns to MSU administrators about the seemingly faulty internal communication at the research center.
For their part, supervisors were critical of Ondoua’s outreach to other research centers. In an email exchange with Jacobsen, at the time the associate director of the Montana Agricultural Research Center, human resources employee Brandi Clark wrote that Ondoua, in her opinion, “is not going to succeed in this position.” Jacobsen later issued a second letter of warning to Ondoua, in part stating that Ondoua’s request to other research centers “caused confusion and spread your poor attitude to other locations within the department.”
Other email exchanges show overt and demeaning comments about Ondoua by people in management positions. Roughly four months after Ondoua started his job at WTARC, then-Superintendent Reddy complained to Clark that he had been working with Ondoua “with lots patience and persistence but he has some mental problems as well.” Clark responded, asking what kind of “mental problems” Reddy was referring to.
“We all believe that he is pretty close to bipolar!” Reddy replied, later adding, “I am not sure whether he has other problems.”
Asked about this claim, Ondoua told MTFP that he has never been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
In email communications, formal reprimands and legal declarations, WTARC employees and MSU administrators regularly characterize Ondoua in a negative manner, labeling his behavior rude, belligerent, arrogant and otherwise unprofessional. But these personality complaints are often difficult to distinguish from what Ondoua understands to be a widespread smear campaign against him. In December 2016, one of Ondoua’s colleagues recounted an incident in which she said Miller, the research associate, attempted to coach her into filing a false harassment complaint against Ondoua, according to her emails documenting the conversation that are included in legal filings. Miller later told the Montana Human Rights Bureau that he perceived the colleague to be afraid of Ondoua, which the colleague denied in correspondence to Jacobsen.
“I told him I have been working with [Ondoua] since October and have not had any [problem] or issue with him,” she wrote. “I am really tired about the constant gossiping and plotting. I hear and see every day wisepering [sic] and interference in our research program. They coach me to say that Roger is harrasing [sic] me and we are working in bad conditions with wrong methods. As an academic person i need a proffessional [sic] and calm place to do my work.”
Ondoua’s complaint also states that human resources employee Deborah Barkley, also a defendant, once told Ondoua that an unspecified sexual harassment allegation had been made against him, a claim Ondoua said was vague and not discussed further. MSU’s attorneys confirm the conversation took place, and said Barkley knew the university “lacked sufficient information to pursue the allegation as an active case and would not be pursuing the allegations any further.”
In another incident, Ondoua was reprimanded after rumors circulated among staff members that he had been rude to farmers in Conrad, as well as to his own employees.
“This behavior is not professional and will not be tolerated. We take allegations of verbally abusive behavior seriously,” Jacobsen wrote in a second letter of warning to Ondoua, dated June 2016. “You will treat others with courtesy and respect and will refrain from any behavior that could be considered as rude, condescending, or arrogant. Insulting others and making derisive comments is unacceptable. We expect you to take this matter seriously.”
That same month, Ondoua again attempted to detail his experiences to MSU administrators. In response to Jacobsen’s warning letter, Ondoua wrote a letter rebutting the complaints made against him.
“These accusations are not substantiated by any facts and are waged by the very same people I complain about. No specifics, [no] prior documentation, no disclosed accuser, no disclosed victim, yet I am right away condemned without even a chance to defend myself,” Ondoua wrote. In closing, he said, “I feel lonely and abandoned.”
Regarding the charges against Jacobsen and co-defendant Charles Boyer, the dean of MSU’s College of Agriculture, MSU’s attorneys say the decision to not renew Ondoua’s contract in January 2017 was based purely on his unsatisfactory performance as a research professor. They contend that Ondoua did not publish enough articles or reports in 2016, that there was reason to doubt his scientific and research expertise, and that he did not satisfactorily fulfill the job’s requirements for community outreach and teaching.
Ondoua and his attorneys contest the methods used for ranking him “below expectations” in his 2016 review. But they also argue that the decision to not renew Ondoua’s contract was in process months before his 2016 evaluation was finalized. In September, after Ondoua asked Clark how to file a formal workplace harassment complaint against Reddy, email communication between Clark, Jacobsen and Boyer showed their deliberations about how to transfer or terminate Ondoua.
“WTARC will not be able to succeed with an inept administrator at the wheel and an angry junior faculty member looking for any chance to file a complaint,” Clark wrote in reference to Reddy and Ondoua.
Jacobsen responded minutes later, stating that Ondoua would soon be up for retention, but “at this point I doubt that he will be successful.”
MSU’s attorneys maintain that the administration was justified in declining to renew Ondoua’s contract, and that their motives had nothing to do with racial bias. In other briefs supporting the dismissal of charges against Miller and other defendants, the attorneys also argue that some of the actions Ondoua alleges, such as the posted meme and the chest-bumping incident, do not constitute “adverse employment action” or satisfy the legal standard for a hostile work environment.
“Ondoua’s claim consists of the July 2015 alleged “chestbumping” incident and two or three alleged racial jokes or statements made intermittently over the course of a year,” the defense wrote regarding the allegations against Miller. “These acts, even if true, are not ‘severe or pervasive.’”
An investigation by the Montana Human Rights Bureau also found there was “no reasonable cause” to justify the discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination claims that Ondoua outlined against his colleagues. The bureau’s report examined only instances that had happened within 180 days preceding Ondoua’s filing, per the statute of limitations for workplace discrimination and harassment complaints. In that investigation, MSU maintained that Ondoua’s complaints did not explicitly recount discrimination based on race or national origin, that he did not file a complaint with the university’s Office of Institional Equity, and that there were reasonable justifications for not renewing his contract.
While the merits of the case continue to be debated, evidence also suggests that MSU did not properly follow its own protocols for handling workplaints complaints, particularly in light of preexisting concerns about the environment at WTARC.
In an internal report conducted in October 2015, human resources employees and Jacobsen, concluded that WTARC lacked clear leadership and protocols for functioning effectively. Employees raised concerns about equipment, workplace gossip and delineation of responsibilities. The report summarized that the environment at WTARC “enables rash and unthoughtful behavior.” What the report characterized as the “longstanding nature of this negative and destructive behavior” was the basis for certain changes enacted at the center, which are redacted in the copy of the report included in court filings.
One human resource employee, Brandi Clark, later reiterated in her deposition testimony that she understood there to be ample concerns about WTARC as a workplace. She also agreed that she should have referred Ondoua to MSU’s Office of Institutional Equity after reading some of his concerns, but said she had not, at that point, received training about mandatory reporting for discrimination complaints. Still, she disagreed that Ondoua had been discriminated against because of his race while working at MSU.
Since the end of his time at WTARC, Ondoua has moved back to Canada and is currently working as a botany assessor at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. But he said finding employment as an agronomist or researcher has been difficult since his termination, even when applying to positions that are complementary to his previous job description.
Outside of his professional life, Ondoua said he has trouble sleeping and has been treated for depression and anxiety since working in Conrad.
“I lost my career,” he said in a recent interview. “I made sacrifices because I knew that my reward would be my work. And that has been lost.”