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Iowa State University has agreed to pay a former professor and lab director $275,000 as part of a settlement stemming from years of accusations both from her and against her — including that her department chair and his domestic partner made unwanted sexual advances toward her.
“We did everything that we were supposed to … We engaged the system in good faith,” former ISU professor and researcher Birdie Shirtcliff told The Gazette. “And now, on the other side of it, what we realize is that the internal systems and checks and balances are designed very much to silence the victim and to support the perpetrators.”
In a statement provided to The Gazette, ISU disputed “all of Dr. Shirtcliff’s claims against the university and its employees.”
“The settlement agreement allows Dr. Shirtcliff and the university to move forward separately for the benefit of both parties,” it said.
As part of the settlement, signed Oct. 28, Shirtcliff agreed to resign, although ISU will continue paying her wages through the end of the month and covering her benefits through the end of the year.
She agreed not to apply for an ISU job in the future, and the university agreed to withdraw from her personnel file a June “letter of direction” accusing Shirtcliff of bullying and harassing behavior, according to documents obtained by The Gazette.
“Your email language crosses the line from questioning policies and procedures to bullying behavior,” ISU College of Human Sciences Associate Dean Robert Reason wrote in that June letter.
Shirtcliff, 43, for years had been accusing ISU colleagues and superiors of the same — beginning not long after she arrived at ISU from the University of New Orleans as an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and then intensifying in 2018.
Shirtcliff — who until recently directed ISU’s “Stress Physiology Investigative Team” examining how a child’s environment can shape his or her well-being — began raising concerns about unwanted sexual advances, harassment and retaliation in 2018.
After informal meetings and talks of potential mediation, Shirtcliff officially filed complaints against her department chair and his domestic partner — an ISU psychology professor — in late 2018 and early 2019 accusing them of making sexual advances and then inflicting harassing and retaliatory behavior after the advances were denied, according to documents detailing years of complaints.
Shirtcliff’s official complaints came after she said her department chair preemptively filed a report with ISU’s Office of Equal Opportunity and after his domestic partner made a handful of allegations against Shirtcliff, including a pattern of harassment.
Months of back and forth spawned accusations and counterattacks over harassment, faculty and research misconduct, retaliation, Title IX offenses, hiring violations, civil rights impingement and non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Those accusations prompted monthslong investigations from the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and the Faculty Review Board, involving the Title IX, human resources and provost offices.
Citing trauma she experienced over months of the drama, Shirtcliff in April 2020 sought leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act. Due to suicidal ideation and life-threatening post-traumatic stress, Shirtcliff requested time away “to heal.”
In documents supporting her request, therapists suggested specific triggers of working under and with her chair. But human resources rejected her condition as qualifying as a disability.
“Your impairment does not rise to the level of a ‘disability,’” according to a Nov. 23, 2020, letter from ISU to Shirtcliff.
“Persons who do not have a ‘disability’ as defined by the ADA are not eligible for reasonable accommodation,” an accommodations coordinator wrote. “Based on the information provided by you and your health care provider, it appears that you are unable to perform your job responsibilities. If you are unable to perform your job, the university may need to take steps to separate you from employment.”
The ISU office again in May denied Shirtcliff’s request to “avoid any and all contact” with her chair, whom she accused of advances and harassment, stating that “is not a reasonable accommodation.”
“An employer is not required to provide an anxiety- or stress-free environment or to reassign an employee away from any supervisor or co-worker who may cause stress or conflict,” according to ISU human resources.
In addition to Shirtcliff’s disciplinary letter for harassing and bullying behavior and language, ISU in October accused her of hiring a postdoctoral scholar in California without approval. Shirtcliff told The Gazette that accusation was retaliatory.
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