Documents filed last week as part of a harassment lawsuit against the University of Nevada, Reno reveal more about the alleged toxic environment within the university’s communication studies department.
Jimmie Manning, the chair of UNR’s communications department, in mid-October filed a motion to intervene in the federal civil rights lawsuit against the university brought by Tennley Vik, a professor in the same department. Vik alleges the university allowed sexual and retaliatory hostility to permeate the workplace, violating her civil rights under Title VII.
In an argument opposing Manning’s request to intervene in the case, Vik’s response includes affidavits and emails from multiple faculty members within UNR’s College of Liberal Arts—which houses the communications department—that describe the extent of what Vik and others call a culture of sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation. Knowledge of the situation went at least as high as the office of the provost, and deans and directors said they were regularly fielding complaints from faculty and students.
Statements from faculty picked up shortly after Manning was hired in early 2019.
A series of complaints
Lydia Huerta, an assistant professor of gender, race and identity, said she moved to another department on campus because she “could no longer function under the xenophobic, sexist and racist culture of the Department of Communications which had developed under Dr. Manning’s leadership.”
In addition to providing a three-page affidavit describing her interactions with Manning over the past four years, she also provided a copy of a seven-page letter sent to UNR’s chief diversity and inclusion officer in April 2022. Huerta said that letter was a “last resort” to outline what she called “systemic racism and bias toward people of color and some women,” both graduate students and faculty, in the communications studies department.
She alleged that in March 2019 Manning asked her, as a Latina woman, if Latina women made good surrogate mothers and “opined as to whether he and a Latina woman would make good babies.” She also alleged he spoke poorly of female colleagues, told her he was well endowed, and complained that students disliked him openly talking about his sex life in class.
Huerta said Manning also displayed bias in her annual evaluation—a review required for tenure, unrelated to a personnel review—by refusing to acknowledge published papers written in Spanish.
“I was upset because my 23-page paper in Spanish was not considered research, and I was told I should publish in English,” she said. “I asked how I should be expected to do transnational research if publications in Spanish were not counted.” She said she had to appeal to Manning’s superiors to have her evaluation corrected.
She also requested department leadership be required to take bias training and that she be transferred to another department.
Vik’s initial complaint about Manning also came from a March 2019 interaction, substantiated by Jenna Hanchey in Vik’s latest court filing. Hanchey was an assistant professor in the communications department for five years, but left in June 2022 because of what she said was a “hostile work environment both at the department and university levels.”
Vik and Hanchey allege Manning stood in the doorway of Vik’s office and told the two women that a senior colleague was sexually pursuing him because he “had a big dick.”
UNR leadership made aware of complaints
Vik said she reported Manning’s comments to Debra Moddelmog, the then-dean of the College of Liberal Arts. She said she also reported the incident to the university’s Title IX office and to Clayton Peoples, a director within the college.
Huerta said she too made multiple reports to Moddelmog and Peoples about the work environment under Manning’s leadership. She said she was interviewed by investigators from UNR’s Title IX office twice—once in 2019 and again in 2021—about interactions between Vik and Manning, but she said she’s unaware of any results of those investigations.
Daniel Perez is an associate dean of diversity and inclusion in the College of Liberal Arts. He said he began fielding complaints about Manning in September 2019 from both Vik and Huerta, and a third faculty member, Sarah Blithe. Those complaints included allegations that Manning was excluding the women from participating in department committees and other activities—actions they said were retaliation for reporting his comments.
Darrell Lockhart, then an associate dean of faculty affairs and now a vice provost, was present during those meetings between Perez and the female professors, and, with Perez, took their complaints to Moddelmog. The trio circulated a survey to department faculty to gather anonymous feedback, then met again with Vik, Huerta and Blithe on March 4, 2020, to discuss the results.
As Huerta tells it, the three women were told they were the only faculty who had any issues with Manning. “I perceived that to mean we should stop making complaints against Dr. Manning because they would not be taken seriously by the college,” she said.
The details Perez offered of the meeting differ. He said the three women complained that Manning was spreading lies designed to create infighting within the department, and Manning had created a culture of fear and mistrust.
Jennifer Lanterman, a professor at the university since 2012, said she too began to field complaints about Manning in 2021 immediately after she assumed the role of director of the School of Social Research and Justice Studies within the College of Liberal Arts.
“The conduct alleged in the Complaint, even if true, was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment.”– UNR attorney Bryan Wright
“I fielded multiple credible complaints by faculty about Dr. Manning discussing his genitalia,” she said. “They reported the conduct to Title IX. However, they complained to me that nothing was being done about it. Female faculty further reported to me that they would assist students in filing Title IX reports about Dr. Manning.”
Lanterman said she also received complaints from female graduate students who feared reporting Manning because of what they said was the potential for retaliation. “One had Dr. Manning as an advisor and described his behavior as a ‘stunning lack of professionalism’ that made getting through the program ‘almost impossible.’”
Lanterman said she reported all of the complaints on a monthly basis to the former Dean, Moddlemog. All the complaints were from females, she said, except for one male student who complained on behalf of a female student.
Manning treated female faculty more harshly than males in their tenure evaluations, according to Lanterman. In analyzing the evaluations, she said she found Manning would rely on complaints against female faculty members to lower their scores. She alleged he didn’t reduce the scores for males who also had complaints against them. Manning also included personnel issues in Vik’s evaluation, which she said was inappropriate.
Lanterman said she brought her concerns to Moddelmog, who said she would address them with Manning. Months later, in March 2023, Lanterman received an email from College of Liberal Arts Associate Dean Christopher Williams advising she was being removed from the evaluation reviews.
“I protested this, as I felt the action was a significant departure from the way annual evaluations had been done in the past, and considering the issues and inconsistencies in the previous year’s evaluations would be a disservice to the faculty,” Lanterman said.
During the 2022 spring semester, Perez said he also noticed the inconsistencies between other annual evaluations and those prepared by Manning for Vik, Huerta and Blithe.
“The letters contained information which was inappropriate for an annual evaluation, such as questions of conduct during a faculty meeting, and veered from the standards of the department and the college,” Perez wrote in his affidavit.
He said he brought those concerns again to Moddelmog. The two notified Provost Jeff Thompson, who approved bringing in a consulting group to facilitate training and workshops to help resolve the department’s issues.
A proposal memo from the consultants, Center for Strategic Facilitation, sent on Feb. 4, 2022, outlined the issues Moddelmog and Perez had discussed, including that Manning had been caught lying, had retained his role as chair because some faculty “felt the alternative could be worse,” and he didn’t believe the situation in the department was as bad as it was perceived to be.
The consultants also noted that all of the female faculty members within the department were looking for new jobs that year, and one—Hanchey—succeeded. They recommended holding the training and workshops before the end of the semester and Moddelmog’s retirement in June.
That didn’t happen.
“I find the proposition a sexual harasser would spend money to retain counsel, for the purpose of further harassing a Title VII complainant, inherently provocative and offensive.”– Attorney Mark Mausert
Emails between Perez, Manning, Moddelmog, Interim Dean Casilde Isabelli and the consultants stated that any activities would need to be postponed until the start of the fall semester. In the meantime, Moddelmog wrote an email to Isabelli describing some of her concerns about Manning’s handling of annual evaluations.
In August, Perez reached out to coordinate dates with the consultants, but a month later Isabelli removed him from the project and turned it over to Associate Dean Williams. “To my knowledge, the Center for Strategic Facilitation never provided any of the additional workshops or training to the department due to changes in leadership in the Dean’s Office,” Perez said.
UNR spokesperson Scott Walquist confirmed that Center for Strategic Facilitation never conducted the training or workshops.
Perez added that he was removed from involvement with the communication studies department and, despite being associate dean of diversity and inclusion, was not invited to participate in diversity, equity and inclusion matters even when requested by faculty.
Throughout this time, Vik said she made multiple requests to report to someone aside from Manning and to be transferred to another department. College leadership made no efforts to do so, she said.
In August 2023, following what she said were months of emotional distress and a leave of absence to seek therapy, she filed her civil rights lawsuit against the university.
UNR denies allegations, claims immunity
This Is Reno contacted UNR officials in August for comment on the lawsuit. Spokesperson Scott Walquist said, “The university disputes the allegations of the complaint and intends to respond through the court process. The University does not have any further comment on this pending litigation.”
But UNR’s attorney did have more to say. Associate General Counsel Bryan Wright denied Vik’s claims and filed UNR’s response to her lawsuit on Oct. 6 stating UNR had no knowledge of Vik’s complaints, a response contradicted by the more recent court documents. The university also alleges that Vik “failed to exhaust her administrative remedies as to those claims and allegations,” and that her lawsuit was brought too long after the alleged conduct had taken place.
Wright downplayed Vik’s claims, arguing “The conduct alleged in the Complaint, even if true, was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment,” and was also “not both objectively and subjectively offensive.” Wright also blamed Vik, saying UNR had “exercised reasonable care to prevent and/or correct harassing behavior, if any, and unreasonably failed to avail herself of preventative or corrective opportunities provided by University.”
As it has done in other similar lawsuits, UNR’s legal counsel argues that the university has immunity from such lawsuits under a law that provides for state and state agency immunity from acts of its contractors, officers or employees.
UNR is facing two other, similar lawsuits by female faculty members claiming sexual harassment, assault and discrimination. Feifei Fan, an engineering professor, sued UNR and recently hired a new attorney in her case, after her original case in federal court was dismissed.
Her lawsuit led to a student protest in mid-October during a groundbreaking ceremony for the university’s new business buildings. Students continue to demand answers from UNR leadership about her case, saying President Brian Sandoval’s comments during and after the protest were dishonest and insufficient. Murals have been painted expressing support for Fan. One asks what Thompson, Sandoval and UNR attorney Mary Dugan are hiding. The students allege UNR “has been perpetuating an unsafe environment since the early 2000s at least.”
Alice Wieland, a former business professor, also has a lawsuit against the university. She is alleging gender discrimination after she was denied tenure, and her case is headed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals after District Judge Miranda Du ruled against Wieland and in favor of the Nevada System of Higher Education. The American Association of University Professors in August joined the Nevada Faculty Alliance in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in her case.
“ denial was based in large part on anonymous comments in her student evaluations that were selectively chosen to hurt her tenure application,” NFA’s statement said. “Numerous studies have proven that student evaluations are an inaccurate and discriminatory measure of teaching effectiveness, and most demonstrate there is considerable gender bias against female instructors in student comments.”
“NFA remains concerned about the number of lawsuits that have been filed against NSHE institutions that appear to be the result of inadequate Title IX/EEO investigations, and the Tennley Vik case is part of that pattern,” Jim New, president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said regarding Vik’ case.
Vik’s lawsuit was filed as a violation of her rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to provide a workplace free of harassment based on race, color, sex, age or other protected classes and prohibits retaliation for filing complaints about harassment and discrimination. She said the university fired her after learning she’d filed a complaint with the Nevada Equal Rights Commission regarding the discrimination she’d endured under Manning’s leadership.
Manning’s effort to clear his name
Manning, who wasn’t named as a defendant in Vik’s lawsuit, denies the allegations. He said Vik’s allegations are retaliation against him.
“I believe Dr. Vik and her colleagues are retaliating because they are unhappy with unfavorable performance evaluations that were made on academic merits and without regard to gender, race, or national origin,” he told This Is Reno.
On Oct. 17, he filed, through a privately hired attorney, a motion to intervene in the case saying that Vik’s claims “dramatically impact” his reputation. He claims This Is Reno’s reporting on the case—and alleged distribution of the story by Vik—led to him being barred from attending and presenting at a national conference.
In his filing, he said he is also concerned that Vik’s allegations will result in the rejection of his scholarly articles from publications, his removal from the executive committee of the National Communications Association and negative impacts to his standing and progress at UNR and in the academic community as a whole.
His filing also indicated that he didn’t trust the university to defend his reputation in its actions on the case. Despite denying the allegations, he said, resolution in the case would not determine whether the allegations against him were true or false. Manning’s lawyer also claimed that UNR’s immunity defense was hostile to Manning’s position because it rests upon the idea that despite unlawful acts by an employee, the university could not be held responsible.
Attorneys for both UNR and Vik opposed Manning’s motion to intervene in the case. Both argued that his claim belonged in state court and that potential damage to his reputation wasn’t a “significantly protectable interest.” He still has his job at the university, Vik’s attorney Mark Mausert added.
“Mr. Manning should have considered his reputational interests before he discussed the size of his penis in a professional environment—and then engaged in retaliation and retaliatory hostility against our client,” he wrote in an email to Manning’s attorney. “Your client is lucky he is not being sued.”
Mausert continued, “I have watched how UNR handles sexual harassment problems for decades. I have seen Mr. Manning’s ilk on a number of occasions.”
He called Manning’s motion to intervene “malicious interference.”
“I find the proposition a sexual harasser would spend money to retain counsel, for the purpose of further harassing a Title VII complainant, inherently provocative and offensive,” he said.
And, despite UNR’s denial of the allegations and its claim of immunity, according to Vik’s opposition to the intervention, the university has engaged with her attorney in “productive settlement discussions” in the case.