Prageeta Sharma, former director of the University of Montana Creative Writing Program, is alleging that UM discriminated against her on the basis of race, color, sex and age when it discharged her last year from the leadership post.
"She was removed as the director of the Creative Writing Program," says Sharma's Missoula attorney, Elizabeth O'Halloran.
In November 2011, Sharma filed an initial complaint with the state alleging that UM discriminated against her. The Montana Department of Labor and Industry dismissed that complaint after finding insufficient evidence to prove her claim. Sharma appealed the decision and, on Sept. 19, the Montana Human Rights Commission, a five-member body appointed by the governor, found cause to investigate her claim further.
"The case is ongoing," says state equal opportunity specialist Tim Little.
In 2007, UM hired Sharma as an associate poetry professor and to serve as Creative Writing Program director. Though Sharma is still employed by UM, she's on sabbatical this year and could not be reached for comment. "My indication from her is she doesn't want a bunch of publicity," O'Halloran says.
For that reason, O'Halloran declined to detail the specifics surrounding Sharma's complaint. Biographical material indicates that Sharma's parents emigrated to the United States from India in 1969. Three years later, Sharma was born in Framingham, Mass.
In 2010, Sharma said in an interview with the Poetry Society of America that her minority status influences her significantly, both professionally and personally. "Ethnicity, gender, (dare I say height?), class and religious (I'm a relaxed Hindu) beliefs have all been a major factor," she said. "I'm a short, brown woman running a program and teaching in the academy in the deep West."
UM's Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Director Lucy France acknowledges that UM released Sharma from the director position. She denies, however, that UM violated any laws when doing so. "Essentially, her administrative contract was not renewed," France says. "The university denies that any prohibited discrimination played a role."
The Montana Human Rights Bureau is required by law to hold a hearing to vet Sharma's claims within the next 11 months. A state hearing examiner will then issue findings on whether discrimination occurred. "The charging party has to prove through a preponderance of evidence that they were subject to discrimination," Little says.