A former associate dean of the School of Arts and Sciences filed a federal complaint against the University of Richmond claiming that she was discriminated against based on her female sex and effectively fired from her position in the dean’s office during fall 2017. 

Della Dumbaugh, a tenured professor of mathematics, is suing the university for $1 million in damages and fees based on her claims of discrimination and a “hostile work environment,” in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to the lawsuit. 

Della Dumbaugh, professor of mathematics.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion.

Dumbaugh’s attorney, Scott Crowley, declined to comment about the case on her behalf.

“The complaint is lengthy and speaks for itself,” Crowley said. 

In the 14-page complaint filed last Thursday, Dumbaugh accuses Patrice Rankine, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, of discrimination.

University spokeswoman Cynthia Price responded to the lawsuit in an email statement: "As the suit involves respected members of our community, the University does not plan to publicly address any allegations. We will file a response to the complaint at the appropriate time. The University remains committed to maintaining a diverse and inclusive community where all members can thrive."

Rankine, who assumed his position in 2016, criticized and “systematically humiliated” Dumbaugh in several instances, according to the lawsuit. 

Patrice Rankine, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.

According to the lawsuit, Dumbaugh had 16 meetings with Rankine between April 4 and Aug. 23, 2017. In nine of those meetings, he “stripped some of her responsibilities, raised his voice at her or barred her from working with colleagues,” she claims in the lawsuit. 

Rankine hired Dumbaugh, who has worked at the university since 1994, as an associate dean in his office soon after he was named dean. Their working relationship was at first positive, according to the complaint. 

But their relationship turned hostile in April 2017 when Rankine began to publicly embarrass Dumbaugh while asserting his position of power, she claims in the lawsuit.

During a staff meeting, Rankine pressed Dumbaugh to express negative feedback about him after she had demurred. When she did describe the criticism, Rankine responded, “That’s coming from a position of low esteem!” according to the complaint.

Soon after, Dumbaugh confronted Rankine about the comment. He apologized and asked her to let him know if he behaved like that again, according to the lawsuit. 

But Rankine made it clear that he would use the power of his position to silence her and created a hostile work environment for her, Dumbaugh claims in the lawsuit.

Rankine later assigned Dumbaugh to take responsibility for a new faculty orientation. 

Dumbaugh reported preliminary arrangements to Rankine in late May 2017 so that he
could participate. When presented with the information, Rankine responded, “Why do you make these plans without checking with me?” according to the lawsuit.

“Not only did this response cause [Dumbaugh] significant anxiety, but it also undermined her credibility with the faculty and staff of the Dean’s Office, and hampered her ability to do her job,” according to the complaint. 

In the complaint, Dumbaugh details examples of what she believes to be sex-based discrimination by Rankine. 

Click to view the full lawsuit filed by Della Dumbaugh against the University of Richmond on Jan. 24. 

In one instance, the complaint states that Rankine responded to a statement Dumbaugh prefaced with “‘I know this might make you frustrated or angry . . .’” by saying “‘When have I been frustrated or angry? This comment is not constructive. It is not helpful.’” 

The complaint states that when a male associate dean prefaced a statement of his own by saying “‘This is going to piss you off,’” Rankine encouraged him by replying, “‘Try me.’”

Dumbaugh claims in the lawsuit that she was “constructively discharged” from her position as associate dean.

On Aug. 23, 2017, Dumbaugh called Rankine to resign as associate dean. He responded, “Okey dokey,” according to the complaint. 

On Sept. 14, 2017, Rankine informed arts and sciences faculty of Dumbaugh’s resignation in an announcement that Dumbaugh characterized as brusque and sharp in the complaint. 

“Dean Rankine offered no acknowledgement of Dr. Dumbaugh’s contributions to the School, made no expression of gratitude for her efforts, and did not ask the faculty to signify appreciation for her service, all standard protocol when Associate Deans return to their departments,” the lawsuit stated.  

It was unclear to colleagues the nature of Dumbaugh’s departure.

“Three faculty members told her they concluded that she was fired, and a fourth was later informed by faculty who attended the meeting that Dr. Dumbaugh had been fired,” according to the complaint. “He intentionally used the faculty meeting to publicly shame Dr. Dumbaugh.” 

Dumbaugh claims she is not the only woman who has faced issues with Rankine at the university. She learned that Rankine barred other women from making contacts to complete tasks and noticed that Rankine treated male colleagues differently, according to the complaint.

“To Dr. Dumbaugh’s knowledge, five and possibly six female staff members have left
the Dean’s office on account of his conduct towards women,” according to the lawsuit. “Three of the six staff who resigned were replaced by men.” 

Dumbaugh retained legal counsel after her resignation to send a letter to Provost Jeff Legro advising the university of Rankine’s alleged discriminatory conduct toward her, according to the lawsuit. 

Dumbaugh’s letter also informed Legro that other women – faculty and staff alike – had been similarly subjected to potential sex-based discrimination. Legro did not seek the identities of the aforementioned women, according to the lawsuit.

“Neither the provost nor the university made any effort to follow up with the women affected,” according to the complaint.

After sending the letter, Dumbaugh met with Legro to explain “how the Dean’s public mishandling of her resignation seemed to deliberately feed the perception that she had been fired from her position,” according to the lawsuit. 

Dumbaugh has demanded a jury trial, according to the complaint. 

Dumbaugh filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in April 2018, according to the lawsuit. She was issued a Notice of Right to Sue from the EEOC on Oct. 30, 2018, which is required to file a federal lawsuit alleging discrimination based on sex.

The lawsuit, Dumbaugh v. University of Richmond, was filed in the Richmond Division of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on Jan. 24.

The Collegian contacted both Rankine and Legro by phone and email Monday morning for comment. Neither had responded at publication time. 

A summons has not yet been formally served to the university. Once it has, the university has 21 days to respond to the lawsuit. From there, the university or Dumbaugh could settle out of court or the case could go to trial. 

Dumbaugh is currently on sabbatical, according to the administrative coordinator in the math department. She was awarded the Virginia Council of Higher Education’s Outstanding Faculty Award in 2004, as well as UR’s Distinguished Educator Award.

Rankine replaced former Arts and Sciences dean Kathleen Skerrett in 2016. He was hired from Hope College, where he was dean of Arts and Humanities. In addition to dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, he is also currently a professor of classics at UR. 

Contact news editor Jocelyn Grzeszczak, editor-in-chief Ashlee Korlach and managing editor Sydney Lake at jocelyn.grzeszczak@richmond.edu, ashlee.korlach@richmond.edu and sydney.lake@richmond.edu.