Donna Dunmire, a former assistant professor of dance at Penn State, recently filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the university over her contract not being renewed and physical assessments of students that were “degrading.”
Origins of the lawsuit stem from September 2014 when multiple freshmen in the musical theatre B.F.A. program told Dunmire they were required to have an off-campus physical assessment. It was Dunmire’s second month as an employee at Penn State.
The physical assessments allegedly involved female students stripping down to a sports bra and fitted shorts and being photographed from multiple angles if they were deemed overweight.
Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers declined to comment on the lawsuit’s allegations, though she did make a statement on the program.
“Our musical theatre program does perform physical and vocal assessments as an essential part of training on a class-by-class basis,” Powers said. “The musical theatre program is meant to prepare artists for professional careers as performers, and assessment of flexibility, strength, range of motion, posture and physical and vocal development are part of that process. The purpose of the screening is to chart a student’s progress in a physically demanding course of study and adjust individualized instruction as appropriate.”
Dunmire voiced her concerns at a September 2014 faculty meeting, saying that the assessments made students feel uncomfortable, according to the suit. Elisha Halpin, the program’s head of dance and associate director for instruction, allegedly responded that students were being too sensitive and needed to “get over it.”
Haplin emailed freshmen students in the musical theatre program in August 2015 that they would undergo physical assessments, according to the suit. Some students were allegedly directed to go on diets and exercise daily after the assessments. The suit alleges that some students suffered emotionally and psychologically due to the assessments and that several were caused to self-harm.
Dunmire emailed two of her supervisors in September 2015 about the student complaints, but a supervisor told her it was hearsay, according to the suit. She also voiced her concerns at an October 2016 faculty meeting, but was allegedly told she was spreading “rhetoric.”
Dunmire attended two meetings with separate female students and her supervisors shortly after the October 2016 meetings. One student was allegedly told that the assessments were for research, and another presented Haplin’s August 2015 email. A supervisor allegedly told Dunmire to “watch it” about a week after the second meeting and informed her that she was losing credibility with her colleagues.
Dan Carter, the School of Theatre’s director at the time, informed Dunmire in May 2016 at her annual evaluation that her contract would not be renewed when it expired June 2017, though he later said in an email her performance was “very good,” according to the suit. The suit alleges that Dunmire’s release was in retaliation for her complaints of a “sexually hostile environment” created by her colleagues.
Dunmire has sued for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, to be reinstated “to the position to which she would have been entitled” with accumulated seniority and fringe benefits, to be awarded compensation for any lost salary, wages, benefits, interest and attorney fees and costs.