KU orchestra director sues university for gender discrimination, alleging pay gap

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Before accepting the position of director of orchestral studies at KU’s School of Music, Carolyn Watson says she was concerned about the inadequate salary she was offered, especially compared to the music school’s male orchestra leaders.

A well-known local opera and orchestral music conductor is suing the University of Kansas, claiming she was paid less than men holding comparable or lesser positions at the university.

Carolyn Watson was director of orchestral studies at KU from August 2018 until a few weeks ago, when she says she resigned.

In her lawsuit, Watson says she was unanimously chosen by a search committee over 100 other applicants for the position. But she claims the dean of the School of Music, Robert Walzel, opposed her appointment, favoring a male candidate who had not been invited to interview on campus.

Before accepting the position, Watson says she was concerned about the inadequate salary she was offered, especially compared to the music school’s director of bands, a male who “earned significantly more than she was being offered,” according to the lawsuit.

Likewise, she alleges, other similarly situated male ensemble professors at KU were paid more, including the director of jazz studies and the associate director of bands.

Watson says she was sufficiently concerned about the pay gap that she sought advice from an economics professor at KU, Donna Ginther, who agreed that the offer she received was inadequate.

Armed with that information, she says she sought to negotiate with Walzel, “who was immediately hostile,” and “pushed her to make a decision quickly … claiming that if she declined, the position would be offered to another candidate.”

Walzel also criticized her for seeking Ginther’s advice “and threatened to revoke her offer of employment if Plaintiff were to continue to voice concerns about pay inequalities between genders to other members of the faculty,” Watson alleges.

She says she accepted the position because she wanted the job, but later learned that Walzel had wanted to rescind her offer of employment because he considered Watson’s solicitation of advice from Ginther “unethical.”

The lawsuit says that, despite Walzel’s hostility, Watson brought recognition and honors to the school’s orchestral program, including an invitation to perform at the 2021 National Conference of the College Orchestra Directors Association, a largest-ever grant of $20,000, and another grant in 2018 from the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, one of only two grants awarded that year to college orchestral programs.

“Despite her tremendous success with the program, Plaintiff ultimately concluded that continuing to work under the supervision of Dean Walzel, who had been openly hostile to from the time she attempted to negotiate a fair salary as compared to men in the department, was untenable,” the lawsuit states. “So she resigned her position.”

Watson’s suit under the federal Equal Pay Act seeks back and front pay, lost fringe benefits and damages equal to the pay and benefits she’s seeking.

Walzel, who is listed in his faculty biography as the founding dean of the KU School of Music, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Watson is now Director of Orchestras at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, according to her LinkedIn profile. The profile does not list her tenure at KU.

Watson was born in Australia and came to the United States in 2013. She has guest conducted orchestras throughout the country. Locally, she was principal guest conductor of the Kansas City Chamber Orchestra, led opera performances at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and conducted orchestral performances at the Kansas City Ballet.

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