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President’s Council on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion welcomes guest speaker and former employee JoAnn Fritsche

On Feb. 25 from 6 to 7 p.m., the President’s Council on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion hosted its inaugural session for the Nine Pillars of Diversity Lectures Series, featuring guest speaker JoAnn Fritsche. Fritsche is the former director of equal opportunity and women’s development at the University of Maine.

The lecture series began with a welcoming introduction by UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy, followed by Laura Cowan, the director of UMaine’s women’s gender and sexuality program, introducing the notable works of Fritsche as a past employee and member of the UMaine community.

Back in 1973, Fritsche was hired as the first officer for equal opportunity at UMaine.

“It is not an exaggeration to say Dr. Fritsche transformed the college of our hearts always,” Cowan said. “She understood that advancing equity and diversity required important changes in practice, such as equal salary, more diverse job candidates, accessible buildings and classrooms, but also a change in culture.”

As Fritsche began to speak of her time at UMaine, including how the world around her was so different at that time, it is clear that she made a tremendous difference for many people in the Maine community.

“At that time, married women couldn’t get a credit card without their husband’s permission,” Fritsche said. “And married women job applicants were asked ‘When do you expect to start a family?’ so they could knock them out of a promotion if they were going to have a child.”

Fritsche went on to discuss how the position for the officer for equal opportunity at UMaine came about. The position was advertised by former UMaine President Winthrop C. Libby after a woman faculty member in 1972 had filed a lawsuit against the Portland campus and its administrators for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which forbids sex discrimination in employment.

“Since women faculty and staff at the University of Maine had been bringing complaints of sex discrimination to attention internally, [former] President Libby decided to advertise for an equal opportunity director to help the university investigate and resolve complaints internally, thus to prevent expensive and embarrassing lawsuits,” Fritsche said.

After being given the position of officer for equal opportunity, Fritsche noticed that even though the Equal Pay Act had been passed by Congress a few years prior, nothing had changed. To her, changes in the law do not bring about changes in attitudes or behavior, until and unless there are protests and effective advocacy.

Fritsche began her first case of intervention advocacy for a woman employee of UMaine who had relatively the same credentials as a male employee but was being paid almost $2,500 less.

“With no embarrassment whatsoever, the department chair said that the man, Dr. F., had six children and a wife to support, but Dr. D. had a husband who was a department chairman making plenty of money and they had only one child, so of course it seemed only fair to give a higher salary to this male faculty member, even though his credentials were similar to hers,” Fritsche said. “At that point, I told the chairman that there were now two laws, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and also Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and both require that a woman and a man doing equal work must be paid equally.”

Moving on to 1974, Fritsche advocated for getting rid of homophobic interview questions for classified employment at UMaine. She urged the president and the director of personnel to remove the questions to avoid bad publicity, and ultimately, her advocacy worked. The questions were removed from the form.

After attending disability training workshops, Fritsche is an advocate of the philosophy to spell disability like ‘disAbility,’ a change she is still advocating for to this day.

“The purpose is to focus on your own and other people’s abilities and find ways to compensate for your own or for others ‘dis,’ or impairments,” Fritsche said. “The other thing is to learn how to be a self-advocate, or an advocate to yourself, to request for yourself or to grant others reasonable accommodations for the ‘dis’ if or when needed.”

Throughout the years in her position at UMaine as the officer for equal opportunity, Fritsche addressed many other equity and diversity issues. 

“Dr. Fritsche created a committee before she left Maine, and she called it Preparing Ourselves for a Changing World,” Cowan said.

Fritsche left UMaine in 1986 for a career fundraising for nonprofit and as director of the Tacoma Washington Area Commission on Disability. 

As a whole, Fitsche made a huge impact on the UMaine community and culture, one that is still felt today.

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