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Former MSU director receives $150,000 settlement following lawsuit over handling of harassment case

December 5, 2023
<p>One of the Michigan State University signs signifying where campus starts, located on the intersection of Grand River Ave and Bogue St, taken on Mar. 18, 2022.</p>

One of the Michigan State University signs signifying where campus starts, located on the intersection of Grand River Ave and Bogue St, taken on Mar. 18, 2022.

Photo by Jared Osborne | The State News

Michigan State University has settled a lawsuit with Christie Poitra, the former director of the university’s Native American Institute, for $150,000.

Poitra sued MSU, the Board of Trustees, and former Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Quentin Tyler in January 2022. She claimed the university didn’t handle her discrimination and harassment complaints properly, and retaliated against her for filing the complaints.

Poitra said that her then-boss John Norder continually sexually harassed her by detailing intercourse with his wife, talking about his genitals, and asking how she lost her virginity. He also made comments that Poitra said were insensitive to her Native American heritage and to the institute. 

MSU will pay Poitra $30,000 as compensation for claimed wage loss and $70,000 for emotional distress and physical damages. The remaining $50,000 will go to Elizabeth Abdnour, Poitra’s attorney.

The money is meant to “terminate any controversies… and claims for injuries or damages” between the parties, but “is not an admission of any fault or liability,” according to the settlement.

Abdnour told The State News that Poitra is “very pleased” with the settlement. With the case resolved, Poitra “feels like she’s able to move forward,” Abdnour said. 

Poitra has since left MSU and academia altogether. She plans to use the money to expand her flower farm.

“If you were to ask her, she would tell you, ‘the flowers can’t sexually harass me,’” Abdnour said.

In August 2018, a third-party filed a Title IX complaint on Poitra’s behalf. Poitra then followed up with the Office of Institutional Equity with additional details about her boss’s conduct.

"The OIE investigation was 500 days of trying to convince me that my boss's behaviors weren't really that bad," Poitra told the Lansing State Journal. "The investigation was its own trauma."

The university placed a no-contact order between Norder and Poitra during the OIE investigation, but Poitra told the Lansing State Journal that Norder repeatedly violated it — something she claims MSU did little about. MSU has insisted its response was appropriate. 

The investigation concluded with Norder being suspended for four weeks for violating the no-contact order. He was later removed as director of the institute and was instead named an anthropology professor, a position he still holds.

The length of the investigation, and its result, only added to what Poitra viewed as a continual disrespect of her department and position. When Poitra was eventually named interim director of the department, her pay was considerably less than her predecessor and those holding similar positions. The Native American Institute also faced budget cuts, despite being lauded by the university. 

In November 2021 she went on medical leave to deal with the effects of her treatment. Her doctor had diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder from work-related stressors.

January 2022 she filed the lawsuit against MSU, and in April she resigned. 

The settlement states that Poitra now cannot apply or be hired by MSU in any capacity — including as an employee, agent, or independent contractor. 

University spokesperson Emily Guerrant did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication.

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