ST. BONAVENTURE — Dr. Pauline Hoffmann had felt comfortable being a Wiccan at St. Bonaventure University.
She first started researching Wicca as a student at the Franciscan Catholic university in the early 1990s, and after joining the university’s faculty in 2006 would even have discussions with a university friar about the similarities between Franciscan values and Wiccan values.
She says it wasn’t until she started trying to move up the university’s administrative ladder that her religion appeared to become an issue for St. Bonaventure officials.
“When I was named the interim dean and then became the dean out right, I was essentially told that was as far as I was going to get as a witch,” Hoffmann told the Olean Times Herald Friday. “It’s almost like a deer in the headlights. You hear these things and you’re like, ‘What?’”
Hoffmann, former dean of St. Bonaventure’s Jandoli School of Communication and currently a professor at the school, recently filed a lawsuit against the university in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, seeking repayment of lost wages and an unspecified amount in damages.
The complaint, filed May 28, alleges university officials discriminated against Hoffmann — denying her a promotion to university provost in 2016 and forcing her to resign as School of Communication dean at the end of 2017 — because she is a Wiccan, as well as a woman.
Hoffmann’s attorney Richard Perry, of the Law Office of Lindy Korn in Buffalo, said attorneys plan to file a summons sometime this month, at which point university officials will have 20 days to respond.
The university declined comment to the Times Herald.
“Since this is both a personnel and legal matter, it’s not our policy or appropriate for the university to comment on the case,” said Tom Missel, St. Bonaventure chief communications officer.
According to the complaint, the alleged discriminatory behavior began after Hoffmann referred to herself as a Wiccan in an email to St. Bonaventure’s former vice president of communications in the fall of 2011.
Hoffmann, then-interim dean, said she did so to inform the university she was to do an interview about Wicca with the university’s student TV station, SBU-TV.
“Everybody always has questions around Halloween because witches and Halloween kind of go hand-in-hand,” she said.
The lawsuit alleges that the following semester, as Hoffmann was vying to become permanent dean of the School of Communication, she was required by then-provost Dr. Michael Fisher to sign a statement vowing to uphold Catholic values.
According to the lawsuit, Hoffmann asked Fisher, “If I were Jewish would I have to sign this?”
“If you were Jewish,” Fisher allegedly replied, “then I guess not.”
The lawsuit alleges Hoffmann was asked to sign the statement on or around May 7, 2012. She was publicly named permanent dean in a university press release the following day, May 8, 2012.
Hoffmann told the Times Herald she was initially told all of senior management would have to sign the statement, but was later told only she did.
The lawsuit also alleges that Sister Margaret Carney, president emeritus of St. Bonaventure who retired in 2016, told Hoffmann, “I took a big chance hiring you as a Wiccan.”
Fisher is also accused in the lawsuit of telling Hoffmann, “You might not want to be so overt about being a witch if you want to move up.”
“It sounds like it’s not even a glass ceiling. They told (Hoffmann) there’s an actual, visible ceiling,” Perry said. “‘Here it is and you can’t pass it as long as you’re openly Wiccan.’”
The lawsuit alleges that came to pass when Hoffmann was not selected to replace Fisher as provost. The job instead went to Dr. Joseph Zimmer, who was named interim provost in 2015 and had his interim tag removed when the university suspended the provost search in 2016.
Some faculty members expressed anger about this last year, saying they were unaware Zimmer was no longer interim and there would not be a search, according to the St. Bonaventure student newspaper, The Bona Venture.
Hoffmann said Zimmer, after becoming provost, told her the university’s Board of Trustees wanted him to fire her and “solve the Pauline problem.”
Hoffmann said she was never given poor evaluations or told there were any issues with her work, which leads her to believe “the Pauline problem” had to do with her being a Wiccan.
She said that, out of fear for her job, she stepped down as dean in 2017 and that becoming a faculty member again appeared to cool tensions and ease officials’ alleged desire to fire her.
“I’m not a threat now. I’m not trying to be the provost, I’m not trying to be a dean. I’m a faculty member and maybe they did solve the Pauline problem,” she said.
“There’s probably a different Pauline problem now,” she added with a laugh.
Hoffmann noted the university has known the lawsuit may be coming since at least February, when she filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which gave her a “right to sue” letter.
However, Hoffmann, who lives in Franklinville and is currently teaching online classes, said she has not been on campus since filing the lawsuit and likely won’t be until the fall semester starts in August.
She said while she does have some trepidations about seeing administrators face to face, she has also gotten plenty of support from her fellow faculty members.
“At the same time, I do know the law, they can’t retaliate legally. So yes, there’s some nerves, but I’m still a pretty strong person,” she said.
The lawsuit states the university’s action caused Hoffmann loss of income, fear, anxiety, severe humiliation, shame, embarrassment, emotional pain and suffering, loss of savings and loss of enjoyment of life.
While the complaint asks St. Bonaventure to “reinstate (Hoffmann) to the payroll in her former title and workload,” Perry said it’s debatable whether the courts have authority to order reinstatement, and that courts generally prefer to just award damages.
Aaron Chimbel became dean of the School of Communication in August 2018, after David Kassnoff initially replaced Hoffmann in an interim role.
Hoffmannn’s lawsuit alleges discrimination on the basis of religion and gender under both Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York State Human Rights Law.
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a campus civil liberties group, notes private institutions like St. Bonaventure are not required to uphold the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause or free expression mandate, but are perhaps legally obligated to keep the promises they voluntarily make, noting St. Bonaventure promises faculty and students in its mission statement to “an inclusive community that values diversity as a strength.”
Wicca is a decentralized religion part of contemporary paganism. Hoffmann said she gravitated toward it because it’s “very natured-based.”
She added there are many misconceptions about Wicca, noting Wiccans do not worship Satan.
“In fact, we don’t believe in Satan. We believe there’s evil, but it’s not personified,” she said. “Our motto is, ‘Do what you will but harm none,’ which is very much like the golden rule.”