The plaintiffs are five full-time women professors teaching subjects from physics to film who say the college in Poughkeepsie has, for years, systematically underpaid, underpromoted, and unfairly evaluated its female professors. Law firm Lieff Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein and Equal Rights Advocates filed the class action gender descrimination lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York Wednesday on their behalf.

Melvina Ford is the national legal director at Equal Rights Advocates. She says the pay gap between full-time male and female professors was around 10 percent in the 2020-2021 academic year, with men, on average, making $153,238, and women, on average, making $139,322.

“The university, at the insistence of the professors, did a study in the 2020-2021 year that actually showed that, for the longest-serving, post-tenure professors, the gap was getting closer to 20 percent,” Ford adds.

In a statement posted on Vassar’s website, College President Elizabeth Bradley says the college is limited in what it can say on the matter, citing the pending litigation. Vassar Board of Trustees Chair Anthony Friscia shared his “regret” over the situation, adding the college has been working with the group of professors “diligently and continuously on the issue of pay equity” since January 2019, and proactively sharing its analyses on the subject.

Ford says the plaintiffs allege they’ve been trying to resolve the issue for at least 15 years, and the college has recently gotten less transparent about its salaries.

“They used to disclose the mean and median salaries at each professional rank, and they’re no longer doing that,” she says. “So, in addition to equalizing the salaries, the professors want Vassar to make faculty salary ranges and scales public, so there’s more transparency about what people are being paid. They want Vassar to establish clear guidelines for performance and evaluation and for promotions, and they want Vassar to engage an independent body to actually facilitate the faculty salary negotiations and service expectations.”

Founded in 1861 by Matthew Vassar, Vassar College was just the second institution to grant degrees to women in the U.S., behind Mount Holyoke College. It’s part of the Seven Sisters, a group of seven liberal arts colleges historically founded to serve women, even though it eventually became a co-ed school in 1969.

The gender pay gap at Vassar, following Ford’s figures, is smaller than the nationwide average. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women working full-time, year-round in 2021 earned 84 cents for every dollar men made in comparable positions — and that 16 percent gap widens for older women and women of color. Vassar’s pay gap may also be lower than the average pay gap at many schools. In its annual faculty compensation survey for the 2022-2023 academic year, the American Association of University Professors found full, female professors across roughly 900 institutions received about 82.3 percent what their male peers made.

Nearly every industry is facing a gender pay gap. But Ford says the difference here is Vassar’s history.

“Its origin story is about ensuring equity between men and women,” she explains. “And if it can happen at an institution like Vassar, it can happen anywhere, and it just demonstrates how pervasive this gender pay problem is.”

In his statement, Board Chair Friscia expressed Vassar’s desire to resolve the issue, adding it “will continue working to resolve this disagreement with these valued faculty members, whose many contributions are central to the mission and success of the institution.”

35 additional full, women professors and emeriti at Vassar filed a joint statement in support of the suit, saying “The harm women at Vassar have suffered goes beyond the loss in compensation over the many years—in some cases decades—we have served the College. Vassar’s repeated failure to remedy the ongoing gender wage gap, and the implication that our professional contributions are less meritorious than those of our male counterparts, constitutes a profound institutional betrayal.”

Vassar College serves roughly 2,500 students with just over 350 faculty. By way of disclosure, the college is home to WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau.