Not Bewitched

Wiccan professor sues St. Bonaventure, her alma mater, for discrimination.

June 10, 2019
 
Pauline Hoffmann

St. Bonaventure University didn’t let a professor of communication advance in her career because she’s a woman -- and a witch -- according to a lawsuit filed last week in a federal court in New York.

The professor, Pauline Hoffmann, says things began to go south between her and her administration around Halloween 2011, after she alerted a university communications officer that student journalists wanted to interview her about her Wiccan beliefs.

In spring 2012, her then provost, Mike Fischer, allegedly told her to sign a “morals” clause vowing to uphold the university's Roman Catholic values.

Worried she was being singled out on account of her religion, Hoffmann says she asked if she would have to sign the clause if she were Jewish -- meaning not Catholic, but not Wiccan. Fischer allegedly told her verbally, “I guess not.”

Fisher also allegedly once said, “You might not want to be so overt about being a witch if you want to move up.”

St. Bonaventure follows the Franciscan Catholic tradition, but many of Hoffmann's colleagues, and many students, are not Roman Catholic. Indeed, the norm at Catholic colleges and universities is to have many non-Catholic professors.

Hoffmann says she also asked then president Sister Margaret Carney if other employees would have to sign the morals document. Sister Margaret allegedly said it was just for her.

In 2012, Hoffmann became dean of Jandoli School of Communication. She served in that role through 2017 but was first awarded only a two-year contract when all other male deans got three-year contracts, she says. She also believes that she made less money as dean than all other deans on campus, who were male.

Sister Margaret also told her, “I took a big chance hiring you as a Wiccan,” according to the lawsuit.

Hoffmann says that she sought a promotion to provost during her deanship was but denied. Based on all that had happened, she believes St. Bonaventure discriminated against her for her beliefs. She also says she was subsequently pressured to resign as dean, after the new provost, Joe Zimmer, was rumored to have been told to “solve the Pauline problem.”

Hoffmann and attorneys say that if the “Pauline problem” is that she’s a Wiccan, then that’s illegal.

Hoffmann filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in February and was granted the right to sue.

Tom Missel, university spokesperson, said via email that as this is “both a personnel and legal matter, it’s not our policy or appropriate for the university to comment on the case.”

Hoffmann said over the weekend that her interest in Wicca was born during her own undergraduate studies at -- perhaps ironically -- St. Bonaventure. She majored in biology with a focus on ecology, she said, describing Wicca as “a very natural religion, very nature based.”

Beyond the nature link, Hoffmann said her father died during her sophomore year on campus, 30 years ago. She was “mad at the world” and probably would have described herself as an atheist at the time. Then she took a class in comparative religions.

“It opened my eyes to a remarkable world,” she said of the course. “Isn’t that what we hope for in a liberal arts education? That students ask questions and adjust opinions based on new information?”

It took about a decade for Hoffmann to becoming a practicing Wiccan, as she had to “figure things out.”

As for the alleged accusations that she’s a witch, Hoffmann described Wicca as rooted in a kind of “golden rule” -- “Our credo is ‘do what you will but harm none’” -- and the belief in a masculine and feminine energy. There’s also the “power of three,” a karmic notion that what you put out into the world comes back threefold.

Wiccans do “cast spells,” Hoffmann said, comparing it to prayer in other religions. So she might cast a spell to help someone who is sick, she said, but never without asking first. And while some witches practice black magic, Hoffmann said, she’s not one of them and doesn’t believe she can alter anyone else’s life track.

As for whether her case speaks to bigger climate issues at St. Bonaventure, Hoffmann said she wasn’t aware of any. She said several times that she objects to how she’s been treated by her administration but that she enjoys fellow faculty and staff members, her students and the job over all.

“My faculty and staff colleagues are passionate about what they do and have the best interests of the students in mind,” she said. “We are very student centered.”

Before filing the lawsuit, Hoffmann said she tried fixing things internally, namely talking to her ombudsman. It didn’t work.

As to why her case matters, Hoffmann said, “What is the message we are sending to students? Should it matter that I am a woman and Wiccan if I am doing my job and doing my job well? Shouldn’t I be afforded the same opportunities for advancement as others?”

Hoffmann’s attorney, Richard Perry, underscored that Hoffmann remains a professor at St. Bonaventure, “teaching as she loves to do.” Hoffmann also served as dean of graduate studies. Perry said courts typically award monetary damages, rather than other kinds of relief, in discrimination cases but that it’s too early to “put a figure” on demands.

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