Like all organizations, Teton Science Schools had a rough year due to COVID-19, but a wave of leadership staff exiting the nonprofit is complicating its emergence from the pandemic and search for a new CEO.
In the past few months, more than a third of the educational nonprofit’s leadership has either left the organization or submitted notice to do so at the end of the school year. The flood of resignations follows allegations of systemic problems and gender discrimination at Teton Science Schools and what some employees say has been a lack of willingness on the part of the school’s board to vigorously tackle the issues.
The turmoil was laid out in detail Jan. 5, when 16 of the 22 employees in leadership sent a letter to the board and members of the executive team outlining their concerns. The News&Guide was provided with a copy of the document. Chief among the problems cited is what leadership employees describe as an “intimidating, offensive, and/or hostile environment,” a lack of effective oversight for the executive team and the chief executive officer, and a culture of gender bias. That culture, they say, included female leaders feeling less supported and being subjected to “microaggressions,” or instances of subtle bias.
The nonprofit’s board says it has looked into the allegations and found no evidence to support them. However, some employees say the problems persist.
“These issues have existed for years, and it is time to meaningfully resolve them to collectively support the organization’s future,” wrote the group, called the Strategic Transition Working Group.
Made up of members of Teton Science Schools’ executive, education and operations teams, the signatories collectively oversee most of the nonprofit’s programming and business sides. The letter was sent after former Chief Executive Officer Chris Agnew submitted his resignation but before his initially announced departure date, which was set for June.
Along with the central letter the working group sent, several in Teton Science Schools leadership wrote individual letters that outlined their frustrations and worries about the direction of the organization. Many said Agnew lacked the skills to lead the organization through the diversity, equity and inclusion work that it has undertaken in recent years, particularly because of his leadership style.
Culture reports included with the letters included data on incidents related to cultural competency from January 2019 to September 2020 that indicated more negative interactions reported by female-identifying staff members, experiences the report says “point to gender inequity, experiences of toxic masculinity, microaggressions and bias as it relates to cis-gendered people who identify as male and people who identify as female.”
The group alleged that Agnew was, in part, to blame for the cultural problems that it said plagued the nonprofit’s upper leadership and asked that his departure be “accelerated.” Agnew told the News&Guide he did leave Jan. 15, just 10 days after the letters were sent. Incoming board Chair Pete Regan said the earlier date was Agnew’s decision, not the board’s.
Some allegations described Agnew as aggressive toward female colleagues, including getting uncomfortably close during disagreements. When he spoke with the News&Guide, Agnew declined to discuss individual events, but he described his leadership and communication style as “calm.” He also pointed to hiring of female leaders during his tenure, saying equity in the workplace was one of his focuses.
The News&Guide spoke to several current and former Teton Science Schools employees who confirmed the tenor of the allegations, though they requested anonymity. However, they said the problems at the nonprofit were larger than a single executive or leadership style. Many described a culture in which female employees felt marginalized or treated differently than male colleagues, though some said they had not directly experienced discrimination or microaggressions.
The turmoil comes as national environmental nonprofits have recently made headlines for workplace conflicts. Just last week, Politico reported the results of an extensive audit of the National Audubon Society, which found “credible witness accounts suggesting that Audubon has a culture of retaliation, fear and antagonism toward women and people of color.”
CEO David Yarnold stepped down as part of a “mutual agreement” between him and the Audubon board.
“The audit recommended further changes, such as reorganizing the organizational structure, fully funding human resources and formalizing complaint procedures, pushing forward on equity, diversity and inclusion efforts while hiring a third-party firm to conduct implicit bias training,” Politico reported.
Other environmental organizations have had their own recent reckonings with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion or are instituting a focus on DEI training and planning. SHIFT, which holds a conference in Jackson each year that assembles leaders from across environmental and public health causes, faced controversy after the 2018 event over Executive Director Christian Beckwith’s handling of a program for young, diverse leaders.
In response, the organization promoted a program alumni to helm it, and Beckwith eventually stepped away from SHIFT to focus on other projects.
The complaints at Teton Science Schools center largely around gender.
“It has become a pattern that these female leaders receive formal reprimands and/or negative evaluations for behaviors and actions that are factually incorrect,” one employee wrote.
In one of the individual letters, a male leadership employee wrote that after a particularly contentious meeting, he told other leaders in the organization about what had happened, as did a female colleague. According to his letter, the female leader was punished, but he was not, an account some staff confirmed in interviews.
“While I believe that the disciplinary actions that my female colleague received were far from best board practices as it relates to the process,” he wrote, “my issue is with the blatant and accepted gender bias that I am currently the favorable recipient of.”
When board members received the tranche of letters from the Strategic Transition Working Group, Regan, the incoming chair, said it was a shock.
“The board, it’s fair to say, was very surprised and deeply upset by the allegations in the letter,” he said. “They were quite pointed. They were also very concerning to us.”
Employees told the News&Guide that the letters were meant to start a conversation between staff and the board about how Teton Science Schools as an organization could address the perceived gender bias as it picks a new chief executive. Instead the board met just once with the working group.
“There was a sense that, you know, that collectively we weren’t really ready to take this working together in that moment,” Regan said.
Instead the board hired lawyers from Littler Mendelson, a global law firm that specializes in labor and employment issues, to investigate the claims of gender discrimination. Staff say it was an attempt for the organization to assess its legal liability, something Regan alluded to as well, but board members say it was mainly an attempt to uncover the systemic issues the staff members described.
The firm found “no tangible evidence of gender bias at TSS” regarding treatment of female employees or in pay, a summary of the investigation reads. Instead the report says the main problem is one of “systemic issues with communication,” rather than bias.
Some Teton Science Schools employees, who also asked to remain anonymous, corroborated the investigation’s findings. They said that while individuals’ experiences shouldn’t be discounted, they don’t perceive a culture of widespread discrimination.
Board member Nancy Leon said those communication problems outlined in the report probably stem from the pandemic because of a lack of face-to-face meetings and “water-cooler chat.” The organization had to make quick personnel moves because of the pandemic, according to Agnew, which he saw as potentially creating some of the frustration.
But other staff disagree that communication is the issue. Rather, they see the focus on pay and hiring, rather than the cultural allegations, as missing the mark.
They also said the board needs better oversight of the chief executive. Agnew told the News&Guide that he created structures for leadership and executive team members to evaluate him as the CEO, which Regan and Leon confirmed.
The letters from the leadership employees said that they gave Agnew and other executive team members feedback in recent years that matched the letters but that they received little response, and nothing structurally changed. Board members, including Leon, said they couldn’t recall any negative feedback of Agnew detailing poor leadership or gender discrimination before the January letters arrived, which employees point to as the systems not working appropriately.
Regan, the incoming chair, said the board will work to ensure existing feedback structures function and improve upon them once the nonprofit hires a new CEO. He didn’t offer specifics, saying those discussions were just beginning.
Some current and former employees said they hoped a strong hire at the top could alleviate some of the cultural concerns. Others said the board’s slow reaction after the letters were sent has made moving forward difficult.
“Now the chasm is so deep and so wide ... that I don’t know if trust actually can be rebuilt,” one said.
Facing the wave of resignations that has occurred in recent months, the board has accelerated efforts to rebuild its relationship with staff and find a chief executive who can mitigate the cultural issues. Roughly four months after receiving the letters, the board has created a “bridge committee” of 10 employees and four board members to work on things.
Teton Science Schools finds itself in the difficult position of addressing an issue that its internal data doesn’t bear out but that has created a great deal of internal strife, something Regan acknowledged.
“Somehow, groups of people can see things quite differently,” he said. “You know, for me, I can’t explain how that can be. I can tell you, though, that the board unanimously believes that we have to get to the bottom of that.
“If people believe that they’re experiencing something, I completely believe them.”
Everyone who spoke to the News&Guide, employee or board member, said his or her hope was that the nonprofit would come out the other side of this experience stronger. They stressed that the nonprofit’s DEI work would be central to improving the culture, though some disagreed on the scope of the problem.
The investigation the board undertook said the nonprofit had a strong commitment to issues of diversity and inclusion, saying its cultural problems tracked national trends. Board members said they would resume DEI work paused during the pandemic as an attempt to understand the gap between their investigation’s findings and employees’ experiences.
“We’re all evolving; we’re all learning,” Leon said. “But we are very invested in, you know, again, diversity, equity, inclusion. We try to live it every day. And we’re investing in new leadership.”
Board members didn’t have a lot of specifics as to how they would address the alleged cultural problems, though they said the bridge committee would do a lot of the heavy lifting. The nonprofit just hired an interim head of school for Mountain Academy, one of the open leadership positions, and it announced a national search for a new CEO this week.
With a well of talent in the organization and a national firm looking for the new head of the nonprofit, Regan said change may be a positive, though how it came about was less so.
“I just can’t help but be extremely bullish that our best days are ahead of us,” he said.
Still, some of the current and former employees warned that the cultural problems could persist if the new director doesn’t understand the history of Teton Science Schools as a whole and the recent struggles. Many said looking outside Jackson wasn’t the right approach, that someone who knows the community already would be the best choice.
Leon, who worked in the corporate world for decades, said the leader needed to be someone who could both handle the cultural problems and lead a diverse team that includes an independent school, a graduate program, field education and wildlife tours. Finding that unicorn of a hire, board members feel, might be difficult in a small pool like Jackson.
That move, in and of itself, is the biggest piece the board members see as having the potential to right the ship. After all, the board’s main role is to oversee the chief executive, so its members hope the right hire provides the spark.
But they maintain that they want to learn how to address employee concerns and improve upon the DEI work the organization has undertaken in recent years. They acknowledge that they cannot solve these issues without creating a workplace culture that all employees feel comfortable in.
“This has to be resolved,” Regan said. “We can’t have people feeling bad or uncomfortable or unsafe at work.”
“If people believe that they’re experiencing something, I completely believe them.” — Peter Regan teton science schools board chair