DENVER — After 31 years working at a law school in Denver, Lucy Marsh learned that she remained the lowest-paid professor on staff. She also was among the most experienced, surpassed by only one other person.
The disclosure in a department memo set off years of litigation against the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law that ended Thursday with a $2.6 million legal settlement for March and six other women.
While the agreement almost entirely focuses on the law school, the women and officials with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hope it prompts change throughout higher education.
Federal officials said the case demonstrates the pervasiveness of lower pay for women, even affecting the law professors who were highly educated and considered experts in their field.
"If unequal pay can happen to women in that position, you know it's happening to women in many other positions," said Mary Jo O'Neil, EEOC's regional attorney.
Colorado District Court Judge Wiley Daniel requested some technical changes to the agreement during a hearing on Thursday but said he had no other objection to approving it. Daniel called the settlement a "reasonable outcome" and said he thinks the case led to "lessons learned" by the university.
In a statement, university officials said fair, equitable and merit-based pay for faculty and staff is among the university's "cornerstone commitments."
"While confident in our legal position, we were motivated to action by our strong desire to heal our community and move forward together," the statement said. "We believe this settlement will allow us to collectively focus on a present and a future in which the law school_and the DU community as a whole_can unite under our common values of equity, integrity and opportunity."
Under the agreement, the university must hire an outside economist to study faculty pay for at least five years and bulk up employee training on discrimination. The law school specifically must create a password-protected site listing Sturm College of Law faculty salaries, position, date of hire and demographic information. Names will not be included.
Transparency, several of the women involved in the case said, is the best way to ensure equal pay.
"Our story illustrates that no group of women is immune from discrimination," said Nancy Ehrenreich, who has taught at the law school for 29 years. "Constant vigilance will be required to restore, or to cure, this kind of inequity."
The $2.6 million award covers back pay for the professors and private attorneys' fees. The agreement also requires increased salaries for the professors starting this month. Those amounts were not made public.
According to the original complaint, the law school's then-dean, Martin Katz, wrote a memo in December 2012 on faculty raises. It showed female full professors' median salary was about $11,000 less than male counterparts and the average female professor made nearly $16,000 less than male full professors.
Marsh, who began working at the law school in 1976 and became a full professor in 1982, decided to file a complaint with the EEOC, leading to the lawsuit being filed in 2016 and other female professors joining.
On Thursday, Marsh emotionally remembered a deceased colleague who videotaped a deposition for the case while being treated for pancreatic cancer, students who left flowers on her lectern and others who gave their professor a standing ovation when the suit was filed.
"Hopefully, this will spread," Marsh said. "Other law schools will say 'Yeah, we better straighten it up.' Universities now know that indeed they're subject to the law like everybody else."