Circle Those Wagons!

When the UH leader fired back atsex-bias accusers, did he shoot himself in the foot?

University of Houston System Chancellor Arthur Smith took an unusual public relations step last week. Miffed by media coverage of sex discrimination charges against his general counsel, Smith went on the offensive, putting his gripes in a five-page, single-spaced memo to his top lieutenants and deans.

He closed the missive with the indiscreet invitation to "share this memorandum with anybody you choose."

Not surprisingly, within hours fax machines all over town churned out what amounted to the chancellor's not-so-private manifesto.

Smith's broadside backed the university's general counsel, Dennis Duffy, a law school professor the chancellor appointed as top lawyer last year. Smith contended Duffy was innocent of sex discrimination charges brought by a former UH staff lawyer, Susan Septimus.

Not content with just that, the chancellor accused the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of a biased approach to job discrimination investigations. He implied that the EEOC's Houston director tilted in Septimus's direction because that director once recommended one of Duffy's critics for a job.

Smith alleged that the EEOC determined that there was sex discrimination because that was exactly what it was geared up to find. "Objective observers should refrain from giving undue weight to its determination," he argued.

It's highly unusual for a university head to make public statements about pending legal cases. Smith wrote that he was airing his opinions because he believes Septimus's supporters orchestrated a media campaign that damaged Duffy's reputation. The chancellor himself was in Rome last week and indicated the memo spoke for itself.

EEOC Houston Director Joan Ehrlich calls Smith's claims of bias "ridiculous" and "unwarranted." She says Smith was mistaken when he said she wrote the EEOC finding that Duffy discriminated in promotions and treatment of women on his staff.

Ehrlich says she recused herself from the case because she served on a women's studies task force at UH. "What the chancellor says is simply not true. I did not write the finding. I never saw the investigative file and had nothing to do with it."

Smith also claimed that the EEOC never interviewed Duffy or members of a committee the chancellor appointed to review the charges. In a written response, Ehrlich says an EEOC investigator did interview Duffy and committee members.

Septimus's lawyer Andrew S. Golub calls the chancellor's justification for issuing the memo hypocritical. "It's so humorous that in the memo he says this case shouldn't be tried in the press, which is certainly not what we've been doing," says Golub. "And then he goes and issues a five-page manifesto and ends it by saying, 'give this to anybody and everybody you want.' "

Electra Yourke, the school's former interim affirmative action director, labels the Smith memo "libelous" and full of errors. Smith had described her as part of a group of staffers who refused to accept change -- and supervision -- from Duffy. Yourke says it is laughable that the chancellor would try to invent a conspiracy of women against Duffy.

Smith issued his June 18 missive after Houston Chronicle business writer L.M. Sixel penned an "At Work" column exploring whether affirmative action executives accused of discrimination should step aside until the accusations are resolved. Duffy was the case in point, because he oversees the school's affirmative action office. Smith briefed Sixel on his views and felt she did not adequately represent them in her column. So he decided to issue the memo to set the record straight.

The Insider earlier detailed how affirmative action director Yourke had hired an outside investigator, Deborah Heaton McElvaney, to probe complaints against Duffy ["Discrimination Whitewash?" May 28, 1998]. He was accused of discrimination in not promoting female subordinates and of creating a hostile work environment by shouting at them.

McElvaney's report found merit in the claims by Septimus and two other women. Smith appointed a review committee, which then rejected the report as deficient. The committee included longtime Smith associate Sybil Todd and Elwyn Lee, a Duffy friend who is the husband of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. The committee recommended that Duffy receive management training to improve his personnel management skills.

"Art Smith didn't like the results of his own independent investigator's investigation," contends attorney Golub. "That's why he appointed a whitewash committee, which promptly painted all over it."

Septimus pursued her discrimination claim. Late last month the EEOC issued a finding that there was sufficient evidence to support her claim. According to the EEOC report, "The investigation further revealed that all the employees, especially the females, were subjected to a hostile, abusive work environment based on sex in the office of the general counsel."

McElvaney's report cited instances where Duffy engaged in closed-door tirades against women employees. When one complained about being passed over for a promotion, Duffy allegedly said she reminded him of an old girlfriend who was never satisfied when he told her he loved her.

In his memo, the chancellor claimed that every administrative division at UH was in need of strong leadership when he took over in 1997. The general counsel's office was in particular disarray, "with each staff attorney pretty much deciding on his or her own when, where, how much [and] on what business they would work." By this account, the newly recruited Duffy "met with determined resistance from some of the employees who wanted things to remain as they had been." This cabal, noted Smith, "proved quite sophisticated in finding ways to resist the legitimate expectations of performance that Dennis was placing on them."

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