The Insider

Where Have All the Women Gone? Discrimination charges spotlight UH's lack of female leadership

When you look at the numbers, women executives at the University of Houston seem more and more like an endangered species these days.

In the past year, four nationwide searches for academic deans at the UH central campus resulted in the hiring of three white men, and the replacement of four women holding the posts on an interim basis. The result: of 15 college dean positions at the state university, not one is held by a woman. The female head of the library, Dana Rooks,holds a dean rank but does not supervise colleges at UH. Only one minority is among the male deans.

By contrast, three of the nine deans at private Rice University are female, and the University of Texas-Austin has four such women executives among its 14 deans.

The gender balance in the top levels of the UH System is hardly better. Only one woman, UH-Victoria President Karen Haynes, is among the top 14 executive positions.

UH Provost Ed Sheridan, whose appointed deputy provost is a woman, agrees that the lack of women deans raises disturbing questions about the school's commitment to diversity. At the same time, he insists he's doing everything possible to seek out qualified women and minorities for top posts.

"I was very public in the charge to these search committees," recalls Sheridan. "I wanted them to aggressively look for women and people of color, because it is very obvious that with our campus we want to have diversity in these groups. What essentially happened was when we came to the finalists, we did not find we were able to bring forward either women or persons of color, in most of the searches, who became strong candidates."

The lack of top women academicians is made more glaring by a recent exchange of accusations between UH Chancellor Arthur Smith and federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission officials. The confrontation escalated last week as the EEOC Houston office issued a finding that Smith's administration had illegally retaliated against Susan Septimus, a lawyer who filed a sex discrimination complaint against Smith's general counsel, Dennis Duffy. The EEOC finding says that Septimus's supervisor had named her to the post of interim executive for procurement — but she was denied that position after filing the discrimination complaint.

The EEOC had previously found that Septimus was discriminated against by Duffy when she was denied a promotion in the General Counsel's Office. After that ruling, Chancellor Smith issued a lengthy memo to his administrators defending Duffy ["Circle Those Wagons," Insider, July 1]. Smith accused the EEOC of conducting a biased investigation and an unjustified finding in the Septimus case.

Whether by design, neglect or just bad luck, there's no doubt that the presence of women at the top of the UH administrative pyramid has dwindled dramatically since the reign of the late UH President Marguerite Barnett early this decade. A faculty revolt led to the ouster of Chancellor Alexander Schilt and the later hiring of Smith two years ago, but the erosion in women administrative ranks has accelerated.

Of the four dean searches conducted this year, all were chaired by men. In two rounds of searching for a business administration dean over two years, 49 applicants were screened, including three women. No one was selected, reportedly because the top male finalist had a pending sex harassment complaint against him. Sources said UH would agree to hire him only if the complaint was resolved in his favor, but he refused those terms. Meanwhile, interim dean Sara Freedman left UH for a post at Mississippi State.

A search for the College of Humanities and Fine Arts included 12 females among 58 hopefuls. No women made the final four recommendations for the job, to be filled next month by W. Andrew Achenbaum. He replaces interim dean Lois Zamora . She had been recommended as a finalist in an initial search that was voided last year.

Women are well represented in the field of social work, but a search for that dean position turned up only six applicants, including two women. All three finalists were male, as was the eventual hire, Ira Colby. Likewise, recruitment of a dean of graduate studies drew 11 applicants, including two women. The final three were all men, and the university selected Marco Mariotto for that job.

UH Women's Studies director Elizabeth Gregory says the problems in finding competitive women candidates may lie less with availability and more in the attitudes of UH administrators.

"You have to create a culture in which people recognize that if they are going to find women and minority candidates, they're going to have to look harder for them," says Gregory, an associate professor of English. "And if you don't create that climate by modeling it, then it's not going to trickle down."

On the other hand, UH Faculty Senate president William "Fitz" Fitzgibbon credits the administration with doing everything it can — perhaps too much — to recruit women and minorities.

"They're aggressive about trying to find qualified women and minorities," says the mathematician. "It's so aggressive that at times they can be criticized for being overly aggressive."

As for the lack of women deans, Fitzgibbon suspects there's more than a little self-interest on the part of women who complain about the all-male line-up.

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