Circle Those Wagons!
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."
The chancellor conceded that Duffy might have been a little tough on his employees.
"Admittedly, Dennis's management style tends to be authoritarian, albeit much less so today than a year and a half ago," Smith wrote. "An authoritarian management style is not uncommon among younger persons appointed to executive-level positions."
But as a result of his committee recommendation, Smith says, Duffy worked with a consultant to improve his communications and sensitivity skills, and successfully completed the training.
Satisfied that his top lawyer is tough but fair, Smith declared that "insisting that all employees show up for work, that they produce good results and that they respond appropriately to legitimate directives by a supervisor does not constitute 'a hostile work environment.' Nor does it constitute gender discrimination or sexual harassment."
A new boss "who changes one's job description and imposes high expectations of performance, and who is even somewhat authoritarian," Smith continued, "does not make one the victim of discrimination. And that, colleagues, is what this case is really about."
Attorney Golub contends that if anybody has a biased attitude in the Septimus investigation, it's the chancellor himself.
"For some reason, Art Smith has drawn this incredibly bright line in the sand and isn't listening to reason," says the attorney. "It's like a child who constructs a version of reality and starts to believe it."
Golub claims the chancellor has ignored advice from other members of the UH community to back off and let the investigation take its course.
"There is an overwhelming amount of evidence against this man, and even inside the institution, Mr. Smith has been getting memos from people saying, 'we've got problems here with Duffy,' " Golub says. He claims to have those documents and is prepared to use them in any court case.
Because the EEOC cannot sue a public agency for sex discrimination, the case is under a mandatory mediation period. The university has indicated it will not settle with Septimus, so Golub expects to file a federal lawsuit against UH after the Department of Justice completes a review.
Smith closed his memo by declaring, "I will not tolerate discrimination at any level or by anyone in this administration." But equally revealing about the current state of women in the UH hierarchy is the gender composition of the two groups who received the memo.
According to UH spokeswoman Cindy Suggs, the nine-member System Executive Group includes only one woman, Wendy Adair, a longtime public relations advisor. Likewise, of the 15 academic deans at the school, the only woman is library head Dana Rooks. So the 24-member inner circle that Smith chose to enlighten with his memo includes only two females.
Perhaps Smith's antidiscrimination pledge would be a bit more convincing if he just had a few more women executives on his mailing list.
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