The Insider

Dana Collins

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.

"I don't see a problem. It is true that there are a group of women that are pushing themselves and saying, 'We need women deans. I need to be dean.' There's a lot of that."

Fitzgibbon also agrees with Chancellor Smith that General Counsel Duffy is innocent of sexual discrimination claims by female subordinates.

"I think Duffy got a bad deal too," says Fitzgibbon. "I think the UH legal office was absolutely incompetent....There was a group of women in there who made trouble for him....these white women didn't like a black boss."

Sheridan and Fitzgibbon point out that women were heavily represented on the national dean search committees and each choice met with approval by committee members. "I know it looks funny," admits Fitzgibbon of the all male dean roster. "But at times, where there is smoke there's no fire. I don't think it's the old-boy network."

Still, both Fitzgibbon and Sheridan seem at a loss to explain why other universities, including Rice, have much better records when it comes to recruiting women deans. "I was shocked about Rice," notes Fitzgibbon, "because I think Rice is much more an old-boy network."

Kathleen Mathews, Rice dean of natural sciences, contends that talented women are available for dean positions. It just takes commitment to find and attract them.

"There are certainly women out there," says the dean. "There's a new female dean of engineering at John Hopkins, a woman dean of sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. I know that Rice continues to make a concerted effort to identify women and minorities for positions at all levels. We're not perfect...but we've made progress, mostly in the last ten years."

Mathews says a recent self study of discrimination against women academicians, issued by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, illustrates how seemingly innocuous administrative decisions can effectively keep women outside circles of influence and decision-making

"Any one of those decisions, the individual women could rationalize what was happening," she explains. "It was only when they looked at the aggregate that one began to see this is a very subtle pattern, but it is a pattern," explains Mathews.

Likewise, the outcome of individual dean searches may seem justifiable, but when it results in an all-male line-up, something is amiss.

"Where it gets called into question, is what you're doing, stepping back and looking at the aggregate pattern," Mathews told the Insider. "What you would want to think about under those circumstances is, 'What is our process?' and, 'Why this consistent outcome?'"

Provost Sheridan doesn't like the gender and color imbalance in the roster of deans at UH, but he's not taking responsibility for it. At least not yet.

"The results are not what we want," he says. "But I think the fact that we have not been successful in these three searches would not lead me to say I want to change the system right away. If I had been here longer, and most of these [dean selections] were on my watch, I would have to say, obviously, we're doing something wrong."

UH Philosophy professor Anne Jacobson is willing to give Sheridan a window of opportunity to deal with the problem.

"Ed Sheridan has been on the job less than a year, so I think its early days," allows Jacobson, the chair of the Cognitive Sciences Initiative on campus. At the same time, the professor indicates the clock is ticking.

"I can't possibly be happy over this situation," she explains. "I am a feminist and I hope this doesn't continue."

Don't discriminate with your news tips. Call them in to the Insider at (713)280-2483, fax them to him at (713)280-2496 or e-mail them to him at

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