The Torments of Academia

Should University of Houston playwright-in-residence Edward Albee ever decide to do a sequel to his masterpiece on the petty torments of the academic hothouse, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he need look no further than the school's sociology department for material. If half the allegations in a recent federal lawsuit filed by associate professor Russell Curtis are accurate, the department could very well be renamed the sociopathy department.

In perhaps his most novel assertion, Curtis, an admitted recovering alcoholic, says he's entitled to damages under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act because of colleagues' reaction to, as his suit puts it, "his perceived disability."

But that's not all. The professor also contends the sociology department has used shifting criteria for academic performance over the years and has applied them selectively, resulting in the promotion of colleagues whose performances are not measurably superior to his own but who happened to be friends of the ruling clique of professors. That "hegemony" of professors and administrators has systematically denied him promotions and raises since he arrived from the University of Texas in the mid-seventies, Curtis claims. He's asking for punitive damages of not less than $100,000 from five UH professors and administrators, as well as back pay from the school.

Among the reasons for his stalled career, Curtis alleges, were his colleagues' belief that his alcoholism affected his productivity in the mid-eighties; his vote against the wife of a department colleague when she came up for tenure; and his opposition to the Coalition for Excellence, a campus group with majority support in the sociology department that helped force last year's departures of James Pickering as campus president and Alex Schilt as the UH System chancellor.

Curtis' claims of factional warfare in the sociology department are backed by colleague Bill Simon, a full professor who explains the conflict by citing what he says is an old clich about academic life: "The infighting is so dirty because the stakes are so small."

"Stalinism is not unique to the Soviet Union," adds Simon. "It's wherever a small group of people decide they're going to use formal democracy to pursue power."

Of course, pettiness is in the eye of the beholder. Some professors familiar with UH's sociology department accuse Curtis, Simon and pals of blocking other colleagues' applications for tenure or promotion -- for exactly the same political reasons Curtis claims in his case.

Named as defendants in Curtis' suit are the university, current department chairman Janet Chafetz and fellow professors Gary Dworkin and Helen Ebaugh. Curtis had voted against Dworkin's wife Rosalind in 1980 when she came up for tenure. He claims the professors formed a band that, by voting together and supporting one another for chairman over the years, has maintained a grip on the department leadership. The chairman is responsible for making faculty salary recommendations.

Also named in the suit are psychology department chairman Marco Mariotto and Harrell Rodgers, who, after his removal as dean of the College of Social Sciences by then-president Pickering, returned to a professorship in the political science department. Mariotto chaired a promotions committee that ruled against Curtis' application for full professor, and Rodgers concurred with the committee's decision.

All of the named academics either declined comment or did not return phone inquiries from the Press. "We are under strict orders not to discuss the lawsuit," Rodgers explained.

The Texas attorney general's office, which is representing UH, has responded to the suit by, among other things, challenging Curtis' using the American with Disabilities Act without first filing a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Curtis is represented by attorney Beatrice Mladenka-Fowler, who won a $170,000 jury judgment last year against Texas Southern University administrators on behalf of three white law school professors who claimed they had been denied promotions because of their race.

Mladenka-Fowler acknowledges that her client's partial basing of his suit on the Americans with Disabilities Act is "unusual." But it's justified, she says.

"A perception of a handicapping condition is covered [in the act]," she says. "We're arguing he is a recovered alcoholic, but they are using that to claim that he's not doing a good job, that he is not meeting their requirements, and so they are perceiving him as having a disability."

In repeatedly denying Curtis promotion to a full professor, the school's committees cited his failure to publish major papers during a so-called "hiatus" in his career -- that is, the period when he was drinking heavily.

But Curtis denies his binge drinking following a divorce and attendant depression ever negatively affected his performance, although he concedes his writing and research did decline during that period. The professor says he would work feverishly for four or five weeks at a time, then seclude himself during drinking binges. "I'm the kind of alcoholic where I cared more about my job than I cared about my life," he says. "I would say I worked harder then than I work now." Curtis has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous since the mid-eighties and swears he hasn't had a drink in nine years.

Simon says the attitude of some of Curtis' colleagues indeed affected his work. "Social psychologists have a room where they can make tall people look short, and short people look tall," he chuckles. "Sometimes you feel like you're living in Alice in Wonderland, you have these kinds of doubts. And they kept hitting on Russ, saying, 'You're inadequate, you're inadequate.' "

Simon also supports Curtis' contention that his refusal to support the Coalition for Excellence contributed to his failure to win promotion. Those base political motives, however, were cloaked by highly subjective judgments about the quality of the professor's academic output, Simon argues. Since productivity is figured simply by how many articles an academic publishes in notable journals, "it really means you're trying to turn lint into linen ... you go to existing data sets and play trivial games with them, rather than go through the whole process of designing research from beginning to end, which is what Curtis has done."

The founder of the Coalition for Excellence, political science department chairman Kent Tedin, rejects Curtis' claims regarding the coalition. Tedin says Rodgers was never an organizer or member of the organization during his tenure as dean, nor were the sociology professors when they evaluated Curtis. Rodgers later joined the coalition as a professor.

Curtis' salary, according to his lawsuit, is significantly less than other associate professors with less experience and tenure with the university. After failing to be nominated by his department for full professor, Curtis applied himself in 1993. He eventually received votes for promotion from Simon and sociology professor Allen Haney. But Chafetz and Ebaugh voted no, and Dworkin, then the department chair, broke the tie with a third no vote. After unsuccessfully appealing through administrative channels, Curtis turned to the federal courts.

You might think it would be somewhat unpleasant for Curtis to continue working in the department now that he's brought his fight for promotion into the legal arena. Not so, avows the professor, perhaps indicating just how unsociable the sociology department had become over the years.

"It's infinitely more comfortable than it was before," Curtis says of his relationship with the colleagues he's suing. "It puts them on the defensive. I can be on the offensive ....

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