Last week was a bad one in the court of public opinion for Alabama State University, keeping ASU President Emeritus William Harris busy issuing statements trying to explain away the bad news. If anything, he made things worse.
First came a ruling from a federal appeals court denying an appeal by ASU in a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the university involving top administrators. The ruling went far beyond just the denial of the appeal, adding a scathing shot at the ASU administration.
Then a couple of days later, a spokesman for the governor said the state was having to seek additional funding for an ongoing audit of ASU "because of the difficulty in getting access to necessary information required to complete the audit."
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals slammed ASU in its ruling, writing that the three-judge panel reviewing the appeal is "left to speculate who is in charge at ASU."
"Regardless, however, we are unnerved by the apparent acquiescence to, if not outright condoning of, the abusive work environment created by its high-level employees. Such conduct simply has no place in a work environment, especially at a publicly funded university," the ruling states.
The court was right on the money when it wrote: "The facts of this case should greatly concern every taxpaying citizen of the state of Alabama, especially because it involves a public university largely funded by tax dollars paid by the people of Alabama."
Those are harsh statements coming from a federal court. So how did Harris respond? Essentially, he said the harassment never happened.
Harris said that the university "vehemently disagrees" with the ruling.
"We continue to deny the discrimination as alleged by the plaintiffs in this case," Harris said.
In the face of the original findings against the university by a federal court and then the upholding of that ruling by the appeals court, Harris comes across like the Wizard of Oz when his ruse is uncovered. The Wizard's response was to proclaim loudly, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. The Great Oz has spoken."
It didn't work for the Wizard, and it's not likely to work for Harris.
Harris said: "While we don't agree with the court's finding, I want the public to be assured we have taken and continue to take seriously any allegation of discrimination. We will address appropriately any allegation of discrimination lodged against any person at this University."
That's going to be a difficult position to sell to the public, considering the detailed evidence of harassment that came out at the original trial and the harsh statements against ASU by the appeals court.
The case found that former acting president and current executive vice president John Knight and another top administrator engaged in or condoned harassment against three female employees. (Knight also is a veteran state legislator.) They were awarded more than a million dollars in back pay and damages, plus the public will have to pay legal fees for both the plaintiffs and the university. Once those fees are determined, the total cost in public dollars could be more than $3 million.
The news of that ruling was still echoing when another story broke. When the governor's office sought additional funding for an ongoing forensic audit of ASU, pushing the potential cost to $650,000, a spokesman said the audit was taking longer than originally estimated because of the difficulty of getting information.
It should be noted that the statement did not specifically blame ASU for that delay.
But that didn't stop Harris from denying the university was to blame. He told al.com: "In an effort to make sure full transparency is maintained in all of the financial transactions of Alabama State University, our staff has been working diligently since last December to respond to each one of the myriad requests the University has received from both the governor's audit staff and the University's own Warren-Averett auditors, while at the same time carrying out the daily duties required to run this University.
"To date, we have sent to them millions of both paper and electronic records in response to their requests. The most recent request came as late as two days ago. Alabama State University will continue to work as quickly as humanly possible as we respond to each and every request from the audit staff."
Perhaps Harris should read his Hamlet, especially where the bard writes that a character protests too much, "methinks." Harris's strong denial of an accusation at most hinted at served only to underscore the point.
It's going to take a lot more than just public denials to persuade the public that ASU is steering the right course. Consider that in the past year, the university has bought out a president who claimed he was being pushed out because he was trying to uncover mismanagement. That prompted an ongoing and costly (but necessary) outside audit that is still under way. Then there was the findings of sexual harassment by two officials, with no apparent disciplining of those involved.
Firm action by the board of trustees, not more statements from the president, are the only way that ASU is going to persuade the public that ASU is serious about dealing with these issues.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at email@example.com.
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