Last weekwas a bad one in the court of public opinion for Alabama State University,keeping ASU President Emeritus William Harris busy issuing statements trying toexplain away the bad news. If anything, he made things worse.
First camea ruling from a federal appeals court denying an appeal by ASU in a sexualdiscrimination lawsuit against the university involving top administrators. Theruling went far beyond just the denial of the appeal, adding a scathing shot atthe ASU administration.
Then acouple of days later, a spokesman for the governor said the state was having toseek additional funding for an ongoing audit of ASU "becauseof the difficulty in getting access to necessary information required tocomplete the audit."
The 11thU.S. Circuit Court of Appeals slammed ASU in its ruling, writing that thethree-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 condoningof, the abusive work environment created by its high-level employees. Suchconduct simply has no place in a work environment, especially at a publiclyfunded university," the ruling states.
The court wasright on the money when it wrote: "The facts of this case should greatlyconcern every taxpaying citizen of the state of Alabama, especially because itinvolves a public university largely funded by tax dollars paid by the peopleof Alabama."
Those are harsh statements coming froma federal court. So how did Harris respond? Essentially, he said the harassmentnever happened.
Harris said that the university"vehemently disagrees" with the ruling.
"We continueto deny the discrimination as alleged by the plaintiffs in this case," Harrissaid.
In the face ofthe original findings against the university by a federal court and then theupholding of that ruling by the appeals court, Harris comes across like theWizard of Oz when his ruse is uncovered. The Wizard's response was to proclaim loudly, "Pay no attention to thatman behind the curtain. The Great Oz has spoken."
It didn't workfor 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 assuredwe have taken and continue to take seriously any allegation of discrimination.We will address appropriately any allegation of discrimination lodged againstany person at this University."
That's going tobe a difficult position to sell to the public, considering the detailedevidence of harassment that came out at the original trial and the harshstatements against ASU by the appeals court.
The case foundthat former acting president and current executive vice president John Knightand another top administrator engaged in or condoned harassment against threefemale employees. (Knight also is a veteran state legislator.) They wereawarded more than a million dollars in back pay and damages, plus the publicwill have to pay legal fees for both the plaintiffs and the university. Oncethose fees are determined, the total cost in public dollars could be more than$3 million.
The news ofthat ruling was still echoing when another story broke. When the governor'soffice sought additional funding for an ongoing forensic audit of ASU, pushingthe potential cost to $650,000, a spokesman said the audit was taking longerthan originally estimated because of the difficulty of getting information.
It should benoted that the statement did not specifically blame ASU for that delay.
But that didn'tstop Harris from denying the university was to blame. He told al.com: "In an effort to make sure full transparency is maintainedin all of the financial transactions of Alabama State University, our staff hasbeen working diligently since last December to respond to each one of themyriad requests the University has received from both the governor's auditstaff and the University's own Warren-Averett auditors, while at the same timecarrying out the daily duties required to run this University.
"To date,we have sent to them millions of both paper and electronic records in responseto their requests. The most recent request came as late as two days ago.Alabama State University will continue to work as quickly as humanly possibleas we respond to each and every request from the audit staff."
Perhaps Harrisshould read his Hamlet, especially where the bard writes that a characterprotests too much, "methinks." Harris's strong denial of an accusation at most hinted at served only tounderscore the point.
It's going to take a lot more than justpublic 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 whoclaimed he was being pushed out because he was trying to uncover mismanagement.That prompted an ongoing and costly (but necessary) outside audit that is stillunder way. Then there was the findings of sexual harassment by two officials,with no apparent disciplining of those involved.
Firm action bythe board of trustees, not more statements from the president, are the only waythat ASU is going to persuade the public that ASU is serious about dealing withthese issues.
Ken Hare was a longtimeAlabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes aregular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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