FSU law school's `Archie Bunker' delivers tough lessons

Students say professor William McHugh's behavior is harassment; he says he's just giving them a taste of a difficult profession.

By Leonora LaPeter and Gary Fineout

  1. Whether the issue is classroom decorum, treatment of students or inappropriate influence in law school admissions, Florida State University professor William McHugh is a lightning rod for controversy.

  2. McHugh, a tenured member of the law school faculty for two decades, agrees that he can be combative. He also uses a lot of profanity in his classes.

  3. But McHugh, who teaches contract law, arbitration and employment law, says it's all part of an effort to prepare law students, particularly first-year students, for a tough career.

  4. "I'm a working dinosaur and when I run into them, I'm a buzz saw," McHugh, 64, said Tuesday. "The question is, do I create a hostile environment? Yeah, I do. I get real hostile if you're not prepared for my classes."

  5. McHugh's style and behavior, however, have placed him at the center of several law school controversies. And some current and former students are accusing FSU of ignoring the behavior of a man they say has a history of harassing students and employees.

  6. FSU law student Mark Holten, who filed his own grievance against McHugh, was so frustrated at the university's response to his and other complaints that he decided to expose the problem by posting more than 100 pages of documents about the professor on the World Wide Web.

  7. "When I learned I wasn't the only one who had complained and they weren't doing anything about anyone's complaint, I felt compelled as a future lawyer to stand up and do the right thing and fight for what is just and true," Holten said Tuesday.

    Comment: Mark Holten received top honors in his class in professional responsibility. The lesson learned here is that if you attempt to apply the ethical principles learned in law school, its going to be ignored and not appreciated. I have not been able to locate his Web site.

  8. Consider McHugh's history:

  9. FSU President Sandy D'Alemberte -- the law school's former dean -- sent McHugh a letter in June following the investigation of a 1996 complaint by a black female law student.

  10. "Your periodic use of profanity and occasional off-color remarks (i.e. references to anatomical parts of the body) in the course of classroom dialogue with students is unacceptable and is clearly counter-productive to your mission as an educator," D'Alemberte said in the letter.

  11. The 1996 complaint against McHugh alleged that he not only made sexually inappropriate remarks but also said he did not think the student was black because she did not have "black hair" and was so "articulate."

  12. McHugh was a member of the 1992 admissions committee that allowed the daughter of then-legislator Robert Trammell to be admitted to the law school despite mediocre grades and a low test score. A report about Meredith Trammell's law school admission concluded that it had been orchestrated by McHugh who "displayed unusual zeal."

    Comment: Here, students learn how the lawyer's good old boy system works.

  13. His advocacy came at about the time lawmakers were considering -- and ultimately approved -- renewed funding for a legal center directed by McHugh that paid him $26,000 a year in salary. The university changed the law school admission policy after the Trammell incident.

  14. A staff assistant who worked for McHugh at the law center was paid $1,000 in 1989 by the university to settle a mistreatment complaint she filed against the professor.

  15. McHugh said he was unaware of such a settlement. He also dismissed other controversies raised by his critics.

  16. "These are old complaints and the university did its investigation," he said. "There's two sides to that thing (the 1996 complaint). . . . The real genesis of this thing is that I want my students to be prepared."

    Comment: Prepared to be sleaze balls like him.

  17. Candace Kollas, whose complaint led to D'Alemberte's warning letter to McHugh, said she wasn't satisfied with the university's action in her case.

  18. "In my opinion, he's a vile, obnoxious man who calls himself the Archie Bunker of contracts," said Kollas, who was allowed to drop McHugh's class in mid-semester in spring 1996. It's highly unusual for students to be given permission to drop a class in mid-term.

    Comment: The university would rather bend its rules than take action against him.

  19. In her complaint, Kollas, now an Atlanta lawyer, said that McHugh targeted her specifically with belittling remarks. She also said he created a hostile educational environment with his racist and sexist comments.

  20. One time, Kollas recounted, McHugh berated her for 32 minutes, saying she was irresponsible, lacked professionalism and would fail as an attorney.

  21. Kollas also said McHugh told an employment law class: "If a woman is wearing Spandex and a tube top, she deserves to be, or more likely will be, sexually harassed."

  22. In another class, Kollas quoted McHugh as saying: "If a woman is not wearing underwear and she is standing on a ladder, and I (the professor) hasten to look there, she's asking to be harassed."

  23. FSU's Office of University Human Resources investigated Kollas' complaint and concluded that "some form of corrective action was required" because McHugh's actions had been discriminatory and "caused a hostile environment."

  24. McHugh, who earns $86,824 a year, denied Kollas' allegations Tuesday and wondered why an allegation from two years ago was being dredged up. He pointed to a number of letters written by his students to the university stating that none of the events occurred and that Kollas was hostile and confrontational toward him in class.

  25. "I did not observe a single incident of sexual harassment, sexual discrimination or racial harassment in Professor McHugh's employment law survey class," one student wrote. "I believe such charges based upon what I personally observed are both spurious and unfounded."

    Comment: This future lawyer has learned his/her lesson well-- lie to discredit others and get ahead.

  26. Still, the university's investigator, Cheryl Gonzalez, noted that many of McHugh's students failed to respond to her calls because they feared retribution. Some refused to talk until the end of semester grades had been officially recorded, the report states.

    Comment: Learning the find points of intimidation.

  27. About nine months after Gonzalez' report came out, D'Alemberte met with McHugh and then sent him the letter.

  28. "We do not need to accept the extreme views of political correctness, but we ought to understand the negative impact of insensitive remarks on our teaching method," D'Alemberte told McHugh in the letter.

  29. D'Alemberte said Tuesday his letter spoke for itself.

  30. He said he's prohibited from discussing any complaints against McHugh prior to 1995 because universities were allowed to keep confidential any records involving the performance of a professor. In 1995, the law was changed to require the release of complaints after they had been investigated.

    Comment: I would assume by this language that this information could have been released at the option of the University president and former law school dean. Another lesson for law school students. Its the good old boy system looking after its own again.

  31. Still, it's clear that Kollas was not the first to complain against McHugh.

  32. "Such reports are not new to the university regarding (McHugh)," Gonzalez' report says. "Whether or not substantiated, they have had the effect of repeatedly utilizing valuable financial resources, time and effort because no university action has caused the reported offenses to cease."

  33. The report mentions two first-year law students who reported "similar concerns" and were allowed to withdraw from McHugh's classes in 1995.

    Comment: Again, just bend the rules rather than do anything.

  34. And a source who asked to remain anonymous said that, while the university was investigating McHugh in a sexual harassment case in the mid-1980s, 19 women came forward to offer testimony about his inappropriate conduct.

  35. There's also the case of Cherlynn Horvath, who worked as McHugh's staff assistant for 10 months in 1987 and 1988. Records indicate Horvath reached a $1,000 settlement with the university for "alleged treatment of Ms. Horvath by her immediate supervisor at the time."

  36. Holten, who put the McHugh information on the Internet, said he filed a grievance against McHugh for his conduct in his first-year contracts class in 1995. Holten said he was allowed to withdraw from that class along with three or four other students.

  37. Holten said he was extremely offended by McHugh's continuous barrage of sexually offensive jokes and off-color remarks.

  38. "It was so outrageous that I was not able to concentrate on the study of contracts, because I was reeling from incredibly offensive comment after comment denigrating women and minorities," Holten said. "I mean it really affects your ability to learn in the classroom and I'm a man. I know it affected women and they left the class."

  39. But Victor Saymo, one of McHugh's students, had a different opinion.

  40. "Speaking from my personal experience, I know that professor McHugh has never treated me any differently, on account of my race or the color of my skin," said Saymo, who is from the Philippines. "He's not singled me out for negative treatment on account of my race. Never."

    Comment: Perhaps this future lawyer has learned how to get ahead.

  41. Posted at 12:46 a.m. EDT Wednesday, June 10, 1998
All content copyright 1998 The Tallahassee Democrat
May not be republished without permission.
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This is a page in the section entitled Why Can't Law Schools Teach Ethics? --FSU in the Web site entitled Legal Reform through Transforming the Discipline of Law into a Science .