Sex harassment charges latest for FSU professor

Student Wendy Stein joins a list of students who have complained officially and unofficially about law professor William McHugh.

By Leonora LaPeter and Gary Fineout

  1. Florida State University law student Wendy Stein used to defend professor William McHugh, whose conduct over the years has sparked complaints and even a reprimand from the university's president.

  2. But that changed Wednesday.

  3. Stein, a research assistant for the tenured professor, filed a complaint with the university saying McHugh exposed himself to her last week while she was in his office.

  4. "I was not going to report these incidents because I was afraid of possible ramifications to my career, academic standing and reputation," Stein wrote in her complaint to the Office of Student Affairs. "Ultimately, though, I think that being silent will only keep the doors open for McHugh to cause another woman the pain that I have to endure as a result of his actions."

  5. Stein joins a list of other students who have complained -- both officially and unofficially -- about the behavior of the 64-year-old professor, who has taught at the law school since 1973.

  6. McHugh, who teaches arbitration law, contracts and employment law, said Wednesday that he had not seen Stein's complaint. He denied that he exposed himself to her.

  7. "That's absolutely untrue," McHugh said. "Me, pull down my pants or pull it out? That's absolutely outrageous and absolutely untrue."

  8. The student affairs office does not comment on complaints, which by law are confidential until after they are investigated. But university records reveal that Stein's sex harassment grievance is the latest of many complaints against McHugh.

  9. Last year, FSU President Sandy D'Alemberte warned McHugh about his conduct and said he could face further action if he didn't improve his behavior.

  10. Still, the university has been criticized by those who say officials have done little to control McHugh's unprofessional behavior.

  11. D'Alemberte's warning followed a 1996 complaint from a law student whose accusations that McHugh made racist and sexist remarks to her were upheld by a university investigation. Earlier, in 1989, the university paid one of McHugh's former staff assistants a $1,000 settlement after she complained of mistreatment by the professor.

  12. And, according to a source who asked not to be identified, 19 women came forward in the mid-1980s to offer testimony about his inappropriate conduct during a university investigation of another sex harassment complaint against McHugh.

  13. There also are indications that other students have filed complaints against McHugh. However, state law allows the university to keep secret any complaints filed against professors before 1995.

  14. A 1990 survey showed that law school students complained about a "contracts" professor who made offensive remarks during class and that other professors tolerated sexist behavior.

  15. But Stein's allegations may be the most damaging to be made public so far. She said she respected McHugh prior to the June 3 incident and even defended him as a good teacher to countless fellow students.

  16. Said Stein, "I defended him right to the end, right to the day before he showed me his penis."

  17. Stein said she was a little uncomfortable when she arrived at McHugh's office at about 2 p.m., carrying materials she'd obtained for him from the library, and found him sitting in a chair with his yellow Bermuda shorts unbuttoned and his fly unzipped.

  18. "I just assumed that since he was a large man that it was more comfortable to have his pants open, but I still did not think that he should have kept his shorts open after I came in," she wrote in her six-page complaint.

  19. Stein was joined by another research assistant, whom she did not identify, and the two chatted while McHugh finished a telephone call. Then, she wrote, he began talking about his recent hernia operation and insisted they look at his incision.

  20. Despite their protestations that "it really was not necessary for him to show us his scar," Stein wrote, McHugh rose, lifted his shirt on the left side and lowered his shorts.

  21. "The (shorts) dropped on the right side as well, exposing his penis," Stein wrote. "He then quickly pulled his shorts up . . . With a big smile on his face, he said, `Didn't mean to show you my genitalia. Don't start any rumors that I am small.' "

  22. She said she and the research assistant remained in McHugh's office for a few more minutes, "in shock and disbelief," before all three left for class.

  23. "I really did not absorb the previous incident until McHugh made a reference to Clinton's `wanker'," Stein's complaint says. "From that point on I was more and more uneasy in class. Just the sound of his voice was upsetting me. My stomach was churning with pictures of his body in my head."

  24. D'Alemberte said he had not heard of Stein's complaint and could not comment on it.

  25. The second-year law student said she turned down a $12-an-hour job at a Fort Lauderdale law firm to stay in Tallahassee over the summer and work for McHugh part time for $8 an hour. She also enrolled in McHugh's arbitration class.

  26. She had heard of McHugh's reputation even before she started FSU's law school, but she said she decided to give him a chance and took his first-year contracts class last year.

  27. "He used profanity and some inappropriate remarks, but ultimately, I really liked him," Stein said.

  28. This summer, as Stein sat in McHugh's arbitration class, she decided to keep count of McHugh's sexual references. "After just 14 days of class, I had counted 21 references to sexually related topics, including pubic hair . . . sex, bestiality and missionary position."

  29. During one class, she said, McHugh compared sex to arbitration, saying " `Sex can be with a dog, on the kitchen table, in the front yard; it comes in all different forms just like arbitration.' "

  30. Stein has since dropped out of McHugh's class and has stopped working for him. Stein's complaint comes just three weeks before the university's new process for handling sexual harassment cases takes effect on July 1.

  31. D'Alemberte said the university didn't have a policy for dealing with sexual harassment cases when he became president in 1994. The university then created a policy but decided a more centralized system needed to be implemented. The new policy creates a "coordinator of sexual harassment resolutions" and outlines a specific procedure for making complaints.

  32. D'Alemberte acknowledged that sexual harassment is a problem at Florida State University.

  33. "It's a problem you find in every workplace, and we are a large workplace," he said. "If people have not gotten the word, we'll take action against those people."

  34. McHugh said he doesn't sexually harass students or employees, but he acknowledges that he can be tough, especially on his first-year law students. As a result, some may construe his comments as personal attacks.

  35. "A lot of people don't like that kind of adversarial climate," said McHugh, who earns $86,824 a year. "In my judgment, that's the only professional way to teach law school."

  36. Kathryn Hathaway, a local attorney, said McHugh's tough style can be "demanding, difficult and irascible," but she respected him.

  37. "I was his target for harassment on day three of law school and I cried," said Hathaway, who took McHugh's classes and worked for him a decade ago. "And I learned more from that man about contracts and what he had to teach than I can begin to tell you. His class was not always a comfortable place to be. Neither is a law office."

  38. While complaints have surfaced against McHugh recently, it is not the first time that FSU officials have worried about the climate of the law school.

  39. A 1990 survey of students paints a picture of professors routinely using profanity, berating students and making abrasive, even sexually charged comments.

  40. Students told of male professors making passes or even trying to coerce sex from female students in exchange for favorable grades, while some male students complained the school was too liberal and white males were considered "evil."

  41. One female student quoted in the survey said a male professor told her that "admission to his office required me to take my top off." Another student told of watching a professor try to look down the front of the dress of a female asleep on a sofa in the school's rare-books lounge.

  42. Names of students and professors were left out of the survey, but there are several references to the conduct of a "contracts" professor. McHugh was one of four teaching the class at the time, according to former (and now interim) Dean Don Weidner.

  43. One contracts professor told jokes about women's bras: " `They're called `hold-em-from-floppin' in a foreign country.' "

  44. One student quoted a contracts professor who warned students not to bother complaining about any remarks he made in class:

  45. " `Now I know there are a bunch of you who are going to be upset by that comment and say it is sexist and plan to go to the Dean's office. Well, let me tell you, go ahead. Better students than you have gone to the Dean before over these same remarks, and it got them nowhere.' "

  46. Weidner, who was dean from 1991 to 1997 and recently was named acting dean, said Wednesday that as a result of the survey, the law school faculty approved a system that allowed first-year students to opt out of a class and switch to another professor. The opt-out provision was later withdrawn after students began using it to shop for professors with teaching styles they preferred.

  47. Weidner said he didn't believe the survey accurately reflected the overall atmosphere of the law school in 1990. But he said the school has worked to increase the diversity of the faculty and student body since then.

  48. "I think it's a very different law school today," said Weidner. "I also think this survey did not give a complete picture of what it was like. I think there were some problems that needed to be addressed which we did promptly."

Posted at 12:42 a.m. EDT Thursday, June 11, 1998.

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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 .