Ample evidence of serious problems at FSU Law School

St. Petersburg Times

published June 11, 1998

By DIANE RADO

  1. TALLAHASSEE -- As early as 1990, Florida State University had ample evidence of serious problems at its law school.

  2. A student survey depicted a sexist, racist atmosphere where professors made vulgar and derogatory comments about women, blacks, Hispanics, Jews and homosexuals.

  3. Today, the university faces some of the same allegations. The spring 1990 survey was done a year after Sandy D'Alemberte left the dean's job at the law school, and students' comments, in part, relate to the years in which he served.

  4. Now, D'Alemberte is president at FSU, and is accused of mishandling and hiding allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination against a veteran law professor, William McHugh. In addition, FSU refuses to release complaints made prior to July 1995 about the professor, saying they are exempt from public records law.

  5. D'Alemberte said he is following the advice of his general counsel. He also says he always has responded to problems he's known about, and that he wasn't aware of the 1990 survey because he had already left the law school after five years as dean.

  6. "I have some general memory of dealing with a number of professors having problems with people in various ways," he recalled. "I don't think it's right to go back and talk about that now, in part because I understand it's not something I'm supposed to talk about."

  7. But students did plenty of talking in the 1990 survey, when they didn't have to identify themselves or mention faculty members by name.

  8. The survey was commissioned by a faculty committee formed to address whether FSU had an academic climate hospitable to women and minorities, said Donald Weidner, interim law school dean.

  9. Generally, students described an environment so bad that they cried, considered dropping out of law school or tried to hide from faculty members they described as "sleazeballs."

  10. Profanity was common in class.

  11. "The instructor uses the F-word frequently and is generally rude, crude and the epitome of why tenure is dangerous," one student wrote.

  12. One professor "continually spoke of the strip bars he attends. He continually referred to heterosexual activities and how much he enjoyed it, all the time staring at the closest, young female," another student wrote.

  13. During class discussion, one professor told a joke with a punch line referring to a woman's crotch.

  14. One student also recounted when a professor "extolled the virtues of black athletes as opposed to the "incompetence' of black intellectuals. I believe that was the same class in which he commented that Jews have a "genetic propensity' to study law."

  15. Outside the classroom, male professors routinely made advances to female students, according to the survey.

  16. One student said she was told by a male faculty member that "admission to his office required me to take my top off."

  17. At a moot court competition out of state, one professor tried to kiss a student on the lips repeatedly. "He also complained that she was wearing pantyhose, because he likes women to wear stockings, so he can reach up their skirt . . ."

  18. It was clear from the survey that the complaints are made against more than one law school professor.

  19. "The list of professors whom my classmates and I intend to avoid at virtually any cost . . . is not short, at least six or seven out of the total regular academic faculty," a student wrote.

  20. Several students complained of a cavalier attitude by faculty who joked about inappropriate behavior and didn't take complaints seriously.

  21. "The conduct which is tolerated by this institution would be grounds for disciplinary action or even dismissal where I used to work," one student wrote.

  22. D'Alemberte said he was in constant contact with students as law school dean. "I think I handled problems that came to me." Weidner said the survey "created a picture of our law school that not everyone thought was balanced."

  23. Today, he said, the law school is a different and far more diverse place.

  24. The full-time law faculty is 29 percent female and 13 percent minority, higher than some comparable universities, he said. The University of Florida's law school faculty is 24 percent female and 15 percent minority, he said.

  25. But not everyone thinks times have changed.

  26. Candace Kollas, now an Atlanta lawyer, complained in 1996 that professor McHugh made sexist comments in class, questioned whether someone "so articulate" could be black and repeatedly belittled her in front of classmates. While a university investigator concluded that the incidents "had the effect of illegal discriminatory harassment," and recommended disciplinary action, D'Alemberte gave McHugh a warning letter.

  27. "Obviously, my complaint was not handled properly. If that's indicative of how the law school acts in general, it's not gotten any better," Kollas said.

  28. The old and new allegations against FSU have moved into cyberspace. FSU law student Mark Holten created a Web site and posted Kollas' complaint, as well as the 1990 student survey.

  29. "They (FSU) have absolutely failed to do anything to protect students," Holten said.

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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 .