New allegation brings professor a suspension

William McHugh is told to stay away from his classes at FSU's law school while the university looks into a charge that he exposed himself to a student.

By Leonora LaPeter and Gary Fineout

  1. Florida State University suspended law professor William McHugh on Thursday while it investigates allegations that he exposed himself to a student.

  2. McHugh, whose conduct over the years has led to complaints from students and employees and even a reprimand a year ago from the university's president, was told to have no contact with students and barred from teaching his summer-school class. McHugh will continue to receive his $86,824 annual salary.

  3. The university's action came a day after law student Wendy Stein filed a complaint alleging that on June 3 McHugh exposed his genitalia while showing her his hernia scar.

  4. "There were enough facts to trouble us," said FSU President Sandy D'Alemberte. "I think we stated pretty clearly a year ago we would not allow inappropriate conduct. Again, I don't have the full facts and I'm not prejudging this, but it just seems, in light of the history, that this is the correct thing to do."

  5. McHugh declined to discuss the issue Thursday. Previously, he unequivocally denied ever exposing himself to Stein.

  6. Stein, a second-year law student and McHugh's research assistant, said the professor's suspension will definitely make her life easier.

  7. "My immediate reaction is that I'm glad I can go to law school and not have to worry about dodging him," the 22-year-old said.

  8. Stein believes she did the right thing by filing the complaint.

  9. "I'm sure I'll be the subject of scrutiny, but I'm not fearful," she said.

  10. Stein is one of several students to complain about the conduct of the 64-year-old tenured professor. McHugh, who has taught at the law school since 1973, also has been accused of making racist and sexist remarks and mistreating students.

  11. Some current and former law school students, however, have expressed support for McHugh. They say the professor, who teaches arbitration law, contracts and employment law, is merely tough on students to prepare them for the difficulties of a law career.

  12. Stein used to be among those who defended McHugh, but she said that changed after the June 3 incident. In her complaint, Stein said she arrived at McHugh's office carrying materials she obtained for him from the library. She found him sitting in a chair with his yellow Bermuda shorts unbuttoned and his fly unzipped.

  13. 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.

  14. She said that McHugh rose, lifted his shirt on the left side and lowered his shorts. Then "the shorts dropped on the right side as well, exposing his penis. He then quickly pulled his shorts up. . . . With a big smile on his face, he said, `Didn't mean to show my genitalia. Don't start any rumors that I am small.' "

  15. The complaint drew a swift response from the university.

  16. D'Alemberte said he and Larry Abele, FSU's provost and vice president for academic affairs, decided to suspend McHugh at 7:30 a.m. Thursday but took action only after discussing it with the university's general counsel and interim law school Dean Don Weidner.

  17. Abele wrote a letter to McHugh that was delivered to him only minutes before his 2:20 p.m. class. The letter said that McHugh was immediately put on leave and "you are directed to have no contact with any student of the Florida State University."

  18. If McHugh wants to talk to a student to help with a response to the investigation, he must go through the university's Office of General Counsel.

  19. Weidner and Associate Dean Nat Stern met Thursday with McHugh's class for about 15 minutes before it was canceled for the day. Weidner told the students -- there were about 20 -- that a mid-term exam scheduled for today still would be given. The interim dean also said options for allowing the class to continue, such as bringing in another professor or allowing students to complete a research paper, were being explored. The class, which is scheduled to end June 29, usually meets four days a week.

  20. McHugh's suspension is allowed under university rules that say an employee can be suspended if there is reason to believe that the employee's presence on the job will adversely affect the operation of the university.

  21. "I think it's created an atmosphere that has made it difficult to maintain a positive learning environment," Abele said.

  22. Even if the investigation upholds the latest allegations against McHugh, it won't automatically lead to a dismissal. As a tenured faculty member, he can challenge any recommended disciplinary action by taking it before a review committee of his peers.

  23. Both Abele and D'Alemberte, who was dean of the law school from 1984 to 1989, said the suspension was warranted because it not only resulted from a serious charge, but also followed a warning to McHugh to improve his behavior.

  24. D'Alemberte's reprimand in June 1997 followed a university investigation into a 1996 complaint that McHugh had subjected a black female law student to racist and sexist remarks and unfair treatment. An investigator ruled the complaint was justified and recommended disciplinary action against McHugh.

  25. In 1989, the university paid one of McHugh's former staff assistants a $1,000 settlement after she complained of mistreatment by the professor. And, according to a source who asked not to be identified, 19 women came forward in the mid-1980s to offer testimony about McHugh's inappropriate conduct during the investigation of another sex harassment complaint against the professor.

  26. D'Alemberte said he met with McHugh last June to discuss the professor's conduct. The meeting was immediately followed by a letter reiterating D'Alemberte's warning.

  27. "At the time, I thought he understood the consequences of inappropriate behavior," D'Alemberte said. "I was hopeful that he had that kind of thing behind him."

  28. Although D'Alemberte has been criticized for not dealing swiftly and appropriately with McHugh before the latest complaint, he said he believes his handling of the professor has been fair.

  29. "I feel like this is the right thing to do in these cases," D'Alemberte said. "If it turns out to be something horrendous, you take action immediately. If it's not something so horrendous or clear-cut, you give them a warning. You take action where people are really being harmed. You don't have the luxury of giving warnings in those circumstances."

  30. FSU law student Mark Holten is among those who believe the university should have taken more- severe action years ago.

  31. "The issue here always has been that the president of the university has known about this since the late '80s and never did anything to protect students and employees," said Holten, who filed a complaint with the university about McHugh's behavior in class.

  32. Frustrated by what he considered a lack of action by university officials, Holten recently put documents involving McHugh on the World Wide Web.

  33. But both D'Alemberte and Abele brushed aside any talk that they have ignored complaints about McHugh's conduct.

  34. "As I look back on it, I can't think of anything I'd do differently," D'Alemberte said.

  35. McHugh has said that he doesn't sexually harass students or employees, but he acknowledged that he can be tough.

  36. David Chester, who graduated from FSU's law school in May, said McHugh was an excellent teacher and his suspension is a disservice to students. Chester, who took McHugh's contracts class his first year of law school and then served as a tutor in the class the next year, said he never observed any instances of unprofessional conduct.

  37. "I do recall him using comments such as `bulls- -t' or `ass,' but never in a way that was degrading to anyone," the 35-year-old said. "He wouldn't be the first to tell you that he's not the most refined gentleman in the world and neither would I, but I never heard him use language in an offensive context. He may have used words that people who are ultrasensitive would find sensitive, but generally it's language you would hear on prime time."

  38. Posted at 12:53 a.m. EDT Friday, June 12, 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 .