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
DEMOCRAT STAFF WRITERS
All content © 1998 The Tallahassee Democrat
- Florida State University suspended law professor William McHugh on
Thursday while it investigates allegations that he exposed himself to a
- 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.
- 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.
- "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."
- McHugh declined to discuss the issue Thursday. Previously, he
unequivocally denied ever exposing himself to Stein.
- Stein, a second-year law student and McHugh's research assistant, said
the professor's suspension will definitely make her life easier.
- "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.
- Stein believes she did the right thing by filing the complaint.
- "I'm sure I'll be the subject of scrutiny, but I'm not fearful," she
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.' "
- The complaint drew a swift response from the university.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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
- 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
- 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
- "I think it's created an atmosphere that has made it difficult to
maintain a positive learning environment," Abele said.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- "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."
- 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.
- "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."
- FSU law student Mark Holten is among those who believe the university
should have taken more- severe action years ago.
- "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.
- Frustrated by what he considered a lack of action by university
officials, Holten recently put documents involving McHugh on the World
- But both D'Alemberte and Abele brushed aside any talk that they have
ignored complaints about McHugh's conduct.
- "As I look back on it, I can't think of anything I'd do differently,"
- McHugh has said that he doesn't sexually harass students or employees,
but he acknowledged that he can be tough.
- 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.
- "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."
- Posted at 12:53 a.m. EDT Friday, June 12,
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