Don’t Be Politically Incorrect and Hard

"Student complains law professor dropped his shorts, exposing himself"

Copyright Knight-Ridder Newspapers.

News Report, June 17, 1998
By Mark Silva

  1. TALLAHASSEE – For years, the salty words, sexual innuendo, racial remarks and berating of students in professor William McHugh’s tough classes were legendary at Florida State University’s College of Law.

  2. But when McHugh dropped his Bermuda shorts, as one of his female students complained last week, the 64-year-old professor’s career suddenly came into question – as did FSU’s handling of long-simmering complaints about the shocking manners of a man who has tutored a generation of lawyers.

  3. McHugh is, by his own account, a "dinosaur," a "buzz-saw." McHugh is, according to FSU President Sandy D’Alemberte, one of the law school’s top teachers. McHugh is, for now, suspended from his $86,824-a-year job while the university investigates the complaint that he exposed himself to a student.

  4. A professor since 1973 – the year John Houseman starred as the taskmaster Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase – McHugh maintains that the aim of his tough talk is preparing law students for the rough-and-tumble of law firms, hard-nosed negotiation and abusive judges.

  5. But Wendy Stein, 22, a second-year law student from Hollywood who walked into McHugh’s office on June 3 and left in dismay over his alleged display of flesh, says this isn’t the world she inhabits.

  6. "It’s a harsh style to prepare you for the legal world," Stein says. "I have worked in a law firm for many years, and worked with many lawyers and I have seen none of their genitalia, so I don’t think that is relevant."

  7. McHugh has denied exposing himself and makes no apology for his attention-getting demeanor in his freshman classes on contract law or courses in arbitration and employment law. He did not return telephone calls from The Herald, but told The Tallahassee Democrat last week:

  8. "I’m a working dinosaur and when I run into them, I’m a buzz saw … The question is, do I create a hostile environment? Yeah, I do. I get real hostile, if you’re not prepared for my classes."

  9. FSU Law, a stately institution with a circle of white-clapboard Southern homes around a grassy commons in an oak-shaded valley behind the Capitol, wasn’t prepared for a week of publicity about McHugh’s classroom behavior when newspapers started printing complaints of a student who says he failed to get the administration’s attention for two years.

  10. "I think that’s the real story here," says Mark Holten, a third-year law student who last winter posted on the Internet ream of documents about McHugh’s abuse of students. "At some point, the university starts to ratify that conduct when they know about it and do nothing about it. They put me and other students in a classroom knowing they have this problem."

  11. McHugh has taught for much of the school’s existence, leaving a lasting impression on many who passed through.

  12. Rep. Roberts-Burke said she recalls McHugh as a "forceful" professor from her 1981 class with him – but no abuse.

  13. "I do recall that he was effective in class," she said. "Some professors can be a little forceful, and he was that kind of professor, but nothing I felt was out of the ordinary."

  14. Sandy D’Alemberte, president of FSU since 1994, was dean of the law school from 1984 to 1989. He reprimanded McHugh for his conduct last year, but that wasn’t the first complaint D’Alemberte had filed about him.

  15. "I’ll tell you, it goes back clearly to the time I was law school dean," D’Alemberte says. "Bill was a problem, to state it plainly.

  16. "But Bill McHugh is a good teacher. What I found, when I dealt with him as a dean, I’d get a complaint about him … I’d go ask people and I’d find that Bill had been in class and he had used some fairly colorful language, and I’d ask, ‘Was it insulting or demeaning to individuals?’ Some people would say yes, some say no, but he majority of people would come out on Bill’s side."

  17. Last June, D’Alemberte wrote to McHugh about a complaint from a black female law student reporting that McHugh said he didn’t think she was black because she does not have "black hair" and was so "articulate."

  18. "Your periodic use of profanity and occasional off-color remarks … in the course of classroom dialogue with students is unacceptable and is clearly counterproductive to your mission as an educator," the letter said.

  19. Candace Kollas, a lawyer in Atlanta now who filed the complaint, wasn’t satisfied with the university’s response: "In my opinion, he’s a vile, obnoxious man who calls himself the Archie Bunker of contracts."

  20. In 1989, a staff assistant for McHugh received a $1,000 settlement from the university following a complaint over her supervisor’s treatment.

  21. There have been other complaints, but apparently none like the one Wendy Stein filed last week. She says McHugh was seated, wearing open shorts, as she entered his office with another student.

  22. "When I went in, he had his button undone and his belt undone and his zipper undone," Stein said. "He started talking about his recent hernia operation and how they put this mesh in him he could still feel, and how the incision was really long."

  23. "He said, ‘You have to see this thing.’ We said, ‘No no, we will take your word for it.’ He said, ‘You have to see this.’ He pulled his shirt, and the shorts came down."

  24. Not until last week, when McHugh started making comments about President Clinton’s sex organ in class, did Stein decide to complain.

  25. "That is when it hit me," she said. "In this class, he made many more sexual references, inundated with references to Clinton’s ‘wanker.’ He’d say, ‘Arbitration is like sex, because both come in so many different forms.’ You could say caterpillars come in many different forms, or pizza."

  26. Through the years, it was McHugh’s strength as a teacher that overrode objections to his style. "The sum of all of it, at the end of the day: I found that Bill was a good teacher who used bad language and sometimes bad judgement but he motivated a lot of students," D’Alemberte said.

  27. "My continuing conversation with Bill, since I have known him, is: ‘Bill, why do you go out on the edge?’ He would say, ‘I get people nervous or scared to come to my class without being prepared. They stay awake in my class. I am going to say something pretty shocking in my class, some of it comes up pretty raw, and they will pay attention."

"Advice is like snow; the softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper it sinks into the mind."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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 .