FSU law professor long has courted controversy
Bill McHugh, now on paid suspension while a student's complaint is
investigated, has weathered many complaints.
By LEONORA LaPETER
and GARY FINEOUT
All content © 1998 Tallahassee Democrat. All rights
- Dorothy Miller will never forget professor Bill McHugh -- and it's not
because of what she learned in his contracts class at the Florida State
University law school.
- What she remembers are McHugh's frequent toilet humor and references
to women's bras, and how he rarely failed to point out that the class had
reached "page 69" in a textbook.
- And she vividly remembers McHugh's speech during the first week of
class her freshman year. After he uttered some kind of crude remark, she
recalls, McHugh told the class that anyone who was offended could report
"this sexual harassment" to the dean. "You just go out this door here,
turn to the right and go up the stairs and down the hall to the dean's
office," Miller recalls him saying. "But on your way there, I want you to
note that there is a worn place in the carpet where students before you
have gone to report me, and nothing has ever happened to me."
- That was in 1987. Eleven years later, Bill McHugh is still at the law
school -- still, according to his students, making crude and sometimes
lewd remarks and still bragging about it.
- "Why offend them with style when you can offend them with substance?"
reads a cut-out taped to the door of his law school office.
- And during the course of his career the 64-year-old professor has
been: written up by an FSU personnel official who said at least 19
employees had complained about his inappropriate behavior; named in a
sexual harassment suit that FSU settled for $1,000; cited for
mismanagement of university funds; and -- most recently -- charged with
exposing himself to a woman law student.
- Wendy Stein, a research assistant to McHugh, filed a complaint
alleging that on June 3 the professor exposed his genitals while showing
her his scar from a hernia operation.
- That last incident may prove too much: McHugh was suspended, with pay,
while the university investigates the complaint. Still, McHugh has
expressed confidence that nothing will happen to him -- and is promising
to tell his side of the story when it all blows over.
- McHugh's attorney said last week that his client's reputation is
- "A fair and competent hearing will exonerate him of these unwarranted
charges, pending which I hope against hope that the press will exercise
restraint," wrote Steve Slepin in response to written questions from the
Democrat about McHugh.
- Indeed, there's little to suggest that anything will happen to McHugh.
As recently as last week, FSU President Sandy D'Alemberte and acting Dean
Don Weidner -- who between them have served as law school dean for 10 of
the past 14 years -- said there was no need to explain why no previous
disciplinary action had been taken against McHugh.
- "No facts came to my attention on anything relating to his performance
in the classroom that would justify his dismissal," said D'Alemberte,
whose only official action against McHugh prior to the suspension was a
warning letter in 1997.
- Weidner said, "I can't evaluate an employee through the press."
- But others don't agree with D'Alemberte. One law school faculty member
who has complained about McHugh for years wonders why nothing was done.
- "I think the story isn't McHugh, it is the handling of McHugh," said
law professor Larry George. "McHugh is in some sense a victim. He's out of
control. He has no sense of any limit to the language, the humor and
offensiveness he's entitled to use in class."
- According to those who know him -- faculty, staff, present and former
students -- McHugh owes his survival to a number of factors.
- One is that many consider him to be a terrific teacher, an expert on
contracts, labor law and sexual harassment whose classroom is a lively,
challenging and even exciting place. He can be lewd and crude, students
say. But he also can be inspirational.
- "I always liked him, and I always felt he was a good teacher," said
Nora Leto, a Winter Haven attorney who graduated from the law school in
1981. "I'm not saying that he has the manners of a diplomat. He's a labor
lawyer, and he's a person of strong personality ... In the white-collar
genteel world of professors, he's a blue-collar guy."
- Staffers say the white-haired professor also can be an engaging,
animated boss. Many say they're willing to write off his language as the
utterances of an "old-school" guy whose behavior hasn't changed with the
- "Bill is an equal opportunity offender," said law professor
Barbara Banoff. "I mean, if you're offended by that language, it's not
directed at any particular race or gender."
- And then there's his knowledge of the law: Though Bill McHugh didn't
write the book on sexual harassment law (indeed, his record shows he's
published very little in the last several years), he does teach the
- "He thinks he can do whatever he wants to whomever he wants and
that he's above the law because he teaches employment law and no one will
touch him. Somebody needs to," said Cherylynn Horvath, a former employee
of McHugh's who claims he forced her to stop working for him because she
was seven months pregnant and he didn't want to look at her.
- But McHugh, who has worked at FSU for the past 25 years as a law
professor and a labor law specialist, also owes his survival to university
officials who say they either didn't know about the volume of complaints
-- or decided they didn't warrant any action.
- Jim Tinsley, a former associate personnel director who cataloged the
complaints of 19 women against McHugh in the mid-80s, doesn't understand
why nothing came of his report.
- "I would say testimony from that many women, in my personal opinion,
certainly should have generated a response from the university," Tinsley
said. "Which way the response should go wasn't up to me, but certainly it
should have generated a response."
- Tinsley investigated the complaints of women who worked for McHugh at
the Center for Employment Relations and Law, a university think tank that
the former labor lawyer opened in 1979 to track trends in employment law
and hold seminars on workplace issues, including sexual harassment,
affirmative action and even AIDS.
- Documents obtained by the Democrat showed McHugh had a dozen staff
assistants, all women, at the center between 1979 and 1989. One stayed
only six days; the longest lasted 18 months. All left voluntarily.
- Tinsley, who now is retired, said he began investigating McHugh after
one of the law professor's employees complained about him. Pretty soon,
Tinsley said, former employees from as far away as Miami were calling him
about McHugh's behavior. They complained that he had pictures of nude
women on the wall, that he made sexist remarks, and that he touched them
inappropriately, Tinsley said.
- FSU refused to turn over to the Democrat any complaints filed against
McHugh prior to 1995, citing a state law that barred release of employee
conduct complaints prior to that year.
- When asked about the complaints, Tinsley said he submitted his
findings to top university officials, including the general counsel's
office, the provost and the dean of the faculty.
- He never heard from any of them.
- D'Alemberte, who was dean of the law school from 1984 to 1989, said
the Center for Employment Relations and Law reported to FSU's Institute of
Science and Public Affairs, not the law school. He said he didn't recall
- Ed Fernald, director of the Institute of Science and Public Affairs,
said he was told that since it involved complaints that were being
investigated by the university's personnel department, it wasn't his
- "I can't say I didn't know anything about it," said Fernald, who says
he spoke to Tinsley about it. "I asked, 'Is this something I am supposed
to do anything about?' and he said, 'No.'"
- Meanwhile, Tinsley received another complaint, this one from Horvath.
Horvath, who now works as a paralegal for a law firm in Jackson, Miss.,
worked for McHugh for 10 months, beginning in August 1987. She was seven
months pregnant when McHugh told her that she would not be allowed back in
the office until she had the baby.
- "McHugh's comment was, 'I'm not having some fat lady trotting around
my office,'" Horvath recalled.
- McHugh's edict forced Horvath, who was supporting her two children and
husband while he attended graduate school, to use all of her sick and
vacation time before the baby was born, she said. She was left with no
source of income for two-and-a-half months.
- She filed a complaint and settled out of court for $1,000, an amount
that covered the time she was forced to go without pay. She said she
didn't seek any more because she just wanted to make sure her bills were
paid and that she still had a job.
- "Men like that shouldn't be allowed in the workplace around women,"
Horvath said. She was transferred to the admissions office after she
returned to work.
- Slepin said Horvath's account "is very incorrect."
- Horvath wasn't the last employee to file a complaint against McHugh.
Tomiko Gore, who now lives in Irvine, Calif., said she filed a complaint
with Tinsley in 1988 alleging McHugh was using training seminar funds
- Tinsley said he turned it over to FSU's auditors, who investigated.
- The auditors found the center's financial books in disarray. Files on
paid and unpaid invoices were incomplete, documents were missing, money
hadn't been deposited and the center had an overall deficit.
- Although there was no evidence of anything illegal, McHugh was
stripped of his financial and administrative duties at the center in
February 1989. He retained responsibility for all of the center's
programs, documents show.
- In an interview two weeks ago, McHugh said the audit determined that
he needed help with the financial responsibilities of the center, and that
he agreed. He said he was glad for the help, because it was "a load off my
- D'Alemberte, who became FSU president in 1994, said that during his
time as law school dean, McHugh's law center was not under the law
school's jurisdiction and he was not aware of the complaints by
- And only one of the student complaints warranted action, D'Alemberte
- "So far as I know, I've never let problems of sexual harassment, even
boorish behavior, go undealt with," said D'Alemberte. "When we started
investigating these matters, you don't always get the same story from all
- The university president sent McHugh a warning letter in June 1997,
telling him to clean up his behavior and language after a law student
complained that he made racist and sexist remarks to her. McHugh allegedly
told Candace Kollas, now an Atlanta lawyer, that he didn't think she was
black because she did not have "black hair" and because she was so
- As for other complaints, D'Alemberte said he was unwilling to clamp
down on McHugh for fear of treading on the professor's academic freedom --
his right to hold controversial views without fear of retaliation by the
university. McHugh, D'Alemberte said, is an excellent teacher when he
doesn't use offensive language.
- But some of McHugh's actions went beyond offensive language. Law
student Elizabeth Lamb, a retired doctor who returned to school last fall,
spent just five days in McHugh's class before deciding she had had
- She says that McHugh called on her at the start of class every day and
kept peppering her with questions, so that she remained standing for the
entire 55-minute class. Any time another student answered a question, she
would try to sit down, but McHugh would promptly ask her another question.
- "It was this kind of confrontation, and I just felt like it could go
on the rest of the year," said Lamb, now 68 and still in law school. "I
didn't come to law school to be physically abused."
- Lamb, who suspected she was singled out because of her age, never
filed a complaint against McHugh, but Kristine Adams did.
- Adams, now a third-year law student, said her problems with McHugh
began when she corrected him in her 1997 contracts class when McHugh was
talking about calculating damages. Adams, who has a background in
accounting, says she caught him in several mistakes -- so he targeted her
- Adams complained that McHugh violated the school's anonymous grading
system on two different exams. Students are assigned a number on their
tests to preserve their confidentiality.
- Adams said in one instance, McHugh placed a yellow sheet on a stack of
final exams just as she was about to turn hers in, distinguishing it. In
another instance, he asked the students to use the same number on two
- Slepin strenuously denied Adams' charges. He said that McHugh never
touched her grading sheet, calling the allegation "incredible and
- But what really angered Adams was the university's lack of response.
She originally filed her complaint with then Associate-Dean Donna Christie
in May 1997. Four months later, after she'd heard nothing, she inquired
about it. Law professor Jeffrey Stempel, who had taken Christie's place,
had no record of the complaint.
- Stempel acknowledged that Adams' complaint has remained unanswered
longer than he would have liked, but he said he couldn't talk about it
because it's still pending.
- "By no means does this indicate a lack of taking the matter
seriously," Stempel said. "I take all things seriously but would have to
add that the professor is presumed innocent until found otherwise."
- Adams, though, is angry.
- "I spent a lot of years working to get to law school, and it seemed so
unjust to work so hard to get to this place only to ... have to listen to
this guy talking about burping and farting and making racist and
misogynist statements," she said. "He stole a lot from my law school
experience. He robbed me of what law school should have been."
- But stories like Adams' strike many former McHugh students and some
faculty members as overstated complaints from people who take him way too
- They praise McHugh as FSU's own version of Professor Kingsfield, the
tyrannical law professor in the 1973 film (and subsequent TV series) "The
Paper Chase," who would terrorize anyone not prepared for his class.
- McHugh's student evaluations show that a majority of his students in
1996 and 1997 gave him good marks. And his fans say that, while McHugh
does make scatological jokes and refer to women's anatomy, the intent is
not to humiliate or belittle.
- "I think people have different standards than what he has," said law
student Mitch Silverman.
- And Silverman says he never heard anything overtly racist or
- "I never saw him do anything that stank of discrimination, that led me
to believe that he was anything other than a product of his times," said
- Nora Leto, who took McHugh's class in the late '70s, says she had
plenty of verbal jousts with McHugh, who always called her "Leta." But
Leto, a Hispanic woman whose career in labor law includes representing
migrant workers in lawsuits against employers, said his comments never
struck her as "mean-spirited."
- "From looking at me, I'm evidently Hispanic," said Leto. "I could have
carried a neon sign that said 'Kick Me.' I was young and opinionated. He
was drawn to me like a magnet. I never felt it was mean-spirited or
designed to make me feel bad or to put down minorities. I think everything
he said was geared to make people think."
- Added Judy Jacobs, who worked for McHugh for 11 months in 1985 and
1986 before demanding a transfer: "There's a lot of things you can label
sexual harassment. He's a male chauvinistic pig, but most people from his
- But that's exactly why he should leave the law school, said Dorothy
Miller, who now lives in Jefferson County and is the co-owner of an
- "McHugh is a dinosaur from another era and should retire or be asked
to leave the law profession," she said. "There was a time when the law
school was definitely a good ol' boys club and when it was OK to poke fun
at women and minorities, but those days are gone. As McHugh should be."
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