FSU law professor long has courted controversy

Bill McHugh, now on paid suspension while a student's complaint is investigated, has weathered many complaints.

Tallahassee Democrat

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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."

  4. 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.

  5. "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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. McHugh's attorney said last week that his client's reputation is "under blitzkrieg."

  10. "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.

  11. 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.

  12. "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.

  13. Weidner said, "I can't evaluate an employee through the press."

  14. 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.

  15. "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."

  16. According to those who know him -- faculty, staff, present and former students -- McHugh owes his survival to a number of factors.

  17. 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.

  18. "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."

  19. 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 times.

  20. "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."

  21. 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 course.

  22. "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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. "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."

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. He never heard from any of them.

  32. 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 the report.

  33. 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 problem either.

  34. "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.'"

  35. 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.

  36. "McHugh's comment was, 'I'm not having some fat lady trotting around my office,'" Horvath recalled.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. "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.

  40. Slepin said Horvath's account "is very incorrect."

  41. 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 inappropriately.

  42. Tinsley said he turned it over to FSU's auditors, who investigated.

  43. 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.

  44. 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.

  45. 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 back."

  46. 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 employees.

  47. And only one of the student complaints warranted action, D'Alemberte said.

  48. "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 witnesses."

  49. 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 "articulate."

  50. 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.

  51. 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 enough.

  52. 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.

  53. "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."

  54. Lamb, who suspected she was singled out because of her age, never filed a complaint against McHugh, but Kristine Adams did.

  55. 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 for abuse.

  56. 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.

  57. 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 consecutive tests.

  58. Slepin strenuously denied Adams' charges. He said that McHugh never touched her grading sheet, calling the allegation "incredible and outrageous."

  59. 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.

  60. 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.

  61. "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."

  62. Adams, though, is angry.

  63. "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."

  64. But stories like Adams' strike many former McHugh students and some faculty members as overstated complaints from people who take him way too seriously.

  65. 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.

  66. 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.

  67. "I think people have different standards than what he has," said law student Mitch Silverman.

  68. And Silverman says he never heard anything overtly racist or sexist.

  69. "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 Silverman.

  70. 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."

  71. "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."

  72. 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 generation are."

  73. 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 antique store.

  74. "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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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 .