Thursday, February 14, 2002 Volume 67, Issue 93



Septimus decision must wake up the UH Board of Regents

Angi Patton
Guest Columnist

The University's four-year effort to cast former UH employee Susan Septimus as a hysterical, menopausal, incompetent, disruptive racist was debunked Feb. 4 as a federal jury concluded the University had retaliated against and constructively discharged her.

This decision ended a turbulent and costly struggle that began in 1998 when Arthur K. Smith, president of UH and chancellor of the UH System, threw down a gauntlet by stating that he and the UH Board of Regents would "go to the mat" with those who had filed grievances against UH General Counsel Dennis Duffy. 

Leveling his sights on Septimus, Smith contended that the trouble in the Office of the General Counsel was precipitated by an "act of mutiny" on the part of a "group of women."

In Smith's stated opinion, Duffy was only guilty of being overly zealous in his style of management. Although an outside investigation suggested otherwise, Smith declared that the report didn't "smell right." He had no choice but to assemble his own investigative team. 

Not surprisingly, the internal investigation produced a report that was more to Smith's liking. When the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled otherwise, Smith dismissed its findings and began a campaign alleging impropriety on the part of the EEOC and former affirmative action director Electra Yourke. 

With the help of a new affirmative action director, the University was able to persuade the EEOC to rescind the ruling. The case ultimately made its way back to Washington where a right-to-sue letter was issued. 

The University sought and received a summary judgment that, in effect, disabled the gender discrimination and harassment charges of Septimus' case. It is this point that Smith is using to divert attention from the devastating legal outcome that paints a grim picture of his administration.

Smith's comments in the Houston Chronicle stating that Duffy is "doing a wonderful job" and he sees no "basis for changing the way the University handles complaints" reveal a person accustomed to having his way.

Blinded by ego, Smith ultimately misjudged the tenacity of Septimus and the limitations of his own power. Once removed from the cloistered culture of academia, the chancellor has no clothes

It is an honest mistake on Smith's part. Here on campus, Smith surrounds himself by those who "ooh" and "ah" over his carefully fabricated attire. The Board has also fallen victim to Smith's fancy garb, showering him with accolades and financial reward.

Outside the inner circle, it is evident that Smith is entrenched in his contempt for anyone who challenges the "establishment" or questions his authority. Consider when former Deputy Chancellor Sybil Todd innocently fraternized with a board member when Smith was on medical leave in 1997. Although apologetic for her blunder, she was stripped of her title. Consider the fates of former UH Police Chief George Hess and his assistant Frank Cempa, who were officially dismissed, in part, for "insubordination." 

With the outcome of Septimus' trial, the costs to Texas taxpayers, the criticism being leveled at Enron's board of directors for being asleep at the wheel and the scrutiny of Enron employees who suspected there was a problem and kept their suspicions mum, perhaps now members of the UH Board will begin asking hard questions beyond the careful scripting the administration provides. 

Once they do, they will learn that PeopleSoft has more than a few "glitches"; that in the highly touted merger between the colleges of Social Sciences and Humanities, Fine Arts and Communication, the administration decided not to put its money where its mouth was. 

They will realize that the athletic program has become a financial black hole of galactic proportion, and that Vice-President for University Advancement Kathy Stafford "chose to pursue other interests" because she inadvertently crossed June Smith and lost her job. The Board will understand that appointing the provost's wife as an associate dean violates the University policy on nepotism. 

They will also discover that the administration turned a deaf ear to a faculty member who, in good faith, brought forward concerns of impropriety at the Hilton College, resulting in yet another retaliation-based lawsuit. And while a University audit revealed that former Hilton College Dean Alan Stutts had violated University policy, the administration rewarded Stutts with an equity raise. 

The Board of Regents should take note. As the Enron situation illustrates, there is little sympathy for the excuse "we didn't know." It is time for the Board to ask; it is time for the Board to know; it is time for the Board to act. 

While we all suffer the consequences of the tactics of the administration, in the end, it is the Board that will be held accountable. For sending a wake-up call, the Board owes Septimus a debt of gratitude not to mention a lot of state money.

Patton, an associate professor of art, 
can be reached via

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