Harassment backlash

When Angelo Armenti embarked on a witch hunt for professors accused of indiscretions, he became a case in point for why sexual harassment policies just don't work.

Topics: Academia, College, Books,

In May 1992, the board of governors in charge of the university system in
the state of Pennsylvania plucked Angelo Armenti Jr. — then a dean at
Villanova University — from the ranks of college officialdom and installed
him as president of the California University of Pennsylvania, a mid-size, oddly named state school on the banks of the Monongahela River 30
miles outside Pittsburgh. At the time the move seemed like a shrewd one:
California was in need of money and students, and Armenti seemed a good
bet to provide both. The director of planning at Villanova, he had a
reputation as a superlative fund-raiser, a can-do administrator and an
affable, articulate up-and-comer in the world of higher education.

But the newly minted president soon found himself embroiled in
controversy. In 1992, the year Armenti arrived on campus, a female
professor at California’s business school and two department secretaries
accused Arshad Chawdry, a highly regarded professor, of
making crude advances toward them — playing with their hair, kissing and
hugging them, touching their breasts. At the time, the university lacked
procedures for investigating such complaints, and at first Armenti adopted
an evenhanded, if mediagenic, approach to the case, mixing strident pronouncement about the evils of sexual harassment with fretful laments about the decline of “collegial relationships” on campus.

But when the Justice Department sued California in April 1996 for
failing to follow up on the women’s claims, Armenti abandoned his
middle-of-the-road stance and announced a war on sexual harassment. In
July of that year, the president fired Chawdry, awarded $600,000 to two of
his victims and announced new sexual harassment policies for the campus.
Armenti was also busy investigating other complaints, and before the year
was out the president had suspended, dismissed or demoted four
professors accused of sexual harassment.

Then the roof caved in on him. In 1997, outside arbitrators
began to review all four harassment cases, including Chawdry’s, and in
recent months they have all ruled against Armenti. They derided the
president’s decisions as arbitrary and vengeful and ordered him to rehire
the professors and cough up back wages. Since then, things have gone from
bad to worse for Armenti. Three of the president’s targets slapped him
and the university with hefty civil suits; California’s faculty — one of
the better-paid in the nation — is clamoring for his resignation; and a
spate of articles in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has kept the imbroglio
in the public eye.



But what happened at California, remarkable though it may be, is
far from anomalous. At universities nationwide, male professors charged
with groping, fondling and smooching are seizing the offensive, blistering
accusers, suing university higher-ups and winning large legal settlements.
A University of Maine professor accused of pawing a female student (he
touched her on the shoulder and helped her put on her coat) received
$500,000 in damages from his institution, while the University of Puget
Sound recently had to pay a whopping $1.5 million to a professor wrongly
accused of harassment. Such stories may have seemed surprising a few
years ago, but not now. A burgeoning nationwide backlash against sexual
harassment is under way, and events at California show why.

California seems an unlikely center of sexual harassment controversy.
Situated in a one-stoplight town in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, the
5,300-student college boasts grassy knolls and a venerable history of
higher learning in placid environs. “For almost 150 years,” Armenti
writes in his welcome letter to prospective students, “this institution
has been a beacon of hope and an island of tranquillity in a very turbulent
world. This university has witnessed and survived the Civil War, two
World Wars, the Great Depression and countless other challenges in its
long and magnificent history.”

With his mane of gray hair, Ph.D. in physics and predilection for silk suits, the middle-aged Armenti hardly seems a likely champion of women’s issues. But in recent years he has become an ardent crusader against sexual harassment on campus. There are several reasons for this.

Like many of his colleagues around the country, in the 1990s Armenti became increasingly afraid of lawsuits. In 1991 Congress
amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to allow plaintiffs in sexual
harassment cases to sue their employers. Chilled by the thought of
mammoth attorneys’ fees and bank-busting legal settlements, administrators
and trustees decided that it was better to err on the side of caution,
adopt stringent rules against sexual harassment and move swiftly at the
first whiff of scandal. “It wouldn’t take many more settlements like that
to bankrupt us,” Armenti said after shelling out $600,000 to settle the
Chawdry case. “When we don’t follow the Justice Department order and take
sexual harassment on campus seriously, we can expect six figures taken out
of our operating budget.”

Armenti had also grown increasingly sensitive to women’s issues.
Soon after taking office he hired as his special assistant Dolores Rozzi,
a onetime sexual harassment expert in the Clinton administration and a
big believer in the need for more female deans. In recent years Armenti has
made repeated statements about protecting university women from Bob Packwood
wannabes and other campus lechers, and he also came to see a sexual
harassment crackdown as a way of endearing himself to students, satisfying university trustees worried about their institution’s financial health and getting back at faculty critics who have accused him of
interfering with undergraduate grades and admitting student athletes
with criminal pasts and shoddy academic records. But in his drive to expel “predators” from campus, the president made several serious missteps, running roughshod over professors’ rights, sullying their reputations and violating fundamental tenets of due process. Take, for instance, the case of Bob Brown.

In early 1996, Cheryl Gray, a graduate student in the school’s
Education Counselor program, accused Brown, a professor, of cavorting in
public with one of his students. When Brown got wind of the accusation,
he confronted Gray after one of her classes. Most witnesses said Brown
was restrained during the encounter, but Gray thought otherwise and
complained to administrators that Brown had threatened her. Armenti
conducted what by most accounts was a hasty investigation into the matter,
and on May 9 of that year, a month after the Justice Department filed
suit in the Chawdry case, he fired Brown. “I am persuaded that whatever
mental or personality condition may have led you to the despicable
behavior described above,” the president wrote the professor that day, “it
is not something that is easily treated or rectified … and is one of the
most evil things that someone can do at an institution of higher
learning.”

Nor did Armenti stop there. Shortly after firing Brown, he
suspended William Parnell, Brown’s colleague in the Counselor Education
program, for giving Gray an F, allegedly by way of retaliation. Then Armenti
did something really strange: Using money from the president’s
discretionary fund, Armenti hired a private investigator to investigate
the two professors’ pasts. While the P.I. was digging for dirt, Dolores Rozzi
began calling former students to see if Parnell had ever
harassed them sexually. When the dust had settled, Armenti had charged
Parnell with four counts of sexual harassment. The only problem was that
the charges were between seven and 19 years old, the Department of
Education had already investigated and dismissed one of them and another
had been lodged by a felon convicted of killing her husband.

Critics have also accused Armenti of acting too hastily in the
case of Phil Hayes, California’s longtime dean of students. In 1995, a
California undergraduate complained to the president that a male student
had raped her and that Hayes had rebuffed her requests for help and
instead sided with her alleged attacker. Armenti again turned to an outside
investigator, this time spending $4,500 on Caroline Roberto, a Pittsburgh
lawyer. Roberto subsequently found that Hayes had discriminated against
the woman, concluding — wrongly as it turned out — that the dean had helped
the alleged rapist raise bail money. She recommended that Hayes be replaced with a female judicial officer. Roberto’s report, apparently, was all the evidence Armenti needed. On the first day of fall classes in August 1996,
the president stripped Hayes of his deanship and reassigned him to the
school’s purchasing department, a bureaucratic outpost that held little
appeal for the former dean.

The firings and demotions stunned the campus community, and left
many faculty members dumbfounded; what, they wondered, was Armenti doing?
The president has repeatedly argued that what he was doing was
making the campus safe for students. “[I have a] responsibility to create
a safe haven here,” he explained at one point. “I won’t tolerate sexual
harassment.” Based on his statements, Armenti seems genuinely committed
to stamping out sexual harassment, and for that he should be commended.
But in his mad-dash drive to extirpate predators from California, the
president showed what can happen when an overzealous administrator decides
to take sexual harassment matters into his own hands.

In the last year and a half, Chawdry, Brown, Parnell and Hayes have all
won vindication from arbitrators who have ruled that in his rush to
judgment, Armenti relied on faulty facts, shoddy investigations and
trumped-up charges. The decision in the Hayes case was typical. In
his report, arbitrator Myron L. Joseph argued that the allegations against
Hayes “were based on rumor and innuendo” and called Roberto’s
Report “a particularly unreliable hearsay document” riddled with errors.
“She … has no independent memory of what any of the interviewees told
her,” Joseph wrote. “She did not retain her notes and did not record her
interviews. The people she interviewed were misled concerning why they
were being questioned, and … the record established that the questioning
was not objective and that the individuals who were questioned were
pressured to give answers that satisfied the interrogators … The
president’s action was based on unfounded allegations, and an inadequate and grossly flawed investigation.”

Life at California these days continues much as it has for the past 145
years. Professors teach classes, students attend them and deans and
administrators file papers, hear complaints and keep the campus up and
running. Armenti is also back to work. Despite the arbitrators’
findings, the president remains a relatively popular figure on campus. Students describe him as friendly, approachable and a leader in touch with
their concerns, while trustees, pleased with Armenti’s fund-raising prowess
and administrative abilities, recently rewarded him with a three-year
contract extension.

Yet the controversies there have raised several important
questions about sexual harassment policies at American universities: How,
for example, should college administrators respond to charges of sexual
harassment? Should presidents and deans be responsible for gathering
evidence, holding hearings, investigating faculty members and adjudicating
claims? Or would they be better off recruiting outside lawyers to do
those jobs? Should select administrators, versed in the nuances of
harassment law, preside over judicial tribunals? Or should professors be
allowed to sit in judgment of their peers?

There are few easy answers here. Sexual harassment is one of the
most vexing issues confronting American universities, but all the reforms in the world seem unlikely to alter that fact. Still, campus judicial
systems need improving. As the controversies at California show,
administrators often fail to strike a balance between
the claims of accusers and the rights of the accused. These are basic
responsibilities of college presidents. Angelo Armenti may not have
grasped them as such; but perhaps his colleagues will.

Matthew Dallek, an associate academic director at the University of California Washington Center, is the author of "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics"

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