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In FSB, a failure of leadership is behind recent gender-discrimination lawsuit

By Daniel Herron, Guest Columnist

In my senior level capstone course, "Ethics, Law and Business," I emphasize the three C's: Courage, Compassion and Creativity. I argue that these three characteristics make for proactive, ethical managers in any kind of organization. A failure to let these three characteristics guide one's decisions is sadly a failure of leadership. This is the situation we currently have with a very serious matter at Miami University.

For whatever reasons (personal animus, ignorance, secret agendas, sexism), in late February 2015, all the tenured male members of the Finance Department except for myself voted to characterize the only junior female un-tenured faculty member as "failing to meet expectations in collegiality" because she had missed three departmental Friday afternoon seminars.

Regardless of the fact that she had documented excuses (a family issue, a wedding in which she was a member of the bridal party and another required university function), these tenured males, over the objection of the two female tenured faculty members and myself, as chair of the committee, specifically articulated, in the letter that goes in her file, that she was not collegial. An untenured male faculty member also missed the same number of these seminars and was not called to task on the issue.

As chairperson of this committee, I immediately went to the School of Business dean and associate deans with my concern (we had an absentee-lame duck finance department chair at the time). I asked the deans to step in and remedy this since it smacked of gender discrimination and violated our university definition of "collegiality." The school of business dean summoned me into his office. His only response to me was to chastise me for demonstrating a 'lack of leadership' and said that because of my actions, the matter would have to go to our EEO office. In fact, the very first question he asked me in our "meeting" was, "do you see yourself as a leader?"

At this point, the untenured faculty member in question, the two tenured women faculty and I went to the provost. The provost appeared to be genuinely concerned and sympathetic. In fact, she told the untenured faculty member that she would not sign any acknowledgment of receipt of such a letter and that the university would protect her.

Now, here is what I teach my class about good management leadership. You follow the prescribed procedures, but you always try to creatively ameliorate the situation before it gets out of hand. You step in proactively and, indeed, courageously and try to solve the problem. You don't "do nothing."

How could that have been accomplished here. Either the dean or his associates or the provost could have called a meeting of the department tenure and promotion committee; informed the committee that they were misapplying the concept of "collegiality"; and asked if there were an issue that needed to be vetted and solved. I'd wager, at that point, the issue would have been resolved, or, at the very least, on the road to resolution. The only thing, after all, that makes the notion of "Courage, Compassion, Creativity" work is the environment of transparency and openness, not secretiveness.

Instead, the University hunkered down into a defensive posture and refused to do anything other than the narrowly-described legal procedures: review committees, appeals committees, etc. The University's EEO officer refused to investigate claiming too heavy a workload. The matter got sent to an outside lawyer who has no experience in gender discrimination claims, according to his website. Nearly eight months later, in November 2015, the University surprisingly withdrew the offending letter from the untenured faculty member's file and gave the untenured faculty member another year on her tenure clock, this, of course, coming from a University claiming no wrong-doing at all for eight months.

The University's intransience, failure to address the situation head-on and hiding behind legalistic procedures, opened up a Pandora box. Clearly upset by how the entire matter was handled by the university, the two tenured women launched charges of hostile work environment, gender discrimination and equal pay violation against the University. The facts regarding pay equality show, at the very least, a disparity that is worth judicial review. Again, instead of dealing with this issue head on, reviewing the facts and attempting to resolve it, the University, again, hunkered down, and claimed no liability. Who wants to lay odds that the University will try to settle, negotiate for a non-disclosure and hope that the issues quietly go away. Now, a federal lawsuit is filed and the news media is picking up the situation. It does not cast Miami University in a good light.

How does all of this show a catastrophic failure of leadership at Miami: 1) the lack of courage to embrace immediately a serious claim of gender discrimination; 2) the lack of creativity on how to deal with the issue other than through narrowly-prescribed channels designed to protect the university from liability at all cost rather than doing what is right or ethical; 3) the lack of compassion for those victimized in ways that have a history at the institution.

I am not only a Miami faculty member but also a Miami alumnus, as is my wife and two children and their spouses. This has been a very difficult letter for me to write, but it is a letter that needed to be written.

Miami is paradoxically a progressive institution but also one where change is viewed with suspicion. Innovative, progressive ways to handle serious issues seem anathema to this University. "Letting the lawyers handle such things" is a sure-fire way that nothing will ever change and that ill-will continues to fester. It is this failure of leadership that brings us to where we are today.