When Leadership Fails: a short story about administrative incompetence

This story is a companion piece to three of my other posts:
Is your boss paying attention to you?
Burnt-out on stress management? It's time to change the organization.
Workplace stress: Does anyone hear the workers screaming in their cubicles?

My wife, Cici, has filed a lawsuit against her employer: California State University, Sacramento (CSUS or "Sacramento State").

If you want, you can read the stories written about this action in the Sacramento Bee or the Sacramento State Hornet. The Hornet also published an editorial. The 200 page lawsuit is also online.

Cici has worked for the campus for more than thirty years. For most of that time, she has been the Director of Career Services in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. She was the first to hold that position, and even though she is the only staff member in the Career Services Office, she has created an entire service delivery system. She has developed an extensive network of contacts between the community and the campus and between the engineering school and employers from a wide range of industries and government agencies. She has brought in substantial donations of equipment and funds, and the money necessary to run her operation. She regularly employs a group of student assistants and a webmaster, and she funds the annual Engineering and Computer Science Career Day, along with other special events. Integral to her program of services is a set of career development courses she has been teaching for more than 25 years.

In the stories appearing in the Hornet and the Bee, it says that one of her complaints is that she has repeatedly been denied any "promotion" while serving in this position. It is more accurate to say that she has been denied proper classification, or a classification that is consistent with her job description and responsibilities. Her lawsuit alleges that her requests to be reclassified as an "academic related professional" have been denied in retaliation for complaints she has made. The campus says this isn't so.

Her lawsuit also alleges that she has been refused "academic related" standing in response to gender discrimination. It's a glass ceiling issue (yes, there are a number of men - all men - doing similar but less demanding student service, student advising jobs while enjoying "academic related" status). There are female student service professionals on campus who do have academic status, but they are in health center jobs (licensed therapists), not in student advising.

Cici's other complaints against the campus relate to one particular Professor, Miroslav Markovic.

Cici's problems with Miroslav began in 1991 when a company in Reno called to say that they had received somewhere between 12 and 15 phone calls and two visits from the professor. Markovic wanted them to fire a recent Sac State graduate whom they had hired. It turns out that Miroslav had tried to develop a sexual relationship with the student and was angered when his advances were spurned. The student documented his experiences with Markovic in a letter to the campus in which he said that it was only too late that he came to realize that Markovic was a "sexual predator." His letter made clear that he had been "groomed" (my word) and that Markovic was "chicken hawking" him (as they say in the criminal arena where I work). The situation evolved into threats and stalking behavior. Markovic wrote to one of the student's friends: "I love him, and I do not know why he does not return my love. I helped him so much and he just ignores me … I must get back at him."

It was an alarming circumstance and Cici was drawn into it because the complaints came to her and because the Dean asked her to help straighten things out with the employer. Markovic was placed on leave for a while, but was allowed to return to campus. I have spoken with this student, and 18 years later he is still traumatized by the experience.

In subsequent years, the campus continued to receive student complaints about Markovic. Some students wrote to the administration, but many of them came to Cici. In the school of engineering, she is the only student services professional, the only student advisor. She is the one who helps students with their careers, and usually the complaints were around issues that would affect their careers. One group complained that Markovic threatened to fail them in class if they skipped a session to meet with a company that was coming to recruit and offer jobs. Others documented unfair grading practices.

Many of the complaints came from women who said that Markovic displayed distinctly sexist attitudes in the classroom, telling women that they "don't belong in engineering." International and minority students also regularly complained about classroom discrimination. As she had been instructed to do in her mandatory sexual harassment training, Cici passed these complaints along to the campus Affirmative Action Officer.

In 2002, a hiring manager for a large California utility company (PG&E) called Cici to tell her that Markovic had threatened to smear his company's name if they worked with anyone other than him to hire graduates. Markovic wrote to PG&E and said if they tried to work with anyone else on a project that was developing, they were wasting their time and might as well be speaking with "Osama Bin Laden." That resulted in the loss of a partnership that PG&E was developing with the campus. The company walked away, citing the risks involved.

Later in 2002, a Department Chair in engineering took a long list of signed student complaints about Markovic to the campus attorney. Nothing happened in response.

In 2003, a student sent the campus president a letter saying that he thought Markovic was a "loose cannon and a potential danger to students." He said that while in a tirade, Markovic told the student that Cici had "slept her way into her position."

In 2007, a staff member wrote to Cici and told her that he was concerned about her safety. Markovic hadn't threatened her directly, but there was something about the circumstances and the way in which he called her a bitch that alarmed the staff member.

In January of 2008, Cici and I both met with the Campus Affirmative Action Officer, Peter Lau. A utility company hiring manager had recently told Cici that "it was happening again." He had good reason to believe that Markovic was again "chicken hawking" students. The industry contact assumed that "everyone knows." It was certainly no secret off-campus.

Peter Lau said he would open a 60 day investigation. Six months later, he wrote to say there wasn't enough evidence to do anything. Summer vacation began.

On the day Cici returned from summer break, a staff member told Cici that he was planning to quit. He had been on campus all summer and was demoralized by having to interact with Miroslav on a regular basis. In the engineering building, there is no shortage of people who have been abused by him.

The very next day, Markovic forcefully and intentionally bashed into Cici at a reception. Actually, he bashed into her twice. The message from Markovic was clear: he could do whatever he wanted and get away with it. Which happened to be true. I informed the campus using clear and forceful language.

A few days later, after the campus received my note, Kent Porter, the Vice President of Human Resources wrote to the Engineering Dean and asked: "does Cici want to pursue this matter?" I received a copy and wrote back that she has pursued this before, to no avail, and that it was time for the campus to do something. I outlined the history.

Cici then spoke to the campus police. They said it was an administrative matter. Two weeks later, Kent Porter wrote and said she hadn't done anything to report the incident. Cici informed Porter that she had spoken with the police. Porter wrote back and said that "if" she had spoken to the police, they could do something. Porter invited her to tell Human Resources what had happened. Somehow, he couldn't hear the screams coming from her office.

On September 24th, 2008, Cici called Porter from her office. A fellow staff member was there with her for the phone call. That woman was aware of what was happening and told Cici that during the summer, Markovic had shouted at her and threatened to "get a gun and shoot her" (not Cici, but the pregnant staff member). They said they were afraid and Porter asked them how tall they were.

In early October, two other people on campus (one a student and the other a staff) told Cici that Markovic had recently threatened to shoot them. Cici called the police. Porter was no longer responding to her calls or emails.

By December 2008, Cici had hired an attorney. The attorney sent a lengthy note to the campus president, Alex Gonzalez. The president didn't respond, but the campus hired an investigator.

Six months later, in May of 2009, affirmative action officer Peter Lau wrote to Cici and told her that based on their investigation, when Markovic bashed into her (nine months earlier) it must have been an accident. He said that she had never suffered any retaliation from the campus and that she had not been subjected to any gender discrimination relative to her employment classification. It was a "we covered our ass" letter.

We don't yet know what the investigator actually found. The letter Cici received basically just said that none of her complaints would be taken seriously. Nothing was said and nothing has been said about the fact that staff members might be upset about a faculty member threatening to shoot them.

While this was all happening in Fall 2008 and Spring 2009, the campus decided that Cici could no longer teach her classes (which are integral to her program of services), at least not under her own name. She would no longer have access to her class rosters and could no longer report grades.

The campus had ample notice that a lawsuit was in the works. A few days after Cici filed the lawsuit, in August 2009, the campus canceled all of her classes except one (students were already enrolled). The course they didn't cancel is a required class. It was given to a professor who immediately wrote to Cici and asked how to teach the class.

Why did the campus cancel her classes? She can't teach the classes she's taught for 25 years because she's not classified as "academic related." That's what the campus will say. The campus will say it's a union issue. Even though she meets the criteria, the campus repeatedly refused to classify her as having academic status. Then, they took away all of her classes because she didn't have academic status. Catch 22.

What did the campus do in response to the three reports it received about Markovic threatening to shoot people? Nothing. It's not like this is Virginia Tech.

What happened to Markovic? He retired a few days after Cici filed the lawsuit. But in the interim, in the Spring of 2009, while the campus was ostensibly conducting an investigation, the campus made him a member of a really important project team. Sac State has teamed up with the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District (SMUD) to create a "Smart Grid" institute to go after what they expect to be millions of dollars in Federal stimulus money. The State Energy Commission has already promised 2 million in seed money. After all of the harm he had done to faculty, students and staff, and to the reputation of the campus, the Dean of Engineering, Emir Macari made him part of the team.

How do things stand with Cici? After reading in the newspaper that Markovic had retired, Cici returned to work on the first day of the Fall 2009 term. She thought he was gone. He was still there. She left and remains on leave. Cici doesn't know what is going to happen next. Yes, she sees a therapist, and spends a lot of time at the yoga studio. She's doing what one needs to do to "manage stress."

After Cici returned to work and found that Markovic was still there, I wrote to President Alex Gonzalez. The campus attorney, Edmundo Aguilar responded: "I disagree with your characterization of this situation as a 'workplace hazard and safety' issue." He told me that I should speak with Cici's attorney if I have any further concerns. In other words, he doesn't understand that workplace stress is a safety issue and apparently doesn't want to hear any more about it.

Long story short? If not before, then certainly in August of 2008 - that's more than a year ago - Sac State should have heard the screams coming from one of its employees. In my view, this series of events confirms my argument that workplace stress is primarily a result of leadership and organizational failure. This was a situation that could easily have been resolved.

Why did Cici sue? Ask her, and what she will tell you is that she didn't want to see any more students hurt. When a student draws a bad grade in a class just because she's a woman or because he's a foreign student, it affects that student's entire career. When a young male student realizes that a "friendly" professor is a "sexual predator," it undermines their sense of self-esteem. There were people on campus who were frightened and demoralized, and somebody had to do something about it. The University wouldn't.

Her program is important to the mission of the campus. It is always cited in the engineering accreditation studies. The last accreditation team to visit to visit the engineering school said that Cici's career services program "should be a model for the country." Her classes, the ones that have been canceled, are an important and integral part of that program. When students come to a University like Sac State, they expect to land a job when they are done. It's not like why they would go to UC (the University of California).

How will the story end? I don't know.


On September 21st,  the campus Affirmative Action Officer wrote and confirmed that the University had allowed Cici to be subjected to a hostile work environment,  in violation of law and policy.  He retired a few days later.

The campus attorney has left his position with the University.

The University has hired an outside attorney,  David Tyra,  to handle this matter.  He has asked for additional time to respond to the lawsuit and is expected to file a response on October 17th.

In mid-November:  Rather than filing a response,  the campus attorneys and the HR VP Kent Porter met with Cici's attorney to try to resolve the matter.  They showed up to the meeting late,  unprepared,  absent authority and without seriousness of purpose.  Markovic is gone,  so the first issue on the table was the gender discrimination and classification issue.  They just blew that off like it was nothing and said they would have to check with someone who has authority.

In early December:  Another meeting.  Similar experience.  Cici walked out.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.