When Leadership Fails

About twenty years ago at Sacramento State (California State University,  Sacramento:  CSUS),  the campus administration learned that an engineering professor had been harassing a recent graduate in a very overt manner.   The male professor had developed a "friendly" relationship with a heterosexual male student and was upset when the kid realized he was being "chickenhawked" (the professor was making a sexual advance).   The alum told the professor that they would no longer be friends and the professor began stalking him and trying to ruin his career.

Cici  (my wife, and the Director of Career Services in the College of Engineering and Computer Science) got involved when the alum's employer complained that Professor Miroslav Markovic was engaging in some rather strange and bizarre behavior.  Actually,  the behavior was scary and traumatic.

The campus administration was fully informed about the situation and basically did nothing.  As it would become known later,  this was not the first time that Professor Markovic had tried to "hook up" with young male students,  and it would not be the last.  Markovic was a tenured professor and he was therefore "protected" or "tolerated."  No warning was ever given to other students.

In subsequent years,  there would be many other complaints about Markovic.  From off-campus,  employers wanting to contribute to the campus development complained about strange and potentially threatening emails he sent.  Women and minorities complained about how he treated them in class.  There was an incident in which he went in to a rage and destroyed projects students had built.  From off-campus,  there were more reports about him "doing it again,"  trying to develop inappropriate relationships with young men.

And then there were the reports about his having assaulted staff members and having threatened to shoot others.

Cici got involved because students and employers came to her with their complaints.  She also complained when Markovic called her a "bitch,"  and when he threatened her and when he assaulted her.  She complained about him a lot during the past 15 years or so because the campus taught her that these are matters that must be reported.  She also complained because she thought the campus would do something,  that the leaders would lead,  and because she wanted to protect her students.

While all of this was going on,  Cici was also trying on a regular basis to get reclassified.  She wasn't being paid what the men were being paid to do similar work.  She actually had been promoted once,  many years ago when she founded the Career Service office in engineering.  But that promotion was taken away when she returned from maternity leave.

Now it could be that Cici was never promoted like the men simply because of gender discrimination.  It certainly wasn't because she was less productive as an employee.  Like the men who did similar work,  she taught classes and counseled students.  but she also created an entire program of services.  

The other possibility was that she was held back in retaliation for being a "whistle blower."  That's how the Sacramento Bee would describe it.

In the Fall of 2008,  Cici hired an attorney and in August of 2009,  she sued Sac State.  She was pushed her over the edge when Markovic threatened to shoot a pregnant staff member.  She reported this to Kent Porter,  the Vice President of Human Resources,  and he did absolutely nothing.  He didn't investigate,  take action or warn staff. 

Nine months before she filed the suit,  her attorney wrote the campus and demanded that they do something about Markovic.  President Alex Gonzales never responded to that letter,  but the campus did hire attorneys to investigate.  The investigation confirmed much of what Cici said about Markovic,  but until the lawsuit was filed,  the campus hid the reports. 

The leadership failure in this case went up and down the line,  from the Dean of Engineering Emir Macari,  through the head of Human Relations,  David Wagner,  and to the President himself.  Cici was screaming about a hostile work environment and nobody would lift a finger to either acknowledge it,  resolve it or simply do something to avoid an embarrassing lawsuit.

After Cici filed the lawsuit,  Markovic immediately "retired."   The campus Affirmative Action Officer also retired in short order,  right after he wrote a letter confirming that Cici had in fact been subjected to a hostile work environment.  He had the investigation reports. 

Right after she filed the lawsuit,  Cici was told that she could no longer teach any of the classes that she had been teaching for 25 years.  The campus said it was a union issue:  she wasn't classified properly to do the job she had been doing all those years.

This looked like more retaliation,  despite what the campus said.  The irony is that for no good reason at all,  the campus shut down a program designed to help students get jobs on graduation - they shut it down right in the middle of the worst recession in generations.  Accreditation teams have described Cici's career program as "a model for the nation."

In January of 2010,  after Cici had been off work for five months (spending much of her time relieving stress with Yoga classes),  the campus finally settled.   You can read about the settlement in the Sacramento Bee.

Clearly,  in the end,  Cici "won."  She got rid of the professor,  received a meaningful promotion and obtained a settlement that was enough to cover her costs.  The un-reimbursed psychic toll was tremendous,  but Cici is back at work,  doing what she loves to do.  She has received nothing but positive support for what she did, and there was a lot of support. 

Somebody had to do something and the leadership on campus failed completely.  It cost them some money,  but more importantly,  they squandered their status.  It was all completely preventable.

Did Sac State learn anything?  Nah ...

Human Resources VP Kent Porter handled the settlement negotiations for the campus,  and he was just plain pissy about it.  The campus position was that Cici was just an "overzealous" employee,  a nuisance to be dealt with.

And after it looked like it was over,  Markovic was invited back to campus to enjoy the privileges of a retired professor,  an "honored" professor emeritus.  Human Resources told the IT technicians in Engineering that Markovic would be coming to campus to have his computer fixed.  The day he was scheduled to arrive,  three employees took the day off because they didn't want to see him again and didn't want to have to fix his computer.  They were among those who had been threatened by him.

Consider that for a moment.  The leadership knows that this guy created all kinds of turmoil.  They have investigative reports saying that people are afraid of him.  They know that he creates stress and discomfort for other staff.  And what do they do?  They ignore the well-being of their workers and treat him like he's done nothing wrong.  Markovic threatened to shoot people on campus!  What's not to get about that?

I don't think he will be returning to campus.  After the lawsuit was filed,  Markovic kind of disappeared for a while.  He was named in the suit but couldn't be found to be served.  The day he showed up on campus again,  the process server was sitting there waiting for him. 

There's just a bit more to the story.  After Cici was back at work,  she was speaking with an employer.   He told her that he had recently spoken to Dean Emir Macari and that she should apologize to him.  Obviously,  her boss Macari was bad mouthing her in the community.

Cici complained to the head of Human Relations,  Vice President David Wagner.  When she settled the lawsuit,  the campus insisted that no party could speak ill of the other.   She also complained about Markovic being invited back to campus.

Dave Wagner's response?  Markovic had a right to be on campus.  Essentially,  to hell with the well-being of the employees.

About the bad mouthing?  Well,  Dave Wagner basically just noted that she had,  after all,  sued them and publicly so.

What should Cici have expected?  In the end,  she should have expected nothing more from the leadership at Sacramento State than she had ever seen in the past.

The "leaders" at Sacramento State seemed to have learned nothing,  so what do we learn?
This is a companion piece to three of my other posts.  I think this story illustrates:   that employers often don't pay attention to their employees;  that it makes no sense to talk about work related stress unless we talk about the organizational causes;  that rather than "treating" those who are affected,  we need to change the environment;  and that even when employees suffer hostile work situations,  and even when they complain,  "leaders" often fail to get it.  

Here are my thoughts on those topics:

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?

This is a shorter and final version of an article I posted some time ago,  while this was all in play.  The earlier version provides more detail and basically tells the whole story.  If you are interested,  it is still posted here.  Additional materials,  including the news stories and the 200 page lawsuit can be found here

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.