Judge says Alabama college system discriminated against women; ruling alludes to history of gender bias and “good-ol-boy” patronage

Judge says Alabama college system discriminated against women; ruling alludes to history of gender bias and “good-ol-boy” patronage

Scott W. Wright

Ruling Alludes to History of Gender Bias and “Good-Ol-Boy” Patronage

An Alabama federal judge has drawn a damning portrait of the state’s community college system, describing it as riddled with gender discrimination and rife with political patronage.

“The state’s community colleges, junior colleges and technical colleges are major habitats for the beneficiaries of patronage,” U.S. Magistrate Vanzetta P. McPherson wrote.

The judge’s disparaging comments came in a sixty-six-page ruling issued this month in a gender discrimination lawsuit filed by three female administrators at two Alabama community colleges. McPherson, who heard the women’s case against the system three years ago but did not issue a decision until early June, said the women were denied promotions “because they are women.”

But even those who believe the thirty-two-college system has been run by a “good ol’ boy” network since its inception in the 1960s say it’s unfair to cast the entire system in a negative light. They say new blood on the Alabama State Board of Education has altered the system’s hiring course and that substantial progress has been made in recent years to hire more women and minorities.

System officials deny there are problems, although they are operating under several consent decrees stemming from a class-action lawsuit alleging racial and gender discrimination.

“I have a problem in that this sort of paints the whole state with the same broad brush,” says Dr. Richard Carpenter, president of John C. Calhoun State Community College in Decatur. “We do not all do the same things the same way. And so I think it’s unfair to characterize the whole system in Alabama on the basis of this one case.”

Carpenter, who became president of the 7,400-student college five years ago and moved to Alabama from California, acknowledges the system “was founded on patronage, and it’s been pervasive. But I think it’s getting better, not worse. A few years ago, I would not have been hired in this state. I wasn’t one of the good old boys, but I was hired anyway.”

In the case before McPherson, the judge said that three women – Karen A. Newton, Myra P. Davis, and Sheryle B. Threatt – were denied promotions because of their gender. McPherson ordered the college system to give the women jobs that they otherwise would have gotten. She also awarded back pay and benefits to Newton, who contended that she was demoted after expressing interest in a top administrative job at either Northwest Shoals Community College or Bevill State Community College.

Davis says she was denied a post as director of admissions at Lawson State Community College. And Threatt said she was rejected for the position of financial aid director at Lawson State.

Newton’s attorney, Joe Whatley, contends that the colleges hired men with fewer degrees and lesser qualifications. He also said Newton has been retaliated against for filing suit. And the judge said trial testimony revealed that being a member of the Alabama Legislature gave candidates for presidential posts at the state’s community colleges a distinct advantage.

Saying that the appointments to the administrative posts that the three women had sought were “designed primarily to advance the power of the appointing officials and the careers and financial well-being of the appointees,” the judge wrote, in contrast, “advancement of the students served by the employees, the institutions and the system appears to exist as a mere remnant of the multi-million dollar public trust managed by” the state Board of Education.

Dr. Judy Merritt became the first female president in Alabama when she was hired for the top spot at Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham in 1979.

“If you reflect and look back at year after year of hiring,” she says, “you certainly could come up with figures that would make you think women are significantly under-represented.”

Currently, three women hold presidential posts at community colleges in Alabama, and another woman has been named interim president of another two-year college.

“Probably one of the happiest days of my professional life was when a second female president was appointed a year later,” Merritt recalls. “It was confirmation that I had been okay, that they weren’t scared to try a woman again.”

Merritt was referring to Dr. Yvonne Kennedy, who became the second female president when she was appointed to the top post at Bishop State Community College. Kennedy, also a state legislator, praised the judge’s decision, saying that it verifies “that when you look at the cadre of applicants and the level of the degrees they hold, regardless of the qualifications, in some cases women were not hired.”

Renee Culverhouse, the college system’s top attorney, said officials have not yet decided whether to appeal the judge’s decision but defended the colleges’ hiring records. The related consent decrees that set hiring goals for female and Black administrators, she said, have remedied any discrimination, “if, in fact, there was systemic discrimination.”

System records show that officials hoped one-fourth of the college presidencies would be held by Blacks in 1996. The actual percentage is 22.6 percent. The system, however, has exceeded its state goal of having 23 percent of all top administrators in the system be African Americans. The actual percentage this year was 23.9 percent.

For women, the system set a goal of having women at the helm of one-fourth of the colleges last year and at half by the year 2005. Only 12.9 percent of the presidents are women now.

“These hiring goals and recruiting and search procedures are in place throughout the system and have been in place for three or more years to avoid problems with discrimination,” Culverhouse said.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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