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WSU Target Of Suit Six Women Allege Discrimination, Punishment

Six women have filed a class action complaint alleging Washington State University discriminated against them, then punished them for complaining.

Their complaint not only blames faculty, supervisors, directors and deans for alleged discrimination and retaliation but also faults an elaborate complaint process they say fails time and again.

“No matter where you start in the network, the result is the same … nothing is resolved, no corrective measures are taken against the men, and the women are returned to work with their harassers,” says the complaint to the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.

School officials deny the charges.

“We go way beyond the call of duty to make sure people are treated fairly,” said Bennie Harris, director of WSU’s Center for Human Rights, the main clearinghouse for complaints of discrimination.

Acts of discrimination cited by the five staffers and one professor range from unwanted sexual advances to bullying to a broken promise of a promotion.

After the women complained to school officials, they said, acts of retaliation included withheld leave and wages, denied promotions, job reassignments, intimidation, layoffs and slander.

“As a result of speaking up, we were targeted to be eliminated,” said Colleen Fowles, a graphic designer who said at one point a supervisor suggested she “pray” to solve her work problems. She has since quit.

In their written complaint and in personal interviews, the women tell of working their way through a maze of supervisors and bureaucrats, often at the expense of their careers and emotional health.

“What did I do to deserve this?” asked Leslie Liddle-Stamper. She said she used up 400 hours of sick leave and vacation time after her complaints about a hostile male coworker left her emotionally ragged. “All I did was go to their system and their system failed me.”

Many of the allegations target the Center for Human Rights. Vice Provost Ernestine Madison created the center as part of the school’s overall aim to improve the campus climate for women and minorities, but the women’s complaint said the center is “anything but prompt, fair and impartial.”

“The unwritten policy of the Center seems designed to ensure that complainants’ legal rights will never be addressed,” they said.

School officials stood by their procedures Thursday.

“I can emphatically say that the center has been fair, very objective and very efficient in the investigation of every complaint that has come to our office,” said Harris. He said the center investigates complaints much faster than federal agencies and has a straightforward complaint process and well-articulated discrimination policy.

At the advice of the attorney general’s office at WSU, Harris and other parties named in the complaint declined to comment on the women’s specific allegations.

Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Hubbard Geller said federal regulations prohibit contractors from discussing complaints to federal agencies like the OFCCP. However, both Geller and an OFCCP spokesman said they know of no rules keeping the complainants from discussing their allegations.

An arm of the U.S. Department of Labor, the OFCCP is charged with making sure recipients of federal funds adhere to affirmative action guidelines, including those against discrimination and retaliation.

While the women filed their complaint in November, a OFCCP investigator did not visit Pullman until last week. The agency is still “very much at the early stages” of the inquiry, said Mike Shimizu, regional director for public affairs.

The agency can award damages and forge conciliation agreements in which contractors pledge to change their policies and practices. The agency can also bar a contractor from receiving federal funds - and WSU receives millions of federal capital and research dollars each year - but such cases are rare, said Shimizu.

The OFCCP in 1987 found more than two dozen “problem areas” at WSU. They included a failure to establish affirmative action goals and timetables, an inadequate supply of qualified women and other minorities, and a lack of anti-bias training for managers and staff.

An agreement to deal with the problems expired at the end of 1988. Harris said its terms have been met, but the women in their complaint said WSU has still failed to train a sufficient number of faculty and staff in diversity and sexual harassment issues. They note that WSU’s Council of Deans has refused mandatory training for faculty.

Such training might have helped Michelle Auslam’s supervisors keep a co-worker from repeatedly trying to touch her in ways she thought were sexually aggressive, she said.

Instead, she said, her misgivings were brushed off as personality differences.

In the end, the co-worker was told to take a harassment class. He was also promoted while she was moved to another, lesser job. She still loses sleep and is going to counseling over the matter, she said.

While there is nothing keeping the women from speaking out about their complaint, they did so reluctantly, and one declined to discuss her case at all.

Katherine Byrne, a veterinary professor, said her career may already be stymied.

However, she said: “There are more serious problems in the college that nothing will be done about unless someone is willing to come forward. I guess I’m more interested in having a place that changes for the better than staying in a place that treats people like this.”