With a few quick computer keystrokes, a Washington State University administrator sent a string of off-color and downright pornographic jokes to extension offices across the state last month.
The lists - “The Last 10 Things Any Man Would Ever Say” and “The Last 10 Things Any Woman Would Ever Say” - covered a wide range of offensive territory: flatulence; penis, butt and breast sizes; sexual arousal; oral sex; and profanity.
In the process, the jokes shocked secretaries and extension agents from Asotin to Port Angeles and prompted two red-faced apologies from Scott Fedale, chairman of the College of Agriculture and Home Economics information department.
“Whether you and your brother share dirty jokes is one thing,” said Jack Waud, head of the Clallam County extension office, “but when you put it on a public thing, it’s something else.”
“It’s so unlike Scott,” said Marlene Garrison of the Asotin County extension office. “I was shocked. I know Scott, and he’s always very, very professional. I was disappointed.”
Starting today, Fedale will be relieved for three months from his administrative duties, which include overseeing the college’s publications, television productions, graphics and computer resources. Fedale has an annual salary of $67,710, but will not receive his $562-a-month administrative stipend for three months.
Reached at a meeting in Puyallup, Wash., Fedale, 48, said he made an innocent e-mail mistake that took “two seconds” to commit at the end of a long day. While he thought he was forwarding the two lists from one computer user to another, he unknowingly sent them out on an automatic mailing list, Fedale said. The so-called “CECHAT list” goes to more than 100 of the Cooperative Extension Service’s 230 employees.
“It’s the old ‘you can’t take it back,”’ Fedale said. “It’s almost like opening your mouth in a public meeting except then I would have authored what I’m being held responsible for when in fact I didn’t author it.”
The accident underscores how computers can magnify what once might have been a minor interoffice embarrassment. Indeed, just a few hours before Fedale’s transmission, another CECHAT subscriber sent out a list of computer jokes that included this definition: “Computer - a device designed to speed and automate errors.”
The missive also is likely to heighten concerns about the climate of the work place at WSU. The university is the subject of a federal complaint in which six women say the school discriminated against them and retaliated against them for complaining.
Kathy Zeches, interim director of the WSU Women’s Resource Center, said Fedale’s transmission could fit the description of sexual jokes and offensive graffiti that characterize a hostile work place.
Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Geoff Gamble said the Center for Human Rights, which evaluates allegations of discrimination and harassment, is aware of Fedale’s e-mail but has not received any complaints.
Larry James, acting dean of the College of Agriculture and Home Economics, said the college decided not to use the term “sexual harassment” when reviewing the matter.
“There were people of both sexes who were offended by it,” James said. Among them, reactions ranged from “‘this is not a big deal’ to ‘this is very serious and something needs to be done,”’ James said.
While James said he felt Fedale was honestly sorry, college officials were not so sure after his first of two apologies.
“There seemed to be a lack of sincerity,” said Harry Burcalow, acting director of extension. “It wasn’t quite the response we thought was appropriate.”
On Tuesday, Fedale was both apologetic and defensive, asserting that he should not be unduly criticized for using public property - a computer - for personal messages.
“I think this thing has been terribly overblown as it is,” he said. “Anybody who is on an e-mail system who has never sent a personal message on e-mail … is living in another world. Let’s be realistic.”
Burcalow offered this advice in a memo to employees last week: “If you would not say it to your parents, don’t say it on e-mail.”