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USF English department draws battle lines

Faculty and students worry that toxic infighting between the old guard and new guard may sully the department's reputation.

By JAMIE THOMPSON
Published June 1, 2004

photo
[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Russell M. Cooper Hall's rooms became professors' battleground.
photoFormer department chair Phillip Sipiora
resigned in April.

photoProfessor John Hatcher says facts refute claims of department sexism.

TAMPA - Cooper Hall is full of professors with impressive degrees and years of teaching experience. They can recite Shakespeare, dissect Virginia Woolf, discuss the marvelous ironies of Southern literature.

What they can't do is get along.

In the past two years, the English department at the University of South Florida has degenerated into trench warfare, with factions of professors battling for control.

At least 13 complaints of discrimination and harassment have been filed within the department during the past year and a half, faculty say. Two other investigations have found professors guilty of finance-related abuses. Sexual improprieties are far too common, some say.

USF officials refuse to discuss the situation, but last week an outside firm hired by the university began assessing the overall climate, described by some faculty as toxic, dangerous and bordering on all-out war.

While the dispute reveals elements of pettiness, it has turned serious for professors, graduate students and a department that educates thousands of undergraduates each semester at taxpayer expense.

Reputations are being tarnished. Careers are on the line.

"We're really worried that when we graduate," said graduate student Patricia Remmell, "our degrees are going to make us a laughingstock."

Why, she asks, can't everybody get along?

* * *

The English department - with 43 faculty, 29 adjunct professors and 115 graduate students - is one of the largest at USF, teaching about 20,000 students a year.

It suffers, faculty say, from an ideological schism.

Though arguably the situation is more complex, many see it as old guard versus new guard.

One side includes literature scholars who have taught Chaucer and Shakespeare at USF for decades. They are viewed as traditionalists, generally content with the way the department operates.

The other side includes professors in the discipline of rhetoric and composition. They teach writing, literary theory, cultural studies and feminist criticism.

Elizabeth Hirsh identifies with the latter crowd.

She joined the department in 1992, a scholar of postmodernism, biography and feminist studies. She quickly got the sense that the department had a "boys will be boys" mentality.

For some, that idea dates back to 1994, with allegations that then-director of freshman English, Phillip Sipiora, drank too much at a party and made inappropriate comments to at least one female student.

Hirsh thought Sipiora should relinquish his post of supervising students. She said the department protected Sipiora and has punished her since.

"I have been systematically excluded from appropriate roles," she said.

Sipiora said the allegations were investigated, no complaints resulted and he considers the matter closed.

It wasn't the only such case that has drawn the attention of university officials.

Professor James A. Inman, 32, admitted having a consensual relationship with a student he supervised in 2002. The practice is discouraged but not prohibited by university policy.

The student later accused Inman of sexual harassment, which caused a flurry of gossip. Inman was cleared in the case, but his contract has not been renewed. He believes the university discriminated against him for being a "young single white heterosexual male."

"I've never seen anything like this," he said. "There are politics everywhere, and what's going on has a very personal edge."

Some faculty say the climate worsened when Sipiora became interim department chair in 2002, and then permanent chair in 2003. They say Sipiora chased women out of key positions and filled them with his allies.

"He did nothing to try and heal the problems," said rhetoric professor Lynn Worsham, "but only exacerbated them by participating in a sort of cronyism and old boy style of leadership and retaliation."

Sipiora and other faculty disagree with the allegations. Women, Sipiora says, have been among his closest advisers, and he has supported them for key positions. Professor Rosalie Baum said Sipiora tried to persuade her to run for the chair, rather than himself, but she declined.

Additionally, Sipiora supporters note that women make up the majority of the three most important department committees that deal with tenure, promotion, policy and procedure.

"I think that these two women are looking to use that kind of generic statement to politicize," Sipiora said. "It's absolutely untrue."

* * *

If the new guard represents one side of the ideological divide, most faculty would put professor John Hatcher on the other.

A medieval scholar, Hatcher has taught at USF for 36 years.

He thinks the "vituperative" events of the past year must be understood in the context of the evolving nature of the English department.

When USF began its rhetoric and composition program in 1987 - focused on the use of language and good writing - it struggled to find its place in a department dominated by literature.

In Hatcher's estimation, the recent events are part of that continuing battle.

"It's a result of alliances formed back then," he said.

Hatcher believes, too, the department began to disintegrate after the election of Sipiora, viewed by some as an ally of the old guard. He defeated rhetoric professor Gary Olson, a favorite of the other faction.

Hatcher balks at claims of an "old boy's network."

"The facts don't bear it out," he said. "We have a female provost, a female interim chair, a female interim dean. For years, women have held positions at every level of the department."

He thinks a small group of people have hindered Sipiora's, and the department's, success.

"For whatever reason, the main vehicle of communication has become backbiting and gossip, the most lethal pathology in an institution," he said. "That has been the most pernicious thing that has happened this year, this plethora of gossip."

An outside leader for the department, Hatcher believes, will help.

* * *

The situation at USF is not unique.

University politics are notoriously nasty.

Columbia University, for instance, erupted about a decade ago, pitting multiculturalists against traditionalists and leaving a fifth of the English department positions open.

David Damrosch, a Columbia professor who writes about academic culture, said problems arise from specialty areas competing for resources.

Also, professors may be inclined to bickering.

"They're used to having a captive audience in classrooms," he said. "It can be more difficult for them to interact with colleagues who aren't going to be getting a grade from them."

One of the main casualties, scholars agree, is graduate students.

"It's very distracting," said student Remmell. "We can feel the tension. It makes for a very uncomfortable learning environment."

Students have been pulled into the disputes, cautioned against working with enemy combatants.

Some have gotten involved, afraid of losing favor with certain professors, said student Deepa Sitaraman. In the process, they're learning the ways of academic combat.

"I'm thinking, "I don't want colleagues like this, people I have to avoid eye contact with in the hallways,' " Sitaraman said.

Word of trouble has spread to other colleges, leaving students worried about USF's reputation.

In April, the department chair, Sipiora, resigned after an investigation found that he misspent $22,834 in department funds on a high definition television, speakers, remotes and amplifiers that he kept at home. Sipiora said he used the equipment to prepare for his film classes. USF plans a national search for his replacement.

An investigation released Friday found that another professor, Debra Jacobs, selected a textbook she co-wrote and received $26,129 in compensation without proper approval, according to the university. Jacobs could not be reached.

The university will continue taking "aggressive steps" to address problems in the English department, said spokeswoman Michelle Carlyon.

For now, Cooper Hall is relatively quiet.

Professors hope their colleagues will return this fall, ready to repair their department.

"It's been devastating," said student Danita Feinberg. "There's really a lot of hope that the department will be able to rebuild."

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jamie Thompson can be reached at 727 893-8455. Send e-mail to jjones@sptimes.com.

[Last modified June 1, 2004, 01:00:29]


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