South Texas College's hidden history of settling discrimination and retaliation lawsuits
For years, South Texas College has been sued in civil court by former faculty and staff who claim that they were fired for speaking out in defense of employee rights, others have alleged age and sex discrimination. Administrators, deans, and police chiefs implicated in these lawsuits have been given promotions, while dissidents and whistle-blowers have been fired or driven into retirement.
By Jonathan Salinas
Lawsuits continue to mount against South Texas College. At the same time, it appears that school officials wish to keep employees and the public uninformed about how frequent and expensive these lawsuits have become. Nor do officials want others to know how these lawsuits reflect patterns of systematic abuse of power by administrators and violations of employee rights.
One pattern the lawsuits mirror is the administration’s efforts in past years to create official board policies that have steadily reduced or eliminated due process at the college, making it easier to terminate employees and more difficult for them to file complaints against administrators. According to faculty members and public documents, deception plays a large role in shaping and hiding patterns of abuse at STC.
Perhaps the most illustrative example of deception used to conceal inappropriate behaviors is how administrators hid the reasons behind a three-page statement from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is posted in lounges and offices all over every STC campus. No context is provided for the EEOC statement. What the administration has been hiding is that the EEOC statement stems from a conciliation agreement signed last year from a lawsuit filed with the EEOC against STC. In the end, the federal government sided with the plaintiff, Dr. Ruth Keitz, and ruled against STC.
However, simply reading the statement, without knowing the context of Dr. Keitz’s story, has some STC employees wondering if it was a staff or faculty member that committed gender and age discrimination as the document warns against; it was the STC administration that was found to have violated federal law.
The school and its president claim that many of the recent policy changes and lawsuits at the college actually serve to protect the institution, according to senior employees familiar with negotiations between administration and the faculty senate. Many faculty and staff members disagree, believing instead that the policy changes and willingness to settle lawsuits are to protect the president, allow her to silence any serious disagreement with her at the college, and maintain a climate of fear at the school that long predates Dr. Keitz’s settled lawsuit.
STC administration's modus operandi
Únete 956 reported last spring on two lawsuits against STC involving the school’s police chief, Paul Varville. Both cases, and a lawsuit against Varville in Albany, New York, involved challenges to the Chief’s unfair conduct toward employees. Both STC cases, and the NY case, involved what many see as a pattern common at STC, as well: an employee raises a concern, and if their supervisor does not like what they say or the “tone” of it, then administrators go about fabricating “wrong-doing” by the employee. For Varville, this was accomplished by retaliating against the employee and accusing them of sexual harassment. Meanwhile, Human Resources builds a file against the employee and recommends to the president to fire them. And as there is a pattern to how to remove an employee, there’s also a pattern of handling lawsuits that result: settle cases out of court. Keep it out of the public eye.
The Monitor, and other local outlets, reported on none of it, as many will not as a policy report on lawsuits. The Monitor, however, did report on one lawsuit almost twenty years ago, involving the administration retaliating against an English instructor, Kathleen Dahl. Dahl wrote a Letter to the Editor in The Monitor expressing concerns about school officials and their attempts to standardize the curricula of most academic programs. Faculty at the time argued mandatory standardization would make it easier to grade and measure things, but would turn the new college into High School Part 2.
Academic freedom is a hallmark of American higher education. By forcing college professors to all teach the same material, standardization violates the freedom to pursue ideas in constructively and innovatively different directions. College faculty are generally more specialized in their graduate training than high school teachers, and argued that these areas of expertise should inform the presentation of material in a manner that drills deeply into a topic and its analysis.
STC administrators built a file on Ms. Dahl and within months fired her, claiming she had neglected her responsibilities and thus violated board policy. She filed a lawsuit which The Monitor failed to cover, despite her Letter to the Editor in their paper being the cause of her troubles. By contrast, The Brownsville Herald reported it and so did the student newspaper at The University of Texas — Pan American.
Following an article in the Pan American that provided the professor’s side of the case, Dr. Reed took out a full-page response in that paper deriding the professor and labeling five dozen members of the Texas Faculty Association that backed her as “disgruntled faculty.” The Pan American replied with its own analysis of the situation and ridiculed Reed’s efforts as reactionary as well as authoritarian micromanaging. Eventually, however, STC settled out of court, and paid tens of thousands of dollars to Ms. Dahl and her attorneys. That was almost twenty years ago. Since then, however, lawsuits against the college have remained essentially out of the public eye, despite occurring frequently.
Sources for investigating the history of lawsuits filed against STC since 2000 include online STC Board of Trustees meeting agendas available to the public on the STC website, as well as Hidalgo County Court Records that provide details about lawsuits. Unfortunately, STC’s online board meeting agendas extend back only as far as 2007. Other than from FOIA requests, the seven years following Ms. Dahl’s lawsuit remain in the dark to most people. Nevertheless, there is much to say about lawsuits filed against the college since 2007.
Únete has uncovered at least twelve lawsuits filed by STC faculty and staff against the college between February 2008 and February 2018, averaging one or two lawsuits a year. Out of these twelve cases, nine involved claims of administrative retaliation for employees raising concerns over disturbing administrative behavior on campus. Of those, six involved claims of administrators committing age and sex discrimination, as well.
In eight of the twelve lawsuits, the college settled by paying the faculty or staff member monetary compensation for their job loss. The college has paid tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax payer money in at least eight lawsuits.
An undisclosed settlement amount was paid by STC to Fabio Hernandez for his lawsuit against STC and its police chief, Paul Varville. During 2015-2016, Mr. Hernandez claimed that after complaining about a grueling and unfair work schedule, Chief Varville and the Human Resources Department set about building a file on Hernandez. This eventuated in his termination for sexual harassment against a woman who later testified he actually had not harassed her. Hernandez filed a lawsuit against Mr. Varville and STC, and just prior to a scheduled court date, STC settled the case.
John Liss, a former history instructor, was another victim of Chief Varville and the Human Resources department. Mr. Liss claimed Chief Varville, Human Resources, and criminal justice faculty conspired to build a case against him after he blew the whistle on the STC Police Department for violating Fourth Amendment rights of students and employees, as well as heavy-handed police treatment of students and employees with regard to parking violations on its McAllen campus.
The Faculty Senate got involved after Liss approached the Senate with what he saw as concerns for the entire college. Within two months of raising the issue with the Senate, Liss was terminated on charges of being romantically involved with a student. Members of the Faculty Senate involved with the case contend the charges were trumped up by supporters of the Chief, and accusations against him were a campaign to smear Mr. Liss. He lost his job for speaking out but received a $9,000 check to prevent him from pursuing a lawsuit against the school. Mr. Varville, who has a history of being accused of trumping up charges against unruly employees, (as in an earlier career when he was a TSA supervisor in Albany, New York,) has since been promoted to the position of Director of STC’s new Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence.
The case of Dr. Ruth Keitz
In the latest lawsuit kept from public view, mentioned at the beginning of this story, STC settled perhaps its most consequential case last May. It involved a rare federal U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case that ruled in favor of the lawsuit’s plaintiff, Dr. Ruth Keitz. Dr. Keitz claimed STC officials had discriminated against her on the grounds of both age and sex discrimination. The federal government agreed with Dr. Keitz.
Dr. Keitz and her attorneys proved to the EEOC that William Buhidar, an Assistant Dean and Keitz’s supervisor at STC, as well as Mr. Buhidar’s supervisor, Dr. Margaretha Bischoff, Dean of the Division of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, had knowingly discriminated against Keitz based on her age and gender during a hiring process.
Documents related to the case reveal that despite Dr. Keitz’s superior credentials, experience, and earlier job as a full-time temporary faculty member in the Art Department, Buhidar and Bischoff wanted to hire young male instructors who had children and little teaching experience. It was a pattern of hiring that Buhidar used to acquire people in vulnerable positions and thus more susceptible to political manipulation in the purview of his realm as assistant dean, according to Keitz’s attorney and documents in the case. Mr. Buhidar had a history of hiring this category of faculty members (young males with kids and little to no experience) over more qualified, female candidates.
STC settled the case before it went public, paying Dr. Keitz and her attorney $50,000. Mr. Buhidar and Dr. Bischoff remain in their positions, with no repercussions from the lawsuit affecting their current standing. “Ask any faculty or staff member what would happen to them if they were the subject of a lawsuit against the school,” Keitz asked of the college in a February interview with Únete.
For Dr. Keitz, the treatment she received from Buhidar and Bischoff during the selection process for the job she deserved involved excessive delays at a time of year (very late summer) that prevented her from another job that she had declined, expecting to get the STC position. Keitz claims that inappropriate delaying and other procedures were “deliberate, vindictive, and retaliatory” against her, which the EEOC agreed was evident.
The lengthy two-year process of the lawsuit itself had a devastating impact on her annual income and well being. “The emotional and mental distress took a tremendous toll on me,” Keitz said. She breaks down and weeps when asked about Buhidar and Bischoff having violated federal law with no consequences to their actions. “That’s wrong. Where’s the accountability,” Keitz asks. “They really damaged my life for very selfish reasons.”
As a public institution of higher education, does STC’s legal monetary settlements place a greater burden on the taxpayers of Hidalgo and Starr Counties? Given that the school’s settlements were almost all made just prior to going to trial, taxpayers have not been informed about them until now. The U.S. EEOC drew up the Conciliation Agreement reached between STC and Dr. Keitz, which included provisions mandating that STC would pay Dr. Keitz the $50,000 for damages, as well as to conspicuously post on every campus the last three pages of the agreement. Those pages highlight that Sex and Age discrimination and Retaliation would not be tolerated at STC, as well as that STC administrators would have to undergo six hours of Sex and Age discrimination training.
The last three pages of the agreement were promptly displayed and administrators underwent discrimination and retaliation training, but the three pages contain no context or explanation of what created the concerns. Very few employees and faculty have any understanding of what was behind the three pages that are currently posted all over every STC campus in workrooms, lounges, department offices, and hallways.
One instructor, who has taught at the college for over 15 years and insisted that his comments be anonymous for fear of retaliation, explained that most faculty members they asked about the posted statement were clueless and assumed the administration was targeting faculty or staff again. The instructor said that in recent years, Dr. Reed and her attorney have weakened employee rights, and the school has a long history of getting rid of people who raise any serious questions or concerns. Even the Faculty Senate, an elected body representing over fifteen hundred faculty members, is dismissed and not taken seriously by the president or the board of trustees.
One of STC’s founding faculty members, who has been teaching and active in the school’s politics and community since it began, resigned in March due to what he described as “a degree of deception and corruption I could no longer accept as a professional." He lost hope in STC improving how it deals with its students, staff, and faculty. Dr. William Carter is a graduate of McAllen High School and The University of Texas — Pan American. He started as the college’s first full-time history faculty member in 1995, has been department chair twice, is a published author in his field, and was active in the Faculty Senate for most of the last two decades.
Carter claims he had become amazed by the amount of "unscrupulous behavior" that’s conducted on a regular basis by "an STC administration patently fixated on its total dominance of the school, its expansion, its public image and power.”
Whether it’s growing its massive Dual Credit program or trying to get federal dollars pumped into the new regional public training facility for sheriffs and Homeland Security, Carter says the emphasis on growth is often paramount, if haphazardly conceived and executed. “This has had some positive benefits,” he said, “but also enormous negative ones, perhaps the most obvious of which is the sense of self-importance people carry with them as administrators." A sense of power and the ease with which it is abused is what Carter says has been nurtured by upper administration. "And it’s that attitude, and a deeply seated sense of entitlement to impunity, that dismisses concerns others raise,” Carter said.
Carter explained that perhaps the most “pernicious aspect” of unchecked growth and power at STC is that people learn to use and are willing to abuse its advantages to severely punish anyone who challenges very bad and harmful ideas — whether related to parking issues, student organizations, or killing due process on campus. He says STC officials often act this way in attempt to manipulate and control public perception by specializing in high-end marketing, while lacking support for students, faculty and academic excellence beyond appearances.
“Faculty and students realize this,” Carter said, “Morale is dismally low. It’s lately become obvious that the board of trustees has chosen to support the president in all of her deceptions. That’s one of the main reasons I chose to leave after almost 25 years at STC. I love teaching and I love the students, but being surrounded by corrupt administrators and elected officials who care more about their own public images and hollow titles than for quality education or the students they ostensibly serve became professionally degrading and morally exhausting.”
Asked about the lawsuits at STC, Dr. Carter said he expected more to be filed in the future. “You have people willing to throw a great deal of public money into expensive marketing strategies and lawsuit settlements in order to maintain a fabricated vision of greatness that they control, which glorifies themselves and one face of the college, hiding the reality of the school’s authoritarian center from public view,” Carter said, adding that administrators are willing to fire their critics and create a climate of fear on campus, while they lie and deceive the public and their own employees when it’s opportune. “Of course,” concluded the retired professor of history, “the lawsuits will continue.”
South Texas College did not respond to request for comment on our story.