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

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

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

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

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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