Hill professorship unfilled 2 years after approval University of Oklahoma accused by some of bowing to political pressure


OKLAHOMA CITY -- Almost 2 1/2 years after funding was approved, the University of Oklahoma hasn't filled an endowed professorship named for former law professor Anita Hill.

The delay has outraged some of Hill's supporters and endowment contributors. They say the university is stalling because of political opposition to Hill and to the position itself, which was set up to research sexual harassment and women's rights issues.

Hill's allegations of sexual harassment during Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991 ignited a national debate on those issues.

At least one donor, former Oklahoma law professor Shirley Wiegand, said she has written to the school asking for her $1,000 back if it isn't going to fill the post.

"They're breaching a contract with the donors," said Wiegand, now a law professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Oklahoma's law dean, Andrew Coats, blamed budget constraints for the delay. He said it will be at least another year before the university can begin advertising to fill the professorship, which includes a $500,000 fund designed to boost a regular faculty salary by about $25,000 annually.

Coats denied that he and the university are bowing to political pressure to leave the position vacant. "There's not any sinister act of denial," said the former state prosecutor. "I'd be glad to have the professorship filled when we can."

Hill said in an interview that she is baffled and disappointed the professorship remains vacant because its research focus is so important.

She said the university's inaction "sends a signal to other academic communities that really we're still playing politics with academics here and that the prevailing issues are not the academic or educational ones, but, for those making the decisions, are the political ones."

In October 1991, Hill accused then-Supreme Court nominee Thomas of sexually harassing her when the two worked together at two federal agencies. Thomas denied the allegations and eventually won Senate confirmation.

The University of Oklahoma regents approved the professorship 1993, pending $250,000 in private donations. That goal was reached in June 1995. About five months later, Oklahoma's top higher education policy board approved $250,000 in state matching funds.

Later, Hill took her name out of consideration for the professorship. At the end of the 1996 fall semester, she resigned from the Oklahoma law school, saying she would pursue a career "in an academic setting whose support of diversity of ideas and perspectives and appreciation of academic freedom is uncompromising."

Hill still lives in Norman, Okla., where the university is located. She lectures nationally on sexual harassment and gender bias. She recently wrote a book on her experiences in the Thomas case, "Speaking Truth to Power."

The status of the endowed professorship came under scrutiny recently after an Oklahoma law professor, Randall Coyne, twice wrote memorandums asking that the matter be placed on the agenda at law school faculty meetings.

Last week, Coats discussed the subject at a faculty meeting, citing the budget restrictions as a result of a decline in enrollment.

He also said the number of faculty positions needs to be trimmed. That is part of the problem, he said, because no one on the faculty has the expertise to be named to the Hill professorship.

The university, Coats said, wants to conduct a national search when it can fill the position. Since the endowment only supplements a regular faculty salary, he said, he must wait until the school can afford to add a new specialty professor before seeking to fill the vacancy.

"I think we're at least a year away," he said. "Right now, it depends on what the attrition among the faculty at the law school is."

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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