A veteran URI employee speaks publicly for the first time about being forced from his job working with gay and lesbian students on campus nearly three years ago. The university calls it a willing retirement but the president refuses to talk with us - or other people who have approached him about the case - calling it ``a personnel issue.’’ This week Jim Hummel kicks off the first part of a two-part investigation about this case, and the current climate for gay students on campus.
For more than a decade the University of Rhode Island had a national reputation as one of the most unfriendly campuses for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. Those students didn’t need The Princeton Review to tell them how hostile the environment had become: they had been living it as the targets of graffiti and homophobic slurs for years.
Winters: ``There were a lot of people who were very cautious and not out as gay people.’’
Andrew Winters, an openly gay man, was hired by URI in 1995 initially to work in residence education, having spent most of his career as an advocate around diversity issues. He later established a center for GLBT students on the first floor of Adams residence Hall.
But the climate for gays and minorities had gotten so bad that in 2009 the U.S. Justice Department had been called to take a look.
It was an environment that greeted David Dooley when he took over as URI’s 11th president in April of 2010. Dooley said one of his Transformational Goals was to have a campus that values and embraces equity and diversity.
Within a year, Winters found himself out of a job. Dooley, in his only public comment told a reporter ``Andrew Winters retired. But he was not forced to retire.’’
Winters - and others we’ve interviewed - tell a much different story, painting the picture of administration that wasn’t addressing the concerns of the gay community on campus and grew tired of Winters’ leading the charge for reforms. In June of 2011 Winters signed a nine-page separation agreement that included both a payout and a gag order.
In a wide-ranging interview Winters told us he signed it because he feared being fired and walking away with nothing. He didn’t have a contract or union protection. He is speaking publicly for the first time to The Hummel Report because he has tried unsuccessfully to get the Rhode Island Board of Governors to hear details of what he calls a coerced agreement, signed under duress.
Four months after Dooley arrived as president a group including Winters and his assistant Joe Santiago met at the president’s house to outline their concerns. Winters said nothing changed after the meeting and that fall of 2010 he helped a group of students stage what became an 8-day sit-in at the campus library, which was covered by NBC-10 and other media.
Winters: ``I know President Dooley was very unhappy with the fact that the University was receiving what he considered to be attention that was negative to the university.’’
Within months the university hired a woman named Kathryn Friedman as a consultant with the title interim vice president for community, equity and diversity. She reported directly to the president.
By then a whisper campaign had begun about what was commonly known as ``Andrew’s issues.’’ - the implication was the students didn’t have the same concerns Winters had expressed both publically and privately. Students we talked to who were there at the time said just the opposite.
At first, Winters said, Friedman - who was gay herself - befriended him.
Winters: ``She said the president and the provost here are trying to keep you out of meetings - frankly she said they’re going to come after me. But don’t you worry I’ve got your back.’’
Santiago: ``Andrew’s issues were all about reporting some of the discrimination and about trying to find solutions and getting people to do something about it.’’
Joe Santiago had worked with Winters for years and was let go by the university a year after Winters departure, even though he says he had been promised Winters’ job after he was forced out.
Santiago had received complimentary emails by both Dooley and Friedman, only to later be shown the door.
Santiago has his own appeal pending with the Board of Governors, now under the Board of Education.
Santiago: ``There’s no doubt in my mind that the reason Kathryn Friedman was there was to make sure there would be no longer any voice, anyone who could cause embarrassment for President Dooley and the university.’’
Friedman wasted no time honing in on Winters. Two months after her arrival, Friedman sent Winters a blistering letter of reprimand saying she had met with many people inside and outside the GLBT community and everyone had expressed no confidence in him. She said Winters was difficult to work with, divisive and defensive - but offered no supporting evidence.
Winters: ``She never observed my work, she never came and saw me with students or saw any of the presentations I done. This letter, I was completely blindsided by this letter.’’
In fact Winters had received numerous letters of thanks and congratulations for his work on campus, organizing yearly symposiums. He was recognized by the URI Foundation.
Winters became increasingly worried when Friedman called him while a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education was on campus doing a story that painted an unflattering picture of URI’s atmosphere for LGBT students.
Winters: ``Miss Friedman called me on the phone and told me to evict the photo journalist from campus, tell him to get off campus go back to whatever motel he was staying at.’’
Hummel: ``Was she aware she was working for a public university?’’
Winters: ``I believe she was. But she left me with the distinct feeling I was in deep trouble for having talked with that photojournalist.’’
It was a front page article that reached the desks of college university presidents across the country.
We emailed President Dooley directly asking for an interview and a response to Winters’ claims. Dooley never responded to us, referring our email to a spokeswoman for the university. She told us Dooley would not do an interview, calling this a `personnel’ issue.
The university paid Friedman $124,000 for 10 months of work. When we asked for a copy of her contract and job description, the spokeswoman told us she only had an `appointment letter,’ which was part of her personnel file and therefore not public.
A week later Winters - at Friedman’s directive - met with Anne Marie Coleman, head human resources for URI.
Winters: ``Handed me an unsigned, undated, not on university letterhead, list of seven things they were going to offer me for my immediate retirement. And the stipulation that I not tell anybody was hanging in the background.’’
Winters went out on stress leave. He was 62 and having health problems and was concerned that with no job protection he might be fired and walk away with nothing.
Winters: ``I went night after night after night without sleep. And the more I looked for help the more I realized the avenues of reporting were being shut down. I contacted the university affirmative action office. The director told me to get off campus. And get some help.’’
So he signed the agreement with the university and its board of governors. It gave him a $125,000 payment, $21,000 to help offset healthcare costs for him and his husband who was in his health plan - and nearly $27,000 for unused vacation and sick time.
Winters readily acknowledges the agreement provides no avenue for appeal. But he wants the Board of Governors for Higher Education, which ultimately oversees URI, to know he signed under duress and to entertain reconsideration. He sent a detailed letter to Ray DiPasquale, commissioner for higher education at the time. That was two years ago.
After four months Winters, Santiago and four others met with DiPasquale and Lorne Adrain, chairman of the board who is now running for mayor of Providence.
Winters: ``Commissioner DiPasquale promised us - he said now that we know about this we have an obligation to fix it to address it.’’
Hummel: ``And what have you heard from him?’’
DiPasquale tells The Hummel Report he told them he couldn’t do anything and passed it along to Adrain and the board of governors.
Santiago: ``Lorne Adrain just bailed he never came back, there was no accountability. There was no obligation he felt after that first meeting.’’
In a phone interview last week Adrain said he couldn’t recall specifics of the meeting and didn’t remember receiving an appeal. When we pressed him about the larger issue of a coerced agreement, Adrain ended the conversation.
So we went to the current chairwoman of the board, Eva Mancuso - who was handed a packet of information about the case last year by state representative Frank Ferri. Mancuso declined our request for an on-camera interview. In a follow-up email she told us she had quote ``no time to bring myself up to speed on this case. Not my priority now.’’
Santiago has also appealed to the Board of Governors, but almost two years later still has no resolution. The university says he was not terminated. Rather his limited appointment expired.
Kathryn Friedman no longer works for the university.
Nightingale: ``He was basically being bullied out of URI.’’
Peter Nightingale has been a URI physics professor for 30 years and is one of half a dozen faculty members who signed a letter to President Dooley, upset over the tone of Kathryn Friedman’s letter of reprimand to Winters.
Nightingale: ``If president Dooley had wanted to solve this problem at that point - rather than just giving us a standard response, `I can’t talk to you,’ he would have said `I can’t talk to you about these matters, except when Andrew is willing to sign a waiver saying then I can discuss it.’”
Hummel: ``Why do you think this struck such a nerve with the administration?’’
Nightingale: ``Universities in general have become corporations and anybody who threatens the bottom line has got to go. It’s as simple as that. We throw them under the bus and it’s accepted.’’
Dooley has refused to speak with anyone who has approached him about this case, including lawmakers.
So last month Representatives Spencer Dickinson and Frank Ferri filed legislation that would form a special commission to investigate issues of fairness in hiring and retention at URI.
Hummel: ``What do you say to the person who says this is just a disgruntled guy who wants to get back at his employer?’’
Winters: ``I think that’s a standard way to disqualify anybody who’s speaking out against a problem that needs to be addressed.’’
Hummel: Join us next week for a look at URI today. Has the climate for gay students changed? And more on Andrew Winters’ departure from the university. In Kingston, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.