Turning the Page
The University of Rhode Island won’t talk about a veteran employee forced from his job working with gay and lesbian students, but says it has responded to concerns by those in the gay community at URI. In the second of our two-part investigation, Jim Hummel sits down with the director of the LGBT center for her take on the campus climate - and we hear from supporters of her predecessor, who say a wall of silence/indifference has gone up around their efforts to find out why he was forced out of his job.
For 17 years Andrew Winters had worked on the URI campus, advocating for gay and minority students in an atmosphere that at times bordered on hostile.
Winters had repeatedly and publicly pushed the administration to do more for gay and minority students on campus. He tells us there was a systematic effort by the administration to force him out in the first year after David Dooley became URI’s 11th president.
And that’s what happened in June of 2011 when Winters signed a separation agreement - with a hefty payout and a gag order - worried that with no job protection he might be fired and walk away with nothing if he didn’t take the university’s offer.
A consultant called Winters divisive and difficult to work with - and said everyone she had spoken with had no confidence in him. But Vice President Thomas Dougan wrote a glowing letter of recommendation when Winters was forced out calling him ``an outstanding presenter’’ with positive feedback on his symposiums.
Winters: ``We have a system in place that a lot of people know about that’s prepared to do this to people and I wanted to see it addressed.’’
And so did others, including veteran URI Physics Professor Peter Nightingale, who implored President Dooley and Lorne Adrain, chairman of the Board of Governors at the time, to revisit Winters’ case.
Nightingales: And it’s completely clear that that process of dealing with the complaints is a joke, a sick joke at that, because it turns out you have to complain to the those who actually hire the people who did this and the lawyers who take care of the details work for basically for the people who you’re complaining about. It’s a farce. They know how to smile, and then they know how to do absolutely nothing. File these complaints and we’ll deal with it. Well that was over two years ago.’’
Goff: ``I call that stonewalling.’’
Pam Goff, a URI alum who had worked with Winters on the marriage equality issue wrote Adrain shortly after Winters left campus in 2011 - and heard nothing. Adrain was the chairman of the Board of Governors, which was a party to the separation agreement. Adrain is now running for mayor of Providence.
Goff: ``I have written letters to the Rhode Island Board of Higher Education - I’ve tried the governor’s office and they were very polite, but nothing ever happens. I never get any answers to my questions, ever.’’
Goff didn’t stop there, calling Gov. Chafee’s office several times as well.
Goff: ``They said they would look into it. And then I was told that…they were talking about President Dooley… and they were sure he was not a homophobic man. I said I never asked that question. This is much bigger than whether President Dooley is a homophobic man . That wasn’t the point. And I wanted to know if there was going to be an investigation.’’
Dooley has brushed off anybody who has approached him about Winters, including faculty and state lawmakers. And through a spokeswoman he said he would not do an interview with us because it’s a `personnel issue.’ But Winters tells The Hummel Report he’s willing to sign a waiver opening up his file and allowing the president to talk about it publicly.
Meanwhile, the university has turned the page, hiring Annie Russell to succeed Winters in early 2012. She is the interim director of Gender and Women’s Studies as well as director of the LGBTQ center on campus. She came to Rhode Island from the Midwest.
During her job interview at URI in the fall of 2011 Russell heard about plans the administration had, including construction of a new LBGT center - one of the things students had requested during an eight-day sit-in back in 2010.
Russell: ``For me hearing a group of people say well we’re going to build a building dedicated to these issues, dedicated to students faculty and staff. That was huge that was an opportunity that I thought was exciting, certainly innovative.’’
The center will cost a total of $2.1 million - nearly all of it funded out of the university’s general revenues - and is expected to be complete by sometime next year.
Russell said she also saw an institutional commitment to funding the LGBT program.
Russell: ``A brand new budget, a staff, undergraduate staff members as well another full-time staff and a graduate assistant, those were things that were incredibly attractive and represented an institutional commitment to LGBTQ issues in a way I had never seen before.’’
Russell said when she arrived, she wanted to make some changes to the center itself, located on the first floor of Adams Residence Hall.
Russell: ``It was white walls, it was very kind of plain, no posters, no iconography of the queer community, things like that. Which I think are important. People want to see themselves in the space they inhabit.’’
Hummel: ``When you came here were there marching orders on what to do, or was it you have kind of a clean tablet, or was it a combination of both in terms of the work you were expected to do?’’
Russell: ``Good question, no there were absolutely no marching orders. And so for me it as about hearing people and hearing what their experiences had been on the campus and what they wanted to see happen on this campus.’’
Tondreau: ``Most of the students when I was on campus at least were not openly gay about it, because it’s not something that’s really accepted, even to this day and age.’’
Douglas Tonddreau is straight but had a gay roommate when he was at URI and saw firsthand some of the homophobic activity on campus. Tondreau graduated two years ago but stays in close contact with students who are still there, including a number of those in the LGBT community. He says many of the more vocal students have taken a step back, not as quick to proclaim their sexual identity.
Tondrea: ``The environment that existed before is one that no longer exists. The students don’t really express themselves - and I know when I was there, I was essentially a rebel. We need to make these changes let’s make it happen. I would knock on everyone’s door until I seen it. Now that’s not happening.’’
The Hummel Report has spoken with other students who have left the LGBT center and its programming, in part because they had loyalty to Andrew Winters. Others do not like the way it is being run now.
Russell says she believes URI is a much better place for LGBT students than it was a few years ago.
Russell: ``There has been a significant improvement as it relates to people’s feeling of inclusion on this campus as queer individuals, as well as the larger campus’s understanding of queer issues.’’
And, Russell says, the administration and President Dooley have been supportive of initiatives she had presented in her first two years.
Russell: ``Being on this campus has been a significant change for me. I’m used to as an administrator in LBGTQ issues having to fight against the institution, to create change ,which is what my job says I’m supposed to be doing. It hasn’t been that way at this institution. Everywhere I go and every policy that we’ve attempted to enact, or do something different, or make a change, I don’t get nos I get yeses and how can we help? And that has been a refreshing change, in my opinion.’’
In Kingston, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.