Tuesday, November 20, 2018
Education

Report: USF faculty complained of a hostile, sexist, boorish boss

TAMPA — A certain University of South Florida academic may be an unpopular and insensitive bully, but none of his actions have risen to the level of discrimination, a lengthy legal review has concluded.

USF stripped Herb Maschner of his leadership title last year after he failed to disclose a sexual harassment finding from his prior job.

But even as the dust settled in that case, Maschner continued to ruffle feathers at the school. As the director of a campus technology center, he became the subject of internal complaints, faculty discontent and an investigation into his behavior that produced an exhaustive, 37-page report.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:

Idaho State settles sexual harassment suit involving USF professor for $170,000

USF administrator stripped of title after review of sex harassment finding at previous job

Fellow faculty members called him hostile and sexist, a boor who may prey on women. They said he was petty and vindictive. They said he discriminated against those with disabilities and mistreated people below his rank.

In the report, completed April 21 and released to the Tampa Bay Times this week, Maschner vehemently denied those accusations.

Drawing factual conclusions was difficult, wrote the lawyer who compiled it, since so little could be corroborated by witnesses.

Jolee Land, an attorney with Phelps Dunbar LLP, interviewed more than a dozen people in February, March and April, including Maschner, in the presence of his lawyer. Her review cost USF $19,717.

Land found no evidence that Maschner was motivated by sex- or disability-based animus. However, she wrote, he treated at least two colleagues with repeated hostility, likely an attempt to undermine their professional credibility. She left the question of his potential "general misconduct" to USF leaders.

In response to the report, USF issued a memo underscoring Maschner's diminished role at with CVAST, or the Center for Virtualization and Applied Spatial Technologies, which digitally documents archeological finds.

No longer CVAST's leader, he is now its chief scientist, a tenured faculty member with research assignments. But he has lost much of his autonomy.

He needs his boss to sign off on his proposals for the $4.6 million Hitz family grant he brought to USF. He cannot supervise faculty, staff or students, even those helping with his grant work. He must seek approval before discussing collaborations outside of the center. His supervisor has final approval of plans, budgets, equipment and more.

Still, he continues to draw a salary of $195,000.

The changes, the university said, are to ensure the success of both the center and Maschner's research.

Maschner and his attorney did not reply to a request for comment.

"All established procedures have been followed in this case," USF spokesman Adam Freeman said in an email. "USF continues to take proactive steps to maintain a productive and comfortable workplace."

Questions were raised about USF's hiring process after it was revealed that the university neglected to check Maschner's references. Since then, the school has instituted mandatory reference checks.

USF recruited Maschner in 2014 while he was employed at Idaho State University. He had a strong reputation in anthropology and wanted to expand USF's work in 3D virtualization. He joined USF in mid-2015.

Lori Collins and Travis Doering, associate professors, had long been doing similar work at USF. They would expand upon it with Maschner's help by creating CVAST. He became its leader, and they were co-directors.

Yet communication problems quickly took hold. Maschner clashed with Collins and Doering over budgets, staffing and equipment. He wanted them to publish more and felt disillusioned when he learned their work wasn't financially self-sufficient. There was confusion about responsibilities, and Collins bristled when Maschner assigned her menial tasks, like ordering lunches.

Collins and Doering told USF leaders their concerns and eventually moved their CVAST work to the USF Library to "escape" Maschner.

In the report, Collins and Doering say Maschner harassed them, but that Collins was treated worse because she is a woman.

Collins also has a disability that makes travel difficult. She said that Maschner, who frequently talked about traveling for work, saw her as weak.

Land, the attorney, wrote that there wasn't enough evidence to show that Maschner singled Collins out because of her disability or sex, and that Collins didn't point to any tangible harm.

Collins and Doering said Maschner created a hostile environment, undermining their reputations, lashing out in emails and being so threatening in meetings that Collins would cry.

They felt that Maschner had swooped in and taken credit for the work they'd been doing for years. They said he vindictively borrowed equipment he knew they would need, and that he let his kids use expensive 3D tools that he returned in damaged form. They said he made threats, such as, "You're lucky I'm older and calmer now because a few years ago I would have handled this a lot differently."

USF leaders dismissed some of these concerns at first, the report states, because Collins and Doering were known to be "excruciatingly" protective of their work, and conflicts "seemed like par for the course."

But the tension kept escalating. Faculty and staff heard Maschner make comments that Collins and Doering were "worthless" and that they were "done" at USF. Maschner said he only told the dean that he wanted them gone.

Land said that excuse was "simply not believable" and that his words were "particularly inappropriate, and entirely unjustifiable as a legitimate performance criticism."

She concluded that Maschner was hostile with many subordinates, but without regard to sex. Many other issues, such as a missing binder and an international trip gone awry, she dismissed as inconclusive.

Maschner was also the subject of numerous internal complaints. A former CVAST researcher reported that he mocked Title IX and ethics complaints in an apparent attempt to intimidate those who would file them.

That researcher, Rachel Opitz, has since left USF.

Opitz and Collins declined to comment. Doering did not respond to a request for comment.

Amid this turmoil, Maschner made the unusual move of incorporating a business with a near-identical mission statement as CVAST's, even as USF denied his request to do so. An anonymous ethics complaint to USF said the work was clearly a conflict of interest.

Maschner incorporated the company anyway, saying it would let him take advantage of funding not available to universities. However, if he proceeds with any company activities, he will violate USF policy.

Maschner first made headlines in 2016, when news of a sexual harassment lawsuit broke.

About three years earlier, Idaho State University had found that he violated school policy for sexually harassing a 28-year-old graduate student.

The student later filed a lawsuit against Idaho State, saying Maschner lavished her with unwanted attention for months before forcibly kissing and groping her on campus. She also said Maschner disparaged her work performance after she rejected his advances. By then, Maschner had left for USF.

USF officials said Maschner didn't tell his boss about the finding until an Idaho newspaper was about to publish a story about the lawsuit. Soon after that, Maschner lost his leadership position at USF.

Idaho State has since settled the lawsuit for $170,000.

According to USF's report, "More than one witness mentioned that they believed they saw parallels between Maschner's alleged conduct at ISU and his conduct at USF; specifically, an inappropriate use of his position of authority to intimidate subordinates, which Maschner denies."

Contact Claire McNeill at (727) 893-8321 or [email protected]

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