Lack of professionalism, not sexual harassment, brought two high-ranking executives down from their positions at the University of Texas Medical Branch, a blue-ribbon panel concluded in a report released Friday.
The seven-member panel wasn’t tasked with determining whether the medical branch had a pervasive culture of sexual harassment, but members felt comfortable, based on two cases, to determine the institution did not.
The panel members, appointed in late January by medical branch President Dr. David L. Callender, met three times and based their conclusions on cases involving Dr. Garland Anderson, former executive vice president, provost and dean of medicine, and William R. Elger, former chief financial officer.
Revelations in 2012 and last year that the executives had been stripped of their titles after legal settlements with their accusers, but allowed to keep their six-figure salaries and the title of “Special Adviser to the President” had raised questions about double-standards and about whether a pattern was emerging.
Although the panel found behavior didn’t rise to the level of sexual harassment, it recommended the medical branch revise its policies to encourage employees to file such complaints within 30 days to prevent ongoing misconduct.
Both Anderson’s and Elger’s accusers did not immediately lodge complaints and witnesses did not corroborate some of those complaints, panel member Ann Masel, a partner in certified public accounting firm DRDA, said.
Callender met Friday to discuss for the first time with reporters the two cases that marred the careers of men he worked with closely.
Callender said the medical branch was known for a friendly culture, and that came with downsides, including people forming close relationships and feeling comfortable speaking too casually or saying things inappropriate for the workplace.
“We need to take a look at the culture and be cautious we don’t fall into a trap,” Callender said.
At a town-hall meeting with medical branch staff, faculty and students in February, Callender said he was disappointed in all parties involved. Panel members also expressed disappointment.
“It’s sad that we’re sitting here,” Masel said.
But crossing professional boundaries wasn’t sexual harassment, Masel said Friday.
While both Anderson and Elger were accused of making sexually suggestive and lewd comments, their behavior did not rise to the level of quid pro quo sexual harassment, which occurs when job benefits, pay and working conditions are contingent on sexual favors.
Their behavior also did not amount to hostile work environment harassment, which is conduct so severe and pervasive that it interferes with a person’s ability to perform a job or creates a threatening work environment, panel members said on Friday.
The medical branch fought requests by The Daily News for case documents, but in January was ordered by the Texas Attorney General’s office to release records about Elger. Among those was a timeline of allegations compiled by a female employee, whose name was redacted.
The timeline accused Elger of improper comments and behavior, including suggesting over lunch that the complainant unbutton her blouse in exchange for vacation time. She accused Elger of kissing her on the lips on two separate occasions. And she accused the medical branch of ignoring her complaints.
In the timeline, dating back to December 2009 and submitted to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after she was fired, the woman accused Elger of becoming increasingly hostile toward her after she complained.
She was terminated on April 11 last year, about two months after she complained to the medical branch, according to the timeline. Some time after the woman filed the EEOC complaint, she entered into a confidential settlement agreement with the medical branch for $200,000. The University of Texas System denied allegations in the EEOC charge and asserted all its actions were appropriate, according to documents. Likewise, nothing in the agreement was an admission of liability by Elger.
Elger, who resigned Sept. 16, kept his $581,400 yearly salary and “applicable longevity pay” for his new position as special adviser to the president. Elger, 64, was to be special adviser to the president until Aug. 31 this year or until he was re-employed, according to the settlement agreement. But he left the campus Nov. 30.
Callender, according to the report, thought continuing Elger’s employment on an interim basis to assist with the transition was in medical branch’s best financial interest.
“However, after further consideration and consultation with others, it was decided to shorten the interim period of Elger’s service,” according to the report.
In Elger’s case, the panel concluded the decision to enter into a settlement agreement with the complainant appeared to be a reasonable exercise of business judgment to avoid business disruption and protracted litigation. The panel also concluded that Elger’s accuser was terminated for legitimate reasons and was not subject to retaliation.
Anderson resigned his $619,109 a year post in August 2011 and took what the medical branch characterized as a sabbatical. He returned as a special adviser to the president earning $525,000 a year.
The medical branch also fought release of documents related to Anderson’s case, but reversed its decision after the blue-ribbon panel was appointed.
In those documents, a female member of Anderson’s executive team accused him of using his powerful position to stalk and attempt to coerce her into an inappropriate romantic relationship.
The medical branch investigation, however, found that while Anderson, 69, made inappropriate comments and acted in inappropriate ways, he neither created a hostile work environment nor retaliated against the woman.
The woman accused Anderson of buying her a $3,000 Christmas present and of making sexual comments about her, such as referring to her house as a “sugar shack,” among other allegations.
Anderson’s accuser received $200,000 in a confidential settlement, copies of which The Daily News obtained and which included no admission of wrongdoing by either Anderson or the medical branch.
The medical branch agreed to the settlement to avoid expensive and protracted litigation, according to the panel’s report.
Several members of the panel felt that the settlement payment to Anderson’s accuser was excessive “relative to the magnitude of the initial complaint;” however the panel agreed the decision to settle was a reasonable exercise of business judgment, according to the report.
Although sexual harassment was not found, Callender felt Anderson’s leadership ability had been compromised and that he could no longer be effective in his leadership roles, according to the report.
Callender’s decision to keep Anderson on as a special adviser with a six-figure salary after the settlement was reasonable, the panel concluded.
“Because there were no grounds to remove Dr. Anderson from his tenured faculty position, Dr. Callender’s decision to retain Dr. Anderson was reasonable,” according to the report.
But bestowing title of “Special Adviser to the President” denoted favoritism, according to the report.
“Dr. Anderson’s new position/title and salary should have included a specific job description that reflected the nature of his responsibilities and expected contributions,” the panel concluded.
Callender said Friday he wasn’t sure where Anderson officed as special adviser. Sometimes, he worked from home, and sometimes he traveled. In his new role, Anderson advised on the Affordable Care Act, Callender said.
The panel concluded the medical branch launched timely, vigorous investigations of both complaints.
The panel also looked at how the medical branch handled public information requests related to the cases.
“While the panel concluded that UTMB acted within the limits of privacy rules and public disclosure laws, there is room for refining our processes and how we communicate our actions,” Callender said in a letter to students Friday. “We agree with the panel’s recommendations and will evaluate how best to implement them, in keeping with current laws and regulations.”
But the medical branch must balance the rights of the person making the complaint, the rights of the accused and the public’s right to know, Callender said.
The medical branch will adopt all recommendations by the panel, Callender said.