USF: English Department misused nearly $70K

Phillip Sipiora has resigned as chairman of USF’s English Department amid a storm of allegations regarding the department’s financial responsibility.

According to a report by USF’s Office of University Audit and Compliance, the department is guilty of four charges:

1. The report found a faculty member had selected a textbook from a book publisher with whom he/she was negotiating a contract.

2. According to the report, a conflict of interest occurred when a faculty member’s spouse was hired to provide services for the department.

3. A faculty member failed to properly disclose book contracts as an outside compensated activity, the report said.

4. A faculty member utilized university funds to purchase personal-use equipment.

The report accused a faculty member of using state money to buy 55 pieces of audiovisual equipment at his/her home, including a 65-inch high definition television, two 36-inch televisions and seven DVD/VCR/CD players, among other things. While Sipiora was not named in the report, Sara Deats, English professor and former department chairwoman from 1995-1999, confirmed that Sipiora was the unnamed faculty member. The report says the equipment cost the department $24,733.

According to Deats, Sipiora used what the university calls “in-kind” funding to buy the equipment to use only for his teaching.

“He does not use it for his personal work like is being alleged. He is a professor of film. He lectures on film. He writes on film. It is part of his discipline,” she said. “He was on a 12-month contract, and on a 12-month contract you can’t make any more money than you are paid on your contract, so he could not get the extra money to pay for this equipment. As part of the in-kind payment, he was allowed to check out the TVs and use them for his courses.

“It’s not been proven that he used the equipment for personal use,” Deats said. “These allegations are supposed to be under investigation.”

Deats said Sipiora will be allowed to argue against these allegations Monday and that nothing has been proven against Sipiora on the matter. However, USF media relations director Michelle Carlyon said the report was one of the reasons Sipiora was asked by College of Arts and Sciences dean Kathleen Heide to step down. The change was announced at an English departmental meeting April 16.

“The University felt that the evidence in this report is serious enough that it needed to take action,” Carlyon said.

The report also states the department paid $9,425 to the spouse of a faculty member, causing a conflict of interest because the spouse had “purchasing authority on the departmental accounts, but did not approve invoices for payment.” Deats confirmed that this refers to Sipiora’s wife.

Deats said as chairwoman she hired Sipiora’s wife to cater six departmental parties, and that no conflict arose during the relationship. She added that Sipiora was opposed to his wife’s involvement, but Deats hired her anyway.

Other charges contained in the report, such as the misuse of travel funds and the selection of a textbook co-authored by a professor for use in his/her own class, were unfounded or unsubstantiated, the report said.

Another estimated $35,000 was lost by the conflict of interest created when a faculty member began using textbooks in fall 1999 with a publishing company with which the professor was undergoing contract negotiations. The faculty member was not named, and no clear tie to Sipiora was made in the report.

Heide declined to comment, while Sipiora did not return numerous phone calls Thursday evening.

Other ongoing investigations could tie Sipiora to sexual misconduct charges within the department. One charge in the report alleges that a faculty member discriminated against female faculty members in the department, with the investigation being referred to USF’s Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity.

Deborah Love, associate vice president of DEO, confirmed that complaints have been brought to the department’s attention, with at least some of them involving ongoing investigations of Sipiora.

Before deciding to ask Sipiora to step down, Deats said, Heide met with Provost Renu Khator, Associate Provost Phillip Smith and at least 28 members of the department in one-on-one conferences. Smith said Wednesday that no grievances against Sipiora had been sent through him.

“If a grievance between faculty members is filed correctly, it will almost always go through me at some point,” Smith said. “I have not seen any grievance at this point in regards to (Sipiora).”

Khator did not return correspondence Thursday, while Smith could not be reached after the Wednesday interview.

According to anonymous sources within the department, it was announced at the April 16 faculty meeting that Sipiora would be stepping down and former women’s studies chairwoman Marilyn Myerson would serve as interim chairwoman while a nationwide search is conducted for a replacement. Myerson could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Deats, who has worked with Sipiora for several years, says the accusations are hard to believe.

“I have worked for women’s equality all my career here,” Deats said. “I was the first female president of the Faculty Senate. I was the first female chair of my department. I have worked with (Sipiora) for 14 years, and I have never seen anything to indicate any form of discrimination. If things of that nature were going on, I would not tolerate it.”

Deats also said that after recent changes made necessary by circumstances beyond Sipiora’s control, the department’s four administrative jobs include three men for the first time in 16 years. At least since 1988, she said, half the positions in the department have been filled by women.

Also confirmed is a grievance filed by one English graduate student against Sipiora for, among other things, “unfair labor practices.” Kelli McCormack Brown, interim dean of graduate studies, said that several students have also concurred with the grievance, but could not discuss specifics of the allegations or investigation.