Vice President of Student Affairs Jennifer Meningall didn’t violate USF’s diversity policy, but numerous reports of bullying question whether she can handle her job without additional training, according to a report released Tuesday.
The report, commissioned by the Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity (DEO), investigated claims that Meningall slapped an employee on the arm, verbally threatened employees, made derogatory comments about male employees and made racially and sexually biased hiring decisions.
Data collected during the investigation of these claims also indicate that a “climate of distrust and apprehension” pervades Student Affairs, as many staffers seemed afraid to speak frankly of Meningall or of their work environment for fear of losing their jobs, according to the report.
The accusations against Meningall stem from an Oct. 3 e-mail sent by former Senior Associate Vice President of Student Affairs James Dragna to about 80 people. In it, he outlined these concerns and accused Meningall of engaging in potentially illegal and unethical activity.
A subsequent audit of Student Affairs found that Meningall did not manage money illegally, but it wasn’t until this week that the DEO investigation of personnel issues was completed.
In response to claims that Meningall slapped an employee in a humiliating manner during a meeting, the report, while shying away from the word “slapped,” did conclude that physical contact between Meningall and an employee occurred, describing it as “hand-to-hand touching.” What is unclear, however, is the extent of the contact or whether it was aggressive, as the other people at the meeting didn’t remember the touching, according to the report.
The investigator also determined that Meningall threatened employees verbally and through aggressive posturing, contributing to the overall climate of fear in Student Affairs.
During the investigation, Meningall’s co-workers “used terms such as ‘bullying,’ ‘attacking,’ and ‘intimidated'” when discussing her response to ideas that opposed hers. Meningall explained her aggressiveness to employees by saying things like “I’m a New Yorker,” and “I’m from the Bronx,” according to the report.
More than half of the people interviewed said Meningall – who worked at a smaller university before coming to USF – was overwhelmed “in her present position,” contributing to the perception that she’s acting abusively.
The report also found that Meningall “sporadically” made inappropriate and/or unprofessional comments about male employees at meetings and in day-to-day office communications, calling them “boys” and saying Student Affairs “needed more testosterone.”
Said incidences, albeit described as “inappropriate,” didn’t constitute harassment or discrimination, according to the report, and it’s unlikely anybody ever told Meningall the comments were inappropriate or that they made him or her feel uncomfortable.
Bad business tactic, but not discriminationMeningall did not discriminate when hiring employees, according to the report, though two hires “were driven more by her prior acquaintance, loyalty and commitment with these individuals,” than by their abilities. The investigator did not describe these hires as “unethical,” instead saying, “the hiring of these two individuals by Dr. Meningall may not have been a good business decision,” in the report.
Interviewees reveal culture of apprehensionA large part of the report was based on approximately 40 individual interviews of people who had “direct dealing with and/or observed Vice President Meningall.”
More than half of these interviewees were described as “nervous” during the interview process, which investigator Eduardo Suarez-Solar, the lawyer and owner of Tampa-based labor law firm Integrated Employer Resources & Consulting, described as reflecting an “underlying climate of distrust and apprehension” in Student Affairs.
Many thought their jobs would be endangered if they commented openly about Meningall during the investigation, according to the report.
About 60 percent of those interviewed “exhibited physical anxiety” during the interview, including jitteriness, cautiousness and shaking – even after Suarez assured them that their comments would be anonymous.
Interviewees also seemed suspicious that the interview was being monitored. They questioned “Mr. Suarez’ placement of his mobile phone on the conference room table and questioned him regarding the television armoire that was in the corner of the room within two feet of where he was sitting conducting the investigation,” according to the report.
Can Meningall manage?The conflict between what was described as Meningall’s “vision” for Student Affairs and the University and perceived abusiveness will hamper her ability to carry out her goals – such as transitioning USF from a commuter school to a residential one – according to the report.
“Can she continue to function in this manner and accomplish her goal of assisting the University through its complex transition? Based upon the information received from the witnesses, we do not believe so.”
Meningall is capable of making changes so that she can carry out her goals, “but it will be a true test of her leadership abilities,” the report stated.
Two recommendations are that Meningall have an “executive coach” to help her develop professionally, and that she participate in leadership programs off-campus. Suarez also recommended the creation of a panel to fix the negative climate in Student Affairs, and hiring a designated ombudsman to handle complaints dealing with the division. He also called for the implementation of a system that will measure whether Student Affairs is successful.
University president supports Meningall USF President Judy Genshaft said she was happy to hear the results of the DEO report, as she felt Dragna’s e-mail was inappropriate.
“I am glad to have the audit and DEO report conclude there was no cause and no findings,” she said. Genshaft, who is Meningall’s boss, also said that perceived abusiveness might be a misunderstanding of her dedication.
“I believe that Dr. Meningall is a very passionate and intense person who cares and really wants to see the best happen to the University of South Florida,” she said. “Oftentimes, some people can misinterpret what she is saying and they take it too personally.”
Genshaft said she will work with Meningall on management techniques, and that Meningall was attending a leadership program.
“I’ll work with her on style,” she said.
Asked whether she thought Meningall behaved unethically in any way, Genshaft said she had no concerns about Meningall, and that she could do the job.
“Both reports have come back without violations, so I think that ends that question,” she said. “I believe that she takes the recommendations for leadership development to heart, and she’s more than willing to work with the executive team, the president and other leaders in the community.”
Meningall did not comment on the report, as Genshaft thought it would be more appropriate to comment herself, as a supervisor, said Michael Hoad, vice president of communications.
Dragna could not be reached for comment, and several staffers in Student Affairs refused to comment on the work environment in the division.