‘Climate’ control

Nearly five months after an investigator uncovered numerous reports of bullying in Student Affairs and questioned whether division Vice President Jennifer Meningall could handle her job without additional management training, USF has implemented one of the investigator’s five recommendations for fixing a work environment then-described as a “climate of distrust and apprehension.”

University officials said, however, that USF doesn’t need to implement all of the recommendations. They said that policies for handling complaints are adequate, and carrying out some of the investigator’s recommendations would be a misuse of University money.

While Meningall said she could not specifically speak to employees’ view of the work environment in Student Affairs, she said there isn’t a negative atmosphere.

“That’s not my experience,” she said.

The investigation and subsequent report, commissioned by the USF Diversity and Equal Opportunity Office (DEO) and released April 8, examined claims that Meningall made derogatory comments about male employees and made racially and sexually biased hiring decisions.

Eduardo Suarez-Solar, Tampa-based labor lawyer and report investigator, concluded that Meningall didn’t violate USF’s diversity policy or discriminate against employees, but wrote that she needed training and guidance to properly oversee the division, which controls University offices such as Student Health Services and Housing and Residential Education.

“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,” he wrote.

Suarez-Solar also pointed out in the report that a “climate of distrust and apprehension” pervades Student Affairs, as many employees seemed afraid to speak frankly of Meningall or of their work environment during the investigation for fear of losing their jobs. More than half of the people interviewed, he said, appeared physically nervous during the investigation.

Suarez-Solar also wrote that Meningall’s co-workers “used terms such as ‘bullying,’ ‘attacking’ and ‘intimidated'” when discussing her response to ideas that opposed hers. Meningall, he said, explained her aggressiveness to employees by saying things like “I’m a New Yorker,” and “I’m from the Bronx.” He reported that more than half of the interviewees said she was “overwhelmed” in her position, contributing to the perception of abusiveness.

Suarez-Solar recommended that USF hire an “executive coach” to help Meningall develop professionally and that she participate in off-campus leadership programs. He also recommended that USF hire a designated ombudsman to handle complaints within Student Affairs, create a panel to address the negative climate in the division and create a system to gauge whether Student Affairs is successful.

So far, USF has done one of those things: It sent Meningall to off-campus leadership programs, including a $1,542.95 trip to Tiburon, Calif. — near San Francisco — for a national student-affairs conference this summer. Meningall has also participated in the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s “Leadership Tampa” program, in which she had enrolled before complaints about the division surfaced last fall.

USF spokesman Michael Hoad said USF doesn’t need to hire a special ombudsman for Student Affairs because there’s already an ombudsman for students. Complaints, he said, can also be handled by USF’s in-house whistleblower program, the EthicsPoint anonymous-tip Web site and hotline.

“We think that there’s already a process,” Hoad said.

He said USF doesn’t see how a panel can address the work environment in Student Affairs.

The division had already hired a consultant to measure its effectiveness, he said.

“For us to go and spend money on a personal coach, it just doesn’t make sense,” he said, later saying the same thing about the panel and the measuring system. “That isn’t the approach that USF is taking.”

Instead, Hoad said, President Judy Genshaft, Meningall’s boss, will hold Student Affairs accountable by making sure the division acts according to USF’s strategic plan.

“We’ve been meeting on a regular basis, as I meet with all my vice presidents,” said Genshaft, who told the Oracle in April that she would work one-on-one with Meningall on “style.”

Genshaft is also optimistic that the atmosphere has improved with the opening of the Marshall Student Center.

“There’s a whole new energy going on right now that’s positive for everybody,” she said.

Meningall said she is “always open to anything to help improve” Student Affairs.

“I’m not necessarily in agreement that I need work on management style,” she said, describing the meetings with Genshaft as routine “supervisory discussions” rather than talks of techniques spurred by the DEO report. “(These meetings are) an ongoing thing that’s always happened.”

Investigations of Meningall and the division’s work environment 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 accused Meningall of engaging in potentially illegal and unethical activity. An audit of Student Affairs found that Meningall did not manage money illegally.

Dragna is now suing USF for discrimination, claiming that Meningall fired him  because of his race. Meningall and USF have denied the accusations.