Howard University has fired a male attorney who filed a sex discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and has tightened controls over its student newspaper after it gave front-page coverage to the case.
The attorney, Michael Harris, said he received a dismissal notice Monday from university President James Cheek, charging that since he filed his complaint Nov. 1 he had "become involved in activities . . . at odds with the university's objectives."
The newspaper, The Hilltop, was notified by administrators Monday that its editor would have to submit "potentially defamatory material" for review by Williams and Connolly, a law firm hired by the university administration. The notice, which contains a policy adopted Jan. 22 by the Howard trustees, also authorizes a university vice president to stop publication of materials the lawyers think might be libelous.
In addition, the trustees have decided to hire a technical adviser to train student editors and provide a critique of each issue to the paper's policy-making board.
The ousted attorney, Michael Harris, charged in his EEOC complaint that Howard's general counsel, Dorsey Lane, gave favored treatment to women in pay and promotion opportunities. The complaint said Lane has a "personal and special relationship" with a former secretary, Brenda D. Williams, who was promoted to be Lane's special assistant at $2,000 more a year than Harris is paid.
Harris also contended that a female attorney, Diane Wyatt, was unfairly promoted to assistant general counsel, a post for which he was not allowed to compete.
Neither Lane, Williams, nor Wyatt could be reached for comment on Harris' charges.
A secretary said Cheek was not available, and referred a reporter's telephone call to Alan Hermesch, a Howard spokesman who said the university "does not comment on personnel matters."
Yesterday Harris, 33, who has worked for Howard's general counsel office since 1977, said he thought he was fired "in retaliation" for his EEOC complaint.
"I don't understand what activities president Cheek could be referring to other than filing the complaint," Harris said in an interview. He said the firing "took me by surprise. I was under the impression we were in the process of negotiating a settlement."
In the dismissal letter, given to reporters by Harris, Cheek said Harris had "exposed your client Howard University to possible harm and injury" instead of "representing and protecting its best interests."
Meanwhile, the trustees' action to tighten controls over the student paper drew criticism from Janice McKnight, a senior from Northeast Washington who is editor of The Hilltop. She said the new policy "infringes on the rights of students to freedom of speech.
"We're supposed to be a student paper," she said, "not a university administration organ."
In a statement distributed by the university press office, the Howard trustees said they had a "longstanding commitment . . . to the freedom and responsibility of the student press." But they said the new rules were needed to "protect . . . the university from lawsuits arising out of materials published in the newspaper."
Hermesch said the rules were prompted by The Hilltop's coverage of the Harris case. After the first story last fall, McKnight said President Cheek asked her not to print anything more on the case, but the paper has continued to give it prominent coverage.