The happenings from the top of the hill at Howard University are, as they say, getting curiouser and curiouser. The latest strange revelation was contained in a finding by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that there was reasonable cause to believe Howard took improper retaliatory action in firing attorney Michael A. Harris after he filed a widely publicized sex discrimination complaint.
In a sworn deposition, Harris said Howard University President James Cheek, in a meeting with him on Nov. 10, told him "he was preparing to transfer and upgrade my position and that he had wanted to get me out of the office for my own personal safety . . . .
"He said that he and Mr. Lane just-retired general counsel Dorsey E. Lane had registered their guns together, he had a lot of guns, but Mr. Lane had an arsenal, and that he didn't want Mr. Lane to have a fit of passion, an irresistible impulse to shoot me," Harris' deposition continued.
Neither Cheek nor Lane could be reached for comment by a reporter and the university chose not to respond except to say through a spokesman that Howard had a policy "not to comment on anything in litigation."
If the incident were taken in isolation, one could simply ask why would the president and the general counsel of the most important black university in the world be talking about guns and arsenals when an employe is attempting to bring to his attention a matter that he deems serious and potentially injurious to the university?
But more serious questions must be asked when that incident is added to so many other unusual events. To wit:
Four verdicts have gone against Howard since 1981 in cases brought by faculty members and other employes. The judgments, two of which are under appeal, now total $796,000. In addition, the university has reached out-of-court settlements totaling more than $250,000 with eight other employes, for a total of more than 1 million dollars. Complaints included breach of contract and discrimination against whites, Africans, black women and black men.
In two discrimination cases brought by whites, the university contended that as a predominantly black university it had the right to give preference to blacks in hirings and promotions. The notion of asking a federal judge to overturn a verdict on the grounds that Howard has the legal right to discriminate against anyone who is not black reversed a philosophy that Howard had extolled for more than a century.
This week, Wiley A. Branton, dean of the law school, announced his resignation and disclosed some disagreements he had had with the university. "I don't think a black school has any more right to discriminate in favor of black people than other schools have to discriminate in favor of whites. . . . With the historic role of Howard law school in civil rights, you might think we would have been consulted by university attorneys but we had nothing to do with that argument at all," he said.
Branton said he also disagreed with the decision of Howard administrators to expel Janice McKnight, editor of the student newspaper The Hilltop, a move that came amidst prominent coverage of the Harris case and sparked student unrest for several months.
Just last week, Michael R. Winston, the university's new vice president for academic affairs, said a white faculty member the school was found to have fired wrongfully would be rehired and would be paid $125,000 plus legal fees.
Calling the university lawyers' earlier argument about discrimination in favor of blacks "an aberration," he added: "For more than 100 years we have been a successful multiracial enterprise, even in times of great racial stress. That is our heritage."
But this noted scholar, just two months in his new job as replacement for Dr. Lorraine Williams, cannot so easily wipe the slate clean. President Cheek, who has the ultimate responsibility for the administration of the school, has remained publicly silent except to have denounced the student protests as "a lot of rhetoric."
Dr. Cheek has an obligation to speak out, to say what his personnel policies are and why. Why so many court suits in the first place? Were the reported statements about guns calculated to intimidate? If not, what were they about? What, pray tell, Dr. Cheek, is going on up on Howard's Hill?