Louisiana Senate sexual harassment hearing transformed by riveting personal testimony

Photo: Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images


On Friday, the Louisiana Senate Select Committee on Women and Children held a hearing on state sexual harassment policy that was transformed from a staid recitation of policies and procedures to a dramatic first-person testimony from four victims, all of whom are state employees.

The committee chaired by Baton Rouge state Sen. Regina Barrow began with technical testimony from members of the Senate and House staffs about the history and evolution of sexual harassment policies in the two chambers. The tone shifted when three University of Louisiana at Lafayette College of Business professors began a coordinated testimony.

Harassment at the University of Louisiana

University of Louisiana at Lafayette College of Business professors (from left) Lucy Henke, Lise Anne Slatten and Patricia Lanier testifying about the hostile work environment they claim they face at the university.

The three testifying professors — Lise Anne Slatten, Patricia Lanier, and Lucy Henke — are three of four female professors in the college who have filed discrimination complaints against the university over gender harassment. The fourth professor, Gwen Fontenot, is on sabbatical and did not attend the hearing.

Slatten, who is the interim associate dean for academic programs in the college, said their complaints are centered on “gender-based harassment and discrimination and a hostile work environment.”

Lanier, who is on the marketing department faculty, said she had been physically confronted by a male colleague in March 2017 that “was the peak of months of ongoing harassing, bullying and intimidation tactics . . .that were intentionally designed to control and coerce me.” Lanier did not provide details of the encounter in her testimony, although the professors provided committee members documents dealing with their Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints that were filed in June 2017.

Lanier told the committee the confrontation changed her life.

“I wish you’d have known me a year ago,” Lanier said. “I was happy and enjoyed life. Now, I’m afraid to go to work, to use an elevator in our building. Afraid to walk to and from my car. Afraid in my house and afraid to go out in my community.”

“We are being sexually harassed but it is not based on sex,” she added. “This is a more subtle, sometime silent, ongoing, pervasive and systemic harassment that is equally psychologically and physically damaging. It’s hard to convince people you’re being attacked when there are no bruises.”

Lanier said the resulting stress has had physical manifestations ranging from migraines to high blood pressure and teeth grinding.

Henke, who teaches in the Department of Marketing and Hospitality, said each of the four women professors “followed the system in place” for reporting.

“When it became clear that the university would take no protective action, we sought the assistance of the UL Police Department,” she said.

Henke added that the campus police brought information to the 15 Judicial District Attorney’s office, but no action was taken there. The ULPD attempted to conduct a risk assessment of Moody Hall, home of the College of Business, “but the university denied the initial request and did not agree until months later, after more incidents occurred.”

The professors’ next step, Henke said, was to retain a lawyer and seek mediation with university President Joseph Savoie.

“Despite repeated requests for mediation, President Savoie through his counsel Steve Oats, dodged, stonewalled, and failed to offer good faith mediation regarding the specific issues between the university and us, insisting that the problem is between us and male faculty members,” Henke told the committee. “The current system is failing to protect female faculty members, staff members and students at Louisiana institutions of higher education — and that is shameful and leaves us all in a hostile working and learning environment at risk of further harassment.”

Slatten said that before filing their EEOC complaint, the group made a series of recommendations to Savoie for how fix the problems which appear to permeate the university’s human resource system.

Slatten described the changes:“Revision of the sexual harassment/hostile work environment policy, to define processes and outcomes for violations, creation of an academic mobbing or workplace bullying policy with clear guidelines, processes, and consequences that override tenure protection — that is a major part of this problem.”

“We have not heard a single word from the administration on these recommendations or request,” Slatten told the committee. “Nothing has been done,” Slatten told the committee.

Slatten then discussed research findings on settings where sexual harassment and gender discrimination thrive.

“Organizations that are particularly prone to sexual harassment are male dominated, super hierarchical, and forgiving when it comes to bad behavior,” Slatten said. “In our case, we say ‘check,’ ‘check,’ and ‘check.’”

Slatten laid the persistence of the problem at the feet of  Savoie.

“Strong policies — and I’m talking about policies that have real teeth in them — and training are essential,” Slatten said. “But, it ultimately comes down to whether the leadership of an organization takes these issues seriously or not. In our situation, we have not been taken seriously.”

The legislators were stunned by the 15 minutes of testimony from the professors. Committee Chair Barrow said the Board of Regents, which sets policy for all of higher education in Louisiana, should get involved in the matter. Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell) said she had already contacted Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo about the situation at UL Lafayette. Rep. Denise Marcelle (D-Baton Rouge) said she wanted the matter resolved before the opening of the Legislative session on March 13.

“If, when you get back to campus and anyone talks to you about your testimony, that could be considered a form of retaliation,” Rep. Patricia Smith (D-Baton Rouge) told the professors.

Sexual misconduct in the State Legislature

Chip Coulter describes the sexual harassment he endured while working in the Louisiana Legislature in the 1980s.

But, as jarring as the testimony of the professors was, it did not prepare the legislators or the audience for the testimony of a state bureaucrat who was attending the meeting as part of his work for the Department of Children and Family Services.

Chip Coulter is legislative liaison for the department. He attended the committee meeting to testify on an earlier agenda item (the impact of natural disasters on Louisiana women and children) but had stuck around to hear the sexual harassment testimony. He ended up giving powerful affirmation to those who believe that the testimony of people affected by harassment can embolden others to speak about their personal experiences.

At the conclusion of the other testimony on the issue, Coulter asked to be allowed to testify. Barrow allowed him to take a seat at the witness table in the room. In halting terms, Coulter detailed that he had worked in and around state government since the 1980s when he worked as an aide for the late Rep. John Hainkel who was Speaker of the House at that time.

“One day I stepped into a restroom off the House floor and a legislator who I will not name came in and exposed himself to me and gave me a rather vulgar proposition,” Coulter said. “My initial reaction was to take a swing at him, but I liked working there so I thought better of it. So, I didn’t say anything but just got out of there.”

Coulter said the incident didn’t have any lasting impact on him, but hearing his friend Legislative Analyst Patricia Lowery of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee speak about the power of victim testimony empowering other victims, he decided he had to tell the committee his story.

“When Patricia Lowery said that ‘if someone speaks out it could prevent a future victim,’ I felt I had to tell my story,” Coulter told the room. “So, I realize that had I spoken out at that time, it might have prevented a future victim. I don’t know if he [the legislator] did that to anyone else. I hope not. I share this with you in part out of guilt. I didn’t cover my bases, like the professors did.”

Coulter said he hoped his testimony added context to the discussion of sexual harassment. “The idea that sexual harassment involves a male harasser of female is not always the case. It can also be male on male, female on male or female on female.”

The sexual harassment discussion in state government developed in November after an adviser to Gov. John Bel Edwards resigned after being named in a sexual harassment complaint. An investigation by the Baton Rouge Advocate revealed that the state did not have a uniform sexual harassment policy.

That prompted Hewitt to request that the Louisiana Legislative Auditor conduct a review of sexual harassment policies in all executive brach departments and agencies. Edwards then appointed a task force to develop a state government-wide sexual harassment policy that could be implemented in the departments and agencies that he controls.

The Advocate reported that state government has paid $1.3 million to settle sexual harassment claims over the past decade. The paper published a list of the claims and the people who were the targets of the complaints. It also found that the Division of Administration, which runs the executive branch of state government, said the list provided “was a partial response” to the paper’s public records request. The claims included three that were paid in 2017.

Both the Legislative Auditor’s report and the recommendation by the governor’s task force are due before the start of the legislative session in March.