Dean's Kiss Leads to Hostile Work Environment: Webster Prof

"A kiss may ruin a human life" -- Oscar Wilde.

In February 2009, Tracey McCarthy, a tenured professor for Webster University with a joint appointment with the psychology and legal studies departments, attended a "professional social" gathering, where she happened upon David Wilson, dean of the university's College of Arts and Sciences.

McCarthy, who is African-American, had been employed by the university since 1997. When Wilson saw McCarthy, he greeted her with a kiss -- presumably a "hello, how are you, good to see you" peck to the cheek.

But in a nine-page discrimination lawsuit filed against Webster, McCarthy contends the dean's gesture was an unwelcome harbinger for what eventually became a hostile work environment. She says she complained to both Wilson and the administration, but no action was ever taken.

McCarthy is one of just two African-American professors to have tenure at Webster, out of 180 positions, according to the complaint. She is suing the St. Louis based university on four counts, including race, sex and disability discrimination. She is asking for $25,000 in losses and damages for each count, on top of attorney fees, claiming that Webster allowed, fostered and maintained a racially discriminatory climate.

A month after the kiss in question, McCarthy's lawsuit says she was called into a review meeting with David Conway-Long, then the chair of the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences, according to the complaint. McCarthy alleges the meeting was motivated in part by her race.

Dean Wilson, Conway-Long and a Webster University spokesperson all declined comment. Through her attorney, McCarthy declined comment as well.

By November of that year, McCarthy claims she was excluded from a faculty meeting and stripped her of all non-instructional duties, including committee work, search processes and other faculty governance involvement.

According to the complaint, McCarthy was told that such actions needed to be taken to "cool down departmental tensions." But, she notes, none of the white faculty was given such a directive -- and it only served to heat things up; McCarthy's suit says she was "excluded" from a faculty meeting and detained by security, presumably when she insisted on attending.

About a week after being detained, McCarthy filed a charge of race and sex discrimination against Webster with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights and the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission. Throughout the next year, she says she continued filing discriminatory complaints with Conway-Long, her supervisor.

On August 20, 2010, McCarthy was terminated from her joint appointment with the psychology department and reassigned as associate professor of legal studies. She is currently on sabbatical.

Read a copy of the complaint here. (On lines 32 and 53 "2008" is meant to be "2009," according to McCarthy's attorney.)

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