Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Noose and photo create ‘hostile work environment’ at FAU


William Ehrhardt decided he needed to show his staff members at the FAU parking enforcement office something from his past police days to get them motivated.

He chose a photo showing him in police riot gear, working at a 1991 Ku Klux Klan rally in Boca Raton.

The KKK picture, coupled with a hangman's noose displayed in his office, created a "hostile work environment," a university investigation has found.

Ehrhardt was formally reprimanded soon after by his supervisor, FAU Chief of Police Charles Lowe. But the woman who filed the complaint that led to the probe maintained she still was subjected to antagonistic treatment at work after she expressed her discomfort.

Other workers in his office have said Ehrhardt made a point of showing them the picture, and that he said the noose was there "just in case." They also have heard him complain about hearing workers at a Publix supermarket converse in Spanish.

In the investigation's interview, Ehrhardt, who has been the office supervisor for three years, denies intending any offense by showing the KKK picture and the noose, which his attorney argued was actually a truck hitch.

Ehrhardt declined to comment for this story.

The university denied his appeal of the reprimand in February, and he's been ordered to attend cultural sensitivity training.

The birth of a problem

The case has its origins in a complaint filed to FAU’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs on Nov. 5, 2010, by Sandy Torres, a police service technician whose job includes issuing parking tickets and monitoring university traffic on a golf cart.

Torres said in her complaint that Ehrhardt called her into the office in October and showed her the KKK picture.

"As he handed me the picture, he said the following words: 'Look, I marched with the Klan,' " Torres said, according to the complaint. "I felt sick to my stomach from such prideful comment."

The picture, taken by a Sun Sentinel photographer during a 1991 KKK rally in Boca Raton, shows Ehrhardt wearing a riot gear helmet, displaying a baton in his hand and escorting members of the Fraternal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Ku Klux Klan is an organization created in the late 1860s that sought violent means to advocate for white supremacy.

Torres declined to comment for this story.

In her complaint, Torres said she found the photo offensive because she is a Latina, and because Ehrhardt's remark suggested that he agreed with the Klan's racist beliefs. Torres also mentioned several occasions on which she felt she was being singled out because of her ethnic background and gender.

She added that Ehrhardt was ignoring her.

"I will still say good morning, but I will not receive a response," Torres said in the complaint. "This has made me feel less than equal to my male counter parts."

FAU's Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, which investigates cases of discrimination in the workplace, found in its investigation that at least three employees in the office of Parking and Transportation have seen either the photo or the noose.

A white female employee said she had noticed the picture on Ehrhardt's desk and the noose hanging from a corkboard in plain sight of anyone coming into his office.

When she asked him why he had a noose hanging in his office, he replied, "just in case." She said she wondered why he would have these items and what purpose he wanted them to serve.

She added that Ehrhardt once told her that while in a Publix supermarket, he complained to management when he overheard the store's employees speaking in Spanish to each other.

Another employee said she was passing by Ehrhardt's office when he called her over and told her he had something he wanted to show her. Before showing anything, she stated that he said, "I walked with the Klan," and then proceeded to show the picture.

A third employee said he saw the picture, but was not offended because he didn't understand the potential connotation. He also said he heard his boss say "damn Hispanics!" after breaking up an altercation.

During his investigation interview, Ehrhardt denied most of the allegations against him.

A former Boca Raton police officer who served on the force for 23 years, Ehrhardt said he didn't find anything wrong with the picture — that he meant it as a way to "motivate them." He denied ever saying that he "walked" or "marched" with the Klan.

When asked about the purpose of having a noose in his office, he simulated tying a rope around his neck and pulling up his hand indicating his own hanging, according to the investigative report. He said there were days at work when he felt he could hang himself.

The 59-year-old also said he didn't see anything wrong or offensive with the hangman's noose -- something that some say has a negative connotation because it reminds them of the lynching of African Americans in the post-Civil War South.

Ehrhardt denies the Publix incident ever happened. However, he said he knew it was against Publix's policy for employees to speak a language other than English in the workplace.

The Office of Equal Opportunity Programs said in its report that it found no evidence showing that Torres was discriminated against based on her national origin or gender. But the investigator did find evidence showing that University Regulation 5.010, which prohibits discrimination and harassment, had been violated.

"The display of a hangman's noose coupled with a picture of him walking with the Klan … created the atmosphere of a hostile work environment," said the report, dated Jan. 4.

Resistance and decline

Ed Rowe, associate director of Equal Opportunity Programs, conducts the investigations. According to Kristine Gobbo, FAU assistant vice president of media relations, after a determination by the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, the situation is referred to Human Resources.

A Human Resources representative then meets with the employee's supervisor to determine if disciplinary action is appropriate and what type or level of action should be taken.

Gobbo said the actions taken depend on several variables.

Some of these, she said, include whether the employee knew or should have known that the behavior is not acceptable; whether the proposed discipline is consistent with past treatment of employees who have committed similar offenses; whether the severity of the proposed discipline is reasonably related to the seriousness of the offense; and how it relates to the employee's past record of work performance, conduct and discipline.

Gobbo also said that although Human Resources works with the supervisor of the employee's department to determine the appropriate discipline for the specific situation, the supervisor makes the final decision about discipline.

In this case, Ehrhardt's supervisor is FAU Chief of Police Charles Lowe because the Police Department directly oversees Parking and Transportation -- the office responsible for issuing parking citations, car decals and providing the on-campus shuttle service.

On Jan. 24, Lowe issued a letter of reprimand to Ehrhardt.

"The display of a noose in your office was insensitive and inappropriate," Lowe wrote. "Your actions were perceived in a negative manner."

Lowe also wrote that he believes display of the picture was not inappropriate, but the context in which it was presented could lead to it being interpreted in the wrong way. Lowe ordered Ehrhardt to attend training in cultural sensitivity.

University records do not indicate whether he completed that training.

Lowe declined to comment for this story.

On Feb. 14, Ehrhardt's attorney, George Tucker, wrote asking the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs via letter to have the reprimand removed from his client's personnel file because it was "too severe under all the facts and circumstances of this case."

The letter argued that the report fails to recite the specific paragraph of Regulation 5.010 that was violated by the display of the photograph.

"[The] finding that the photograph, in and of itself, is discriminatory and/or harassing [is] blatantly incorrect," Tucker wrote.

Regarding the noose, Tucker called it a rope knot and said Ehrhardt used it in his job.

"He used the knot in his official university duties in an attempt to complete a taut line hitch to secure cones in the bed of his University pick-up truck," Tucker wrote.

He added that the report omitted this information, leaving the incorrect impression that the rope knot in question had only one use — that of a hangman’s noose.

The letter reached the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs on Feb. 16.

In an undated letter, Paula Behul, director of Equal Opportunity Programs, told Ehrhardt that his appeal was denied because there were no grounds to it.

"[During the investigation] Mr. Ehrhardt never advised the investigator that the noose was used to perform his duties at the University," Behul wrote.

"Regardless, Mr. Ehrhardt admitted he should not have displayed the rope as he did."

Both the picture and the noose, which were in his office during the summer, were removed after the discrimination complaint.

Bad omen

Public records suggest William Ehrhardt may have had trouble relating to other employees.

According to Sandy Torres' discrimination complaint, Ehrhardt asked her at one point if she and other employees had a "collective and cooperative personal agenda against him."

"I responded I could not answer for any of my peers but for myself," Torres said in her discrimination complaint.

Ehrhardt made a similar comment on a 2006-07 performance report written by Roody Prato, his supervisor at the time.

"William's overall demeanor has had a negative impact on the synergy of the department," Prato said in his report. "I have observed on several occasions that William walks by an employee or enters the Police Service Technician Office without saying a word to anyone or his supervisor."

At the time, Ehrhardt worked as a police service technician.

In his latest performance appraisal from 2010, his current direct supervisor, Assistant Director of Parking and Transportation James Johnson, said that "[Ehrhardt's] interactions with his staff and co-workers demonstrate how much he genuinely cares about both his job and co-workers."

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dalai Lama tickets come at a high price


Weren’t lucky enough to win tickets to see the Dalai Lama speak Wednesday at Florida Atlantic University? Don't fret. You still have a chance to grab a seat to the sold-out event, but it’ll cost you a pretty penny.

More than 6,000 students and faculty members entered to win one of the 1,000 tickets raffled off for free. Another 3,000 tickets were released in mid-January for sale to the public, with prices ranging from $49 to $75. They sold out within a matter of a few weeks.

With all the seats gobbled up, it became time for the scalpers to take over. Tickets to the event are being offered at premium prices on eBay and Craigslist. A pair of tickets appears on eBay, with 21 bids pushing the price to $355.00. And the bidding continues. Craigslist has individual tickets ranging from $75 to $300.

If you aren’t looking to spend a small fortune to hear His Holiness speak, there are other options for getting a piece of the peace talk.

Some 2,000 students will watch the Dalai Lama on a simulcast at the Student Union Center on the Boca Raton campus.

The Dalai Lama is set to speak on Wednesday at 10 a.m., with a speech entitled, “Compassion as a Pillar of World Peace.”

Some students and faculty say, though, that the practice of scalping tickets for a speech that's supposed to be centered on compassion and spirituality is inappropriate, to use the mildest of the descriptions.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Former FAU student pursues her love of music on the West Coast


SANTA MONICA, Calif. – It's open mic night at Unurban, an eclectic neighborhood cafĂ© here. Inside, former Florida Atlantic University student Alexx Calise is setting up onstage to perform as the featured artist.

Students sit on missmatched chairs and couches, their faces hidden behind laptops and books. Other regulars sip on chai lattes, an Unurban specialty, while appreciating the watercolor painted walls and stained glass windows that embellish the place.

Calise, 24, is unapologetic as she beats the first note out of her acoustic guitar. Her long black hair flings in the air unveiling piercing brown eyes and a fierce expression. The students sit upright and take notice. As she sings the first verse, more people gather around the small stage.

“Alexx is an amazing talent,” said James Mueller, an independent drummer working in the Los Angeles area. “She is one of the most innovative singers and songwriters of our time. She really has her own unique sound.”

Calise’s sound has been described by one of her peers as “hard rock and grunge meets urban-edged pop translated in angsty lyrics with an instantly identifiable vocal that is hauntingly beautiful and completely raw all at once.”

Calise’s journey as an aspiring singer and songwriter began early in her teens in her Fort Lauderdale home.

“I was a real shy kid growing up,” said the Staten Island native. “I would get lost in my notebook. Writing came first to me.”

Calise’s father, also a musician, was her first musical inspiration.

“I’d sit and watch him play the guitar for hours,” Calise said. “And I would practice and practice playing and singing because I wanted to be just like him.”

During her years at Deerfield Beach High School, Calise entered every singing contest and gave locals a taste of her developing skills in singing, music and lyric writing.

“Creating music was a way of facilitating my writings at first, a way to bring them to life,” she said.

Her transition from senior year at Deerfield High to first year at FAU was marked by a position as entertainment columnist for South Florida Sun Sentinel’s teen columns “Time Out,” “Next Generation” and “Teen Time.”

“One of my teachers referred me to John Dolen at Sun Sentinel,” said Calise, referring to the newspaper’s former arts and features editor. “I collaborated with him and got to blurb about local music events. I had a lot of fun doing it.”

Calise juggled her position at Sun Sentinel and earning credits towards a degree in multimedia journalism and commercial music until she left the newspaper in 2006.

“I played a lot of gigs at night and on weekends, anytime I didn’t have class,” Calise said. “FAU was flexible with my schedule, and I started taking online classes that allowed me to travel back and forth from L.A. to Florida while recording my first studio album.

In 2007, the aspiring singer was featured in both the Sun Sentinel and its affiliated paper, New Times, for her high profile shows at Hard Rock in Fort Lauderdale and her first CD release party.

Well into her third year at FAU, Calise reached the limit of online classes available for the completion of her degree and was forced to withdraw for the sake of pursuing her dream.

“I had made my decision,” she said. “I had a potential record deal and it drove me to finally make the move. So I flew into LA and slept on my producer’s couch, for six months.”

After arriving at Los Angeles International (LAX) and adding an extra “x” to her first name, Calise’s saw her career make a dramatic climb. She is currently endorsed by over 13 music gear and clothing manufacturers. Music from her 2007 critically acclaimed debut album, Morning Pill, is being played all over the world on TV networks such as VH1 and MTV and on thousands of charting radio stations.

Her last single, “Out of Sight” has been in regular rotation on Boston’s "No. 1-hit station," WXKS-108 FM. Calise also has recorded vocal tracks for many mainstream commercials and independent movies.

“I still write on a larger scale,” said Calise referring to her writing job as advice columnist for the L2P Network and GHS Guitar Strings E-Newsletter. “And I’m also a workout fanatic and I’m always reading.”

Currently, Calise is touring, writing and recording the follow up to her 2007 debut album and Sound of Cancer, her new music endeavor with accomplished drummer and songwriter, Dennis Morehouse. She’s also preparing to tour for the U.S. Armed Forces.

“I’m a busy girl,” Calise said with a smile. “But I don’t do it because of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. “I do it every minute of the day because I love it.”

She added: “I want to be a positive influence on kids and women. I want to be that hero kids need these days, and I want to show young girls that they can be who they are and be beautiful."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

FAU Parking Sparks Outrage, Possible Protests

By: Nina G. Wills

Contributions by: Gal Kal

Florida Atlantic University (FAU) students seem to have one major complaint this semester: parking.

“The parking situation at FAU Boca campus is atrocious. The University is simply irresponsible for blocking off multiple parking lot sections when there is a huge increase in student population,” Scott Ezra Nettboy, a senior in biology, said.

During the first weeks of classes, students were circling parking lots trying to find a space. Some resorted to parking in the grass, which at the time was not allowed and resulted in the student receiving a ticket.

Due to the shortage of parking spaces and the closing of Lot 23 by the Indian River building, FAU’s Division of Parking and Transportation Services were prompted to create new parking guidelines that permit students to park on the grass in designated areas. Students were informed of these new rules via e-mail on Sept. 4.

Some students, though, are taking action to express their outrage over the parking issue. A parking protest is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 24 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in front of the Baldwin House, home of the FAU president.

Jake Ades, a 23 year old business major, is spear heading the protest. He used the social networking site Facebook to start a group criticizing the parking situation.

“I invited a few friends. Next thing you know hundreds of people are signed up. The people have spoken,” Ades said.

Facebook has become complaint central for FAU students’ frustration with parking at the Boca campus. The phenomenon of using Facebook as a venting outlet is nothing new. Since early 2007, students created Facebook groups such as “FAU needs more parking” and “FAU new parking rules BLOW.” The latest groups are “FAU Parking Protest” created by Jake Ades and “FAU Parking Solution” created by Neil Parsont.

The “FAU Parking Solution” group has designed t-shirts that list the top ten reasons why students are late to class. The reason “FAU parking” is listed in each spot. T-shirts can be purchased for $10 and organizers are asking that FAU students wear them on Oct. 13. The group’s goal is to raise $20,000 and $30,000 “to assist in the FAU parking problem.”

Other FAU students have said that the parking problem has been overblown and is not a real issue.

“GET OVER IT! It is not that big of a deal to park farther out and walk your lazy butts to class!” commented LyTysha on the “FAU’s Parking Protest” Facebook page.

“We are allowed to park in the grass, and they shuttle you to campus if you’re parked far away. I don’t see the big issue,” John Broward Atwater, a senior in secondary education, said.

Still, Jake Ades believes there is just one solution: “The simple answer: lay some asphalt.”

Saturday, April 18, 2009

State 'Brain Drain' Hurts FAU

By: Stephanie Delcorio

Florida universities have been experiencing a ‘brain drain’, with faculty members leaving the state university system at three times the rate in 2008 compared with 2007, according to a United Faculty of Florida (UFF) newsletter.

Over the past few years, a growing number of professors have left Florida’s public universities for states offering higher salaries and better resources. Florida Atlantic University has approximately 25 faculty members leave each year for various reasons. In 2008, the Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s university system, approved $65 million to retain faculty and staff for the 2009-2010 budget year.

According to Board of Governors documents, Florida ranks last nationally in tenured and tenure track faculty, falling 45 percent since 1989-90.

“Professors aren’t ‘making it rain’,” former FAU professor Robert Watson said. Watson received his Ph.D. in political science from FAU. After teaching at several other universities, Watson returned to FAU in 2001 as an associate professor.

Watson was denied promotion and tenure (P&T) in 2005-06 and 2006-07.

“It was humiliating and unbelievable that someone of my record and service was not flying through the process with widespread support,” Watson said.

Watson won the distinguished teacher of the year award and the faculty service award twice. According the university’s Student Perception of Teaching (SPOT) reports in spring 2007, 67.8 percent of students said Watson was one of the most effective professors they have had.

Watson left FAU in 2007 for a teaching position at Lynn University, a private Florida university.

Diane Alperin, associate provost of personnel and programs, said she could not comment on specific personnel situations. However, she said all associate professors are hired on a pre-tenured track. After three years of employment, professors submit a portfolio for review by department chair, college committee, college dean, provost and finally a university committee. The committee is made up of representatives from each of the colleges, who make a recommendation to the president of FAU. If the recommendation is negative, professors have an opportunity to explain and refute the recommendation.

FAU salaries on average are 10 percent behind peer institutions, even though each group is funded in the same way by the state government. This has direct effects on the quality of education, leading to large classes and high faculty turnover, which itself is costly and unnecessary, according to a UFF presentation at the impasse hearing on February 24.

“The amount of bureaucracy at the University has increased without any real benefit to students. The legal staff, the marketing and communications staff all adds to cost. I often feel that instead of actually providing a quality education, we are trying to sell people on the idea that we are providing a quality education,” said Sharmila Vishwarsrao, associate professor of economics and chief negotiator for the UFF bargaining team.

“We have offered raises in the context of the economic times, a one percent raise and $1,000 stipend,” Alperin said. “Would we love to do more? Yes, because we don’t want to lose the good faculty.”

University of Florida, Florida State University and The University of South Florida have all noticed an exodus of professors from the state, according to the Board of Governors.

“Academia is a small world,” Watson said. “And Florida has a bad reputation for education.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Iguanas Take Over Florida Atlantic University Campus

By: John Hallihan

Watch out burrowing owls, wild iguanas are rapidly becoming the most recognizable and widespread wild life on Florida Atlantic University’s Boca Raton campus.

Students and faculty at FAU have been observing the iguana population’s increase for some time now. Most students are unaccustomed to seeing the large numbers of iguanas and some, driven by this fascination, take souvenir photos of the creatures using camera phones.

“They’re taking over,” said Victoria Hammond, an FAU sophomore, “They look like scary little dinosaurs.”

The invading iguanas can be found lounging in a variety of locations on the Boca Campus, but they have staked their main claim in and around the retention ponds surrounding the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing, the Dorothy F. Schmidt Visual Arts Building, and Parking Garage II. Some students said they have seen over 30 iguanas sunbathing at a given time or munching on the lawn.

So far FAU has no written policies in regard to the iguanas found on campus.

"These are wild animals," said Frank Woodward, hazardous materials maintenance manager in the environmental and safety department at FAU. “We have no more control over [the iguanas] than we do the raccoons that come on campus, or the snakes and insects or anything else out there in nature,” said Woodward.

Unlike FAU’s proud mascot, the burrowing owls, iguanas are not native to Florida.

“They are a result of the exotic pet trade that has become prevalent in South Florida,” said Kyla Makela, director of education at the SPCA Wildlife Care Center in Fort Lauderdale. After buying the trendy pet, people intentionally released the iguanas after they grow larger than the owner preferred or the iguanas accidentally escape into the wild.

Once in the wild, the iguanas adapt well to Florida’s subtropical climate and multiply. Since iguanas are not part Florida’s natural ecosystem there are no natural predators to control the increasing population, according to Makela.

As the iguana population rises at FAU, the animals have become increasingly larger in size as well.

“I’ve never seen an iguana that big before,” said Zoe Ramos, an FAU sophomore. “I’ve also seen them jump out of trees, which was something new,” Ramos said.

Though in the eyes of an onlooker, it appears the creature’s size and numbers are escalating, they remain intimidating yet welcome guests at FAU. “Some people don't much care for iguanas eating their flowers and leaving feces behind. Other people enjoy having the prehistoric looking lizards around,” said Jeanette Wyneken, Ph.D., Associate Professor of biological sciences at FAU.

Iguanas are not listed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a species of special concern (Florida Administrative Code [F.A.C.] 68A-27.005), like the burrowing owl is. However, they are protected by Florida anti-cruelty laws.

“It is a felony to harm an iguana in any way,” Makela said.

If FAU administrators are so inclined, the university could hire a trapper to remove and terminate the iguanas, providing the opportunity for new iguanas to claim their turf. Since these resident lizards pose no threat to students or faculty, and the university is suffering from the current recession, the iguana’s costly removal seems unnecessary and unlikely. It appears these docile reptiles will remain FAU’s second mascot.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Florida Atlantic University Faculty Say 1% Raise Is Not Enough

By: Stephanie Delcorio and Nina G. Wills

Florida Atlantic University faculty members are frustrated that an agreement could not be reached with the administration regarding salary increases.

After the recent round of negotiations, FAU’s administration declared an impasse forcing a special magistrate to be called in to conduct a special hearing on Feb. 24.

“Faculty are very frustrated. There doesn’t seem to be a long term plan by the FAU administration,” said Anita Pritchard, president of the FAU chapter of the United Faculty of Florida (UFF).

FAU faculty salaries have fallen below state and national averages, the faculty has not received raises in two years and the average cost of living has increased by over 10 percent, according to a UFF press release.

The faculty’s frustration escalated in September 2008 when the Board of Trustees unanimously approved a six-year contract extension for President Frank Brogan, which includes a 10 percent raise and will raise his base salary to $357,000 a year. The board has offered the in-unit faculty only a one percent raise and $1,000 stipend.

“Who would have imagined that my contract would expire during the worst economic period in the state? It’s tough, but we’re going to have to do whatever it takes. The faculty are the backbone of this university. Are they worth it? Every dime, they are fabulous,” Brogan said.

Brogan’s contract is funded through the FAU foundation, but faculty salaries are funded through the general operating budget, which has suffered almost $19 million in cuts since 2007. Increasing faculty salaries by 10 percent for one year would cost the university $ 9 million and is not viable due to today’s budgetary environment and constraints.

“For his accomplishments, I think President Brogan deserved his raise. I also think for their accomplishments, the faculty deserves a more significant raise than one percent,” said Eric Shaw, professor of marketing and president of the university faculty senate.

Some faculty believe Brogan should not accept the 10 percent raise.

“He should either turn down the raise to symbolize his solidarity with faculty and in appreciation of our loads and decreasing resources, or offer us substantial raises or at least offer raises to those of us able to prove we are also doing our jobs well,” said Meredith Mountford, associate professor of education.

Brogan has refused all raises except for one in 2006, which he donated to the FAU foundation. He has declined a $50,000 bonus and postponed his contract raise until March 2010.

“I am not going to take my salary adjustment until all staff and faculty are satisfied with their contracts. I’m not noble; it’s the right thing to do, Brogan said.