The Sidney McPhee Problem 

There are a number of mental images created from the sexual harassment controversy that Middle Tennessee State University president Sidney McPhee found himself in recently.

For our money, the winner had to be the "Hey Baby, Why Don't You Just Drop by My Office This Afternoon for Some Dancing" scene.

According to the complaint filed by McPhee's administrative assistant, the school president is said to have called said assistant to his office for some work. When she arrived, music was playing. She claimed he then tried to dance with her. There, opinions diverge. She contends that he touched her in the dancing effort. He acknowledged dancing with her but says there was no touching.

Something about the scene lives on in our minds: the president of the state's largest undergraduate institution, in his office with a female assistant, dancing away in the heat of the moment. It is both comical and disturbing. At a minimum, it's not what you expect from the leader of a huge public university.

A recent headline in The Tennessean offered this rhetorical question: "McPhee: Asset or liability for MTSU?" A fine enough question, if we might say so. On the one hand, if, when hearing his name, people think of progress in academics, fund-raising, alumni relations and all the other things that presidents are responsible for, then McPhee is an asset. Unfortunately, that's not what people generally think of when McPhee's name comes up.

In addition to his reputation as a dancer, he's also known for having spoken to this assistant of his "seven wood," and he wasn't referring to a club in his golf bag. He is known for his inappropriate groping and touching and for acknowledging that he created a hostile work environment for his poor assistant. He is known for having been suspended and fined by the Tennessee Board of Regents for his behavior, and for his apparent suicide attempt in the wake of the woman's allegations against him. He is known for instability, bad judgment and poor conduct.

This is a critical time for higher education in the state of Tennessee. Basically, it's at a low ebb. The University of Tennessee itself has seen the departures of two presidents since 2001. Wade Gilley left first because of a bizarre plot involving a female subordinate; John Shumaker left after using public planes to carry on a romance with a woman in Alabama and after being outed for a spending bonanza that rivaled a dot-com executive. Gov. Phil Bredesen has been taking stabs at trying to get a grip on the UT board and its administration. Money is tight; good news is virtually absent.

As we look at the picture, McPhee is basically another blemish in the mediocrity of it all. To keep him around is to suffer fools happily. Not getting rid of him as much as acknowledges that higher education here is the provenance of a sexual predator who lacks the mental and moral makeup to lead as he should. Like John Shumaker and Wade Gilley, no image will really ever attach to McPhee's name other than that of a raving bozo who was overcome by middle-aged stupidity.

If anyone wants to improve higher education here, they will have to improve the caliber of its leaders. Until someone takes care of Sidney McPhee, higher education in this state will continue to enjoy the reputation it so richly deserves. It will remain, basically, a sad joke.


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