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Anita Hill Returns to Teaching; Controversy Follows : Oklahoma: Supporters of the law professor who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment collected money to endow a chair in her name at the university. Foes are trying to block it through the Legislature; one demands that she be put in prison.

September 19, 1993|ELIZABETH HUDSON | SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POST

NORMAN, Okla. — Almost two years have passed since the stormy Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and Anita F. Hill is still evoking passion among the many supporters and detractors here in her home state.

The University of Oklahoma law professor, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment, returned to the classroom in August month after a one-year leave to study harassment in the workplace. Although she quietly tried to resume teaching, Hill is mired in another controversy.

At issue is the proposed Anita Faye Hill Professorship, an endowed chair designed to provide money for salaries, research and travel expenses to study rights of women in the workplace.

"It's sexism and racism," Junetta Davis, a retired OU journalism professor, said of efforts to derail the proposed chair. "This is the 75th endowment chair, but it's the first ever to be contested. There is no reason for this chair to be any different from the others."

A group of Minnesota women began raising money for the chair last year and collected $125,000, enough under Oklahoma law to qualify for matching funds from the State Board of Regents for Higher Education.

But the momentum stopped there. Despite what many people describe as a popular idea on campus and statewide, university officials are squirming under the spotlight aimed at them by opponents of Hill.

"This puts all of us in a pretty unusual position," said George Henderson, a professsor of human relations who has been at OU since 1967. "Usually we get up in the morning and read in the newspaper about these endowments being approved."

Henderson supports the Hill chair "in the interest of fairness," he said. "Prior to this, the issue has only been money. I object to people wanting to alter the criteria."

Opposition is led here by E.Z. Million, who is president of the Oklahoma Conservative Committee and collects signatures against Hill at his storefront office. And, 25 miles up Interstate 35 in Oklahoma City, state Rep. Leonard Sullivan, a Republican, said his goal is fairly simple: "All I want is to see Anita Hill in prison."

Hill also has support statewide. A candlelight service in her honor at a Norman Presbyterian church last February attracted several hundred participants. Million's attempt to generate a protest against her at graduation ceremonies in May attracted five people, and Hill supporters jammed the university regents' June 16 meeting at which the board approved the chair, 5 to 2.

The endowment still must be approved by the state regents, who may not consider it formally until late this year.

"This is a very small group of noisemakers," said state Rep. Laura Boyd, a Democrat whose Norman constituency includes Hill. But Boyd said the opposition is making headway.

That was apparent when David Swank, one of Hill's strongest supporters, resigned as dean of the law school June 30. Swank, who remains as a law professor, has made few public comments about stepping down. His departure was voluntary, Davis said, although many people have said they believe that university officials pressured him to quit.

Sullivan has taken his fight to the Oklahoma House floor, proposing to end the endowment system rather than create a professorship in Hill's name. He has filed a bill that would limit out-of-state fund-raising for endowed chairs.

"Ninety percent of the people in Oklahoma are against this thing," he said. Sullivan quotes the recent David Brock book, "The Real Anita Hill," with the zeal of a fundamentalist preacher quoting the Bible. In 1991, he was in Dallas for the annual Texas-Oklahoma football game when the hearings were televised.

"I gave my ticket away and stayed in my hotel room to watch the hearings," he said. "My blood was boiling. I faxed a letter to the president of OU the following Monday telling him to fire her. My feelings for her haven't improved since then. She should be in prison for lying."

Sullivan believes that Hill was a willing partner in a conspiracy to damage Clarence Thomas. "The left wing drafted Anita Hill, wrote the story and promised her a chair in return," he said. "If she can prove otherwise, let her prove it."

Boyd said she does not think that "it's any business of this Legislature to be involved in this debate. It's not our right to tell the university they can have a chair for this person and not for that person. It's like telling the Department of Public Safety they can write traffic tickets on this road but not on that one."

Sullivan, she said, has misread the mood of most Oklahomans. "We're not living in the 1940s in Oklahoma anymore," she said.

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