In 2001, the University of Texas, San Antonio, swept through and swept out tenured organic chemistry professor Philip L. Stotter’s lab and office, which by all accounts--even Stotter’s--were overflowing with chemicals and papers. Then the university fired him.
But after six years in and out of court, Stotter, now 66 and a part-time consultant, is enjoying some vindication. Last week, a federal court jury awarded him $175,000, agreeing with Stotter that the university--specifically former UTSA provost Guy Bailey--didn’t give him proper notice before removing the lab and office contents.
Though Stotter himself wasn’t available to talk to C&EN, his attorney, Regina Bacon Criswell, says they’re both pleased. “We’re happy,” she says. “It sends a clear message that [the university] needs to take into account everybody’s rights.”
Bailey, who is now president of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, wasn’t available to comment. Judith A. Walmsley, chemistry professor at UTSA, who was chair of the department during Stotter’s firing, also declined to speak with C&EN.
Stotter’s troubles with UTSA had been brewing for years, according to observers, with the university becoming increasingly exasperated by Stotter’s unsafe clutter, which included thousands of chemicals and hundreds of boxes of books and journals.
Finally, in January 2001, the university sent Stotter a certified letter, bearing Bailey’s signature, giving Stotter a deadline to gather up his belongings. That deadline passed, and UTSA dispatched a hazmat team to dispose of the chemicals, and Stotter’s notebooks were carted away. Stotter received the letter two days later. Later that year, UTSA regents voted to terminate him.
Stotter sued UTSA. Though the courts eventually dismissed most of his claims, they agreed to let him sue Bailey.
When--and if--Stotter gets his money will depend on whether Bailey files an appeal. In the meantime, there’s still the matter of Stotter’s missing notebooks. “They don’t even know where they are anymore,” Criswell says. “Probably in some room somewhere.”
James A. Kaufman, president and CEO of the Laboratory Safety Institute (LSI), a nonprofit that promotes, as the name implies, lab safety, weighs both sides of the issue, noting that while he thinks employees shouldn’t have “unlimited license” to run an unsafe operation, “at the same time, the employer needs to follow a fair process.”
Perhaps the players in the Stotter case could have avoided some headaches if they’d had the chance to attend LSI’s “Leadership in Safety,” a three-hour web seminar for university administrators. The seminar, set for February 27, aims to help administrators understand their “critical role in creating a more effective campus-wide environmental health and safety program.” At $149 a head, it’s a lot cheaper than going to court.