When Paul W. Barrows announced in November that he was stepping down from his administrative position at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he cited "changing family circumstances" and said he would use his eligible leave time while preparing for a career change. The university press release  included praise for Barrows for his work as vice chancellor for student affairs.
John D. Wiley, the chancellor, praised Barrows for his "thoughtful leadership."
Months later, the Barrows leave has become a top political issue in Wisconsin -- now that it's clear that he left after revealing to the chancellor that he had had an affair with a graduate student. Legislators, the governor and editorial writers are all blasting the university for paying Barrows his salary -- $191,000 -- while he was on leave and looking for other work. He has since been demoted (twice) and had his salary cut (twice -- it's now just under $73,000), but the furor has not died down.
The University of Wisconsin System has announced that it will review all employment policies, with an emphasis on "back-up appointments" and administrative leaves. Some Republican legislators have held up the state budget this week, pushing for cuts to the university system because of the Barrows controversy. And Madison officials have tried to explain their shifting positions on Barrows and the need to place employees on paid leaves.
Some experts on college employment warn that controversies such as this one have the potential to rob administrators of important tools they need to deal with difficult personnel issues.
And even supporters of the university system in Wisconsin say that the controversy has played right into the hands of those who advocate limits on state spending for education. An editorial  (registration required) called "When Will UW Learn?" put it this way: "A state employee messes up, is removed from his nearly $200,000-a-year position, gets a seven-month fully paid vacation -- sorry, fully paid accrued vacation and sick leave -- and is told to seek other employment. And when he doesn't find it, he is brought back at an annual salary of $150,000 to perform some lesser function. It's our bet that, outside of the Enrons of the business world, that's not considered sound policy."
Barrows's phone number is unlisted and he did not reply to an e-mail request for an interview. But in a recent interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, he said that he had offered to return to work during his leave and that the chancellor had rejected the idea -- a statement university officials dispute.
Wiley, the chancellor, has issued a series of statements explaining the way the case was handled and arguing that Barrows could not have been fired immediately when the affair became known. In his most detailed statement,  Wiley said that he approved the leave shortly after learning of the affair between Barrows and a graduate student. Barrows, according to Wiley, acknowledged the affair, but said that it was consensual and violated no law or university policy.
Barrows was correct about law and policy, Wiley said, but the affair was "at the very minimum a serious failure of judgment for a vice chancellor" and it "irreparably damaged his ability to continue as vice chancellor." Wiley said that he agreed not to reveal the real reason for Barrows's leave because of the "fervent wishes of the individual with whom Dr. Barrows had the relationship." And while Wiley said that the understood why many people think he should have fired Barrows immediately, he said that to do so would have violated the vice chancellor's due process rights. "It is important to note that the university must follow very specific rules regarding the protection of an employee's rights," he said.
Adding to the controversy, Wiley revealed that he recently received information about additional allegations against Barrows. While Wiley didn't specify what those allegations were, he said that they were "inconsistent" with what Barrows told him in November, when he said that the affair was "an isolated incident." Wiley said he has ordered an investigation into the new allegations, and that investigation could lead to the dismissal of Barrows.
In a separate statement,  sent to Madison students and faculty members, Wiley said he realized that "the circumstances of this leave are very difficult for the public to understand or accept, but this was an unusual personnel matter in which the greater good of the university needed to be carefully balanced with an employee's contractual and constitutional rights."
Several experts on university personnel policies, while stressing that they did not know the specifics of the Barrows controversy or want to comment on whether it had been handled appropriately, warned that Wisconsin could find itself hurt if legislators restrict the use of paid leaves. Raymond D. Cotton, a Washington lawyer who specializes in administrators' contracts, said that prospective employees expect to know that there are protections in place if they ever face charges that they contest.
That serves universities as well, Cotton said. "If you don't know what all the facts are, the position needs to be ready, aim, shoot, not shoot and then aim."
Ann Franke, vice president and chief knowledge officer of United Educators, a company that insures colleges and provides them with advice on how not to be sued, said that these issues are much more subtle than many legislators realize. "For someone who has tenure or state civil service protection or other kinds of strong employment protections, there is a process of dismissing or disciplining that can be quite protracted and that sometimes calls for someone to go on paid leave until due process is completed," she said.
"There is a risk of error in a quick disciplinary action," Franke said, and university administrators need to balance their desire to remove someone from a position with "the responsibilities to follow existing employment laws and rules."