J David Grissom on 6-8-17

University of Louisville board of trustees chairman J. David Grissom

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – University of Louisville board of trustees chairman J. David Grissom said he was “shocked” to learn that some people took offense to a joke in which he described the voice of the university’s female president as “sexy” during a board meeting last week.

“I’m just shocked that there is any kind of reaction to that statement,” Grissom told WDRB in a brief phone interview on Saturday. “There is no way it was meant to be sexist. It just blows my mind. That’s all I can say. It’s beyond me.”

U of L President Neeli Bendapudi, whose strained voice was the subject of Grissom’s joke, said in a prepared statement Sunday that the remark was “nothing but humor” and that she was eager to focus on other things.

The remark came during Thursday’s board of trustees meeting.

Bendapudi, who last April was hired as the university’s first female president, was suffering from a cold and had lost her voice.

After she spoke up for the first time during the meeting, Grissom said: “Notice the sexy voice of our … president.”

He added that he wasn’t giving up his seat next to Bendapudi: “If anybody tries to get my seat … they’re not going to have it. I’m staying right here.”

Olivia Krauth of Insider Louisville posted audio of the remark to SoundCloud:

No one objected to the comment at the time. The other trustees laughed and the board moved on with the meeting’s agenda.

But after WDRB reported the remark on social media, some said it was unprofessional and sexist.

“To me, it’s this kind of belittling thing. To speak about the president of the university that way is really inappropriate,” said Christine Ehrick, a professor of history at U of L, in an interview.

Ehrick, whose research includes how women’s voices have been perceived, said the remark is “not all that different” from comments routinely viewed as sexist, such as when a man talks about a woman’s professional attire or how often she smiles at work.

“We’re either being told our voices are shrill or irritating or annoying, or our voices become this sexual fetish,” she said. “There is always this element in which a female voice, especially a voice of authority, is under a certain kind of scrutiny in a way that men don’t always face.”

Ehrick added that the joke put Bendapudi in a “tough spot.” Even if she had problem with it, Grissom is the leader of the board that hired her and to whom she reports, Ehrick noted.  

Bob Kimball, the retired chairman of U of L’s department of philosophy, said despite Grissom’s attempt at humor, “It’s the board room, it’s not the bedroom. The context is entirely inappropriate.”

Kimball added that the remark “comes in the context of a long history of powerful women being taken down a notch by people making comments like that -- like, ‘Oh they really dress nicely,’ or ‘They have a great personality.’”

To be sure, not everyone found Grissom’s remark problematic. Two of the four women on 13-member board of trustees told WDRB they had no problem with it.

Public relations executive Sandra Frazier said it was clear during the meeting that Grissom’s comment was “not meant to be offensive.”

“It was a joke, and it was obviously taken out of context,” she said. “We are living in a time when things that may not seem the most offensive really do offend people.”

Trustee Mary Nixon, a retired executive with Louisville-based Yum! Brands, “didn’t think twice about it” when Grissom made the remark, she said.

“If David had been the one sitting there with cough syrup and cough drops, I might have made the same comment to him,” Nixon said. “I didn’t look at it as any kind of a gender issue.”

Nixon added that Grissom “has done a noble job of leading the board through difficult times, and I think it’s unfortunate that anyone would criticize him over something this trivial.”

For her part, Bendapudi said in a prepared statement that she knows Grissom “meant no ill will and that he has the highest regard for me personally and professionally.” 

“I hope we quickly get beyond this to focus on the many good things happening at U of L,” she said.

Reach reporter Chris Otts at 502-585-0822, cotts@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2019 WDRB News. All rights reserved.

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Chris Otts reports for WDRB.com about business and economic topics, higher education and local / state government. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after seven years with The Courier-Journal. Got a tip? Chris is at 502-585-0822 and cotts@wdrb.com.