I started at UNCG at the end of June 2020. This blog post is related to a press release and announcement that went out on December 23, 2020 indicating I was under investigation by the university.
There are three take-home messages from this post;
1. The results of an investigation made public by UNCG on Dec member 23, 2020 were that the allegations against me were fully dismissed. No such announcement documenting the dismissal was ever made by the university, so I wanted to write it down somewhere.
2. The press release was very vague, but definitely did not reflect well on me as a person. The comments I have received from the 500 or so students I have taught since 2021 have reminded me that I am intelligent, inspiring to some, caring, compassionate, passionate, and empathetic- and whose behavior in the classroom is often classified as inclusive, caring and inspirational. Those traits defined me in previous administrator roles and would have defined me here if I had stayed in the provost position. I don't have permission to post all of 490 some comments from students but students this past semester allowed me to post the comments they made on my course evaluations and a couple of others (the permission was given after the evaluation period was over). They are a good reflection of who I am.
3. The termination by the chancellor of my provost role along with the public announcement were painful experiences. Much of the pain was because how others reacted. Perhaps the content of this blog might have useful information for you should experience something similar, or, more importantly if you have a friend or colleague who goes through a similar experience.
A brief summation of the story.
It is now three years since my wife and I uprooted from the hills of Fayetteville, Arkansas, during the surreal COVID landscape. I landed in the North Carolina piedmont with a lot of energy. I had respect from colleagues and a history of integrity and being a strong leader. I had one local friend on arrival, a financially stable future, and high hopes of having found an institution that fit me like custom tailored clothes.
All that disappeared on December 23, 2020 except for the one friend.
I never imagined before the 2020 Holiday season that one very negative announcement would change how people who don't know me would perceive me, forever, in addition to destroying any future administrative career. My weakness in my administrator roles was usually identified as being too nice of person, so it was somewhat devastating that the articles and the allegations implied that I was an evil person. I don't really have a malevolent bone in my body- my executive coach in Arkansas called me (in a positive way), a golden retriever.
As many readers know, a public notice and several newspaper stories went out on December 23, 2020, announcing my termination as provost, tying the termination to not meeting the behavior expectations for UNCG senior administrators (though exactly what written expectations were violated were never told to me in writing), and indicating that there was an ongoing investigation. If you are super interested in what happened, you can use Google to find sites where you can read court documents related to the law suit I filed that has details on the alleged transgressions and the arguments made by both sides. I don't claim being blameless. But, I believe I was treated harshly and unfairly. You can make up your own mind if you want to spend time with court documents. I do not wish to defend myself here or relive the painful experience any more than that. Yet, since there was no public closure after the December 23, 2020 announcement, I felt the need after 2.5 years to give it that closure by writing publicly that the allegations of violating any policy were dismissed by the University's investigators before going to any sort of hearing.
On December 22, 2020, I was called into a meeting with Chancellor Gilliam where I received a letter indicating that my role of provost ended on December 23, 2020 using the Chancellor's at-will authority. Simply, that means the chancellor had the full right to terminate me for any reason as he does with all administrators that report to him and used the at-will authority to terminate my administrative position. Thus, there was no reason for the termination in the letter. This was not a termination for cause (that would have required time for due process to play out since I am a tenured faculty member- I don't think the Chancellor wanted to spend time on due process when the at-will authority requires none).
I was told that I had two choices: 1) my contract stipulated that if I left the Provost role, I could "retreat" to my tenured faculty position in biology. That option was left open at a salary almost 1/3 as much as my administrative salary, but tied in some way to salaries in the UNCG biology department (my actual salary now is $40,000/year less than the lowest salary I have had since 1997). But, if I chose this option, I was told repeatedly by the Chancellor that the University would issue a public statement indicating that I was being terminated for cause and under investigation. I was not told how the "for cause" statement would read.
My other choice was to resign from the university, with three months severance pay (which was reasonably close, with payout of my benefits, to a full year faculty salary), and I could have a hand in the language of the public statement that would not indicate I was terminated (at least for a cause) and wouldn't mention anything about an investigation.
The options were presented to me around 11:00AM on the December 22nd,. I had less than 24 hours to decide, and I was required to move out of the provost's office by 3:00PM on December 23rd, either way. I was not able to reach my attorney, who was in court all day, until the evening of December 22, so we only had a couple of hours to decide. It was not until late that evening that we saw a draft of the for cause statement. Merry Christmas, it was not.
I chose to keep my faculty position. Thus, the for-cause statement was issued in a news story and press release to the entire UNCG community on Dec 23, 2023 and was picked up in the press in North Carolina and Arkansas. Google me, and those press articles may be the first thing you see. The announcement the university made was removed from their site a long time ago (so my lawyer told me-- I have not searched for it on the UNCG site).
The result of the termination and public action was that I lost nearly 2/3 of my salary; all of my friends in GSO except for one who was a close friend before I arrived, and told me she plans to remain, my friend for a long time; my academic and personal reputations (which are very important to me) were brought into question, if not destroyed; my administrative career was destroyed; and to top it off, my mother went into hospice in January 2021 ( a couple of weeks into the investigation) and then died a few weeks later. It was a difficult time. These consequences were painful and traumatic. I have PTSD symptoms- I cannot go inside, or even get to close to Mossman Hall.
Fortunately, my wife supported me through the entire process, as did people who knew me well. Most of these people read the court documents which strengthened their support of me.
Despite the consequences already imposed by the termination and the press release,. the investigation continued.
Given that the chancellor had essentially declared me guilty in the public statement, I also thought it was odd, as did a few of my colleagues, that two individuals within the university, and very much in the chancellor's gravity (one was on the Chancellor's Cabinet) albeit not direct reports, were charged with conducting the investigation. Those individuals apparently did not believe they had a conflict of interest. I don't understand why an outside investigator was not hired given the ferocity of the public statement. So, I wondered how the investigation would ever be fair given that I imagined it would be hard for those two individuals to dismiss allegations when the chancellor had implied publicly that I was guilty, But, the allegations were eventually dismissed without moving to any hearing stage.
Additionally, at least some members of his cabinet and his staff were not told specifics but told it was very bad. For example, one of the members of his staff was/is friends with our neighbors Those neighbors told me that they asked this staff member about the situation. They indicated that the individual conveyed that they did not know the any specifics of the situation, but that they were told it was "very bad." It just kind of felt like our friendship with these neighbors ebbed after that conversation. In retrospect, it seems like an oxymoron to say to someone, "I don't know what happened" and "it was very bad" - perhaps those were not that individual's exact words. In any case, those words aren't consistent with the later dismissal of allegations.
The investigation continued for nearly 10 months (even though all of the evidence was available at the start; and the investigation should been completed within 30-90 days , not getting close to 300 days). My lawyer and I were responsible for several weeks of the delays because of my mother dying and my attorney's wife going to the ER during times for a second interview with me), but this was not responsible for extending the investigation nearly 10 months.
The investigation did not end until my attorney filed a full draft of a law suit with a "formal demand letter" (at this point I had paid nearly $100,000 of attorney fees - that grew later to $200,000 b/c legal fees are very expensive and the university is defended by the State Attorney General's Office, so they have unlimited resources to fight law suits). One of those "demands" was to have the allegations dismissed, since my attorney and I strongly believed that my actions did not violate any policy. One or two days (I think) before a response was requested from the university in the formal demand letter, the allegations were dismissed citing that there was not enough evidence to show violations of university, state or federal policy. When asked when that decision was made by the investigators, when the investigators met with me and my attorney to convey this decision, one of the investigators indicated they had been bouncing the dismissal around for a while (really?). It is their responsibility to complete investigations as soon as possible. The University claimed in court documents that the dismissal of allegations had nothing to do with the draft lawsuit (What would Occam's razor say about the coincidence in timing?). They chose not to negotiate on the other "demands" (e.g. legal fees, salary until the investigation was complete). I can only speculate why they delayed the formal decision so long,
I lived under the sword of Damocles during those 9-10 months of investigation with intense anxiety and some acute depression.
Since that time, I have reinvented myself again as a researcher and teacher- something that I am extremely proud of.
I am on the autism spectrum and would have been classified in the past as a "high-functioning Asperger's". There are some traits that go along with this that played a role in the initial actions leading to termination and my recovery. One trait is the inability to read social cues- or at least not reading them well. Another trait is an ability to focus intensely on things I care about. Another trait is that I don't know how to be anything but genuine- a not so good trait as an administrator because of how vulnerable it leaves you, but it turns out to be a great train in the classroom. And, like many Aspy's there is an intense sense of isolation and loneliness that was aggravated by COVID.
Returning to the classroom to teach the kind of students we have at UNCG has been amazing for me. This last semester I literally worked 80 hours on most weeks (while taking most of Saturdays off) because I wanted to stay engaged with every one of the 220 or so students I was teaching in addition to managing three federal grants and being Biology's Graduate Program Director.. I worked really hard as an administrator and was almost always the last person to leave and often the first person in - and I was often one of only a couple of people in Mossman most weekend days-- but I never worked as hard as I have than last semester as a faculty member (I really wish that the anti-higher ed conservative political movement understood how hard we work as faculty)
Students in my two larger classes in Spring, 2023 agreed to let me post the comments they made on my course evaluations (permission was given after I received them). I also keep a running list of all of the positive comments (and the few negative comments) that has reached 490 since I started back in the classroom in 2021, but I don't have permission to post those. If for some reason you want to read all 490, let me know. I look at them often to remind myself that at least students see the genuine, caring, and dedicated human being that I am, as well as their recognition of my passion for my discipline and for their success. These were some of the best traits I brought to work everyday for 25 years as a senior administrator, and now bring to bring to being a professor.
And, if for some reason you think I was a bad administrator because of my moving around or whatever reason, please look at my CV. If VPRs, Deans and Provosts were evaluated like football coaches (i.e., did you win?), I would have competed for coach of the year since 1997. All of the metrics that I was supposed to facilitate improvement improved in every position.
During the time I was provost at UNCG, the chancellor and I were 98% aligned (in my opinion, and he seemed to agree verbally with me and others, until an attorney for Julia Jacskon-Newsom filed court documents saying otherwise) and I had hoped to facilitate similar sorts of success as occurred in Arkansas.
But, that dream died on December 23, 2020. The only professional disagreement that I remember the chancellor and I having was on a spousal hire, where the chancellor believed I only wanted to make the hire because the individuals were my friends. That was not true. And, for the sake of irony, in the following year, the new provost made that same spousal hire.
There is nothing that I am proud of that led to the Dec 22, 2020 meeting with the Chancellor and the loss of the provost position, Because of naiveté, or being an Aspy with difficulty reading social cues, I truly thought (obviously incorrectly from the standpoint of the person making the allegations) the action that led to my termination was more of a misunderstanding than anything else. I didn't have a malevolent thought in my body, my heart and my mind.
I was so naïve (and believed that my transgression was minor enough) that I actually asked the chancellor during our Dec 22, 2020 meeting what he would do (resign or not) if in my situation. In retrospect, of course I realized he wanted me to resign and be gone,. The fact he wanted me to resign was reinforced at another point in the conversation when he said (slightly paraphrased), "I don't give the shit about you! I care about the university." But, he hid that sentiment well in responding to my direct question- only gently suggesting that going back to the faculty would mean I have to deal with the crappy stuff faculty do like teaching, research and advising and that investigations are hard to go through.
I tell you this only to help understand how clueless Aspy's can be in reading people. I was sitting with a man who had decided to kill me professionally, hurt me personally, who I would be "dead" to the moment I walked out the door, and who wanted me out his building in less than 24 hours two days before Christmas. And, I actually asked for his opinion on a choice he gave me, on whether to resign or stay. I suppose I just hadn't yet accepted that my professional relationship with him was already over and that personally, I was deceased. For some reason, it takes me longer than most to realize that kind of death. But, I do ultimately realize it, and when I do I feel both hurt and like an idiot.
I, and others who have spoken to me, believe there were lots of ways the Chancellor could have handled the situation. He chose the nuclear option.
One of the worst parts of all of this was the banishment. Humans are pack animals and being thrown out of pack is extremely disorienting and painful. I learned that earlier from my dog Bodega (previous post) .
Almost none of former colleagues here that I had as provost asked if I was OK, nor did they reach out (even a form letter) note of consolation when my mother died. Even though I reached out to my ex-colleagues in the provost office to make sure they knew.
Only two people in the GSO community called me to say "I saw the story in the paper. I don't know what happened, but I wanted you to know that I hope you are doing OK." I feel indebted to those two people for actually exhibiting the "caring" that was supposed to be the foundation of UNCG. That indebtedness to them will be forever. Those calls meant the world to me. So, I donate far more to their organization than I do for UNCG now. I also made a commitment to contact anyone I know that has a similar fate-- calls of caring matter. And, unfortunately I felt the need to reach out in that manner when the athletic director and the dean of the graduate school suffered through what I thought were inhumane public announcements. I can only roll my eyes when I hear it said that UNCG is a caring community. There is only one way to create a caring community and that is to actually and genuinely care about people, when people truly need to be cared about. Caring is only demonstrated by actions. Whether one thinks they are "caring", or what one says about "caring", is irrelevant. I think there is an inverse correlation between the PR messaging of an institution's "caring community", with the actual caring environment on campus.
I may never forgive the chancellor or my colleagues in Mossman on a personal level for how that situation was handled and my perception of their utter lack of humanity towards me. I was still treated like a "criminal" for at least a year after the allegations were dismissed, which befuddled and hurt me. I feel like I still carry a scarlet letter, that probably grew brighter because of some of my darkly satirical and critical blog pieces, but has faded some now since I reinvented myself aiming to be a truly excellent faculty member and department/university colleague (but may grow again after this blog). But, I think that letter will remain branded on me for as long as I stay at UNCG, especially since I think bad decisions are being made now and it is hard for me not to express opinions given my 25 years as a senior administrator.
Despite all of this, I still believe in the vision the chancellor and I shared for UNCG's future and I still have some hope that the chancellor will reassert that vision strongly. And, in doing so will also communicate strongly that our success as a university in the future, if we are able to survive the hurricane, is directly related to the quality of our faculty, not SCH/faculty.
The budget situation (crisis) is a real and a very serious challenge. Cost cutting is necessary- but cost cutting alone (without focus on revenue generation), can lead a university into a death spiral (as more and more cuts are made, the weaker the programs and the reputation, leading to less students wanting to enroll, leading to more cost-cutting and even weaker programs and reputation, leading to even weaker enrollment- and that spiral continues if cost cutting is the only focus.). Re-earning trust across the university and selective investment and incentives for increasing revenue in some strategic way that goes beyond labor department statistics need to occur, too. I also think that every decision we make should pass the ecosystem test. You can read an earlier blog, or listen to podcast, if you want to know what the "ecosystem test" is.
Thanks for taking the time to read. If you believe this blog should be taken down because it will just lead to more hurt for me, please let me know. I think everyone of us wants to be heard and understood. But, there is no sense in doing more damage- and the nice things about blogs is they can be taken down easily and not live forever like newspaper stories.