‘CBS Atlanta’ Investigation of Georgia Regents Reveals Years of Mishandled Appeals

November 13, 2013

by Peter Bonilla

CBS Atlanta’s Jeff Chirico reports a disturbing story from Georgia: the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia (USG), which has the authority to review appeals of employee terminations and student expulsions, may have been systematically shirking this duty for a decade or more.

This is eyebrow-raising for several reasons, starting with USG’s sheer size. The system consists of 31 public institutions, including major institutions like the University of Georgia (UGA) and Georgia Tech, enrolling more than 300,000 students. The system also includes tens of thousands of academic and non-academic staff; UGA alone employs 9,874. For students, faculty, and staff fighting for their rights on campus, the Board of Regents is the final step in the appeals process.

This makes Chirico’s key finding all the more alarming. As he reports:

Hidden inside public files, CBS Atlanta uncovered a deposition the board has fought to keep secret, in which Regent Doreen Poitevint admitted regents don’t actually read appeal documents.

“I can’t think of a single incident where that’s been the case,” said Poitevint during the deposition.

CBS Atlanta analyzed ten years of appeals and found the board upheld 97 percent of terminations.

When Chirico was finally was able to get USG’s attorneys on the record, they made some candid admissions about the process:

For a month CBS Atlanta tried to interview Vice Chancellor [J.] Burns Newsome, the Board of Regents attorney, who reviews appeals and recommends how the board should vote. Workers we spoke to said Newsome’s recommendations aren’t based on a full investigation.

[...]

Newsome and another board attorney, Kimberly Ballard-Washington, eventually agreed to sit down with CBS Atlanta for an interview. Newsome said the 97 percent denial rate isn’t proof of a rubber stamp process but rather shows terminations are being handled properly at the campus level.

[...]

Newsome and Washington said the key factor in making recommendations is keeping the board from getting sued, but they also consider employees’ interests. When asked if those might at times conflict, Washington said, “No. They never do. The best interest of the Board of Regents is to not lose cases in court.”

FIRE has, of course, had its share of encounters with USG system institutions. Among those interviewed by Chirico is former East Georgia College Professor Thomas Thibeault, who was fired by EGC in 2009 on trumped up sexual harassment charges after complaining about the deficiencies in the college’s sexual harassment policy during a faculty training seminar. Thibeault sued ECG, and eventually received a$50,000 settlement. Despite this, he tells Chirico, “I will literally never work again because of the accusations made at me. … They completely ruined my career as a teacher.”

Similarly, FIRE has for years highlighted the case of Hayden Barnes, a former Valdosta State University (VSU) student who had his own appeal denied by the Board of Regents. Barnes was expelled without a hint of due process in 2007 by then-VSU president Ronald Zaccari, who declared him a “clear and present danger” after posting a mock collage on Facebook criticizing Zaccari’s plans for a new parking garage. Zaccari’s actions were so egregious that he was later ruled to have lost his qualified immunity as a state official, and eventually was ordered to pay Barnes $50,000 (attorneys’ fees are still being considered). While Zaccari may have been the chief villain, the Board of Regents has played no small role in Barnes’ case, either. The Board of Regents initially defended Zaccari’s absurd and unconstitutional actions, and only voted to reverse Barnes’ expulsion a week after Barnes filed a lawsuit in federal court. There’s little reason to believe that the Board of Regents is any more diligent in considering student appeals than they’ve been shown to be in reviewing employee appeals—a frightening prospect given the rampant injustices in Barnes’ case, and the years-long battle he’s fought as a result.

Given that the Board of Regents is the last line of defense for persons appealing their cases within the university system, we should be worried by what Chirico has reported thus far. We should be worried about an appeals system in which the officials with the ultimate power to affirm or overturn university sanctions don’t review the documents that should inform their decisions. We should be worried by a system that hands this power over to its attorneys, who determine what the trustees see or don’t see. We should be worried that it took a reporter several weeks to get even basic information about the review process from the USG’s attorneys. Lack of transparency is the enemy of due process and basic fairness. We should be distrustful of assurances that, despite the opacity of the process, we can always trust the Board to come to the right decisions. The several former USG employees interviewed by Chirico suggest otherwise.

Chirico has promised more reporting to come from his investigation of the USG Board of Regents, and we’ll be watching closely.

Schools: University of Georgia Georgia Institute of Technology