Instructor criticizes sex-harassment policy, then is accused of violating it

September 15, 2009

By Robin Wilson at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Two days after an instructor of English at East Georgia College complained that its sexual-harassment policy offered no protection for professors who were falsely accused, the college charged him with sexual harassment and its police chief escorted him off the campus.

Since then, the college has suspended the instructor, Thomas Thibeault, with pay and told him it intended to dismiss him, without ever giving him details of the charges against him, he says, or even the names of any accusers.

In an e-mail message to The Chronicle, the college’s president, John B. Black, said, “I cannot comment on an ongoing personnel matter,” and added that “it is not in The Chronicle’s best interest to publish an article until due process in Mr. Thibeault’s case is completed.”

But it is the college, says Mr. Thibeault, that has denied him due process, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization that defends professors who charge that their academic freedom has been violated, agrees.

Drawing Attention

Mr. Thibeault has worked as a full-time composition instructor at the Georgia community college for five years. In early August, he attended a campus meeting at which Mary C. Smith, the college’s vice president for legal and external affairs, explained the college’s sexual-harassment policy to faculty and staff members. Mr. Thibeault says he told a story during the meeting intended to point out that students’ sexual-harassment complaints can be frivolous. He made a written record of what he said during the meeting that the foundation has made available on its Web site.

The story Mr. Thibeault told related to a conversation he said he’d had with a student a week earlier. She was complaining that she did not want to go to another professor’s office because the professor stared at her cleavage. At the meeting, Mr. Thibeault said the student was wearing a very low-cut top “designed to draw attention to her cleavage,” according to his written statement. She also had a tattoo on her chest, he said, and her cleavage was “decorated” with glitter (or maybe it was barbecue sauce, he said).

“I told the student that she shouldn’t complain if she drew such attention to herself,” Mr. Thibeault says he related at the meeting with the vice president. Then he says he asked the vice president what provisions in the college’s sexual-harassment policy protected against “complaints which are malicious, or in this case ridiculous.”

Mr. Thibeault says Ms. Smith, the vice president, said there were no such provisions, and he says she instructed people to report to the college any stories they had heard about sexual harassment by other professors. Mr. Thibeault says he told Ms. Smith the policy was “flawed.”

Tenure Track, Then Termination

Two days after that meeting, Mr. Thibeault says he was called to Mr. Black’s office, where he says the president told him he was a “divisive force in the college” who had a “long history of sexual harassment, which includes smutty jokes, foul language, obscenities, and innuendo.” The instructor says the president told him if he didn’t resign by 11:30 a.m. that day, he would be escorted by the campus police from his office, which is exactly what happened.

Mr. Thibeault says he thought he had been fired on the spot, but in mid-August, Mr. Black wrote the instructor a letter saying that a faculty committee had begun an “informal inquiry” as part of dismissal proceedings against him. Then, on August 25, Mr. Black sent another letter saying that the committee had found sufficient evident “to support your suspension” and telling Mr. Thibeault that he was “about to be terminated for cause” for violating the college’s sexual-harassment policy.

In the letter, the president said Mr. Thibeault could ask for a copy of the charges against him and request that the college hold a formal hearing. Mr. Thibeault did both, but he says he has heard nothing from the college since Mr. Black’s August 25 letter.

Adam Kissel, a director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, says East Georgia College violated Mr. Thibeault’s right to due process. “There has been no presentation of evidence, no accusers to defend against, no charges, no hearing, and a shifting statement of his actual status,” says Mr. Kissel. He says the college has been prosecuting the case in reverse, banning Mr. Thibeault from the campus before it even asked a faculty panel whether to consider if the college should start dismissal proceedings against him.

Mr. Thibeault, who spoke to The Chronicle by telephone, says that until he appeared in the president’s office, in August, “there had been no linkage of me to the two words ‘sexual harassment’ ever in my life.” He says he has faced no complaints, and “in my work evaluations, there was no mention of this whatsoever.” In fact, Mr. Thibeault says, he was put on the tenure track at East Georgia in August, right before his troubles began.

Download file "Instructor criticizes sex-harassment policy, then is accused of violating it"

Schools: East Georgia College Cases: East Georgia College: Professor Fired Without a Hearing over Mysterious ‘Sexual Harassment’ Charge