The curious ‘sexual harassment’ charge

November 4, 2009

East Georgia College has dropped an unspecified sexual harassment charge against an English professor who, ironically, had openly criticized the lack of protections for the falsely accused in its sexual harassment policy.

Two weeks ago, Thomas Thibeault was informed in a letter from John Black, president of East Georgia, that "the evidence" in the mysterious complaint filed against him in August "does not warrant the charge of sexual harassment" and that he was reinstated to his position, ending a nearly two-month suspension. Black and other East Georgia officials did not respond to requests for comment regarding this about-face.

In August, two days after openly expressing his concerns about the college’s sexual harassment policy, Thibeault says he was told by Black that he "was a divisive force in the college at a time when the college needed unity" and that his "long history of sexual harassment would be made public" if he did not resign of his own accord. When Thibeault refused, asking that the charges against him be detailed, police escorted him from the campus, and he was suspended from teaching at the college while "dismissal proceedings" took place.

Thibeault was eventually told, near the end of August, that the college had "sufficient evidence to support his suspension." Throughout September, he repeatedly asked for a hearing and that the charges against him be enumerated, to no avail. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Higher Education also stepped in, widely publicizing the case throughout the month and openly condemning East Georgia’s administration for its handling of this case.

Black’s reinstatement of Thibeault two weeks ago is the first development in the case since August. Still, in the same letter in which he reinstated Thibeault, Black also openly and severely reprimanded him "for the use of offensive language and angry outbursts in your past interactions with your colleagues."

Though no specific examples of such behavior were given, the letter warned Thibeault that he "may face further disciplinary action including termination" if Black receives "any complaints" about Thibeault’s behavior from colleagues.

"You must show better judgment and discretion in the future when engaging in discussions in the public work setting," Black wrote. "The use of offensive language in public work spaces, including the public areas of your office suite, is not appropriate and will not be tolerated in the future. Furthermore, you must refrain from angry outbursts when interacting with your colleagues. You must conduct yourself in a professional and respectful manner toward all of your colleagues in the future."

Thibeault said Black’s letter came out of the blue, noting that the charges against him were never enumerated and he was never given a hearing before the administration, as Black had noted was now possible in a prior letter.

"I was very angry that I get this letter that states I’m being reinstated but that I’m also being reprimanded for offensive language and outbursts, which are equally as untrue as the sexual harassment charge," Thibeault said. "The most I can be charged with is having a vulgar sense of humor in private. I don’t tell dirty jokes in the classroom. That’s for sure."

After being reinstated and reprimanded, Thibeault was asked to sign a summary of a meeting he had with Tim Goodman, vice president for academic affairs at East Georgia, as a condition of his return to the college. Among other statements, the summary implies, as the president’s reprimand does, that Thibeault has engaged in improper behavior which he needs to acknowledge.

"Dr. Goodman pointed out to Mr. Thibeault that some of what he has said in the past has bothered some people," Goodman writes. "Mr. Thibeault is intimidating to some and some are fearful that he will lose his temper and do something rash. The College has assured them that this will not happen."

Thibeault has yet to sign the summary of the meeting — noting that he was presented with the document at his meeting with Goodman, not after it – but he did say he will sign a separate document addressing his disagreements with the seven statements made in the summary and give it to the college this week.

What Now?

As Thibeault was suspended before the start of the semester, he has no sections to teach. Since his reinstatement, he has been working in the college’s Academic Instruction and Resources Center, which provides help in remedial math and English. He will return to teaching a full load next semester.

"When my name went back up on the course board, my courses filled up within an hour," Thibeault said. "This says the exact opposite of the charge the college has laid against me. Students are voting with their feet and coming back to my classes. One student even told me she was no longer going to transfer to another college but finish her coursework here because of me. That’s a wonderful vote of confidence."

Still, Thibeault worries that, despite his reinstatement, he will not be back at East Georgia beyond next semester. In early August, when the sexual harassment charge made against him, Thibeault received a letter from Black noting that he would "not be offered a new employment contract for the 2010-2011 academic year."

Russ Willard, spokesman for the attorney general of Georgia, whose office was consulted by East Georgia for legal advice in the sexual harassment case against Thibeault, said the sexual harassment charge that would have led to immediate dismissal and the non-renewal notice Thibeault received from Black are "separate and unrelated matters." He would not disclose any legal advice the college had received from the attorney general, noting that it was "subject to attorney client privilege."

Assuming that the non-renewal notice stands, there are a number of legal options for Thibeault to consider, said Adam Kissel, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. He disputes Willard’s explanation that the sexual harassment charge and the non-renewal notice are unrelated.

"The president coincidentally decided not to rehire him for no cause at the same time of the sexual harassment charge," Kissel said. "I don’t think any reasonable person could say that these two are not related in any way, given that he has good performance reviews, students like him and he’s well respected on campus. … If he’s not being rehired because of protected speech, then that’s an actionable offense for him to pursue against the college."

Until the non-renewal matter is made clear, Thibeault said he is beginning to look elsewhere for teaching work. Still, he noted that if his contract is renewed, he would still like to teach at East Georgia, despite the difficulties he has encountered there.

"I’ll absolutely work at East Georgia if I’m able," Thibeault said. "I work for the college and for the community. I don’t work for the administration. They don’t own the college, and they don’t own me. I have the right to work and not be harassed by my supervisors."