Wednesday, September 30, 2020

MSU administrators suspended for ethics violations allowed to return

February 8, 2019
One of MSU's landmarks, the Beaumont Tower, is pictured.
One of MSU's landmarks, the Beaumont Tower, is pictured. —
Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

Two high-level administrators in MSU University Advancement engaged in an undisclosed extramarital relationship were suspended for ethics violations in November 2018. Both were quietly allowed to return to work, a State News investigation found. 

Robert "Bob" Thomas, then-assistant vice president of advancement marketing and communications, was involved in a romantic relationship for years with Kathleen Deneau, senior director of annual giving programs, personal communications obtained by The State News show. During this relationship, Thomas was Deneau’s direct superior.

Thomas was demoted and quietly removed as interim executive director of the MSU Alumni Association in November. A replacement was appointed, but MSU has not announced the move.

Thomas was allowed to return to work following his suspension, minus his assistant vice president title. Reporting lines were changed to place the Annual Giving department out of Thomas' supervision, but sources say the toxic environment created by the relationship continues.

Conflict of interest

The relationship created a conflict of interest according to university policy, which says at least two levels of supervision should separate “relatives.” A relationship between “relatives” is defined within the policy as “a connection between persons by blood, marriage, adoption, domestic partnership, or other personal relationship in which objectivity might be impaired.”

The policy also states “relatives” should not participate in employee review or evaluation. 

According to documents obtained by The State News, Thomas personally requested a promotion for Deneau in 2015, granting her a 7.5 percent raise worth roughly $8,000 annually. 

Thomas also conducted a glowing annual performance review for Deneau in 2016.

Conduct between the two administrators created a toxic work environment in which the Annual Giving department was favored in both time and resources, while Thomas neglected other departments he was responsible for, according to sources working in university advancement who are familiar with the conduct of Thomas and Deneau. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of workplace repercussions.

Disciplinary action

An anonymous letter urging action on the conflict was sent to MSU Executive Vice President for Government and External Relations Kathleen Wilbur in October 2018. The letter claims Nicholas Wittner, then-acting MSU Chief Compliance Officer, received the attached documents three weeks prior.

Anon Letter by on Scribd

Wittner said he anonymously received "unusual materials," which he then provided to appropriate offices, including the Office of the General Counsel and the Office of Institutional Equity, to ensure they were reviewed and investigated promptly.

"My understanding is that they were," Wittner said.

Thomas and Deneau were suspended in November, MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant confirmed. Thomas was placed on administrative leave without pay for six weeks on Nov. 21, returning Jan. 2. Deneau was suspended for five days on Nov. 27.

"Following an anonymous tip, MSU immediately looked into a situation involving employees within University Advancement," Guerrant said in a statement. "Bob Thomas was found in violation of MSU’s Conflict of Interest in Employment policy."

Thomas lost his assistant vice president title and was removed as interim executive director of the MSU Alumni Association, Guerrant confirmed. He was appointed in April 2018 to replace Scott Westerman, who stepped down in advance of an Office of Institutional Equity report that found he violated MSU's sexual harassment policy

Thomas' removal from these positions was not announced by MSU. Nick McLaren, senior director of development for the College of Social Science, was appointed as interim to replace Thomas at the Alumni Association, MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant confirmed. This move, made in mid-to-late November, had not previously been announced by the university.

“I completely understand that I failed to report a personal consensual relationship to my supervisor that violated university policy and I have fully accepted responsibility for my actions," Thomas said in a statement. "I also agreed with and supported the disciplinary actions taken by the university and I am now fully focused on repairing both my personal and professional relationships. This is obviously an extremely personal issue for my family and me so I am very reluctant to comment any further.” 

Toxic Environment

Thomas and Deneau's relationship had been ongoing for about eight years, over which the workplace issues escalated, the second source said. Most employees were aware of the relationship, but never spoke up for fear of repercussions. They also feared leadership favored Thomas and Deneau and wouldn't do anything about the situation. The source said they had conversations with five to six other employees who shared their concerns.

“People felt like they couldn’t say anything,” the second source said. “It was demeaning, you would see such a focus on her and her group that you just became … you just weren’t even looked at or around. We were ignored, basically.”

In September, Marti Heil became MSU's new vice president for University Advancement. The second source hoped Heil would ask around about the work environment, but she never did, the source said. 

Guerrant confirmed Heil made the decision to allow Thomas to return to work in the department following his suspension.

“As soon as I was made aware of a violation in our workplace policy, I took swift action to work with the parties involved and our HR department to realign reporting structures and enact appropriate disciplinary action,” Heil said in a statement.  

By separating Thomas and Deneau, MSU is abiding by the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law, the first source said. They said the work environment is still toxic. 

Though Annual Giving now is under different supervision, Thomas still oversees all the other departments that report to him. The sources said many who work for Thomas no longer trust him.

The relationship had an impact on the morale of Thomas' other departments, the sources said. Thomas focused so greatly on Annual Giving that he never spent time in other departments he supervised, often disappearing for hours. The second source's department got used to carrying on without Thomas, they said.

“He’s supposed to be the director of our department, and his focus was so much on her department that we just learned how to adapt without him,” the second source said. “When he came back, he was really not needed, to be honest.”

Removing Thomas from an outward-facing position with the Alumni Association, but allowing him to return to his previous job feels disingenuous, the first source said. 

"It's almost like endorsing bad behavior," the first source said. "If Michigan State truly wants to create a healthy culture and work environment, it's time to start weeding out the bad actors and their network of enablers."

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