Staff speaks out against hostile workplace, retribution in MSU department
The State News spoke with four employees in Michigan State’s University Advancement department who allege a persistently toxic work environment and a lack of faith in official avenues to air grievances. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a fear of retaliation or loss of employment for reporting their concerns.
In February, The State News published an investigation bringing to light that Bob Thomas was quietly removed as director of the MSU Alumni Association after he was found to have engaged in an undisclosed relationship with Director of Annual Giving Kathleen Deneau, whom he directly supervised and arranged a promotion for. Provided to The State News were materials including an anonymous letter sent from University Advancement staff to MSU administrators, imploring them to do something about the situation.
The week after the was story published, a second anonymous letter was mailed to The State News in a University Advancement envelope. The letter details instances of workplace misconduct in the department, in which individuals were allowed to quietly resign, as well as anecdotal grievances with human resources employees.
The individual who sent the letter is not alone in believing they have nowhere to go in addressing their concerns.
Culture of misconduct
Thomas is not the first University Advancement official to be disciplined for misconduct.
There are ongoing Office of Institutional Equity, or OIE, investigations involving University Advancement, MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant confirmed.
Thomas’ predecessor, former head of the MSU Alumni Association Scott Westerman, resigned in April 2018 while under investigation for Title IX violations. He was later found to have violated university policy by sexually harassing a student employee. The claimant in the case told investigators she was concerned about filing a report because she was afraid of possible repercussions, including losing her job.
Former Associate Vice President for University Development Pete Lasher and former Executive Director of Constituent Relations Andrew Watkins are mentioned in the anonymous letter as having been found responsible for sexual misconduct. Guerrant confirmed there were findings in both investigations.
Lasher and Watkins were allowed to resign from their positions.
When reached, Watkins told The State News to read his OIE investigation report, stating The State News would “learn a lot” about OIE. He declined to comment further. The State News submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the investigation reports.
Lasher could not be reached at time of publication.
The three resignations took place under Bob Groves’ tenure as vice president of University Advancement. Sources including the anonymous letter said Groves tolerated bad actors in the department, and “passionately defended” Westerman and Watkins. Groves resigned in November 2018 and was replaced by Heil.
“I have never tolerated nor excused sexual misconduct at MSU or anywhere else,” Groves said in an email statement. “I have worked to ensure that all employees are valued and any employee accused of wrong doing is afforded the full due process that they are entitled too (sic). I’m very proud of the staff and culture we built and the work we did during my tenure.”
The culture developed under Groves has been maintained even after his resignation from the department, sources said. The first source described the current environment as toxic and one-sided toward management, in a manner that negatively impacts morale.
“It’s the same environment with the same problems that are going unreported and unrecognized, because people fear for their livelihoods,” the fourth source said.
The second source had no issues with Groves, besides his appointment of Thomas to replace Westerman. They said Groves could and should have asked questions about Thomas and Deneau when the appointment was being made. But when it was finally looked into, the second source said the situation with Thomas and Deneau was treated with a similar lack of transparency and accountability.
The situation at University Advancement cannot be pinned on one person, the second source said. They said the whole culture needs to be changed.
“It would be very meaningful if people who are found to be bad actors are ... treated in a manner that is commensurate to the things they have done,” the second source said.
A permanent president and a change in management might help fix the environment, the third source said. Others called for an investigation into the department.
“Sometimes it feels like they just want to keep the curtains closed and not let the outside world know how bad it can get and how bad it’s been,” the third source said. “It’s getting old because nothing has changed.”
The Thomas Fallout
Annual Giving was removed from Thomas’ supervision following the outcome of the investigation into his relationship with its director, but he still oversees all other departments that previously reported to him.
The atmosphere created by the situation was not because Thomas and Deneau behaved unethically, the fourth source said. It was the hostile environment and favoritism the relationship and Thomas' conduct created among the employees he supervised.
Thomas did not respond to a request for comment made through Guerrant.
“You have someone in charge of outward-facing communications who isn’t living the values that our president, Satish (Udpa), has set forth,” the fourth source said. “In any other organization in 2019, that person would’ve been asked to leave — quietly — and not be allowed to return to work and to manage the same people.”
The decision to allow Thomas to return to work was made by Vice President of University Advancement Marti Heil, Guerrant confirmed in the previous report.
Heil’s decision to allow Thomas to return has negatively affected the work environment, some sources said. The second source said it’s frustrating to feel like the issue was finally discovered, but still not acted upon.
“It’s not right that people who themselves are unethical with regard to sexual behavior in the workplace are making decisions about other people,” the second source said.
While the Thomas issue was investigated, affected staff were never asked for their opinions, how they felt or how they currently feel, the first source said.
“There’s been no follow-up whatsoever,” the first source said.
“A lot of things have happened, and there’s nobody in our executive level that is doing any kind of investigating, asking people questions or anything at all,” the second source said.
Heil did not ask questions about how the situation was and is affecting workers, the fourth source said.
“We all were hopeful, we gave her the benefit of the doubt, and we’ve been sorely disappointed because we’ve been ignored,” the fourth source said. “We haven’t been consulted, we haven’t been valued or enabled to do our jobs, we’ve just been dictated to.”
In a statement provided by Guerrant, Heil said she cannot comment on personnel decisions made under previous University Advancement leadership. In response to the anonymous letters, she said a staff meeting has been set for early May with MSU Academic Human Resources, Employee Relations and OIE to talk “policies, questions and concerns.”
“I returned to MSU last year during a pivotal time for the university in how sexual assault and harassment topics were being addressed, and also during a time when the university has been re-evaluating its approach to these important topics,” Heil said in the statement. "I can say that I’m working very hard to do the right thing as situations are brought to my attention. The morale of our unit and our workplace environment are critical to our Spartan success, and also to me personally in wanting all our employees to feel supported and safe.”
Nowhere to go
Employees in University Advancement are scared to report workplace issues, sources said. They feel they won’t be listened to through official channels and fear repercussions from superiors for complaining about officials.
“It’s sort of an undercurrent that is below the surface, and it’s become institutionalized, and therefore nobody’s gonna talk to anyone,” the fourth source said.
A perceived lack of action taken, including in the Thomas situation, has had a chilling effect on reporting, sources said.
“After Marti Heil permitted Bob Thomas to return to work, it set the worst possible precedent,” the fourth source said. “If that’s tolerated, and that’s rewarded by having to report to someone who has done that and isn’t being punished properly, then nobody’s gonna say anything about anything.”
This feeling has been present for years, sources said. Some take issue with Vivianne Robinson, University Advancement’s Director of Human Resources. Sources, including the anonymous letter, said Robinson protected certain individuals and is not trusted to follow up on complaints. Robinson did not respond to a request for comment made through Guerrant.
“Pretty much anybody here — if they were being honest and knew that they could tell the truth — would tell you that they cannot trust the HR director,” the first source said. “Do people (bring grievances to Robinson)? No, because you know better. Why waste your breath?”
The third source also alleges human resources employees under Robinson are reprimanded for trying to assist those with complaints.
“These two individuals try to go above and beyond, have gone out of their way to give us resources — people like myself and others have sought their support and help. And they’ve been reprimanded,” the third source said.
The second source said they have seen evidence of employees being treated differently, excluded from communications and having their motives questioned for being suspected of leaking.
“The problem here is we don’t know what to do,” the first source said. “They don’t know who to turn to.”
Recent leaks, including the Thomas materials, the second letter and materials concerning former Trustee George Perles’ donation leaked to the Detroit Free Press, speak to the culture within University Advancement, sources said.
“That is not a culture that we want at MSU,” Guerrant said. “We want people to feel comfortable in coming forward.”
These leaks are a clear indication that people are angry, the second source said.
“People feel that justice haven’t been served,” they said. “Some of them have been allowed to resign, but that isn’t real accountability. Some haven’t. Bob and Kathleen are still here.”
Patterns of inaction
The allegations follow a pattern of disciplinary inaction at MSU.
A lawsuit filed March 22 alleges MSU ignored complaints about a tenured engineering professor who exploited his students’ labor at his personal company. The students feared repercussions from the professor, who was their doctoral supervisor.
MSU Greenline, supervised by Deneau, did not fire an at-will employee found responsible for sexually assaulting a coworker, The State News reported in November 2018.
MSU still employs trainers Destiny Teachnor-Hauk and Lianna Hadden, both of whom are accused of not reporting allegations against Larry Nassar, Guerrant confirmed. The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, or LARA, issued complaints against Teachnor-Hauk and Hadden in February, alleging they lied to investigators about their knowledge of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse. The complaints are still open as of April 3.
Graham Pierce, Assistant Director of MSU Usability/Accessibility Research and Consulting, said a fear of repercussions is common within departments at MSU. Pierce aired this concern to members of the MSU Board of Trustees at a March town hall meeting.
“What you end up seeing a lot is people not speaking until after they end up being fired or quitting the university, because at that point they are safe to say it,” Pierce said.
There is a broad perception that some people’s MSU careers have ceased to advance or ended because they criticized those above them, those in power, or the structure or direction of parts of the university, Pierce said.
He said he’s fairly lucky that departments he’s worked in have been more supportive, and said he has spoken for others who are unwilling or afraid to do so.
“Many (people’s) financial situation is supporting children and families and things that there’s a significant risk to others if they lose their job,” Pierce said. “I am fortunate in that I happen not to have a lot of dependents, so I can take more risks. I have chosen to prioritize ethics in such a way that I am willing to lose my job.”
Some people at MSU are broadly known to be problematic, but the university’s structure protects them because there’s no safe way to bring issues to light, Pierce said.
“When those things are challenged, the people that are protected are typically the people in power who are causing those problems,” Pierce said. “There isn’t trust that coming forward will do anything. I certainly know of people who have had a significant number of complaints made against them by a significant number of their staff and nothing happens. That’s where we have this breakdown culturally that will be very difficult to change.”
Pierce said he knows of multiple situations at MSU where there is a fear of repercussions.
“You have entire staffs ... stressed out day-to-day in these additional ways because of the way they’re being treated and cannot get anything to change about that,” he said. “If some people (are) speaking about it with a place like HR and nothing happens, then the rest don’t bother speaking because why would they put their neck out there, risk retribution and have nothing happen?”