In the interest of full disclosure: I am the ex-husband of Rhonda Wooley, an Assistant Professor of Theatre at Gordon State College which is part of the University System of Georgia in Barnesville, GA. While I was her husband I had strong suspicions of affairs, some with students, at other colleges where she had previously taught. Then, at Gordon State College this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Sure, I was angry, very angry. But that is not why I wrote this article. Friends of mine, who were educators and professionals familiar with the University System of Georgia, argued the welfare of students, and others, is the reason I needed to speak up.
This is not a million dollar scandal that will make the national headlines, but it is indicative of a larger issue at play in Georgia and nationally. Sexual harassment and improper professional relationships has been in the news a lot recently. Colleges are the places you send your sons and daughters to receive an education with the expectation they will be safe and well-supervised, not places where you expect your children to hook-up with their professors.
I had grappled with filing a complaint against my ex-wife Rhonda Wooley with the Board of Regent’s Office of Ethics and Compliance for a long while. The evidence against Rhonda Wooley’s ethical violations was strong; the enforcement of the Board’s policy against improper and amorous relationships however turned out to be rather weak.
The complaint cited improper relationships with three of her students, as well as her not reporting a colleague theatre instructor’s spending nights with a student who was renting space in our home. There was an investigation. As it turned out the process of the investigation on campus, and my own pursuit of the facts, became the prime issues and the reason for this article. However, the relationship Wooley had with a student is the focus which ties it all together.
I was the only person with enough information to file the complaint. After several months, I was convinced; I filed a complaint with the Board of Regents Office of Ethics and Compliance. After their investigation, she had only a “letter of reprimand” placed in her personnel file reported the Director of the Board’s Office of Ethics, Wesley Horne. I attempted to find out if the college had issued Mrs. Wooley a new contract; the wagons circled and the defenses mounted. It took an Open Records Request legally forcing the college to answer my question: Yes, she had a new contract.
The Board of Regents sent the complaint back to Gordon State College to investigate. While several other faculty and administrators were involved, a three person committee of top administrators and colleagues of Assistant Professor Rhonda Wooley were selected by former congressman, now Gordon State College President, Max Burns, to investigate: Dr. Margaret Venable, Provost & Vice-president for Academic Affairs, Ms. Tonya Johnson, Director of Human Resources, and Dr. Dennis Chamberlain, Vice-president of Student Affairs. Their findings: “There was insufficient evidence to substantiate any inappropriate relationships,” but she did engage in “inappropriate actions involving a student.” Mrs. Wooley was subsequently “counseled” and sent two letters (copies also placed in her personnel file.)
Provost Margaret H. Venable, sent a letter of mostly praise for Wooley’s performance, but did say “It is prudent to avoid behaviors and situations that could give the appearance of either impropriety or favoritism.” Interim Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs later offered a bit stiffer letter. The letter was, again, filled with praise but warned, “. . . any further communications or contact with students not related to your professional responsibilities will result in severe consequences, up to and including termination.” He was also describing her offense as giving the “appearance of impropriety or favoritism.” I was dumbfounded. Everything the committee and the Provosts wrote twisted and reshaped what took place into something requiring little more than counseling and a couple letters of mostly praise.
Romantic relationships between a faculty member and student are a serious problem for a college. The student may believe his or her grade may suffer, if they do not respond favorably – sexual harassment. Even if it wasn’t harassment, the student may later claim that it was. An agreeable romantic relationship can go sour resulting in unnecessary tension in the classroom and motives for retribution. The younger student may misinterpret the depth of the relationship ushering another unnecessary emotional hardship on the student and negative PR for the college. A jilted student’s studies begins to suffer; who’s at fault? Other students having knowledge of the relationship may find a favoritism (real or imagined) toward the student. (In this case the student involved with Mrs. Wooley was given most of the male leading roles in the campus plays, and was the first student allowed to direct a play.) Moreover, all such problems can become lawsuits. Even today, Assistant Professor Wooley’s student could sue the University System of Georgia for sexual harassment. All the texting, phone calls, even his helping Mrs. Wooley move furniture out of her home into an apartment, would be strong evidence of a relationship Wooley denies; her denial of harassment could fall on deaf ears. Amorous, romantic, improper relationships between faculty and students can become very serious problems where no one wins.
Consider the evidence the committee had before them. Leave aside the very suggestive messages two male students sent Mrs. Wooley (intercepted by her husband.) Leave aside all the many phone calls between Mrs. Wooley and the student. Consider only the text messages between them:
July 183 texts, 182 after 9 PM. (Classes were not yet in session.)
August, 87 texts, 42 after 9 PM
September 75 texts, 54 after 9 PM
October 150 texts, 27 after 9 PM
November 1,594 texts, 607 after 9 PM
December 2,370 texts, 1,190 after 9 PM
Mrs. Wooley went to her family home in Alabama for Christmas. On Christmas Eve there were 53 texts. On Christmas Day 122 texts to and from the student, 1 text to her husband telling him she didn’t have time to text. 26 on New Year’s Eve and 54 on New Year’s Day. In January there were 1,337 texts, 675 after 9 PM. For the first two weeks in February there were 450 texts, 387 after 9 PM. Most nights the texting went on until 1-1:30 AM. Sometimes it went to 2, 3 and 4 AM. Assistant professor Wooley and her student both, nearly word for word, insisted their calls and texts were about theatre, some personal issues and “general stuff.”
In his letter to Wooley, Provost C. Jeffery Knighton observed “there were more than 2,000 text messages between you and a student at a time when there was no expectation of a need to communicate with students. Actually, during the 7 ½ month period there were 3,164 texts after 9 PM into the early morning hours. This count does not include the holiday texts when, also, there would be no expectation of a professional need to communicate. (There were 6,276 total texts, all from Verizon logs.)
The committee met separately with Mrs. Wooley and her student. They were each asked five questions; these meetings lasted 20 minutes. The committee then made their finding. To say there is only an appearance of an improper relationship is like saying there is only an appearance of fire in a room blackened with smoke. In her praise-filled “letter of reprimand,” Provost Margaret Venable described all the texting and phone calls as “potential confusion and misunderstanding.”
I wondered if Gordon State College renewed her contract for the next year. I didn’t know it, but a new, full investigation was beginning. It would be a much bigger investigation than what Gordon State College held.
After learning the findings of the committee, I contacted the Board of Regents Director of Ethics, Wesley Horne, and asked if Rhonda Wooley had been offered a new contract from Gordon State College. Horne said he didn’t know. This was a lie; he knew. Horne emphasized a “letter of reprimand” was placed in Wooley’s permanent record. I asked Horne if he had a copy of this letter. He said he didn’t and that all of the investigation documents were kept on the local level, at the college. Later documents obtained show he had these reports and findings. The Director of Ethics and Compliance for the Board of Regents lied again.
An Open Records Request was filed at Gordon State College asking for any documents relating to Assistant Professor’s Wooley’s new contract. Human Resources Generalist Jessica Yarborough responded sending a copy of the new contract. Surprised at the decision to retain Wooley, I filed a new Open Records request for the letter of reprimand and all other documents related to the investigation of Assistant Professor Wooley. Yarborough sent a letter by Certified Mail saying it would require three weeks to compile all the documents. “Once we have compiled all the information and determined the cost for these documents, we will notify you.” I wonder how many people would withdraw their request not knowing how large a bill they would incur if they had to pay the cost of personnel working three weeks. The Open Records Act does not let the college to do this. I cited where they were not adhering to the law in three places. Interim Human Resources Director Laura Bowman provided to me only one of the “letters of reprimand” written by interim Provost and Vice-President of Academic Affairs C. Jeffery Knighton. While Bowman did not repeat the monetary charges involved, she did provide the first of a reoccurring mantra: “I am aware of and have access to no other document related to this incident.” In a phone call I told Bowman my request was broader than only the documents she had access to. It was a request which includes documents anywhere on the campus. Bowman repeated her mantra. So, the three weeks needed to compile the requested records was for one page only. The huge personnel costs suddenly disappeared. Did they overestimate one page by three weeks’ work?
Ethics Director Wesley Horne was not truthful about his not having any records so an Open Records Request was filed with the Board of Regents for all documents related to the investigation at Gordon, including any held in the Office of Ethics and Compliance. Immediately following this request the Attorney General’s office was contacted to see if they couldn’t provide additional motive for the Board of Regents to fully release all documents. I told them about the resistant attitude I was facing at Gordon State College.
There was a call made from the Attorney General’s office to the Board of Regents. 22 pages of records were sent to me, mostly from the Office of Ethics and Compliance. Ms. Kimberly Ballard Washington, Assistant Vice-president in the Board of Regents Office of Legal Affairs phoned Gordon’s Laura Bowman. Bowman immediately sent out an “Urgent” request, to people participating in the investigation, pleading for any documents related to the Wooley affair. In her letter, she says she didn’t know she was required to gather documents from other people outside her office. Bowman is the Open Records Officer at Gordon State College so it’s her job to know this. This letter was cc’d to officials at the Board of Regents including Nels Peterson, Vice Chancellor, USG. Shortly thereafter, 37 pages of documents from Gordon were produced.
After all this, still not all documents were provided and many released were not within the three day requirement. The documents surrendered made references to other documents not included. There were many meetings, many emails, notes, minutes, etc. Many of the documents were of officials arranging a time to meet. Records were lost, not created, or incredibly inadequate. Maybe stashed away. It is certain records of the investigation were not kept in a single, appropriate place if they were not stashed. I don’t know which is harder to believe.
The committee made no attempt to locate students mentioned in the complaint. There was the issue of Assistant Professor Wooley knowing another faculty member was sleeping with a student in her home, but she did not report it. His name was not provided in the complaint, but it was noted he was English. The committee couldn’t figure out who it was; he was never named they wrote. There was only one instructor from England to teach in the theatre department. They noted he was no longer at Gordon State College so they abandoned that issue. There were other witnesses who knew what happened. No record shows Rhonda was asked anything about what went on in her home. The person who knew the most, me, her husband who filed the complaint, was never interviewed. Wesley Horne told me I should be brief writing the complaint; I would be interviewed by the committee. I could have told them where to find some of the students, and I could have clarified several matters the committee struggled with from having wrong or inadequate information. I could have told them the English instructor and his wife divorced over his adultery with a student; she lived just a few miles away. However, a committee document says “All parties were interviewed.” The see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil attitude was very apparent. They talked to Wooley and the student and no one else.
What makes these officials think they can ignore the Open Records Act? I had to twist arms to get what should have been, by law, given to me in 3 days? What makes the Board of Regents Director of Ethics and Compliance think he can lie to me about not having records, about the procedure of the investigation? Once he told me his office never receives even the results of an investigation, a lie. I taught ethics on the college level. The ethical shortcomings I see here would fail my course.
Rhonda Wooley is a very popular faculty member. Charming. I know so; I married her. While she has not received “rave reviews” on her teaching abilities, she has presented better plays on campus than what the college has ever seen. But how can a committee ignore what is obvious to everyone else? How can they spend only 20 minutes asking five questions of the two people involved and make their findings?
One’s own sense of power breeds ethical failings. Release the “open” records or withhold them? Lie to protect the status quo or tell the truth to protect integrity? Investigate or barely go through the motions to protect the result you want to see? When one feels the self-righteous power to choose either of the options with impunity, the breach widens.
The Center for Public Integrity names Georgia as the most politically corrupt state. Ethics enforcement received a zero grade. Stateintegrity.org ranked Georgia 50th in the nation in state integrity investigations. It starts from the top and seeps to the bottom.
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