Employee denies defaming colleague

A human resources complaint filed by a Northern Kentucky University employee alleging defamation of character and the creation of a hostile work environment has been determined to be unfounded, according to the employee that is the subject of the complaint.

Michael Washington, to whom the complaint is directed, said that in a Jan. 5 meeting between himself and Diversity and Employee Relations Director Leslie Pierce, she told him that nothing was found in the investigation conducted by Human Resources that would support the allegations of him creating a “hostile work environment” and issuing “slanderous remarks.”

In the complaint, Debra Meyers, assistant chair to the history and geography department, cites an editorial written by Washington that was printed in the Sept. 28 issue of The Northerner and an email that Washington sent on Nov. 7.

“Dr. Michael Washington followed up [his editorial with] a hostile email to all members of the history and geography department, a lawyer, and staff at the [Cincinnati] Enquirer as well as other periodicals. His hostile, slanderous remarks were aimed primarily at me,” Meyers wrote in her complaint to Provost Gail Wells, College of Arts and Sciences Dean Samuel Zachary, and Sara Sidebottom, vice president for Legal Affairs.

Meyers requested that the university “protect” her from “further abuse by Dr. Washington.”

In the email referenced in the complaint, Washington called the efforts by Meyers and Paul Tenkotte, chair of the history and geography department, to be an “insidious plot … to destroy the Black Studies program,” and questioned their original motives as a result of Meyers’ decision to abandon the proposed change.

“It would be very troubling to discover that the only value of the pre-proposal [to do away with the minor in Black Studies] was to lure our unwitting departmental colleagues into a trap making them accomplices in, what appears to be, a racist scheme,” Washington wrote.

The email also compares Tenkotte to white supremacists of the past, including the Ku Klux Klan, and claims Tenkotte fabricated accusations against Washington before removing him from his position, but those sections do not directly reference Meyers.

In his editorial to The Northerner, Washington also wrote that Meyers may be distancing herself from an “unethical scheme … well-timed to issue the death blow to the Black Studies Minor.”

However, Washington denies any efforts to defame or abuse Meyers and instead said he has tried to seek reconciliation.

Washington pointed out his mention of Meyers in the editorial and said, “I’m still trying to find the slanderous stuff in there myself.”

Instead, Washington said he was just sharing his concerns with how his department handled the ideas for academic change and his demotion from the director position.

Washington said the actions taken in the Fall 2011 semester by others in the department were an “aggressive and successful effort to undermine my authority as the director of the Black Studies program,” and that he had been excluded from talks about the program.

Jeremy Rogers, an attorney at Dinsmore and Shohl who has taken part in defamation cases, read Meyers’ complaint and Washington’s editorial to see if there was any apparent libel. He said he would expect NKU to dismiss Meyers’ complaint.

“I would not be surprised if this kind of complaint were dismissed, simply because it does not appear to be a complaint about workplace harassment, but rather a disagreement about what was published in the editorial. Further, it does not appear to be defamatory but rather a difference of opinion about what’s going on in the various programs that are talked about.”

In his meeting with human resources, Washington requested a sit-down meeting with Meyers and Pierce to “engage in the process of reconciliation,” but Meyers refused.

“Mediation is necessary on all levels,” Tenkotte said. He explained that he feels it is up to individuals to say yes or no and that mediation has to be voluntary. “I think mediation is open certainly between Michael and me, but I can’t speak for other people.”

Sidebottom, who also works as an arbitrator for NKU’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Center, said that mediation, even among NKU employees, must be voluntary. The Northerner found no university policy for mandatory mediation.

The Northerner made several attempts to obtain comment from Meyers, Human Resources, and Legal Affairs.

When asked about Meyers’ complaint, Pierce said she was, “not at liberty to comment,” and hung up the phone abruptly. Meyers also refused to comment. Neither Legal Affairs nor Human Resources would confirm if the complaint had been closed.

The Northerner has filed an open records request to obtain more information.