The Baldacci Letter
Dear Fellow Board Members,
Like you I have been following the developments about the Rodney Monroe case closely. In addition, I have been looking into the matter as well because of its deeply negative impact on the university. I have had conversations with the Rector, Richard Bunce, Robert Holsworth, and others and I wanted to give you my thoughts before the meeting on Wednesday.
The series of emails that put all this in motion are listed below in chronological order. On December 1,2006 Linda Spinelli sent an email to Robyn Lacks in which she tells Robyn that based on her analysis Rodney Monroe would need six credit hours to graduate from VCU’s BIS program.
On December 12, 2006, Kelly Coldiron, assistant to Jon Steingass, emailed Lacks informing her that she was going to email Monroe about a couple of questions on the application and wanted to know if that was okay with Lacks.
At 3:23 pm on February 15, 2007 Spinelli emailed Lacks inquiring about some credits from the University of Phoenix and that she had completed a BIS curriculum plan for Monroe because she felt she needed something for her files. She also informed Lacks that if she met with Monroe to complete his graduation application that Lacks had Spinelli’s okay to sign Spinelli’s name to it.
An hour later, on February 15, 2007, Lacks emailed Spinelli and informed her that Monroe had completed the coursework and she was planning on meeting with Monroe to review his graduation application.
A few minutes later on the same day, Spinelli emailed Lacks and said that some of the courses she had posted for Monroe were duplicates he also took at other schools and that they should get a new transcript so they could delete the duplicates. She also asked Lacks if she was okay with the curriculum plan that had been sent to her.
A few minutes later Lacks emailed back saying she was good with the plan.
On February 21, 2007 Lacks emailed Spinelli informing her that she had met with Monroe to go over his graduation application and had him sign it but was unsure how to fill out the middle section and requested Spinelli’s help.
On February 22, 2007 Spinelli emailed Lacks back informing her that she was passing the application on to Steingass to complete because she had no idea how to fill the rest of it out either.
On March 1, 2007 Steingass emailed Spinelli and asked to meet with her about Monroe’s application that she had put in his box.
On May 15 of 2007, right before graduation, Jim Nolan of the Richmond Times Dispatch emailed Lacks and asked to interview her for a feel good story he was doing on Monroe.
The day before graduation, on May 18, 2007, the story ran. It talks about Monroe’s hard work in finally receiving his college degree. Most notably it states that Monroe took two classes in four months, or six credit hours, from VCU to complete the degree. It also states that Doug Wilder was instrumental in convincing Monroe to return to complete his degree.
This, I believe is the primary paper trail of the Monroe matter. So as early as May 18,2007, everyone knew, or should have known, that Rodney Monroe had a VCU diploma after only taking six credit hours from the university. At that point the conclusion was that a man from a modest background had worked incredibly hard to realize his dream of a college diploma. You should know that a recent RTD article looked at this very same email trail and concluded that no conspiracy existed.
Do the emails (copies of which are readily available) between Lacks and Spinelli, who has since retired, smack of some dark, conspiratorial intent? Do they talk in indecipherable codes or attempt to hide the fact that Monroe was only going to be taking six credit hours? No, instead, they reveal faculty personnel simply doing their job. It is a strange conspiracy and a poor coverup indeed where the alleged bombshell — that Monroe only took six credit hours from VCU — was reported in the city’s main newspaper well over a year ago for all to see. Why was no outrage expressed then? Did the provost, rector and other administrative officials not know of the thirty credit hour requirement? If not, shouldn’t they have known?
The matter apparently lay dormant for an entire year until an anonymous letter was sent to Tom Rosenthal’s business email but addressed to Rosenthal’s wife and asking her to pass it along to her husband if he was indeed the Rector. Simultaneously, another copy of this letter and copies of documents from Monroe’s student files were sent to Channel 6 as well. This is the infamous Harry Potter letter. And though I have never seen the original - and, by the way, neither has any faculty member who was the subject of the allegations in this letter -1 am aware of its basic contents. It alleges that a conspiracy was perpetrated involving President Trani, Robert Holsworth and Doug Wilder to ensure that Rodney Monroe would get a degree from VCU in circumvention of university rules.
As you know this letter hit the university like a bombshell. I followed the unfolding story through emails from the Rector and quite frankly found it unbelievable for a number of reasons. When I learned of the allegedly overbearing manner in which the investigation had been conducted I sent an email to the Rector demanding that an independent investigation be conducted. Then, about a month ago, I spoke with the Rector by phone where he recounted at length and in great detail what had been done up to that time including the interviews of the faculty. He also conveyed his firm belief that the investigation had been handled appropriately. I told the Rector that I believed it was critical to learn the identity of the informant so that his or her credibility could be assessed. For example, if someone has an axe to grind against a target of an allegation that would be highly relevant to any investigation. The Rector told me that they didn’t know who Harry Potter was, but would try to find out. However, he added that it didn’t matter really who Harry Potter was because the allegations were true. I informed him that I was far from convinced that the allegations were true, and that people involved in a conspiracy ordinarily have something to gain by doing so. Here, I could see absolutely none. When I told the Rector this he said they didn’t know what the motivation was either but was still confident they were guilty of the alleged conduct.
I then asked if there was any paper trail tying Holsworth to any of this. The answer was no. I have since confirmed in my conversation with the lead investigator that there is no paper trail tying Holsworth, Trani or Wilder to any of this.
I then asked about the investigation. According to the Rector it happened in two waves, if you will. The first wave revealed nothing other than a lack of a conclusion and, according to the Rector, a sense that folks were not being cooperative. The investigators were told to go back and be more aggressive in their questioning. This is where things started turning ugly and threats about tenure and the like were made. It is also where an investigator questioned Holsworth using a silly tactic to try and get him to confess and implicate, apparently, President Trani in this scheme.
And yet, what plausible grounds were there to believe that the accused faculty members were trying to hide anything? They sat for the interviews without legal representation. They endured increasingly tough questioning. One professor’s tenure was brought into play along with another cheap tactic involving a personal issue. I understand that the Provost has apologized to at least one of the professors for this. In addition, an aggressive local TV reporter, perhaps tipped off by someone at VCU, was even staking out their homes and phoning them constantly. It sounds more like a CIA torture session than a university investigation over an internal issue.
There was also a story floating around that Jon Steingass had somehow “given up” Holsworth in an interview and fingering him as the man behind it all. Apparently, this is the smoking gun that has been touted as evidence of Holsworth’s culpability in pressuring Steingass to award Monroe his degree. In my conversation with the lead investigator I was told that Steingass had admitted to university investigators that Holsworth had called him numerous times and had exerted pressure on him. However, he has never said this publicly. Moreover, in an email Steingass sent to Holsworth after reading Holsworth’s letter that was submitted to the Board, he wrote, “Thanks for your precise and eloquent account of this entire situation. It expresses many of the concerns that I have had throughout the course of this investigation.” Further, in an interview that appeared last weekend in the RTD, Steingass does allege pressure.
Only it was from theinvestigators who were trying to get him to implicate Trani and Holsworth and Wilder in this affair somehow. This is something he refused to do. He also says in both this published account and in the most recent RTD article that he signed off on Monroe’s application, although he might not have had enough credit hours at VCU, because Monroe had done nothing wrong and indeed had completed all coursework given to him by his advisor. Steingass, not unreasonably, felt that an implied contract enforceable by law therefore existed between Monroe and VCU and felt bound to uphold it. This is basically the same rationale the Board took in deciding to allow Monroe to keep his degree.
When I asked the investigator about this discrepancy between Steingass’s public comments and his allegedly damning private ones, he responded that the reason why Steingass would not publicly “out” Holsworth was because he would need Holsworth’s recommendations in the future for a job. I told the investigator that I thought Steingass already had another job and therefore wouldn’t need a recommendation from Holsworth. His response was that while that was true he would need the reference if he ever took another job at some point in the future. So we are meant to believe that Steingass, though he already had another job, would libel university investigators so he could one day seek the recommendation of a faculty member who resigned amidst a university scandal where he was alleged to be a liar and the one who got Steingass in trouble in the first place? Frankly, that explanation did not sway me.
In addition, I asked the investigator about Holsworth’s claim that an interrogator waved an email in front of him purportedly containing some incriminating evidence, and using this as an attempt to get Holsworth to confess to wrongdoing. I was informed that the interrogator never told Holsworth that the email was one written by him. Now, the lead investigator made much of the fact in our phone conversation that the conspiracy allegedly committed by Holsworth and others was one by implication where no direct evidence existed. Well, to be fair, I think we all know what is being implied when an interrogator waves a piece of paper in front of you and talks about incriminating evidence.
In all fairness, the investigator did add that there was no question that Monroe received preferential treatment in this matter and he methodically went through a laundry list of items substantiating this. He also said that Linda Spinelli’s comment in her email that she could not complete the graduation application section was not credible because she had completed such applications thousands of times. He felt she could not complete the form in this case because the basic requirements of the application simply weren’t there. I agree that it seems that Monroe was treated differently than other students. However, when that occurs there are internal procedures designed specifically to handle it, which also include due process safeguards. That is not what happened here.
Then things took another strange turn. When asked to comment for the most recent newspaper story on Steingass’s statements about the pressure from investigators to finger Trani and Holsworth, the Rector said he did not know enough about the specific interviews to comment on them and referred queries to the Provost. Frankly, when I talked to the Rector last month he seemed intimately familiar with the interviews conducted, including the Steingass interrogations, and indeed spent quite a bit of time filling me in on those details.
I asked the lead investigator about this further discrepancy. He said that to his knowledge the Rector had not read the interview notes. Yet the Rector has been the public voice and face of the university during this whole time. This included holding a press conference and issuing a public statement to the university community condemning certain faculty and staff for not being cooperative in the investigation. It would seem that to have taken such an extraordinary step - that, to my knowledge, is an unprecedented action by a rector at VCU - that he should have at least read the interview notes.
There was another issue that bothered me. The lead investigator adamantly denied to me that any undue pressure was applied during the interview process. Yet he also stated that he told the Board early on before any interviews were conducted that he felt the likelihood of finding a smoking gun here was remote or if there was one it was “buried in the Atlantic Ocean.” Now he did tell me that he had no preconceived conclusions when he began to investigate this matter because he had “no horses in the race.” So perhaps his comment to the Board before he’d even started his investigation about the long odds of finding a smoking gun was just an unfortunate choice of words and did not reflect any preconception of guilt. Although, when he said it to me, I must confess, it did give me pause. When I asked the lead investigator what possibly could be the motivation behind faculty risking their careers to give Monroe a degree in circumvention of university rules, unlike the Rector, he had a ready answer. He said that they wanted Monroe to teach at the Public Safety Institute or PSI. However, in point of fact, Monroe did not need a degree to teach there. VCU often employs people in the working world who may not have degrees but have proven themselves in their respective fields. They simply have to obtain a waiver. The top ranked VCU BrandCenter is one such place where this routinely occurs. Indeed, its executive director has no undergraduate degree. A law enforcement official with the distinguished record of Rodney Monroe would have been welcomed with open arms to teach at the PSI as an adjunct.
Thus the “degree motivation” falls flat on its face. Yet that fact notwithstanding, having Monroe maybe teach some day at the PSI seems to me very poor motivation for faculty to risk destroying their careers; or the president of the university and the city’s mayor to do the same. And as we know, Monroe is now the police chief in Charlotte and thus it is highly unlikely that he will be teaching at PSI any time soon.
Again, I was not persuaded by this explanation. What do I believe happened? After encouragement from Doug Wilder Monroe expressed an interest in earning a college degree from VCU using his accumulated credit hours at other schools. Dr. Trani was quoted as saying he thought it would be a good thing if Monroe were able to graduate from VCU, as unquestioningly it would be. Robyn Lacks talked to Holsworthabout it and he referred her to BIS for the reasons stated in his June 30 letter that the Board has seen. Steingass, Lacks and Linda Spinelli apparently talked and Spinelli did some analysis of Monroe’s situation and concluded that six credit hours would be enough. Whether her analysis was right or sufficient or whether Monroe received preferential treatment is not the issue anymore, at least in my mind.
Was there bad intent in her motivations? Was she skulking around trying to keep the truth from everyone? Was there any evidence that she was being forced to do what she was doing? No, there was not. Lacks was given the task of working to develop the curriculum for those six hours and then to work with Monroe to ensure he completed the work. The coursework was finished and the application was dropped in Steingass’s box two months before graduation along with, presumably, lots of others. He signed off on it for the reasons he stated and Monroe received his degree. Everybody thought it was terrific and smiles and congratulations were extended all around.
Spinelli’s email does state quite plainly that she was employing flexibility in calculating the six hours. If this calculation crossed the line, then clearly the determination of whether Rodney Monroe received his degree unjustly should have been dealt in strict accordance with VCU policies that are set up to cover situations like this. As I noted before, this policy also provides legal requirements for due process for all faculty members accused of misconduct. As far as I know, during this investigation, the accused were not even given a summary of the allegations against them. Instead of due process, we have hired interrogators posing as Joe McCarthy by waving papers in front of people’s faces.
This opens up the university to potential liability for these failings. If handled internally it would have been a perfect opportunity to ensure everyone - including accreditation boards and university alumni — that VCU has in place appropriate safeguards to guarantee the integrity of its university degree. Unfortunately, instead of an internal university matter, we have a media circus, the public condemnation of faculty and other school personnel, a full-blown public scandal, allegations of investigatory abuse, and multiple resignations of distinguished faculty.
What has long puzzled me about this whole episode is how an anonymous letter could have so immediately instigated such a whirlwind of activity as has ensued here. That an investigation that revealed no wrongdoing on its first phase did not end, but rather the investigators were told to go back and get tougher and more aggressive, which, as we came to know, they certainly did. That the truthfulness of loyal faculty members was somehow held to be less valid than that of an unidentified person? And what made the investigators suspicious that the faculty members were lying and trying to cover up the truth?
From what I have been able to determine it was because they couldn’t remember in exact detail conversations from over a year ago. How many of us can? Or because after being subjected to humiliating interrogation they tried to talk to each other and figure out what exactly did happen in one student’s case amid the thousands they deal with daily. Suddenly that was irrefutable proof of collusion?
When I pressed the lead investigator on this point he reiterated that the bottom line was that even though Steingass won’t admit it publicly, Holsworth pressured him into giving Monroe the degree. He added that Holsworth had simply lied over and over and the fact of his deceit had become readily apparent during the interrogations. When I commented that “lie” was a very strong word he replied that he was aware of that and had used it intentionally. Now, I have known Bob Holsworth for nearly thirty years, and aside from the fact that he is one of the most honest people I have ever met, I don’t know anyone who would describe the man as dumb, careless or a bully. And yet he would have to be all of those things and more to have committed the actions alleged against him and then covered it up so transparently such that his deceit was so readily apparent.
And although I don’t know Jon Steingass, he would have to be pretty weak, just as stupid and fairly indifferent about his future career in academia to have so willingly gone along with this conspiracy because their scheme was so poorly executed that they allowed the Richmond Times Dispatch to publicly reveal the “secret” over a year ago.
Further, the lead investigator told me that there were dozens of criteria that were “overlooked” in granting Monroe his degree. He sees this plainly as evidence of the conspiracy. If so, again, they are the most incompetent conspirators I have ever encountered. While the Rector and some others are adamant that there was a conspiracy because these things simply couldn’t have happened by themselves, I think to believe that a grand conspiracy was perpetrated in which the conspirators were smart enough to leave no discoverable paper trail but inept enough to completely fall apart under interrogation requires a far greater suspension of disbelief.
Now comes the question of who is Harry Potter and what his/her interest is in this case. In a series of email correspondence between Harry Potter and Chip Mahaney the News Director from Channel 6, Potter did his best to stoke the flames. However, in one of his responses Mahaney posed a very pertinent question: “May I ask what’s your specific stake in this cause?” As a board member I not only need to know, I demand to know who is the person who put the university through this. Who is the person who has accused a mayor and former governor, a university president who has built VCU into a powerhouse and a nationally respected dean who has served here for over thirty years of such malfeasance? Do we not deserve to know? Don’t they? If you were accused of such things wouldn’t you want to know the identity of your accuser?
However, when I asked the lead investigator about this he told me that they have turned over the task of finding Potter to the police and that the university is no longer handling that aspect of the case. To his credit, he did say that he believed it was important to discover who Potter is because he violated Monroe’s rights by releasing his records to Channel Six. On this point we agree. If deans and other faculty personnel have had to endure public humiliation, media barrages and resignations, Harry Potter should be held accountable as well. And, further, I would like to know the identity of the person who was apparently leaking information to the media. Allegedly, this included tipping off one reporter about the faculty resignations; that is apparently why they had to be publicly announced so quickly. If those leaks broke any ethical or other confidentiality rules, that person should also be held accountable and appropriately punished.
Indeed, as a Board member, my strong feeling is that we should have known a long time ago the identity of both Harry Potter and the leak. As I told the Rector last month, the identity of the accuser does matter. If he or she turns out to have a personal vendetta against any of the accused faculty or is even unstable in some way it will be a nightmare for the university. And if the person leaking confidential items to the press is not held accountable what incentive is there for people not to commit such leaks in the future?
Obviously, things never should have come to this point. It seems that over the last few months events at VCU were inexplicably unfolding in a parallel universe, where logic and reason were tossed out the window. A world in which one unnamed source could have put in motion this debacle where the reputations of distinguished people were destroyed over an issue that should have been dealt with internally and with dignity, and not played out in the media like a poorly written drama. This is without question the darkest chapter in the saga of a university that I support and love. It is also at this precise moment a university I no longer recognize.
This is only my opinion based on what I have learned and, frankly, by my exercise of common sense. Some or all of you may have drawn different conclusions. However, if you have not already done so, I would encourage you to seek the facts out for yourself instead of perhaps relying solely on the reports of others. I look forward to our discussion of this issue on Wednesday and I thank you for taking the time to read this.