Dean Whose Silence Couldn't Be Bought

October 27, 2008

When he felt a student had been done an injustice, David Potter came to her defense. For him, it was a matter of principle. Now, the former associate dean of Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Science says he is out of a job because of it.

Last academic year, when he was the associate dean of student services, Potter helped reopen a sexual assault case brought against three varsity basketball players by a female student. The case, Potter said, was not handled by the university’s Judicial Affairs panel -- as is standard practice. Instead, the case was informally resolved among the university and the lawyers of then-freshman basketball players Jonny Flynn, Antonio (Scoop) Jardine and Rick Jackson. The informal procedure was later closed after the female student withdrew from the university. Still, Potter said the student had not agreed to dropping the case with her leaving. Details of this initial resolution are unclear, but Potter said the female student was unhappy with the move. (A grand jury also declined to bring charges against the players, although the woman who filed the complaint stood behind her account of what took place.)

Potter, who worked as an administrator with the female student and her mother, said he thought the university’s judicial rules had been bent and formal justice not been done. Finding the exception made for these athletes unacceptable, he said he was obligated to take on the case and lobby for the female student.

“We all live our lives with things that we think are not cool or wrong, but they’re not major things,” Potter said. “If we took on everything, we’d be another Don Quixote chasing the latest windmill. But sometimes there are things so utterly outrageous that you can let slide by. You can shrug with resignation in this situation, when they are football or basketball players involved, but I said ‘I’m going to the mat over this.’”

In March, Potter petitioned to have the sexual assault case formally heard by the university’s Judicial Affairs panel. Though the three athletes were ultimately cleared of the sexual assault charges when the case was finally heard in August, they were found guilty of conduct that “threatened the mental health” of the female student. The basketball players were put on disciplinary probation -- meaning that another judicial violation could result in immediate expulsion -- until spring 2011, and assigned to perform 30 hours of community service. All three players denied wrongdoing and claimed the activity in question was consensual.

Other officials involved with the case, Potter said, left the university in the wake of the case having been reopened. These officials include a dean and three other staff members from the student affairs office. Of those involved with the case, Potter was one of the exceptions. In June, he stepped down as dean of student services but took on a part-time role for this academic year helping the university in an advisory capacity. The position was offered to him by Cathryn Newton, then-dean of the College, who was about to step down.

In September, however, Potter said he was informed that he was to be phased out of his new position within six months. George Langford, new dean of the college, said the termination was purely a budgetary matter. He said he offered Potter his current salary for six months but that the college could no longer afford to fund his part-time position, adding that Potter’s job was essentially being covered by another new full-time hire at the administrative level.

A written agreement for six-months salary and the termination of the position were presented to Potter with an accompanying confidentiality agreement, which stated not only that the agreement be kept secret but that he could not make or publish any disparaging remarks about the university in the future. Potter said he believes his role in reopening the sexual assault prompted both this termination offer and the confidentiality agreement. Instead of signing the document, Potter retired early with full benefits and gave up the six months of additional pay he was offered by the university.

“Maybe that’s OK to do if you’re in a commercial enterprise, but that’s not right to do at a university where free speech is the lifeblood,” Potter said of the petition that he keep quiet about internal issues. “It doesn’t matter whether some people are asked to sign it or all people are asked to sign it, no one should have to sign it.”

This type of confidentiality clause, Langford said, is commonplace in situations where a position is being phased out or there is a buyout. He added that special care is given to agreements with administrators or other officials who had access, during their careers, to sensitive university and student documents.

As to Potter’s accusation that his role in championing the sexual assault case resulted in his termination, Langford maintains the decision was purely budgetary. He noted that the case involving the three basketball players occurred and was settled before he arrived as the new dean of the College, and he said that any concern Potter had regarding the agreement should have been resolved privately between the two of them.

“It’s an unfortunate situation for the students whose case is being dragged into a very straightforward decision about phasing out a position,” Langford said. “Why he would do this, I’m perplexed. It’s difficult for me to imagine why anyone would use such a case to express concern about a decision a dean made. Instead, he’s using this to make a case to the press.”

Decisions such as the one initially made by Syracuse in this case are often controversial, especially in circumstances where exceptions in formal judicial procedure appear to be made for athletes. In July, a similar "informal resolution" of a sexual assault case at the University of Iowa caused controversy. The mother of a female student who said she was assaulted claimed that Iowa did nothing to shield her daughter from the two varsity football players in question following the alleged assault.

The local chapter of the American Association of University Professors was not contacted by Potter regarding his termination. Patrick J. Cihon, local AAUP president and professor of law and public policy, said his members may discuss the matter informally but that no formal discussion was planned. Though he said he respects Potter’s “integrity and judgment,” Cihon said he does not share Potter’s outrage regarding the confidentiality clause he was asked to sign.

“In my prior dealings with HR, that tends to be HR overkill,” Cihon said. “It’s a kneejerk reaction they put into most buyouts. I wouldn’t read as much into it or see it as sinister as he has.”

Looking toward the future, Potter, 74, said he was planning no formal grievance proceedings or legal action against the university. After 46 years in higher education, he said he will likely remain retired. He maintains that he does not regret his decision to challenge the university and still believes his past advocacy of the sexual assault case was to blame for his termination.

“From my perspective, it’s a straightforward matter of principle,” Potter said in defense of his advocacy for the female student in the sexual assault case. “I wanted to resolve it. I’m not angry at anyone. I don’t want to take anyone out. I believe in daylight and conversation and not shadow and covers."

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