“Kangaroo Courts” Aren’t Dead at UNC

Chapel Hill has blundered into a lawsuit by trampling on the rights of a professor.

During the last dozen years or so, one of the more common higher-education stories has been a college or university rushing to judgment against a male student or faculty member over an allegation of misconduct with a female. The Obama education department encouraged schools to “get tough” by employing procedures that were grossly unfair to the accused individuals, usually resulting in their suspension or expulsion.

Subsequently, many lawsuits were filed against colleges for having violated the rights of those who were disciplined. In most instances, the school lost, with the judges frequently denouncing the “kangaroo court” nature of the proceedings and compelling the schools to pay damages.

The mindset that accused male students or faculty must be found guilty of something never went away.Such stories have been less common of late, in large measure because the Trump administration turned away from unfair Obama directives. That led law professor Richard Epstein to write in 2017 that we could bid farewell to kangaroo courts on campus.

He spoke too soon.

The Biden administration reinstated the unfair policies governing Title IX cases, and the mindset among college officials that accused male students or faculty members must be found guilty of something never went away. Former UNC professor Christopher Wretman has run afoul of this stacked-deck game run by his university’s enforcers.

Wretman was a UNC undergraduate who went on to earn two graduate degrees in social work at UNC. In 2017, he began working as a senior data analyst in UNC’s Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research and also teaching as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Social Work. He always had positive annual evaluations and published many peer-reviewed papers. He was engaged in various research projects until the events to be described led to his termination in 2022.

Those projects involved teams. Among the junior team members in 2020-21 were Sarah Godoy and Jia Luo.

In April 2021, Godoy made a complaint that led to an investigation by the university’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office (EOC). She claimed that Wretman made “inappropriate comments” and that working with him made her uncomfortable. Godoy’s superiors did not investigate the substance of her claim but decided to restructure the research project so that she would not have to work with Wretman. More importantly, EOC now focused on Wretman. In a tense meeting, EOC officials told him that he had behaved poorly and, as a straight white man, should comport himself better. That was based entirely on Godoy’s complaint; EOC made no effort to discern if the claim was true and warranted any action.

In June 2021, after speaking with Godoy, Luo also complained to her superiors that Wretman’s communication style was a problem for her in that he was too critical. Moreover, she accused him of harassment and “anti-Asian hate.” She requested permission to work remotely because she feared that Wretman would retaliate against her verbally or even physically. That request was granted. EOC now had another reason to focus on Wretman.

Then, in November 2021, Wretman’s troubles worsened. Erin Meehan, a graduate student, had completed her coursework at UNC and obtained favorable references from Wretman and others for employment in a non-profit organization outside UNC. Wretman had also emailed her to offer his help in the future. But as his problems with EOC mounted, he sent her another email with the subject line “Rescinding Offer of Help.”

EOC officials told Wretman that, as a straight white man, he should comport himself better.Wretman’s reason for sending it was his desire to limit his interactions with all people in the social-work community, in the hopes of guarding against further accusations and professional damage. The two had always had a good working relationship, and, at that time, Meehan was no longer a UNC student or employee. Nevertheless, in November, she also filed a complaint against Wretman.

EOC now had three grounds for investigating Wretman. Based on Godoy’s and Luo’s allegations, it investigated to see if he had violated UNC’s policies against harassment and bullying. For reasons never made clear, EOC decided not to charge him with either. It did, however, charge him with “retaliation” against Meehan. That course of action was determined by two EOC investigators, Jeremy Enlow and Donna James-Whidbee.

How did they determine that Wretman was guilty of retaliation? That’s unclear. I’ll quote from Wretman’s complaint:

Rather than collecting evidence and conducting a robust analysis, Enlow and James-Whidbee relied on a highly speculative story about Wretman’s email that emerged across Investigation interviews among Reporting parties and the witnesses who had been in communication with one another during the lengthy assessments and investigation.

Another way to put it is that Wretman was being railroaded.

Having settled on “retaliation” as the grounds for punishing Wretman, EOC pressed ahead and recommended his termination. In June 2022, Mark Holmes, director of the Sheps Center, informed Wretman that his employment would be terminated. Wretman was shocked at that, since he had never been informed of the findings of the so-called investigation.

When UNC employees face termination, they have appeal rights, and Wretman immediately availed himself of them. He filed a written grievance with UNC’s human resources department, arguing that EOC had failed to follow its own policies and, furthermore, had no jurisdiction over interactions between himself and Meehan, since she was not a UNC employee. His grievance was denied without explanation except to raise a dubious new argument, namely that EOC did have jurisdiction because Wretman had used his UNC email address in communicating with Meehan.

Wretman then requested a hearing and access to the investigative report, but that was ignored.

He then appealed to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz in October 2022, arguing that the university had repeatedly violated its own policies in the course of its investigation and termination decision. On December 9, Wretman received Guskiewicz’s decision, which was to uphold the decision to terminate him. It contained no justification or analysis of his arguments.

The university had repeatedly violated its own policies in the course of its investigation.Finally, Wretman appealed to the UNC Board of Trustees. A three-member panel reviewed the case and, in April 2023, ruled in a 2-1 decision to uphold his termination. One member dissented, stating that the university had not considered any sanction other than termination, as it was required to do.

Therefore, Wretman filed suit against the UNC officials responsible for his firing. His complaint abounds with evidence of the blatant unfairness of the entire case.

Among many other points, he argues that UNC failed to gather evidence in a reliable manner, not only crediting the complainers but ignoring witnesses he suggested and giving him no opportunity to defend himself; that it exhibited gender bias against him; that it allowed investigators to act as both fact-finders and judges; that it never considered exculpatory evidence; and that it did not consider any resolution except termination.

In all of that, UNC violated Wretman’s rights to due process of law under the 14th Amendment, breached its contract with him, and committed other legal violations.

You might think that after all the cases that went against universities in the recent past for their unfair treatment of men accused of improper behavior with women, UNC would at some point have realized that it was treading on thin ice with Wretman, but that didn’t happen. In the hysterical climate of 2021-22 following the death of George Floyd, UNC officials evidently thought they had to prove their dedication to “social justice” by making an example of Christopher Wretman.

In his suit, he seeks compensatory and punitive damages against UNC and against the complicit officials personally for their negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Will UNC attorneys realize what trouble hyper-zealous officials have created and recommend a settlement? Or will they squander large amounts of taxpayer money trying to defend the university’s kangaroo-court treatment of Wretman? The Martin Center will keep you posted.

George Leef is director of external relations at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.