A partner at a major Detroit law firm is conducting interviews for Wayne State University into complaints about Jack Lessenberry by past and current journalism students.
WSU hired Tara Mahoney, an employment law specialist at Honigman, for an independent investigation as part of its response to a Deadline Detroit project published May 17. Lessenberry, a senior lecturer and program leader who joined the faculty in 1993, stepped aside from teaching and student contacts a day after the article.
“I have several interviews scheduled this week,” Mahoney tells Deadline on Tuesday morning via email.
Freelance reporters Evelyn Aschenbrenner and Peg McNichol, who earned journalism degrees at Wayne in 2004, wrote that Lessenberry “has a long and sometimes documented history of allegations that he misused his power and influence when dealing with female colleagues and students.”
A day after publication, Crain’s Detroit Business writer Annalise Frank first reported that WSU “is hiring an outside investigator to assess claims and conduct interviews about Lessenberry, who is head of the journalism faculty. It started the process Friday to look into misconduct claims, Linda Galante, WSU’s associate general counsel, told Crain’s.”
Mahoney joined the downtown firm in 2005. Its website says she “possesses experience in counseling a wide range of employers on complex employment issues, including workplace harassment.”
For WSU, she’ll examinine whether there are credible allegations that Lessenberry created a hostile environment for women and perhaps violated university standards of faculty conduct. The assignment appears open-ended, with no time frame disclosed.
“These allegations are serious and the university is committed to fully investigating all reports of inappropriate behavior,” Matt Seeger, dean at the College of Fine Performing and Communication Arts, tells journalism students in an email sent May 20 — a Sunday. “The university has arranged for an outside, independent investigator to conduct an inquiry.”
Seeger invited recipients to contact him or Galante “should you have any experiences or issues you would like to report, concerns about Professor Lessenberry’s interaction with you or with others.”
In addition to meeting with anyone who comes forward, attorney Mahoney reaches out to women who’ve spoken publicly about unease with the lecturer, a longtime journalist who’s not a tenured faculty member and doesn’t rank as a professor.
She contacted Aschenbrenner, lead writer of Deadline’s original coverage, late last week to invite a telephone interview soon. The Michiganian is teaching in Wroclaw, Poland.
The lawyer, who joined Honigman in 2005 fresh out of tnhe University of Michigan Law School, is a Plymouth resident with another UM degree — a general studies diploma from 2002. One area of academic focus was Women’s Studies, her LinkedIn page says.
Expeience includes trained technology company managers and executives in Ann Arbor about “harassment and other employment hot topics,” her firm biography says.
Within a week of Deadline’s first article about Lessenberry, the 66-year-old journalist and educator resigned as a Metro Times columnist and Michigan Radio commentator. In addition, a Traverse City newspaper stopped running his columns.
At the campus where he taught and supervised journalism internships, some undergraduates show frustration and impatience with the university’s methodical approach to claims about him.
Ten student protested briefly May 22. Another demonstration is scheduled Tuesday at 3 p.m., with goals that include “a program of frequent and mandatory sexual harassment/consent/sensitivity training for faculty and students.” An event post says:
“The university turned a blind eye to his harassment. The department even promoted him to oversee the one-on-one internship program despite his history of harrassment. . . .
“It is unbelievable that his superiors and coworkers were unaware of his behavior.”