Top faculty leader accused of slander attack against Doug Guthrie
The former business school dean, fired for overspending by $13 million, is now raising big questions about his dismissal
BY CORY WEINBERG and SARAH FERRIS | HATCHET EDITORS
The University is investigating its highest faculty leader for allegedly running a smear campaign that falsely accused former GW School of Business Dean Doug Guthrie of making illegal financial deals in China and having sex with colleagues.
Faculty Senate executive committee chair Scheherazade Rehman is under investigation for allegedly making claims that Guthrie had inappropriate relationships with senior University officials and was taking extra profits from GW’s work in China.
The Office of General Counsel found that the allegations against Guthrie were false in separate investigations. Guthrie was fired as dean and vice president of China operations on Aug. 22, but remains a tenured professor.
Guthrie said he believes the controversy surrounding the 16-month-long attack played a role in his firing last month. His lawyer sent a letter to GW a week before he was fired to meet about possible defamation claims. The University fiercely denied a connection between his dismissal and the allegations.
Kimberly Acquaviva, an associate nursing professor and a member of the Faculty Senate executive committee, went to the Board of Trustees Sept. 4 with the accusation that Rehman was behind the attacks.
Acquaviva provided the board 50 pages of emails and notes during the time she allegedly witnessed Rehman trying to oust Guthrie.
“She’s very focused on destroying Doug [Guthrie],” Acquaviva said in an interview. “It continued to escalate and got worse and worse. I decided to come forward because there was a real effort to try to run Guthrie out of the deanship.”
Acquaviva wrote in a letter to the board that she believed top officials initially ignored her complaint.
“I decided to come forward because there was a real effort to try to run Guthrie out of the deanship.”
– Kimberly Acquaviva, associate professor of nursing
Rehman, who was elected Faculty Senate executive committee chair this spring, called allegations that she tried to bully Guthrie out of office “outrageous” and “groundless” in an interview with The Hatchet.
University President Steven Knapp and Provost Steven Lerman said GW fired Guthrie over the fallout from the business school’s $13 million worth of overspending last year – not the debunked allegations.
“Like any other allegations, we investigate them. But the conversation about the budget problems stood completely independently,” Lerman said. Knapp said he stood behind the provost’s comments.
GW’s legal office also combed through the financial details of GW’s programs in China and found no wrongdoing, Lerman said.
Guthrie said he thinks his dismissal was partially prompted by a letter from his lawyer that asked to meet with University officials about the alleged defamation six days before he was fired.
“Like any other allegations, we investigate them. But the conversation about the budget problems stood completely independently”
– Steven Lerman, provost
“The financial argument of the University doesn’t match up with what the reality is,” Guthrie said in an interview last week. “We also know that the timing is strange, as I was fired shortly after I hired a lawyer. And we know I had been defamed by somebody for a long time.”
He called Acquaviva a “whistleblower,” and said her claims provided “so much clarity on the context of exactly what was happening.”
Acquaviva said one day before he was fired, another senior GW administrator credited Guthrie’s threat of legal action to his dismissal.
Acquaviva claims that vice provost Terri Harris Reed told her on Aug. 21 that “the Provost had been hoping to work with Doug on the budget issues but ‘now that Doug’s threatening to burn the whole house down,’ the Provost and President are ‘done with him.'”
Reed declined to comment because the investigation is ongoing.
Emails sent to the Faculty Senate executive committee obtained by The Hatchet show Rehman raising skepticism about Guthrie’s potential conflicts of interest in China, in addition to some instances when she also attacks his character.
Rehman wrote in a July 25 email that the Faculty Senate executive committee should question potential conflicts of interest in Guthrie’s work in China because Guthrie has a “track record” of retaliation against professors.
“No [business school] faculty member is going to take on this dean directly because of retaliatory concerns on all levels,” she wrote.
The allegations of improper financial dealings in China were discussed in private meetings between the senate’s executive committee members, Acquaviva said. She alleged that Rehman told her on June 28 that Guthrie was “receiving money from a separate corporate entity related to GW’s work in China.” Rehman said Guthrie had been sharing profits with Lerman and other top administrators, according to Acquaviva’s complaint.
Several executive committee members declined to discuss those meetings because they were confidential.
Board of Trustees Chair Nelson Carbonell said top administrators had briefed him on Acquaviva’s allegations before Guthrie was fired. He said he did not know that Guthrie’s lawyer had reached out to GW.
“The administration is in the process of reviewing the matter, and the board will be briefed at the appropriate time,” Carbonell said. “That’s where it stands today. I don’t know what’s true or what’s not true. I don’t have that information.”
A power struggle
Since Guthrie’s abrupt ousting last month, his inner circle, including the school’s No. 2 administrator Philip Wirtz, has demanded a more complete explanation from GW.
Professors across the business school confirm that Guthrie was disliked by many faculty during his three years as dean.
After he was hired from New York University in 2010, Guthrie – one of the University’s highest paid officials – was quickly favored by Knapp and Lerman for his China expertise.
But a power struggle between professors and deans marred Guthrie’s tenure.
Professors said the attacks on his character were burdening – and threatening to end – Guthrie’s deanship before this summer.
“He told us one day, ‘I really have to step down because people are damaging my reputation and this defamation is unbearable.’ He was really traumatized,” said Sok-Hyon Kang, an accountancy professor who served as Guthrie’s vice dean of faculty and research for two years.
Guthrie arrived in the summer of 2010 with a mission to fix the faculty’s “deficient scholarship,” according to his original budget plan obtained by The Hatchet. He took on more power to decide tenure cases, raised research and teaching standards and pitched the idea of buyouts for faculty with lower research credentials.
“The financial argument of the University doesn’t match up with what the reality is.”
– Doug Guthrie
“I think when you’re in the position of dean, trying to move aggressively in the rankings and trying to reform a lot of practices, inevitably some people are going to be upset,” Guthrie said in an interview. “Sometimes these hard decisions upset people.”
Charles Garris, an engineering professor who also served on last year’s executive committee, said he and many of his colleagues deeply distrusted Guthrie’s plans for China.
“Dean Guthrie really was very secretive about the whole process, and that created a lot of resentment among the faculty. It violates the way we do things at GW,” Garris said, adding that the faculty brought their concerns to the provost. “We got very few answers. Dean Guthrie was very tight-lipped about everything.”
Garris pointed to two GW companies as being “fishy”: a Chinese-based company called Qiaohua Management Consulting, for which Guthrie served as executive director, and a D.C.-based company called George Washington Worldwide, which also had his name on it.
Lerman has previously told The Hatchet that the companies helped GW navigate bureaucracy, such as the ban on foreign companies hiring Chinese residents who live in China. Guthrie, a Mandarin scholar, has helped run GW’s programs in China since 2012.
Faculty dissension has boiled over in two other GW colleges in recent years, with the deans of the GW Law School and the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences also facing harsh scrutiny from professors that eventually led to their departures.
Knapp said in an interview Friday that creating a culture of respect in GW’s colleges, like in any community, is a “work in progress.”
“Especially when you have a complex institution with multiple schools, multiple departments, there are all kinds of disputes that can arise, like promotion processes where a person may not agree on one side or the other,” Knapp said. “You have to constantly work on trying to create the kind of atmosphere…you want in a community of scholars.”
The raw inner workings
Rehman defended the criticism she levied on Guthrie, saying she was helping the senate fulfill its duties of faculty governance by asking questions about partnerships in China. She staunchly denied making the verbal statements alleged by Acquaviva.
In an email to the Faculty Senate executive committee obtained by the Hatchet, Rehman said she had been “kept in the dark” about programs such as GW’s China Research Institute, its Master of Science in Finance China Program and its Confucius Institute.
“Every faculty member has the right to express themselves. But does that mean it is wrongdoing?” –
Scheherazade Rehman, Faculty Senate executive chair
“We have absolutely no formal communication in terms of actual agreements signed, legal entities created in China, activities taking place, programs delivered, involvement of compensation and faculty, etc.,” Rehman wrote in the July 30 email.
Rehman has a long list of credentials and an influential voice at GW. She worked her way up to the Faculty Senate’s top position, often speaking at Board of Trustees meetings and helping write the University’s strategic plan.
In an interview, Rehman said she has seen the emails Acquaviva sent to the Board of Trustees, which included blunt messages written by the executive committee chair that criticized administrators.
Rehman said while those emails may show an embarrassing side of the Faculty Senate’s raw inner workings, she had no issues with Guthrie’s deanship or the University’s China operations.
“Every faculty member has the right to express themselves. But does that mean it is wrongdoing?” she said.
– Mary Ellen McIntire and Chloe Sorvino contributed to this report.