By Emily Garcia |
Special to the Bell Ringer
When Dr. Scott De Rossi filed his lawsuit against Augusta University’s dental college in 2016, he said he considered himself to be the seminal grieving party in what he and others called a trend of retaliatory behavior from Dean Carol Lefebvre and other dental college administrators.
Dr. De Rossi’s time at AU began in 2007 when he left his position at an Ivy League school to pursue a career at what he thought was a “sleeping giant,” of a university.
During his career at the university, Dr. De Rossi asked to be on the search committee for the dental college’s dean.
During the interviewing process, Dr. De Rossi said he was forthcoming about his objections to Dr. Lefebvre receiving the position. These objections, he said, were later revealed to Dr. Lefebvre and put a target on his back for the remainder of his career at the dental college.
“There were a lot of instances where everything I did was put under great scrutiny. I would use the word that the ombuds[man] used…it was basically bullying and targeting on the part of the dean to force me out,” the former faculty member stated.
Dr. De Rossi said that after Dr. Lefebvre was made dean he started to get written up by Dr. Lefebvre for small things. He recalled one instance where he took his daughter to a doctor’s appointment and was written up on a policy violation for using a sick day adjacent to a holiday.
“As a department chair at the dental school I had to bring a doctor’s note to the dean, showing her that I actually was not taking the day off,” Dr. De Rossi said.
The former department chair said he was ultimately dismissed from his position as chair of the department of oral medicine for writing a letter in support for a student of color. He said the student was appealing her dismissal from the dental school on the grounds of racial discrimination.
He explained, “That subsequently resulted in my removal for what she [Dean Lefebvre] deemed as me not being a team player.”
At which point, Dr. De Rossi was nominated for and hired at his current position at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill as dean of dental medicine.
To complete his departure from AU, Dr. De Rossi was given a list of tasks to complete in order for him to leave in good standing and receive his final payout.
Dr. De Rossi said he completed this checklist over the course of three months but to this day has not received his final payout of roughly 90,000 dollars owed to him after AU claimed that he had over-charged for some of his dental procedures.
What really hit home for Dr. De Rossi was when his wife, Dr. Kate Ciarrocca, who was then also employed at the dental college was reprimanded for fixing a veteran’s denture at the Georgia War Veteran’s Nursing Home. Dr. De Rossi said his wife received a conference memorandum that chastised her for not making the denture at the dental college.
“That’s when I realized this has all been personal. This is not something that is based on university policy. This is a really poor leader who has an axe to grind with anybody who questions her ability to run the dental school,” said Dr. De Rossi.
Since Dr. De Rossi’s departure he said there have been numerous other faculty members of the dental college that were ushered out by Dean Lefebvre.
Dr. Monica Chana, a faculty member at the dental college, wrote an email to President Keel and others in December 2019, outlining “examples of unethical behavior, retaliation and waste and abuse of resources at the Dental College of Georgia.”
Dr. Chana’s email, obtained via a Georgia Open Records Act (GORA) request, detailed the pain it caused her to relive the damage she witnessed at the dental college.
But she wrote that, as a faculty member and graduate of the school, she felt strongly about where the school was headed under the current administration.
“I would like to give you my explanation as it relates to my colleagues who have faced retaliation at the hands of Dr. Carol Lefebvre and its aftermath. By writing this letter, I fear that I, too, will face retaliation by Dr. Lefebvre and DCG [Dental College of Georgia] leadership…” Chana wrote.
Dr. Chana’s email summarized how multiple dental college faculty were driven out by Dr. Lefebvre.
The faculty member’s correspondence included details about Dr. De Rossi and his wife Dr. Ciarrocca, Dr. Bhavik Desai, Dr. Richard Callan and Dr. Jeril Cooper.
According to Dr. Chana’s email, after the termination of Drs. Callan and Cooper, she was contacted by several fellow alumni who told her they no longer planned to give money to the dental school.
Additionally, a petition was started on Change.org by alumni at the dental college to “retain these two professors [and] to help ensure the future success of this institution.”
The petition garnered just over 260 signatures but AU and dental college administration have taken no action to reinstate the professors.
Dr. Chana also pointed out that Drs. Callan and Cooper were placed on paid administrative leave after becoming vocal about Dr. Lefebvre’s retaliatory behavior. Dr. Desai was paid to work from home.
“I worry about the future of dental education in our state, [and] I worry about the future of my colleagues and the staff at DCG under the current leadership.” Dr. Chana wrote.
She continued, “The lack of transparency by the current leadership has created an environment of fear. Faculty are constantly looking over their shoulder to see if they are next to be targeted…I really hope that by sharing what I have witnessed and experienced, someone takes a closer look into what is really happening within DCG.”
Dr. De Rossi described in a similar fashion, those who hope to make a difference in culture at the dental college either leave or are ushered out.
“The ones who are good, [and] the ones who are trying to make a difference realize that you can’t make a difference there because they [the dental college administration] don’t want change,” Dr. De Rossi concluded.
While Dr. De Rossi pursued litigation after his departure, some other grieving parties pursued activism instead.
Dr. Desai dubbed himself a “cheeky bastard,” as he recalled his frequent emails to the University System of Georgia (USG), AU and dental college administration.
The nickname, Dr. Desai explained, came from an inappropriate jab one of his superiors took at him during his time working at the dental college.
Dr. Desai was hired in 2018 to replace Dr. De Rossi as section director of the oral medicine department.
He said he received emails from Dr. De Rossi around the time of his hiring, warning him about the dental college but chose to ignore them because dental college administration made Dr. De Rossi out to be a disgruntled former employee.
But Dr. Desai said he noticed that only the administration had ill thoughts of Dr. De Rossi. Amongst fellow faculty and staff Dr. De Rossi was beloved and spoken of highly, Dr. Desai remembered.
At that point, Dr. Desai began to investigate for himself what happened to Dr. De Rossi and found out about his advocacy for a student of color.
Dr. Desai said he noticed racial bias at the dental college.
“I did notice faculty of color in lower than average numbers for an institution in a diverse state and a lack of inclusivity. It appeared DCG leadership lacked knowledge of the difference between diversity and inclusion,” said Dr. Desai.
Furthermore, he stated that the overwhelming number of students of color that commented about the dental college leadership’s mishandling of an anti-Black Lives Matter email, sent to the entire student body by Adjunct Professor Kirk Kimmerling, was only a microcosm of what went on at the dental school.
Dr. Desai said he became vocal about the racial bias and that’s when the trouble really began for him.
According to Dr. Desai, a colleague warned him that a case was going to be made against him and that he needed to watch his back.
He also noted that at the same time, his wife Dr. Anjana Mudambi was having a hard time obtaining a tenure-track position in the communication department at AU — although, he said his wife received prior assurance of a tenure-track position when she was hired.
Dr. Bonnie Dow, a dean from Vanderbilt University, evaluated AU’s communication department earlier in the school year.
In her evaluation, obtained through a GORA request, Dr. Dow wrote that Dr. Mudambi “has the research profile of a tenure track faculty member, and works in important areas… You could consider moving her into a TT [tenure-track] position in Communication Studies.”
Despite Dr. Dow’s suggestion, Dr. Mudambi was still not offered a tenure-track position.
To this day, Dr. Desai said he wonders if his wife’s career was harmed in retaliation for his activism.
Dr. Desai, similar to Dr. De Rossi, was scrutinized heavily towards the end of his career at the dental college. He said the administration looked to reprimand him for anything they could.
Dr. Desai made it a habit to report everything he considered to be retaliatory behavior from administration to Dr. Richard Pawl, then university ombudsman, and Dr. Hubert Van Tuyll, then university advocate.
Emails obtained through GORA requests revealed that Dr. Desai was invited to a meeting with Dr. Lefebvre, AU General Counselor Christopher Melcher and others to discuss his concerns with administrative malfeasance.
Dr. Desai wrote to Dr. Van Tuyll and asked that he attend that meeting.
However, Melcher informed Dr. Van Tuyll via email that, “According to the university definition of the “University Advocate”, attending a meeting between an employee and his supervisor on a workplace employment matter is not an appropriate or authorized function of the University Advocate.”
Although AU’s website states that the university advocate is available to any member of the Augusta University faculty — in Dr. Desai’s case this was conditional.
Dr. Van Tuyll stepped down from his position as a university advocate and the seat remains vacant.
Dr. Desai moved into private practice to continue his career in oral medicine and said he will continue his work as an activist for former AU faculty and staff. Dr. Desai stated that he felt strongly about administrators at AU being held accountable for their actions.
“I’ve written to Chris Melcher that I would like to establish a non-profit [for these grieving parties] called CheekyBastard.org,” Dr. Desai said.
A list of questions for this story was sent out to Dean Lefebvre and Vice Dean Frazier. Neither responded directly to attempts of contact.
AU Vice President of Communications Christen Engel responded on the university’s behalf and stated that the “Dental College of Georgia Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee continues to partner with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and its counterparts across campus to strengthen and sustain an inclusive environment in which faculty, staff and administrators work together to enhance the humanistic aspects of the DCG culture and educational experiences.”
She added that the dental college leadership also holds its own listening sessions to help guide future diversity and inclusion planning.
“In addition, workplace discrimination and harassment are strictly prohibited and all such allegations are promptly investigated in accordance with our policies,” said Engel.
AU did not comment on the pending litigation against Dean Lefebvre.
After four year, Dr. De Rossi’s case remains open.
“I may have been the first of many, but it’s been an ongoing, egregious misuse of power… It’s really unfortunate that more has not been done to fix it,” said Dr. De Rossi.