Leadership & Governance

Complaint Reveals That Roger Williams U.'s Chief Left Amid Harassment Inquiry

Roger Williams U.

Roy Nirschel was president of Roger Williams U. for nine years before stepping down in July 2010.
August 14, 2011

Roy J. Nirschel's abrupt departure as president of Roger Williams University last summer carried the signature of an awkward parting of ways between a campus leader and his board. The university's trustees used a curt campuswide e-mail to declare the immediate end of Mr. Nirschel's tenure, stating no plans to hold so much as a farewell reception for a president in his ninth year.

Roger Williams officials have fiercely guarded the details surrounding Mr. Nirschel's resignation. But a secret whistle-blower complaint, which was filed about three months before Mr. Nirschel stepped down, describes the former president as an utterly compromised leader, who for years was unchecked by trustees as employees complained that he sexually harassed them and bestowed favors upon female co-workers with whom he forged close personal connections.

The story of Mr. Nirschel's presidency raises larger questions for trustees, who must balance their wish to afford campus leaders a certain zone of privacy with their legitimate concerns about whether a president's personal life presents a threat to the institution itself. Most boards would be loath to chase down every rumor about a president's romances, but waiting to respond as concerns over a president's behavior grow on a campus carries its own set of potential costs.

The details of the April 2010 complaint, which was obtained by The Chronicle and corroborated in part by former employees, suggest that Mr. Nirschel's actions had long-term implications for Roger Williams, where donors looked askance at the president's perceived personal failings, and jaded administrators and staff members departed or operated in fear of reprisals. While university trustees who received the complaint ultimately responded by hiring an independent law firm to investigate the charges, the details of the complaint give rise to questions about whether board members were oblivious or willfully ignorant of concerns that were widely shared on campus and the subject of curiosity in Bristol, R.I., and beyond.

University officials still largely maintain a code of silence on the subject of Mr. Nirschel's resignation, but a member of the board defended the trustees' actions in a recent interview.

"The faculty would be very appreciative of how things were handled," said Gary R. Chapman, who was the first to receive the complaint as chair of the board's audit committee.

Mr. Chapman acknowledged that the board's response included the hiring of Ropes & Gray, a well-regarded law firm that questioned numerous individuals on campus about Mr. Nirschel, according to people with knowledge of the probe. What the firm uncovered, however, remains unclear.

"I'd be revealing a break of confidence if I told you what the investigation came up with, frivolous or not," Mr. Chapman said.

While Mr. Chapman and other officials are mum about their findings, the complaint lays out in stark detail a series of troubling allegations, including claims that staff members found pornography lying around Mr. Nirschel's office. Signed by four employees, including administrators who worked closely with the president, the report says that Mr. Nirschel made "suggestive advances" toward a senior-level administrator on a 2005 trip and constructed a photographic "shrine" to document a female employee's weight loss. The whistle-blowers also accuse Mr. Nirschel of working behind the scenes to secure a better position for an employee with whom he had a close relationship and traveling with a development officer without her supervisor's approval.

Mr. Chapman emphasized that the university has turned a page. Donald J. Farish, former president of Rowan University, in Glassboro, N.J., was named the new president of Roger Williams in March.

Mr. Farish and Richard L. Bready, chairman of the board, both declined to be interviewed for this article.

Mr. Nirschel also declined numerous interview requests. He did, however, respond to a series of e-mailed questions with a general statement that "a number of" the charges in the complaint were untrue.

"Based on your e-mail, a number of false allegations have been made about me," Mr. Nirschel wrote. "Many of them are absurd and the motivations of the accusers—some of them apparently anonymous—are obviously called into question."

The whistle-blower complaint is signed by Benjamin J. Chevrette, a former senior major-gifts officer at Roger Williams; Lynn M. Fawthrop, who held the title of senior vice president for enrollment and advancement at the time; Judith L. Johnson, assistant vice president for university communications; and Dawn Occhi, then-director of division operations, enrollment, and advancement. All of the complainants except Mr. Chevrette are still employed at Roger Williams, although Ms. Fawthrop and Ms. Occhi no longer have responsibilities in advancement.

The complainants refused to comment for this article, other than Mr. Chevrette, who would say only: "I stand very much behind the fact that I was a whistle-blower. I believe a lot in the students there, and they should know you can stand up to the boss."

Ms. Fawthrop, the highest-ranking official to join in the complaint, makes the charge in the document that Mr. Nirschel made "suggestive advances" toward her on a business trip to Vietnam in 2005. The complaint does not elaborate on the allegation, other than to list it under an umbrella of behaviors that she said "resulted in an intimidating, offensive, and/or hostile work environment."

A Travel Companion

Often charming and gregarious, Mr. Nirschel was known to crack jokes with his staff. He embraced a role as entertainer in chief, once impersonating Lady Gaga at a commencement ceremony. But the jokes sometimes offended employees when they took on a sexual tone, and Mr. Nirschel's humor at times constituted harassment, the complaint alleges. In one such instance, as detailed in the complaint, Mr. Nirschel joked to his office staff that he planned to "swim behind" Ms. Fawthrop on a planned snorkeling trip in the Dominican Republic, where the university had business, so as to get a better view of her body.

The relationship that figures most prominently in the complaint is one described between Mr. Nirschel and Michele Allaux, who at the time of the complaint held the title of executive director of corporate, foundation strategic initiatives, and government grants. The complaint describes a "personal relationship" between the two that spanned six years of Mr. Nirschel's nine-year presidency, overlapping with his marriage to Paula Nirschel, whom he divorced in late 2008.

While Ms. Allaux did not directly report to Mr. Nirschel, the complaint contends that the president told her supervisors that he would directly handle issues involving Ms. Allaux's department.

Ms. Allaux did not respond to interview requests.

According to a former development staff member who spoke with The Chronicle on condition of anonymity, Ms. Allaux accompanied Mr. Nirschel on a weeklong trip to Washington, D.C., and on a separate trip to Florida without her supervisor's approval and with no apparent professional purpose. As described by the staff member, the trips would run afoul of Roger Williams's own policies, which state that "travel on university business should be authorized in advance by the senior vice president/vice president of the unit and submitted at least two weeks prior to travel."

Asked in an e-mail whether university funds were used inappropriately for travel with Ms. Allaux, Mr. Nirschel provided only a general response.

"During my nine years as president I traveled on numerous occasions with senior staff members, development and admissions officers, and volunteers as part of my responsibilities and theirs," he wrote. "My personal relations are private matters. They had absolutely no bearing at any time on my performance as president."

'Private' Lives of Presidents

Mr. Nirschel's contention that his private life was off limits for scrutiny from the public and the board is a position not shared by several higher-education experts.

"Unfortunately for the president of Roger Williams, yes, his personal life does matter," said Raymond D. Cotton, a lawyer in Washington who specializes in presidential contracts and compensation matters. "It's a valid issue in my opinion, because he is the embodiment of the university, and everywhere he goes he should be setting a moral example. The board has the right to hold his feet to the fire."

When and how a board should respond to concerns about a president's personal life is a matter of delicacy, but those conversations are much easier if they can be conducted within a pre-existing system of evaluation, said Richard L. Morrill, former president of the University of Richmond and a frequent consultant for college boards. While trustees may not always have the luxury of waiting for an annual evaluation to discuss those matters, having that process established creates an opportunity to do so, Mr. Morrill said.

Mr. Chapman, the board member, said Mr. Nirschel was subject to regular evaluations, just as any other employee would be. But Mr. Chapman would not say whether Mr. Nirschel was ever questioned about relationships with other university employees during evaluations, and he would not say whether the board was aware of, or concerned about, relationships that even people off campus seemed to know about.

One prospective donor, for instance, told Roger Williams's vice president of advancement and athletics director that he would give money to the university only when the president was "no longer sleeping with staff members inappropriately," the complaint states.

Mr. Nirschel did little to alleviate concerns that he blurred or crossed ethical lines through his relationships with female employees, according to a former Roger Williams University administrator, who spoke with The Chronicle on condition of anonymity. The president, for instance, occasionally attended evening basketball games with an athletics employee, carrying a cup of coffee for himself and his companion, the official said.

"Things like that gave you pause," he said.

Mr. Nirschel had an air of invincibility and was brazen in his flirtation with employees, the administrator said. It is difficult to understand how the university's trustees could have been in the dark about perceptions of the president that were quite widespread, the official said.

Board members are obligated within their oversight roles to question presidents about relationships that may present a threat to the reputation or function of the institution, and any relationship between a president and an employee fits that description, said Mr. Morrill, president of the Teagle Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides grants to colleges and students.

"That is a path adorned with many thorns," he said. "That simply opens the door to every question and problem, because of the nature of a superior having a romantic relationship with a subordinate."

Ralph R. Papitto, who resigned in 2007 as chairman of the Roger Williams board amid controversy over his use of a racial slur, said he and the rest of the trustees simply did not do enough to investigate whether Mr. Nirschel's behavior and relationships were a problem.

"Everybody fell down on the job," says Mr. Papitto, who founded Nortek, a Fortune 500 company. "Did we pursue it as we should have? I have to admit no."

A Woman of Interest

Mr. Nirschel's relationships with women on campus gave rise to concerns about favoritism and alienated other employees, as evidenced in an example detailed in the complaint and corroborated by the former university administrator who spoke with The Chronicle.

In 2006 the athletics department was planning to hire a full-time program coordinator. Before the search began, however, the slot was filled on an interim basis by a woman who was a part-time exercise instructor at the university, the complaint states. This was the same woman with whom Mr. Nirschel sometimes attended basketball games, and he was known to be friendly with her in the workplace. Mr. Nirschel frequently visited the woman in her cubicle, pulling up a chair to sit alongside her and chatting with her at length, the administrator said. Yet this was not an employee with whom the president would have any official business, the administrator said.

When the administrator inquired whether the program-coordinator position would be filled permanently after a national search, Mr. Nirschel assured him it would. Within weeks, however, a human-resources official informed the athletics department that there would be no search and that the woman was to be given the job on a permanent basis, in accordance with Mr. Nirschel's expressed wishes.

The administrator declined to identify the woman, whose name is not provided in the complaint.

The administrator said he eventually confronted Mr. Nirschel about the woman, explaining that he had been told by another employee that the relationship was intimate. Mr. Nirschel neither confirmed nor denied the charge, the official said.

The former administrator said he left the meeting, "saying, I don't know where this is going for me personally, because he knows that I know."

"So the relationship we once had is now over," the official said. "It's an entirely new relationship, and it's one that I'm not comfortable with."

Not long after, the official left the university, joining what he described as a parade of good employees who found jobs elsewhere after they became disillusioned with Roger Williams as a result of Mr. Nirschel's behavior.

Years would pass before Roger Williams trustees began their investigation of the president.

Dismissing Critics

Mr. Nirschel's tenure was not universally panned. Two former co-workers, one of whom said he had "nothing but respect" for Mr. Nirschel, described him in positive terms. His ex-wife, Paula, said Mr. Nirschel was a transformational figure at Roger Williams.

While she declined an interview request for this article, Ms. Nirschel said in an e-mail that the university appeared to be on the brink of financial collapse when the Nirschels first visited, only to become a vibrant institution under her former husband's leadership.

"I commend Roy on the job he did to make RWU some of the best it could be," she wrote. "He put his heart into his work, and I believe most people on campus would attest to that. I hope you paint the complete picture of Roy's years at RWU."

Mr. Nirschel similarly defended his leadership, while dismissing his critics.

"A record of achievement, like mine at Roger Williams, does not come about without making significant change. I understand that change is often difficult, and to achieve it someone in my position often leaves bruised feelings and egos along the way. Allegations of the kind you reference are on the other side of that coin."

For a president who had a high profile in his community, Mr. Nirschel's life after Roger Williams has been relatively quiet. Mr. Chapman, the board member, said he had completely lost track of the former president, and in recent weeks Mr. Nirschel has not responded to messages sent through e-mail and LinkedIn.

But the Internet offers some clues about Mr. Nirschel, suggesting he is living well and still involved in higher education. A recent YouTube video featuring his son, Chris, was shot on a posh rooftop in New York City's West Village, which Chris described as his father's "lovely studio with this gorgeous view."

Mr. Nirschel was generously paid at Roger Williams. With a total compensation of more than $537,000 in 2008, his earnings ranked among the top 15 percent of presidents at baccalaureate institutions, according to The Chronicle's most-recent comparative data.

While Mr. Nirschel did not respond to questions about his current professional endeavors, a Web site for the American University of Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City lists him as the university's president. A brief biography on the site mentions Mr. Nirschel's background as a vice president at the University of Miami and touts his credentials as a former "university president." The name Roger Williams University is conspicuously absent from his list of professional accomplishments.