Wayne State journalism department head Jack Lessenberry stepped away from university involvement following accusations of having a history of misconduct with female students at WSU in an article published by Deadline Detroit on May 17.
Linda Galante, WSU’s Title IX coordinator, said President M. Roy Wilson decided to conduct an independent investigation using an outside entity. The investigator, whose name has not been released, has been given full authority to investigate accusations against Lessenberry.
Lessenberry has voluntarily stepped aside for the duration of the investigation, she said.
“It’s the right thing to do, given the allegations in the article,” Galante said.
She said the university tries to handle all complaints as fair and balanced as possible.
According to WSU guidelines, “Discrimination because of sex includes sexual harassment which means unwelcome sexual advances, request for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature.”
Deadline Detroit is a news site featuring original pieces by local journalists and aggregated stories from varying news sources such as The Hollywood Reporter, Vice and the Detroit Free Press. The piece involving accusations against Lessenberry was written by Evelyn Aschenbrenner and Peg McNichol, both former WSU journalism students.
The Deadline Detroit story states that Lessenberry left his editor position at a Memphis newspaper over sexual harassment claims before being hired by WSU in 1993. According to Deadline Detroit, Lessenberry admitted that he made mistakes at the newspaper. However, he said “the accusations there and at [WSU] are untrue.”
Matthew Seeger, dean of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts, and Lee Wilkins, chair of the Department of Communication, told Deadline Detroit they were unaware of inappropriate behavior by Lessenberry.
“So far, the university has received only one formal complaint about Jack Lessenberry during his time at [WSU],” the university’s Director of Communications Matt Lockwood said. “That complaint was about an incident that occurred in 2005 and was filed with our Office of Equal Opportunity in March 2018. An interview determined it was an ‘inadvertent touching,’ which was verified by the complainant, so no action was taken.”
However, the Deadline Detroit article included three former students who reached out to WSU faculty about their allegations, although no formal complaint was filed.
A total of 14 current and former students accused Lessenberry of inappropriate conduct in the article while studying at WSU. Seven were identified, while the other seven chose to remain anonymous.
One of the accusations mentioned comes from Amber Hunt, a former journalism student who took one of Lessenberry’s classes in 2007. According to the article, “Hunt, who was several years older than her classmates, says that after letting Lessenberry know she was put off by his comment that she looked better without her glasses, he subsequently ridiculed her achievements in class. At the time, she was working at the Detroit Free Press and had more than seven years of professional experience.”
This spurred Hunt to reach out to the department at the time, according to the article.
Deadline Detroit stated, “Hunt met with [Ben] Burns, then head of the journalism area, to protest what she regarded as inappropriate behavior with female students.”
Hunt came to Burns alongside M. L. Elrick, a former WSU adjunct professor and 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner, who said he was also troubled by Lessenberry’s behavior with female students, as stated in the article.
Another accusation comes from Penny Bowler. She told Deadline Detroit Lessenberry squeezed her leg while driving her home after a night class in 2006 or 2007.
In a response piece written by Lessenberry and published by Deadline Detroit, Lessenberry apologized for ever making women feel “uncomfortable.”
“For the past quarter-century I have taught at [WSU], where I have helped launch many careers, and helped many students of all sexes, including many strong women, get jobs,” Lessenberry said.
“But I try to be both tough and fair, and two former students with an agenda apparently decided they wanted to get me, and for the last six months have been interviewing everyone they could reach in an effort to turn up dirt on me. I alerted [WSU] when this began, and have been completely transparent with everyone.”
Since the publication of the allegations, Lessenberry has resigned from his columnist position at the Detroit Metro Times.
Galante, WSU’s Title IX coordinator said she encourages current and former students to come former with any allegations.
To read Deadline Detroit's full report, click here.
To read Lessenberry’s response to the original article, click here.