In September 2014, before the battle between universities, their students, and free speech on campuses raged on a national scale at institutions like the University of Missouri, Princeton or Amherst College, it played out here in Tulsa.
George “Trey” Barnett, a theater student, found himself removed from the University of Tulsa just weeks before he was set to graduate. He alleged he was not given due process by the university, and the school’s paper, The Collegian, got involved.
The paper’s story ran months after Barnett was removed from TU, and its editor and writer met several times with administrators before writing a story alleging the school had not acted according to its own policies.
TU has no official journalism program, but does publish a weekly newspaper.
The paper’s published story (TU suspended student without hearing, failed to present evidence to the accused,) accused the school of threatening the writers. The school disagreed, saying they were merely seeking to protect the students and faculty involved.
More than a year later, Barnett has filed suit against TU, claiming negligence, breach of contract, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The university, through its spokeswoman, Mona Chamberlain, said that as a rule it does not comment on pending litigation.
Barnett’s lawyers said two incidents led to the showdown between their client and the school, though they claim neither were worthy of the punishment handed down. In both instances, it wasn’t Barnett, but his then-fiancé (now husband) Chris Mangum — not a TU student — who appeared to draw the ire of school officials.
In the first incident, Barnett and other TU students had agreed to paint a mural near campus, and Mangum, attorney Steven Terrill said, voiced some concerns over perceived safety issues during the work.
Later, during a school trip to Ireland on which Mangum accompanied Barnett, Mangum reportedly made posts on Facebook critical of two teachers and a student. Mangum tagged Barnett in the posts, which due to how Facebook works, made the posts appear on Barnett’s wall.
The posts, according to a story on www.insiderhighered.com, “referred to the professors as unprofessional, immoral and unqualified, and to the student as ‘morbidly obese.’ ”
Terrill said Mangum submitted two affidavits to the school saying he made the Facebook posts without Barnett’s permission or approval. The school argued that Barnett, by not immediately deleting the posts, allowed the alleged harassment to continue. (The lawsuit disputes this, saying the posts were deleted).
Barnett was eventually removed from school. While not being expelled — the school said Barnett could return to campus in January 2016 — Terrill argued that it had the same effect, since Barnett was barred from ever returning to the theater department, where he was just a handful of credit hours away from graduation.
“Most people, when they’re that close to graduation, their stressor is ‘How am I going to parlay this degree into a career, into my next step,’” Terrill said. “Now he’s had that rug pulled out from underneath him and he’s having to wonder how he’ll ever get to that point again.”
Terrill said Barnett has not returned to TU, and has not graduated from another school, though he has researched online classes.
“The amount of sanctions handed down, it’s hard to put into words how disproportionate they are,” Terrill said.
The lawsuit alleges the subject of one of Mangum’s posts, a TU professor named Susan Barrett, spoke with TU Senior Vice Provost Winona Tanaka on Sept. 29, 2014, and then a day later, Barnett was suspended from school.
Tanaka also “imposed a number of other prohibitions and sanctions for alleged violations” of the school’s Harassment Policy.
The heart of the lawsuit is that TU policy states that “in no event” would the school impose sanctions on a student before the student is given a chance to respond to a complaint, something Terrill argues Barnett was never allowed.
Tanaka, according to the lawsuit, realized she had acted before receiving a formal written complaint, meaning Barnett had nothing he could respond to.
Tanaka, the lawsuit states, later investigated her own conduct and “not surprisingly, reached the conclusion that she followed all the appropriate procedures.”
“Based upon the actions of TU,” the lawsuit states, “it appears clear the university had an agenda and design for what it wanted to do with Barnett and worked backwards to achieve that result.”
“The entire investigation seemed to be very results oriented,” Terrill said.