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Charges flew after IU-Kokomo chancellor's sudden exit

April 20, 2013

When Michael Harris resigned abruptly last September as chancellor of Indiana University’s Kokomo campus, he did not go quietly.

In a series of emails exchanged with IU administrators, Harris said he was the victim of a smear campaign by his former IU-Kokomo administrators, led by the woman who became his interim successor, Susan Sciame-Giesecke. He also accused Sciame-Giesecke of plagiarizing some of his academic work.

harris-michael-mug Harris

IU categorically denied Harris’ allegations, and Harris declined to discuss them further.

But the flurry of emails, obtained by IBJ as part of a public records request, show that Harris’ relationships with administrators at IU-Kokomo deteriorated badly in his two years as chancellor and that his departure was not the amicable affair IU and Harris made it out to be at the time.

In the vacuum of information, faculty and local residents speculated wildly about the reason for Harris’ departure. Neither IU nor Harris would discuss those rumors.

But they were strong and persistent enough, according to Harris, that he blamed them for his departure­—and for his difficulty finding a job afterward.

kokomo-excerpts.gif“The ‘bad mouthing’ at best of me and the spreading of the most dreadful rumors by (very few) several leadership people at IUK—continues,” Harris wrote in a Nov. 29 email to IU administrators.

“It is done allegedly in disturbing ways, very secretively and behind very secretive doors. Unfortunately, it is very negatively impacting my reputation and presents clearly and factually a VERY serious problem when I apply for jobs.”

Harris, 57, has not landed a new job seven months after his Sept. 19 resignation as IU-Kokomo chancellor. Reached by email, Harris declined to discuss his departure other than to call it “amicable.”

He served as provost of Kettering University in Flint, Mich., before coming to Kokomo. He and his wife, Tali, have moved back to Michigan, where she works as a nurse case manager at a hospital system.

Michael Harris’ tenure in Kokomo was marked both by impressive achievements and by difficult relationships between IU-Kokomo veterans and their attention-hungry leader.

Under Harris, IU-Kokomo achieved its highest enrollment ever: 3,700 students. Under his leadership, IU-Kokomo also started 15 new academic programs and a tuition discount program for students, and boosted on-campus sports programs.

At the end of 2011, Harris was named “Person of the Year” by the Kokomo Perspective, a community publication.

“He had turned a dormant, old and small regional campus, to an advanced, vibrant, growing and cool campus. Michael brought IUK up to speed in countless ways,” wrote Tali Harris in an email to IBJ.

About his departure, she added, “In such high-ranked leadership position, sometime you have to stand for your values and principles even if it means to give your high-powered job up.”

Harris had a salary last year of $198,900, as well as a university-provided house and car. IU expects to begin a search for his permanent replacement next month.

IU-Kokomo professors did not want to discuss Harris on the record. But privately they described him as a difficult man to work with and ego-driven.

Before Harris’ arrival, professors were free to make comments to journalists as expert sources. But after his arrival, nearly all interview requests were routed to Harris himself.

In addition, Harris made a habit of having the IU-Kokomo communications office issue press releases about perfunctory things—such as when he received “honorary wing commander” recognition from the Grissom Air Reserve Base.

“There was general dissatisfaction. He had a tremendous ego. And that had to be fed,” said Allen Maxwell, professor emeritus of political science at IU-Kokomo.

Plotting an ouster?

Sciame-Giesecke Sciame-Giesecke

One day after Harris resigned, he accused Sciame-Giesecke and other veteran IU-Kokomo administrators of conspiring to push him out as IU-Kokomo chancellor.

In a Sept. 20 email to John Applegate, IU’s executive vice president over its regional campuses, Harris claimed that Sciame-Giesecke had said “that she has been working very closely for close to a month” to push out Harris.

In other emails, Harris said Sciame-Giesecke and other IU-Kokomo administrators called themselves the “group led by Sue that worked with John.”

This group, according to Harris’ emails, included Sciame-Giesecke, who was then the executive vice president for academic affairs; Gerry Stroman, then the vice chancellor for academic affairs; Kathy Parkison, then the associate vice chancellor for academic affairs; Marie Radel, director of marketing; and Beth Van Gordon, chief information officer.

“There is much talk and bragging from the ‘group’ about the work-out class that Gerry Storman [sic], Marie Radel and Sue G[iesecke] took together and where much of the plot was discussed and planned,” Harris wrote Oct. 13 to Jacqueline Simmons, IU’s general counsel.

But IU spokesman Mark Land said there was no group effort to spread rumors and stories about Harris.

“We have talked to folks up there. We have found no evidence that there was any sort of orchestrated effort to disparage then-chancellor Harris. We’re standing behind our folks up there on that,” Land said.

The rationale Harris offered for why Sciame-Giesecke wanted him out is that he had promised to demote her at the end of 2012.

According to Harris’ emails, the faculty at IU-Kokomo strongly objected in January 2011 when he wanted to appoint her as executive vice president of academic affairs, the top academic officer on campus.

Sciame-Giesecke had been a speech communications professor and administrator at IU-Kokomo for nearly 35 years, but she had yet to be promoted to full professor.

According to Harris’ emails, he struck a deal with the faculty that Sciame-Giesecke had to become a full professor by the end of 2012 or else she would have to step down as executive vice president of academic affairs.

Becoming a full professor most likely would have required Sciame-Giesecke to publish more academic research in scholarly journals.

In the summer of 2012, Harris said he reminded Sciame-Giesecke of the looming deadline.

“I told her that we have to make the change as she knows since I had to convince the facility [sic] to allow me to appoint her in a hope she will produce and qualify,” Harris wrote in an Oct. 13 email to Simmons, IU’s general counsel. “She responded to me with much anger and told me that she will ‘change’ me. I was shocked. The rest is history. … And explains a lot.”

Sciame-Giesecke referred questions to Land, the IU spokesman.

It isn’t clear whether Sciame-Giesecke will vie for the permanent job. Land said she can be a candidate if she chooses.

“Sue has done a terrific job,” Land said. “She has a lot of institutional knowledge. She has proved herself effective, kind of a steady hand, while being thrust into this position on short notice.”

Plagiarized presentation?

Perhaps Harris’ most serious accusation against Sciame-Giesecke was that she plagiarized his work after he left.

At issue was a presentation about regional economic development Harris and his director of advancement were scheduled to make in October 2012 at the annual meeting of the University Economic Development Association in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The title and content of the presentation were similar to an article published in late summer by the Journal of the Indiana Academy of the Social Sciences—under Sciame-Giesecke’s name. Harris also claimed that the paper was plagiarized.

A week before the conference, Harris sent an email to Simmons, IU’s general counsel, with the subject line: “Plagiarism SG – Urgent!”

“The fact that I am no longer [serving] as the IUK Chancellor does not give SG [Susan Giesecke] any legal rights over my protected intellectual property,” Harris wrote on Oct. 15 to Simmons.

But it appears that Sciame-Giesecke had written the article well before Harris left IU-Kokomo. Kenneth Colburn, editor of the Journal of the Indiana Academy of the Social Sciences, sent to IBJ the letter Sciame-Giesecke signed when submitting her article. It is dated April 3, 2012—more than five months before Harris left IU-Kokomo and more than six months before the conference presentation.

Colburn, who is a sociology professor at Butler University, labeled Sciame-Giesecke’s article “commentary,” since it includes “interesting” thoughts, but not original research, about economic development.

“It’s just a concept piece,” Colburn said. “It’s not really a research paper. I thought it was interesting because it did touch on a point of view among people in the urban studies field.”

Land said IU investigated Harris’ claim of plagiarism but found no evidence to support it. Colburn said IU did not contact him about the matter.

In Harris’ eyes, IU did little to nothing about his accusation of plagiarism.

“She got me off the [conference] program and gave ‘her’ plagiarized paper,” Harris wrote on Nov. 29. He added, “This conduct by a person who was to step down from being [vice chancellor] on Dec. 2012 because she was not qualified to be a Full Professor after 35 years for lack of publications and now is an Interim Chancellor is hard to understand! Suddenly ‘she is published’ while taking from a scholar who wrote 5 books and 40 papers.”

Harris ended his Nov. 29 email, which was addressed to Simmons and IU Human Resources Director Daniel Rives, by saying, “I again ask you [two] to help and protect me so I can have a future. I sleep well at night cause I know the truth. Does everyone?”•

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