Report: Lessenberry had pattern of 'very troubling conduct' at WSU

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
Jack Lessenberry

Excessive attention. Unwanted touches. Flirtatious messages. Retaliation for rejected advances.

An independent investigation into harassment allegations against former Wayne State University journalism director Jack Lessenberry accuses the longtime media figure of a pattern of such behavior over the years with multiple students — “very troubling conduct” — that violated school rules on non-discrimination and sexual harassment, according to the report.

“Had he not resigned, I would have recommended termination of his employment based on the factual findings and related policy violations,” attorney Tara Mahoney wrote in an analysis of her findings.

Her conclusions emerged through a probe that Wayne State launched following a Deadline Detroit story this spring that accused Lessenberry of a “long history of questionable behavior with women.” The website reported he allegedly made inappropriate comments and paid unwarranted attention to women dating back to the 1990s, when working as an editor at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis.

Lessenberry, who resigned his WSU position in June, declined an invitation to participate in the probe. But Mahoney interviewed 20 people, including university faculty and students who had him as a professor or internship coordinator, she wrote.

Details were not disclosed when Linda Galante, the school’s associate general counsel, told an alleged victim in an email Wednesday about the investigation findings. The Detroit News obtained the full report Thursday through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Through her interviews, Mahoney “heard consistent stories which shed light on Mr. Lessenberry’s conduct,” she wrote in the account, including students describing him as having “favorite” female pupils “with whom he seemed close and to whom he paid extra attention. Sometimes these students were admittedly vulnerable due to personal situations, and they believe Mr. Lessenberry preyed on this vulnerability.”

Among the alleged behavior, Lessenberry wrote: “I wish I could love you” on a student’s test, and once sent her an email saying, “Some day I shall kiss you; the jail time will be worth it.” Another read: “You know you mesmerize me, and I could get lost in you.”

Eight of the women whom Mahoney interviewed claim Lessenberry offered remarks such as “You’re so pretty,” “You’re beautiful” or “You’d be perfect on camera,” according to the report. Besides physical contact ranging from placing a hand on a student’s shoulder to hugging, he is accused of inviting “pet” pupils to his office to discuss grades or internships then focusing on describing their appearance.

Reached Thursday, Lessenberry told The Detroit News: “Much of this is wholly untrue, inaccurate or distorted, but you can’t prove a negative, especially when your accusers are not identified. I cannot control what anyone believes, am no longer at Wayne State, and only wish to get on with my life and work.”

Since news of the allegation emerged in May, Lessenberry has left his columnist spot at Metro Times and quit as a political analyst for Michigan Radio.

He later gained a morning show on 910 AM. His boss told The News this week he did not plan to remove Lessenberry from the two-hour slot.

Lessenberry, who joined WSU in 1993 and also served as an ombudsman and writing coach at the Toledo Blade, is well-known in the journalism field. The WSU investigation report claims he leveraged that status to hinder the careers of students who rebuffed or offended him.

“In at least three instances, students who previously had received significant praise and attention and good grades in Mr. Lessenberry’s classes are aware of Mr. Lessenberry claiming they were ‘difficult’ or unworthy of a job with prospective employers,” Mahoney wrote.

Mahoney also outlined several examples of “the most egregious conduct” she uncovered during the probe. Allegations include:

• Lessenberry inviting a student in her 20s to dinner, where he “kept inching closer to her in the booth and put his hand on her thigh.” The professor also sent the woman about a dozen cards and gifts, then when she spurned him, “told the faculty the student was undeserving of a scholarship (one he had helped her obtain) and suggested it not be provided to her.”

•Sending “loving, passionate cards” to another student with whom he engaged in “numerous … kissing sessions,” including in his office and car. When the woman sought to end the relationship and not participate in an independent study with him, Lessenberry reportedly refused to allow her to withdraw.

• While driving a third student home, Lessenberry told her he “had some students do anything for a good grade” and squeezed the woman’s thigh.

•Describing a hypothetical situation in class with a fourth student, he reportedly referred to them “breeding” and creating beautiful babies. Alone together in an elevator another time, Lessenberry used the back of his hand to caress her arm, which made the woman “very uncomfortable.”

Mahoney noted that aside from one person, none of the other students she interviewed had reported their encounters to WSU staff, and it was unclear what information might have reached Ben Burns, the former journalism program director.

One student whose involvement with Lessenberry reportedly happened from 2015-17 told a school faculty member late last year; that person encouraged the woman to recount her experience but “did not, however, report the conduct herself,” Mahoney wrote.

Mahoney recommended that Wayne State “review reporting requirements with all faculty to ensure they are aware of the proper steps that must be taken if a student shares information that could be a policy violation.”

University officials plan to follow that recommendation with journalism department staff, school spokesman Matt Lockwood said.