Central Michigan clears three staff members after investigation into internship program

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

There is no evidence that Central Michigan University employees violated university sexual misconduct policy or knowingly placed students in exploitative internships with a Lansing Democratic political consultant recently accused of sexually harassing employees, a university investigation concluded.

Faculty members Steve Coon and James Wojcik and employee David Clark were reinstated in their roles in August after a five-month paid administrative leave during an internal investigation into whether they knew of Vanguard Public Affairs Owner T.J. Bucholz's alleged behavior toward female employees. 

T.J. Bucholz, owner of Vanguard Public Affairs in Lansing

“…we found no evidence that there was a nefarious ‘pipeline’ of CMU students being sent to Vanguard, and there was no evidence of any University employee ‘pimping out’ CMU student interns to Vanguard or to Bucholz,” according to the report released Wednesday, referencing in quotes descriptions alleged to have been made by a reporter investigating the matter. 

But former Detroit U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, who conducted the investigation, said some witnesses were reluctant to report Bucholz’s alleged conduct to the university “because of their fear of retaliation by CMU or its faculty members.” 

Schneider recommended the university clarify its process for reporting sexual misconduct, increase training for employees to better identify misconduct and improve internship feedback tools and site evaluations.   

Schneider reviewed 42,000 documents and interviewed 53 people, including Bucholz, during his $550,000 investigation into the matter, the Mount Pleasant-based university said. 

“These individuals have been valued members of the university community for many years, and we understand how difficult it was for each of them, and for their students and colleagues,” CMU President Robert Davies and board Chairman Rich Studley said in a Wednesday statement. “Unfortunately, this was a necessary step to maintain the integrity of the investigation, to allow it to proceed and to protect all individuals involved in the case.”

Bucholz repeated apologies Wednesday for any comments that made staff "uncomfortable" and denied any formal complaints were made to him or senior staff about his behavior. 

"As I said during the course of CMU's investigation, no intern 'pipeline' ever existed between my company and the university," Bucholz said. "I took pride in my relationship with my alma mater. The lack of communication with them is truly troubling."

Schneider's investigation focused on four Central Michigan University students who interned at Vanguard from 2016 to 2019 and a graduate who later worked at the firm. One of the former female interns would not grant an interview on the matter and another male intern provided “no substantive information pertinent to our report.”

Schneider stressed in the report that university responsibility extends largely to CMU interns, not to graduates who later went on to work at Vanguard. 

“After a student graduates and separates from CMU, the university lacks jurisdiction to protect that student,” the report said.

The university had five students who interned at Vanguard between 2016 and 2019, including two students who received official credits for their time there and three who participated in internships independent of the university, said John Veilleux, a spokesman for the university. No students have interned at Vanguard since 2019.

The university was aware from the beginning that the allegations involved a fairly small number of employees and students, said Studley, who also leads the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

"But having even one student in the situation that was described by the news media would be a serious matter for CMU," he said. 

The investigation found Clark, CMU's director of student media and an adviser for the college newspaper, did not encourage students to intern or work at Vanguard. But it did find that a Vanguard employee and CMU graduate told Clark in October 2019 that Bucholz was a temperamental “creep” with “shoddy business practices.” Clark said he was not aware of allegations against Bucholz that were of a more sexual nature. 

Based on that conversation, Clark later spoke with a student who interned for Vanguard, according to the report. That student told him she had a negative experience and left after three weeks.

The investigation found Coon, who is a journalism faculty member and worked as a senior consultant for Vanguard, had no knowledge of Bucholz’s mistreatment of women until his leave of absence in March 2021. 

Another student told investigators that she had reported to Wojcik, who also worked in the journalism program, that her 2016 internship at Vanguard had been “toxic and uncomfortable” but had not indicated she or anyone else were harassed or exploited. 

“The student explained to us her opinion that the Subject Witnesses should never have been placed on administrative leave,” the report said.