When John Soloski first arrived at the University in 2001, he couldn’t wait to get to his office at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Now he can’t wait to leave it.
Every day as the former journalism dean walks alone from his 2002 Toyota 4Runner to Grady College, he retraces the steps he’s taken while fighting the University to clear his name of sexual harassment charges.
The alienation is palpable. He stays in his office each day as long as necessary — to teach classes and hold office hours — then returns to his home office to complete his work. Lunch outings with coworkers decreased, social invitations slowed to a halt.
There are no more Christmas cards from the University president’s office.
But now, after five years and $400,000 in legal fees, Soloski walks with a bit more purpose. Earlier this month he came out on the winning side of a U.S. District Court lawsuit against the University.
The settlement required the University to send a statement to Georgia newspapers with the court order attached, which reads Soloski never violated the anti-harassment policy or committed sexual harassment while at the University. The University wrote a check to Soloski for $75,000, which he transferred to his attorney as partial payment of his bill.
After losing so much, he’s finally won. But it hardly feels like victory.
Soloski’s blue eyes are worn as he sits in his office — his third in the journalism school since he left the deanship — with papers stacked here and there and walls void of notes or posters. A fluorescent light burns, and a small window emits little light.
It speaks of academic prison.
He remained silent during the case and had no way to fight back publicly, whether against awkward glances from coworkers and students or reports in newspapers updating each move in the case. He couldn’t respond to letters or address anonymous false comments posted online.
Now he’s talking. In his first interview in five years, Soloski explained details of his side of the case to The Red & Black last week.
“The impact on my life is unbelievable,” he said. “I had friends say, ‘I cannot afford to be seen with you.’ Others said they’re supporting me but can’t say anything publicly.”
Though the case consumed his time outside the classroom and nearly broke him financially, Soloski stuck with the case to achieve one goal: restore his reputation.
“I spent nearly 30 years building an impeccable reputation, and I couldn’t let it end with this allegation. I didn’t want my sons to see me end my career this way. I did not want people Googling this,” he said. “I decided I had to clear my name, even if it meant going bankrupt.”
Coming to UGA
Born in upstate New York and raised in Boston by what he calls a “Leave it to Beaver family without the warm chocolate chip cookies,” Soloski never set out to study journalism. He graduated from Boston College with degrees in English and political science, and an English teacher suggested he apply to the writing program at the University of Iowa.
Soloski was up for an adventure in the middle of the country but didn’t realize he applied for the wrong program — the journalism school — until he arrived. What he thought would be nine months in Iowa turned into 20 years, as he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees, joined the faculty and raised his two sons, Drew and Brandon.
Soloski became heavily involved in researching libel law, producing two books, 13 articles and speaking at 20 events across the nation and in Australia. As director of Iowa’s journalism school, he raised funding and worked with architects to break ground on a new 65,000-square foot building.
In 2001, Soloski was contacted about the position at Grady College. University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, then president of Iowa, gave a counter-offer, but Soloski turned it down, saying he saw “unbelievable potential” in the University’s program.
At Grady, Soloski’s priority was “students first,” but students of quality. Grady admissions turned away 40 percent of applicants. He helped create two fully-funded chairs, renewed ties with alumni and moved the Peabody Awards office from the basement to a third-floor suite.
Plans were in place to upgrade the building, and he was given a raise. Then one comment and one letter changed everything.
Relations were already tense between Soloski and Janet Jones Kendall, Grady College’s former director of alumni relations, before she filed a sexual harassment complaint in 2005. The external affairs staff “wasn’t coordinated,” and Soloski replaced the supervisor with Sherrie Whaley, who had more professional experience.
“Staff members were now expected to report when they left the building, to say where they were going and when they would return. Some of the staff really didn’t like this,” he said. “We were having particular problems with the woman who accused me of sexual harassment.”
Whaley issued a reprimand on May 12, 2005, and Kendall responded in a five-page letter, in which she wrote she could “see no choice but to consider this retaliation by John at me for speaking out about him … and for rejecting sexually charged behavior that he has aimed at me.” She accused Soloski of sexual harassment on May 18.
The comments she referenced were from an alumni relations event in Atlanta in April, where he said her dress showed off her “assets.” He then asked if she was alone.
“Nobody knows the context of the ‘asset’ comment,” Soloski said. “I had been in a long conversation about stocks, bonds and assets with another dean. The word ‘assets’ was used frequently. I was leaving the reception to go to a dinner date with a woman I was seeing and was really late. As I was leaving, I ran into Kendall. I said it totally off the cuff and knew it was a stupid thing to say. I knew I should have gone back to apologize, but I was very late. As for asking if she was alone, it was my standard policy make sure staff members didn’t walk to their vehicles alone. There were other staff members there that she could have walked with.”
The OLA investigated the complaint and reprimanded Soloski in late June 2005 for violating the University’s Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment policy. He was ordered to attend harassment training.
Soloski resigned his position as dean and Leonard Reid, professor and associate dean of the college, was named interim dean one day later.
Soloski filed an appeal once investigation documents were released, stating University President Michael Adams had a conflict of interest in deciding the appeal because OLA investigators are the president’s direct subordinates.
“There was no due process and Legal Affairs did not follow its own policy,” Soloski said. “I was never allowed to see any evidence against me. I was never informed of the people interviewed. I was never afforded the opportunity to mount a defense. The process was supposed to be confidential. It was not. The provost was not supposed to be involved until after the investigation was completed. He was involved. At a meeting before there was any finding, he told me that there was no doubt in his mind that I was a habitual sexual harasser. That’s a quote. The president was not supposed to be involved in the process until after the investigation was completed. He was involved.”
Soloski asked for a neutral body to rule on the appeal, but Adams denied the request. Soloski appealed to the Board of Regents but was refused again.
He filed the lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court in June 2006, seeking $1 million in damages from Adams, the regents and the state for breach of contract and “severe emotional distress, its physical manifestations and the resulting harm done to his reputation and career.” The case was moved to U.S. District Court in December 2006.
Soloski returned to Grady College as a professor in fall 2006, and the case ensued. It was slow going.
In December 2008, the court recommended the University clear Soloski of charges, calling the investigation “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.”
“The court slammed Legal Affairs for not knowing the law, for not following its own policy and for conducting a shoddy investigation of the charges against me,” he said. “The court found that Legal Affairs had abused its discretion and that its investigation was badly flawed. The court concluded that no reasonable, objective person would conclude that I had engaged in sexual harassment. Legal Affairs had used an improper legal standard. This is very strong criticism of the office that UGA relies on for legal advice.”
The University filed an objection weeks later, writing the finding put the University in “an untenable situation as it relates to implementing its NDAH policy in an effective way and meeting the purpose of the policy.”
The court again ordered Soloski’s name be cleared in March 2009, adopting a recommendation to “grant [John Soloski’s] request ... for rescinding [the University’s] findings and expunging from [the University’s] records any indication that [Soloski] violated the University’s sexual harassment policy.”
By May, Soloski called for a contempt motion when the University made no move to clear his name. Though the court ordered the case closed in September, both parties debated the settlement agreement until November. The University released a court order clearing Soloski’s name on Feb. 1.
Not-so hidden motives
The lawsuit was long, the settlement process arduous, but Soloski said his main trouble came from the University, which was dragging its feet.
“Suing the University and the regents is a daunting task — they have unlimited resources,” he said. “Their legal bills are paid by taxpayers. I paid my own legal bills by borrowing money and using my retirement funds.”
Many hang-ups stemmed from personal motives, Soloski said.
“I keep asking myself what the motive was. There are only two conclusions I can come up with. If the Legal Affairs’ lawyers don’t know the law, then they are stupid and should not be working for the University. How could an entire office of lawyers not know the law?” he said. “Under oath, the director of Legal Affairs [Steve Shewmaker] said he doesn’t review the findings made by the lawyers who work for him. Isn’t that what the director is supposed to do? Or, maybe, there was an entirely different motive.”
Soloski said it was most likely because he “disagreed with the president on a few things.”
In the filing of the 2006 lawsuit, Soloski said he was “systematically and unlawfully targeted” after he refused to write a letter of support for Adams during his split with the University Foundation after an audit of his expenditures.
“The controversy between Adams and the UGA Foundation cost the college a significant amount of money. Donors backed off. At that time, the college was on a roll,” he said.
Three months before Kendall’s allegation, then-Provost Arnett Mace committed to upgrading the fourth floor of the journalism building and gave Soloski a $10,000 raise. After the allegation, the money for the fourth floor renovations disappeared.
“You don’t give someone a $10,000 raise and then a few months later fire him,” Soloski said. “The harassment allegations became an easy way to get rid of me. Other senior administrators have been forced to resign. The difference was that I stood and fought.”
A new reality at Grady
After resigning as dean, Soloski took a year to regroup and began teaching a graduate research methods class and the undergraduate introduction to print journalism class. A large lecture course held in one of the biggest rooms of the Miller Learning Center, JOUR 3310 is the class most students and professors prefer to avoid.
“It’s literally a performance. Sometimes you feel great when you leave, and sometimes you feel like you fall flat, but it’s always exhausting,” said Soloski, who last year made $143,392 for teaching his course load. “It’s hard to generate discussion, and with only one graduate student to help, there’s no way we can do small breakout sections.”
Soloski works hard to keep the lawsuit from entering the room. On the first day of each semester, he tells students he’s involved in a case with the University, and they can find references online. He refuses to discuss details.
“I remember that I did go home and look him up. My first impression in class was that he wouldn’t be involved in a case like that,” said Kaleb Frady, a senior broadcast news major who took the class in spring 2008. “I’d say taking that class my sophomore year helped to re-establish that this is what I want to do. I went to his office a few times with questions, and it really fueled my interest in chasing facts.”
Amanda Woodruff, a 2009 magazines graduate who took the class in spring 2006, didn’t learn the details until she wrote about it for The Red & Black more than a year later.
“None of the students talked about it, but I think my opinion was shaped by faculty,” she said. “When a story like that comes out, everyone’s perception of you changes, no matter what it says. It seems his comments made the co-worker feel uncomfortable, but it didn’t warrant an all-out attack to get rid of him.”
The settlement is complete, the news release issued, but there is no indication the University will make changes to the OLA process or sexual harassment complaint process as a result of court findings.
“We’re obviously more organized in our sexual harassment procedures in the way that those are handled now,” said Tom Jackson, vice president for public affairs. “The ombudspersons office came about — not as a direct outcome of this case — but to take a serious and stronger look at these [harassment] investigations. The University took steps to greatly improve this.”
As far as ruining Soloski’s career or reputation, there’s no looking back.
“We made those responses in court and are glad to see [the case] resolved,” Jackson said. “It’s time to move forward.”
Shewmaker declined comment. Kendall, who moved to public relations director of the School of Social Work and has since left the University, also declined to comment. Whaley and other Grady College external affairs staff were also hesitant to talk.
Conrad Fink, a professor of journalism who works alongside Soloski, spoke up when many within Grady were uncomfortable commenting either way about the lawsuit.
“I think everyone in the journalism department was watching with great sympathy this man’s lengthy and costly effort to regain his reputation,” Fink said. “We have realized how all-consuming this has been. But his return to the faculty in the teaching mode has greatly strengthened our program. I know I speak for all my colleagues when I say his efforts in the classroom are appreciated.”
Atlanta lawyer Brandon Hornsby saw the toll it took on Soloski’s finances and personal life.
“But one thing has not changed. From day one, John has never, for one moment, compromised his integrity or his pursuit of the truth. For that, I have all the respect in the world,” he said Friday. “He made a commitment early on to not only clear his name but also win so a similar injustice never happens to another faculty member.”
As others move on, Soloski is trying to as well. He may spend more time flying his Cessna 182 — his favorite but “expensive, silly hobby” he started on a whim one day.
“I stopped by the Gwinnett airport and walked out with disks that day,” he said, mentioning his co-pilot is his American bulldog named Slug. “It’s addictive and fun, and everything else is gone. You’ve broken all the bonds, and you’re concentrating.”
Soloski wants to delve further into his research about media financing and bankruptcy predictors for large media companies. He has an idea about where the newspaper industry may go next, and publishing his thoughts may help to rebuild his reputation on a clean slate.
But that’s for later. Right now he’s trying to get his life back.
Five years is a long time to fight.
“I feel like a dead man walking. I feel like a non-entity,” he said. “I just feel totally numb.”