I don’t know John Accordino especially well, but we’re more than casual acquaintances. He and I had lunch a couple of times to discuss a partnership between Bacon’s Rebellion and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis, which he headed at the time. He struck me as friendly and collegial. He was assiduous about consulting his colleagues before committing to an agreement with me. He never gave any sign of temper, prejudice, profanity, or any other off-putting trait.
So I was startled to read a couple of weeks ago that former Governor L. Douglas Wilder, a professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, had sued Accordino, who by then had become dean of the school.
Wilder’s lawsuit alleges that Accordino violated university rules when he verbally assaulted and abused Wilder’s administrative assistant, Angelica Bega. He allegedly called her “obscene names, accused her of violating VCU human resources rules, questioned and insulted her intelligence, threatened her employment with VCU, and generally disparated her humanity.”
His abuse “was such that others within the department, throughout the building, heard his harangue.” Although Wilder did not personally witness the incident, Associate Professor Dr. Kristine Artello allegedly informed him that she heard the event through her closed office door and volunteered to provide a written account of Accordino’s alleged abuse.
I suppose it’s possible that Accordino presented one face to the public and an entirely different visage to his subordinates, and I acknowledge that my interactions with him were too limited to reveal the inner nature of the man. Furthermore, I have never met Ms. Bega and have no basis upon which to comment upon her credibility. But given the toxic environment in higher education and the #metoo movement today, I’m not willing yet to start casting stones at Accordino.
Apparently, VCU President Michael Rao and Provost Gail Hackett had their own issues with the accusations against Accordino, for Wilder sued them, too. He alleged that Hackett did not fairly process Bega’s complaint. After an unsatisfactory meeting with Hackett and Rao, Wilder then went to VCU’s H.R. department, portraying the incident “as sexual harassment and racial and sexual discrimination.” The university, he charged, failed to protect Bega from Accordino’s abusive behavior. Despite Wilder’s insistent personal appeals, Rao refused to discipline the dean.
That was then. This Wednesday, VCU removed Accordino as dean of the school of government, striking an agreement to supplement his $220,000 salary with $80,000 in supplemental pay over the next three years. After spending the next year and a half on paid “study-research leave,” he will return to teach as a tenured faculty member in the fall of 2019.
Meanwhile, Accordino has filed a counter-suit against Wilder, accusing him of defamation and interfering with his VCU contract. He is seeking $150,000 in damages, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
In the filing, Accordino accuses Hackett and Rao of privately supporting him but acting to remove him anyway out of fear of Wilder. … “Hackett told Accordino that she had no cause to reassign him, but due to her certainty that Wilder would go after Accordino with a vengeance, she strongly encouraged Accordino to ‘step down as dean,’ the countersuit alleges.”
Hackett allegedly told Accordino that he and VCU “would not win in a fight against Wilder.” Further, she implied that VCU refused to confront Wilder’s “disruptive, disrespectful and bullying behavior” because of “a fear that Wilder would make up unfounded and false claims of racism and discrimination.”
Bacon’s bottom line: Judging from the T-D‘s coverage, Accordino did not dispute in his counter-suit that an incident occurred. I’m speculating here, but it’s not hard to imagine that Accordino did confront Bega over violating VCU H.R. rules — taking too much time off, perhaps? — and that voices rose and tempers flared. It’s also not hard to imagine that Accordino and Bega had markedly different recollections of what happened. Finally, it’s not hard to imagine that Accordino construed his behavior as a justified chastisement of an employee for failing to follow policy, while Bega felt emotionally abused. Did he throw a temper tantrum? Or was she being a snowflake? At this point the public has no way of knowing.
We do know that VCU authorities initially sided with Accordino. Was that because his side of the story was so believable? Or because Hackett and Rao sided with him because he was “one of them,” a member of the university’s inner sanctum?
It also seems clear that Wilder immediately embraced Bega’s version of events, and he went after Accordino like a bulldog. He put the VCU brass in an untenable situation. Wilder wasn’t just any ol’ adjunct professor. He was Virginia’s first black governor, and the school of government was named in his honor. He also had the reputation of never backing away from a fight. In the end, Rao faced a devil’s dilemma. Who could embarrass the institution more — Wilder or Accordino? It wasn’t much of a choice. When he characterized the incident in his lawsuit as “sexual and racial discrimination,” Wilder indicated a willingness to go thermonuclear.
Wilder has been embroiled in another lawsuit recently. He sued former Democratic legislator Joe Morrissey, notorious for misconduct allegations arising from his relationship with a 17-year-old employee who is now his wife, for work he had performed for Wilder and the Virginia Slavery Museum. Two of Wilder’s three allegations were thrown out of court after Wilder failed to appear in court in answer to a subpoena from Morrissey’s lawyers.
This case has all the markings of a controversy in which bystanders pick sides based upon their ideological preconceptions. Before we go that route, let’s try to keep an open mind until we see the evidence.