Home » Campus » Tenured faculty member leaves Ohio State amid improper speaking fees, alleged inappropriate relationship

Tenured faculty member leaves Ohio State amid improper speaking fees, alleged inappropriate relationship

Terrell Strayhorn. Credit: Courtesy of Columbus Business First

A professor and administrator recognized as the youngest-ever person to achieve tenured faculty status at Ohio State no longer holds either position with the university.

On March 17, Dr. Terrell Strayhorn was fired from his role as director of Ohio State’s Center for Higher Education Enterprise. The firing came on the heels of an administrative review that showed he accepted tens of thousands of dollars in undocumented and improper speaking fees at events held across the country.

Then, on May 3, Strayhorn resigned without notice from his faculty position — a day before Ohio State completed a months-long investigation of a complaint that alleged an improper relationship with his understudy at the education enterprise center, policy analyst Dr. Royel Johnson.

Though the investigation found no evidence of an inappropriate relationship, investigators wrote they were concerned with Strayhorn and Johnson’s relationship, which could “constitute a conflict of interest” at work.

In total, Strayhorn received as much as $200,000 in speaking and consulting fees over the course of his 2 1/2 years at the helm of the Center.

Neither Strayhorn nor Johnson, who also has left Ohio State, responded to requests for comment. Ohio State officials also declined to comment, citing restrictions in a release agreement they signed with Strayhorn when he left.

The review shows he used his position as a director at Ohio State to book speaking and consulting appearances, as was first reported by Inside Higher Ed in June shortly after Strayhorn left Ohio State.

Strayhorn denied receiving improper payments and attributed the violations to “a lack of training or clear guidelines.”

However, when he was notified in an email by the investigator of an anonymous complaint against him, the review showed Strayhorn removed all files regarding his travel from his executive assistant’s desk and drawers.

In total, Strayhorn received as much as $200,000 in speaking and consulting fees over the course of his 2 1/2 years at the helm of the Center.

Strayhorn was out of the office five separate times in January 2017, collecting anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 for each of the five speaking appearances, never once submitting the required consulting forms.

When one of the schools wanted to negotiate his speaking fee, he pointed the school toward his assistant, who agreed with the school on a $5,000 price tag, according to the travel review.

In February, Strayhorn emailed with the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, stating: “Typically I receive $7,500 for a full day visit that includes a keynote/campus address, plus 2-3 smaller group sessions. Of course, we have no hard and fast numbers and can always negotiate by adjusting the number of talks/sessions. In the end we strive to make it work!”

Strayhorn asserted to university officials during the review that as a faculty professor, a position he held before his directorship, he was allowed to receive honoraria, or payments, for his speaking arrangements.

But as the director of the Center, he was told he was forbidden to do so repeatedly by university officials.

“While he may not have initially been aware of the difference between his faculty and administration roles from a policy code perspective, he failed to submit any appropriate paperwork related to approval of external compensation,” the review states.

In 2015, he was told in a meeting with human resources to complete paid external consulting forms for “any work that we do outside of the university for which we receive compensation … paid speaking engagements … basically anything for which you receive a payment or a stipend outside of OSU.”

In addition to ignoring university policy in accepting payments for speaking, Strayhorn used his staff to negotiate speaker fees.

Regardless of the investigation or the report against Strayhorn, witness accounts and investigator’s findings remained consistent.

“In the course of investigating the improper-relationship allegation, witnesses voluntarily brought to the investigator’s attention other serious concerns regarding Dr. Strayhorn’s external work and personal interests,” the investigation states. “The witness statements corroborated that Dr. Strayhorn regularly used university resources and university staff for the benefit of his external paid work and personal interests.”

Business filings show Strayhorn set up a for-profit educational consulting firm named “Do Good Work LLC” on Jan. 15, while still in the thick of the administrative review.

In the administrative review, Strayhorn’s actions were summed up in three major violations: grave misconduct, gross incompetence and nontrivial financial fraud — all of which were enough to call for his immediate termination as director of the Center.

On March 7, just two weeks before Strayhorn was fired from the directorship, Johnson left Ohio State and took a job in education policy at Penn State.

An investigation looking into Strayhorn’s leadership at the Center and possible inappropriate relationship with Johnson was presented to Strayhorn three days before his removal as director.

An anonymous complaint filed on Jan. 24 through Ethicspoint — an anonymous third-party reporting line used by Ohio State to report unethical or inappropriate behavior — was the second complaint against Strayhorn for an alleged inappropriate relationship with Johnson in violation of the university’s sexual misconduct policy.

The first complaint, filed by a student also through Ethicspoint, alleged sexual harassment by Strayhorn, came in 2015 when Johnson was a doctoral candidate before graduating and taking a full-time role at the center.

When investigators first approached Strayhorn and Johnson in 2015 about their relationship, they denied any inappropriate relationship between them.

An investigation looking into Strayhorn’s leadership and possible inappropriate relationship with Johnson was presented to Strayhorn three days before his removal as director.

In the investigation, eight witnesses interviewed pointed to an inappropriate relationship between Strayhorn and Johnson. It went so far, according to one witness account, that the men shared a hotel room, dubbed the “Petite King Suite,” at an upscale New Orleans hotel in the French Quarter. In fact, Strayhorn specifically requested the suite, calling it “his favorite room.”

Strayhorn and Johnson denied any wrongdoing or inappropriate relationship when interviewed by the lead investigator, but both men acknowledged that they did share room 505 that night at the Omni Hotel. In fact, they said sharing hotel rooms on business trips was not uncommon.

Both men attributed the sharing of rooms as a way to save travel costs being billed to Ohio State.

The “Petite King Suite” requested by Strayhorn is more expensive than a standard double room at the posh Omni Hotel.

Strayhorn stated in the report that the room was always booked with the intentions of having separate sleeping quarters. That particular room has one king bed and a pull-out sofa.

The witnesses all shared similar feelings of an inappropriate, possibly romantic, relationship between the two higher-ups. Examples included sharing clothes, matching computers and bags and extended lunch breaks paired with closed-door meetings while at work.

According to reports, favoritism toward Johnson was rampant in the workplace, something both men denied as well.

All witnesses interviewed described Strayhorn as out of touch with the workplace and employees at the Center, and one witness in particular said that Strayhorn only knew the office “through the eyes of Dr. Johnson.”

In the two-month span leading up to his termination, Strayhorn was away from Ohio State 19 out of 42 work days.

The departure from Ohio State came at a strange time, seeing as Strayhorn was consistently given annual 2-percent raises and positive remarks on his performance reviews.

One such review even had a handwritten note from then-vice president for Academic and Strategic Planning, Michael Boehm, thanking Dr. Strayhorn for his leadership.

But the nine-page investigation paints a different picture.

It paints one of a dysfunctional workplace where five of the 10 staff members at the Center voluntarily resigned within two years of Johnson’s leadership role, which Strayhorn described as “de facto” in nature.

Despite the spate of resignations, Strayhorn didn’t conduct exit interviews to better understand the employees’ reasons for leaving.

One account from a witness shows that when an employee asked for an extended period of time off due to a medical condition, Strayhorn responded, “I wish you would have let me know you had medical issues during the interview process.”

When Strayhorn was confronted with the findings of the extended investigation by the lead investigator, he repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

On March 17, just three days after the findings were presented to him, Strayhorn was removed from his role as director and put on administrative leave from his faculty position, primarily due to his paid speaking engagements and lack of presence on campus.

“I have determined that you engaged in repeated and serious misuse of University resources, in violation of numerous University policies and procedures, including those designed to deter violations of the Ohio Ethics Law,” read the letter notifying Strayhorn of his removal.

In another twist, Strayhorn apparently did not stop working in his role as director even after being fired, with repeated letters sent from university officials calling for him to stop using his director’s signature on emails and giving supervisor permission on things like vacation time.

After what appeared in the documents to be an awkward stand-off between Ohio State administration and Strayhorn, the man who was once one of the university’s brightest young employees quit working there entirely, with no notice and a three-sentence letter notifying Ohio State he was done, effective immediately.

Now free from the prior contractual restraints, Strayhorn’s Twitter shows him speaking at engagements and universities across the country, free to collect as much in speaking fees as he so chooses.

2 comments

  1. “Both men attributed the sharing of rooms as a way to save travel costs being billed to Ohio State.”

    LOL

  2. Mr. Strayhorn joins the celebrated Roger Blackwell, and doubtless others in loftier ranks, as models of
    E. Gordon Gee, Ph.D. INSTITUTE TO EVERYTHING IS FOR SALE AT O.S.U.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.