College of Charleston biology professors face ongoing litigation, history of lawsuits

On Oct. 19, 2015, a lawsuit for assault was filed in the Charleston County Public Index against Dr. D. Reid Wiseman, individually and in his official capacity as an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at the College of Charleston.

In October of 2013, a student, from this point forward referred to as Jane Doe, reportedly went on a field trip to Folly Beach with her Biology 211 lab class, taught by Dr. Dougald McCallum. Wiseman accompanied the class, though he was not a professor associated with the lab. According to court documents, the student was subsequently physically, psychologically and sexually harassed by Wiseman.

Wiseman allegedly made inappropriate comments toward the student and put his hand on her lower back, later aggressively pinching her buttocks to the point of bruising. References to Jane Doe’s “clit” were also allegedly made, in the context of identifying the clitoria genus of a specimen.

The court documents state that Wiseman said to the student, “‘Clit, like what you have. I’m a dirty old man, aren’t I?’” On the same field trip to Folly Beach, Wiseman also said to the student, in reference to an edible plant, “‘I need my Georgia, Athens Princess. You need to eat this. If you don’t eat it, I will flunk you.’”

Other than admitting to calling Jane Doe his “Georgia Athens princess,” Wiseman only admitted to having a conversation with the student about the clitoria mariana plant and touching her back as a means to encourage her to move forward to follow other students.  In Wiseman’s answers to the allegations, the defendant denied the vast majority of the claims made by Jane Doe.

Walker Barnes of Hood Law Firm, an attorney for Wiseman, declined to comment on the litigation.

Wiseman was not the only person named in the suit.

Photo by Wesley Vance

Photo by Wesley Vance

In addition to the College of Charleston itself, George Benson and Willem Jacob (Jaap) Hillenius were also listed individually and in their official capacities as former president of the College of Charleston and Department Chair of Biology, respectively. The documents claim that both Benson and Hillenius, who had “authority to address harassment and to institute corrective measures,” failed to do “anything to stop the inappropriate conduct or to protect future students” from the same type of “life-altering” harm.

Due to the subject being an “internal personnel matter,” Benson felt it would be inappropriate to have an interview. As per the ongoing nature of the investigation, Hillenius is declining to comment. The College’s Office of Legal Affairs, Senior Director for Media Relations Mike Robertson and Provost Brian McGee are declining to comment as well.

According to an employee of the College who wished to remain anonymous, Wiseman stopped teaching in the middle of the Fall 2015 semester for medical reasons and has since retired this spring.

Finding a Trend

This is not the only time that the Biology Department has faced legal action due to the treatment of women. The “hostile and abusive environment” referred to in the Jane Doe documents is echoed in court filings and documents in the Charleston County Public Index between College of Charleston associate professor Anastasia Zimmerman and at the time Director of Grice Marine Lab, Louis Burnett.

According to the documents, Zimmerman filed the first summons and complaint against Burnett and the College of Charleston in June of 2011. Included in the lawsuit were reports of Burnett’s bullying and degradation of Zimmerman. The documents also attest that the College was aware of outstanding complaints against Burnett for “bullying women,” yet chose to do nothing about the situation, “not giving the slightest care about his actions” until Zimmerman filed an official complaint. The College was sued for grossly negligent supervision.

The documents state that Burnett continually made false and defamatory statements about Zimmerman to her current and former coworkers and students. Specifically, Burnett told the Grice Marine Lab Manager and Zimmerman’s Department Chair that she was “unstable and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” The documents also state that Burnett told the College’s Provost that she was “mentally unstable.” Zimmerman’s students reported that Brunett told them she was “emotionally unstable.”

The documents attest that the “publication and re-publication of these false statements” by Burnett, damaged Zimmerman’s reputation, as evidenced by “the fact that no graduate students [asked Zimmerman] to be their thesis advisor” in the subsequent year. The documents further claim that while Zimmerman was “able to apply for and recieve five grants for the College in 2009” due to Burnett’s actions, she was only able to “apply for and receive one grant” in the following year.

Zimmerman’s court documents stated that the College “negligently and recklessly” investigated Burnett’s decision to move her lab to an “unsafe storage room,” which made her sick and allowed the further bullying by Burnett. As then Director of Grice Marine Lab, Burnett managed and controlled the facility, “allocating lab and office space.”  The documents claim Zimmerman informed multiple employees of the College regarding the bullying and relocation of her office, including “her department chair, her Dean, the Provost and HR personnel,” and yet the College took no action to move Burnett away from Zimmerman. He continued to “intimidate and bully her.”

In Zimmerman’s official court complaint, she claims to have suffered damages “in the form of lost back and future wages, lost income and benefits, severe psychological harm, emotional distress, anxiety, pain and suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, embarrassment, humiliation, and physical injuries.” She sought “actual damages, damages for emotional distress, costs of this action, attorney fees … and post judgment interest.”

In June of 2012, the College of Charleston was dismissed from the lawsuit as a result of the Workers’ Compensation Act and the Tort Claims Act, which barred Zimmerman’s grossly negligent supervision claims.

In August of 2013, the jury found in the Plaintiff Zimmerman’s favor. The jury ordered Burnett to pay $10,000 in actual damages and $50,000 in punitive damages.

Burnett is still actively teaching at the College.

According to Hillenius, Zimmerman is currently on sabbatical, but will return to her teaching position in the Fall.

*Information regarding court documents in this piece is taken directly from the Charleston County Public Index

Additional reporting by Justine Hall.

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Courtney Eker is a junior Political Science and Spanish double major, with a minor in Communication. Hailing from Albuquerque, New Mexico (s/o to the 505), Courtney can be found explaining the geographical differences between New and normal Mexico to confused southerners. Courtney finds joy in petting strangers' dogs and talking baby language to strangers' babies on King Street. Courtney fills any possible spare time with her duties of being the Editor in Chief of Cisternyard News, a Chapter Founder/Leader of the not-for-profit organization Nourish International and a Peer Facilitator for Freshman Year Seminar courses. She holds in her heart a warm place for Cambodia, her two dogs Dudley and Joey and sandwiches from Persimmon Cafe.

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