Marc Cardinalli, former GGC general counsel and chief legal affairs officer, was fired for unprofessional conduct on Sept. 5, 2019, and had been investigated in three cases prior, according to documents obtained via an open records request.
Two weeks earlier, Cardinalli met with campus officials to resolve a potentially violent conflict between a pair of history professors, one of whom “stated that he was going to bring a gun to class” for protection, according to a student who filed a complaint.
That professor had recently made a complaint of his own after receiving a “threatening look” from Dr. Fang Zhou, associate professor of history and no stranger to controversy.
Officials were especially concerned given Georgia’s “campus carry” law, which affords licensed individuals the right to carry a concealed weapon on campus—a right that Dr. Zhou has invoked, incidentally, in one of his Facebook tirades against Antifa “protestors.”
Apparently irritated that swift action would not be taken against either professor, Cardinalli made an off-color suggestion.
“Well, let’s just let them get together in a room and shoot it out,” he is alleged to have said, though two other officials provided somewhat different accounts. “Maybe they could just take care of each other,” or “maybe they will take each other out and that will solve our problem.”
In memos to President Jann Joseph, officials acknowledged a “tongue and cheek [sic]” quality to Cardinalli’s comment but “felt disturbed” nonetheless, condemning it as “highly inappropriate” and a violation of GGC’s Code of Conduct.
“This is nothing but a concerted effort by GGC, and you personally, to destroy my reputation.”
When reached over the phone, Cardinalli refused every opportunity to comment on the circumstances surrounding his termination.
He said he had “been ordered by the grievance officials not to make a comment” and would neither confirm nor deny the alleged statements, not even allowing that they be read back to him. “Do not quote me something that I have no idea exists,” he said. “For all I know, you’re making this up.”
Cardinalli repeatedly accused The Globe of trying to ruin his reputation “on behalf of GGC.”
“GGC’s little newspaper, The Globe, and GGC are all in bed together and destroying my reputation,” he said. “And I will tell you that harming my reputation is not really a path anybody wishes to go down, and I’m not threatening. I’m just pointing out a moral imperative here, is that your willingness to destroy my reputation is really sad.”
“This is nothing but a concerted effort by GGC, and you personally, to destroy my reputation,” he said. “And if that’s what you think you need to do, you’re the one that has to sleep with yourself, not me.”
“Why the fuck is the Title IX Office investigating me?”
Records reveal a history of complaints against Cardinalli and indicate that he was inclined to frequent yelling and outbursts. Colleagues described this as “common” and “business as usual,” apparently so routine that the neighboring department, the Office of Diversity and Equity Compliance (ODEC), purchased a noise machine and noise-canceling headphones to “block out the noise,” one colleague said.
Additionally, several colleagues suggested that Cardinalli received preferential treatment and was often allowed to behave in ways that would have otherwise been punishable, though there is “evidence that a culture of yelling and outbursts may exist in the shared office suite.”
Cardinalli had been the subject of three investigations before being fired, two of which were related and conducted simultaneously.
On Sept. 28, 2018, Cardinalli had a number of “intense” and “hostile” interactions with faculty during compliance training in the Cisco auditorium. One faculty member in particular, Dr. Kelly McCaffrey, assistant professor of English, filed a Title IX complaint against him following a contentious exchange, the details of which are discussed later.
The case was decided in Cardinalli’s favor, but upon learning via email that he was being investigated, according to multiple witnesses, he marched into the hallway and shouted toward the ODEC: “Why the fuck is the Title IX Office investigating me?”
“I demand a fucking answer right now and I will not tolerate this!” a colleague recalled him shouting, with others providing similar accounts. “I’m sick of this shit. I can’t stand this place!”
Following the outburst, Erika Robinson, former executive director of the ODEC, filed a complaint. She told USG investigator Na’Tasha Webb-Prather that “she was afraid to come out of her office after the statements and later that evening walked to her car along with a colleague because she did not want to walk by herself.”
Cardinalli told the investigator he did not recall what he said, but was “very embarrassed” by the incident and felt “betrayed” that the ODEC did not have the “professional courtesy” to tell him in advance of a formal email notice.
Nevertheless, Webb-Prather concluded that Cardinalli’s outburst was “objectively offensive” and resulted in a “threatening situation,” thus violating the Workplace Violence on Campus Policy. Cardinalli was suspended for two days without pay and required to undergo training courses in anger management and ethical conduct.
“USG is defending Cardinalli with the excuse that he’s so universally offensive that his treatment of me was not unique enough to qualify as retaliatory! Wow.”
During that investigation, Webb-Prather was also overseeing the case prompted by Dr. McCaffrey’s Title IX complaint.
Dr. McCaffrey had previously been involved in a Title IX case of her own after a transgender student complained that her teachings on gender-neutral pronouns created a hostile learning environment. She was ultimately exonerated, but only after a ten-month legal ordeal, which she claimed was mishandled by GGC’s legal team—headed by Cardinalli at the time—and cost her more than one-tenth of her yearly salary in legal fees.
It was within this context that Dr. McCaffrey sought clarification regarding a professor’s right to free speech in the classroom. But Cardinalli completely shut her down, she said.
“You were found not responsible and you know it!” Cardinalli allegedly yelled, before turning his back and walking away.
“Cardinalli shouted loudly at me (into a microphone), shook papers at me, talked over me, and finally turned his back to me,” Dr. McCaffrey wrote in her official complaint. “I was not even allowed to ask any question at all.”
She argued that Cardinalli’s behavior toward her was retaliatory, rooted in her involvement in the prior Title IX case that he oversaw and thus a violation of the Prohibition against Retaliation.
Retaliation is here defined as “any materially adverse action taken against an individual” for their involvement in a Title IX case, and such action can take innumerable forms. The actions identified by Dr. McCaffrey included denying the individual access to training or other benefits of employment, speaking ill of the individual to others in the workplace or academic setting, and threats or other acts of intimidation.
Cardinalli denied the claims, describing Dr. McCaffrey as “pugnacious and confrontational.”
“Ms. McCaffrey raised the issue of her case and was phrasing the question as though the GGC Title IX Office was violating her rights to freedom of speech in the classroom,” Cardinalli wrote in his official response. “I then informed the audience that no charges were brought against Ms. McCaffrey.”
Witnesses handpicked by Cardinalli and Dr. McCaffrey more or less sided with the choosing party, but they “generally agreed” that he interrupted her and “prevented her from finishing her statements,” Webb-Prather wrote.
Randomly selected witnesses said that Cardinalli had “intense” and “very unusual” interactions not only with Dr. McCaffrey but with other faculty as well. And it was this point that served as the crux of the case.
After a two-month investigation, Webb-Prather cleared Cardinalli of any wrongdoing, arguing that his behavior was “not materially adverse” and that “even if the Respondent’s alleged hostility was deemed a threat or act of intimidation, the retaliation analysis would still fail” because Cardinalli had similar run-ins with other faculty.
“Witnesses described similar behavior of the respondent raising his voice, not permitting other faculty members to fully explain their questions, and not answering the questions raised,” Webb-Prather wrote. “Therefore, the Investigator is unable to conclude that the Respondent’s treatment of the Complainant was because she participated in a [Title IX] investigation, as required for a claim of retaliation.”
Dr. McCaffrey appealed the decision.
“[T]he logic applied in the Investigator’s conclusions is tangled at best and incriminating to USG at worst,” she wrote. “But the irony here is exquisite: USG is defending Cardinalli with the excuse that he’s so universally offensive that his treatment of me was not unique enough to qualify as retaliatory! Wow.”
She added: “Two other individuals besides myself felt so strongly about Cardinalli’s inappropriate outburst that they also filed written complaints” and that these “other complaints conclusively corroborate his unacceptable behavior.”
No such complaints were found in the records compiled by the Office of Legal Affairs (OLA). However, the official report for this case—which The Globe obtained independently—was missing, as were two witness testimonies for the case in which Cardinalli was suspended.
When asked via email why these documents were not included, the OLA said “GGC cannot provide records held by the University System of Georgia,” despite the fact that they had provided two other USG reports. No reference was made to “the specific legal authority exempting the requested record or records from disclosure by Code section, subsection, and paragraph,” as required by the Georgia Open Records Act.
Dr. McCaffrey’s appeal was dismissed.
ODEC employees “all expressed concern that this is an on-going pattern of misbehavior which is allowed to continue without any accountability or consequences.”
Months later, on July 3, 2019, Tomas Jimenez, associate vice president of student affairs, filed a complaint against Cardinalli following a “heated exchange,” as one witness described it, in Cardinalli’s office.
Although multiple witnesses heard “screaming” and “elevated voices,” testimonies were divided along department lines, despite the fact that the ODEC and the OLA share a suite.
ODEC employees “all expressed concern that this is an on-going pattern of misbehavior which is allowed to continue without any accountability or consequences,” wrote USG investigator Quint Hill. “Likewise, all the of the legal counsel staff interviewed shared a consistent and cohesive assertion that Mr. Cardinelli [sic] did not act inappropriately in any manner.”
One ODEC employee alleged that she had been subjected to “bullying behavior” by Cardinalli in the past, while an OLA employee described him more charitably as “curt” and said that his behavior was not unlike others with whom she had worked in the legal field.
“Due to conflicting accounts,” Hill concluded, “there is insufficient evidence to substantiate or clearly demonstrate that Mr. Cardinalli acted unprofessionally or inappropriately.”
Cardinalli was fired two months later.
On Sept. 17, 2019, Cardinalli hand delivered a grievance letter to the Office of Human Resources in which he sought full reinstatement with backpay or, alternatively, a five-year contract as an associate professor.
“Those responsible for this grievance have not provided any facts in any form related to the termination,” he wrote. “Therefore, any ‘versions of facts’ will need to be forthcoming at the formal hearing of this matter.”
Cardinalli said that “GGC has delayed [the grievance] since September,” though the official status is unclear.
Jackie Todd, director of public relations, said in an email that “GGC can’t comment on personnel matters” but noted that the college is still searching for a replacement, with Jennifer Cobb serving as interim general counsel in the meantime.
Cardinalli was hired as executive director of legal affairs in June 2015 and promoted to general counsel shortly thereafter. He currently serves as the interim Title IX coordinator at Tuskegee University.
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