Friday, December 13, 2019

Make Waves

As Harvey Milk said, the most important thing you will ever do as a gay person is come out. Over the last few decades, our collective coming out has transformed society. 

Coming out also transforms individuals. Of course safety and other practical considerations can put reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on how we do it. But even as an introvert, my own experiences and my observation of other LGBT folks have taught me to err on the side of outing yourself.  The truth makes you free.

Today I publicly came out once again by revealing an important part of my story for the first time – the role that Western Washington University and its abusive leaders played in destroying my health and career. Here are my prepared remarks from the public comment period during the December 13, 2019 meeting of the Western Board of Trustees.

My name is Roger Leishman. Some of you will remember me from when I had the honor of serving as Western’s Chief Legal Advisor. I'm here today to let you know why I suddenly disappeared, and what I’m doing with my life these days.

Four years ago I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I realize I don’t resemble the typical image of a PTSD patient. My unexpected disability was rooted in trauma that occurred three decades ago, but my PTSD symptoms were triggered by recent events. 

Unfortunately, my employers at the Washington Attorney General’s Office bungled their response to my disability disclosure. They exacerbated my injuries, discriminated against me, and illegally fired me. Sadly, as other people living with mental illness can attest, my experience is all too common.

After I made enough progress with my PTSD, I submitted requests to the State under the Public Records Act and tried to figure out what happened. The documents shocked me. My former colleagues intentionally discriminated against me both as a disabled person and as an openly gay man – then embarked on a clumsy cover-up that continues today. 

One of the things I learned from the State’s incriminating email trail was the why – why did a bunch of supposedly smart lawyers break the law in their haste to expel an outsider who everyone acknowledged was providing exceptional legal services to the university?  

The answer: because former Western president Bruce Shepard demanded that I be fired

As I wrote in an early blog post, one of the few silver linings in Donald Trump’s poisonous orange cloud is that his election made it much easier to explain how malignant narcissist personality disorder works. I have no reason to doubt that Bruce Shepard was an able administrator and educator. (Unlike Donald Trump.) However, by the time I interacted with him as a lame duck during the 2015-16 school year, President Shepard was demonstrating increasingly obvious indicia of malignant narcissism. For example, Bruce Shepard became enraged by criticism, or even by the mere hint of someone saying “no” to him. 

When the lawyers at the Attorney General’s Office destroyed my life, they did it to accommodate President Shepard’s malice and prejudice. I look forward to sharing the detailed evidence I’ve gathered regarding President Shepard’s role. For now, I’ll point to one specific example, because it happened here in this room. 

I sang with Seattle Men’s Chorus for fifteen years. The Trustees were aware of my participation in the chorus; several Trustees had attended our concerts. SMC is one of the nation's oldest gay choruses, and one of Washington’s most successful arts organizations. During a public meeting of the Board in 2015, I compared the Trustees’ momentous task of choosing a new university president to the Seattle Men’s Chorus search to replace its conductor for the first time in thirty-five years. 

Documents produced under the Public Records Act revealed that the Washington Attorney General’s Office took adverse employment action against me because President Shepard told them he was offended by my LGBT arts analogy. 

Let that sink in. Bruce Shepard had me fired, in part, because he thought the real-world analogy I shared with you Trustees was too gay. 

While I was at Western, I personally observed and endured multiple examples of Bruce Shepard’s abuse of power. Perhaps my experience was isolated. I doubt it. 

Some of you are already familiar with name Matthew Babick. He was Western’s internal auditor until he was unilaterally fired by former President Shephard in April 2015, after Matt raised questions about the president’s expense account. I never met Matt when he was at WWU. But his daughter is in the same grade as my daughters, so over the last couple of years we’ve chatted at volleyball games and gymnastics meets. Last month I ran into Matt at the Sehome High School choir concert. I learned that he’d finally reached a settlement in his wrongful termination claim against the State – four and a half years after the Babicks were victims of serial abuser Bruce Shepard.

President Shepard’s abusive treatment of former Western student Tysen Campbell is even more horrifying than the plight of a couple of unemployed middle-aged dads. Four years ago, Mr. Campbell was a sophomore student athlete at Western. After racist provocations by Western’s rabble-rousing Associated Students President, Mr. Campbell published a brief response on an anonymous social media site, which he removed within seconds. Like the studentbody president's original post, Mr. Campbell’s comment was offensive, but protected by the First Amendment.

When Mr. Campbell was identified as the perpetrator, the first-time offender was jailed overnight, and charged with the exceptionally serious crime of felony harassment. He was publicly humiliated and kicked out of school in disgrace. No action was taken against any of the other students who contributed to the heated debate.

In January 2017, the Bellingham Herald ran a useful article recapping events in the case. The occasion of the Herald’s article was the final disposition of the case against Mr. Campbell. The prosecutor agreed to drop all charges. The decision not to pursue felony harassment charges is entirely understandable – Mr. Campbell’s statement did not constitute a true threat, and instead was protected from prosecution as free speech. See, e.g., State v. Kilburn, 151 Wn.2d 36, 54, 84 P.3d 1215 (2004); State v. Kohonen, 192 Wn. App. 567, 370 P.3d 16 (2016). Someday folks will look back at this episode as a tragic and irresponsible systemic failure.

In almost thirty years as a civil rights lawyer, I have never witnessed anything more appalling than Western’s violation of Mr. Campbell’s rights. All that was missing was a few deranged tweets. When I attempted to counsel President Shepard against continuing on this misguided course of action, his response was to insist on my termination. 

Not all abuse involves sex, but all abuse involves power and its misuse

One of the lessons of the #MeToo movement is that our collective silence enables repeated abuse by powerful men, then covers up their misconduct. I therefore invite other members of the Western community to come forward with their own stories of former President Shepard’s abuse of power. Feel free to contact journalists at the Western Front or Bellingham Herald, law enforcement, Western’s Equal Opportunity office, or myself. 

Please join me in speaking truth to power.

1 comment:

  1. That is powerful. Horrifying. Really courageous of you to speak out.