Piedmont University president to retire amid upheaval

Piedmont University President James Mellichamp announced he will retire once the school he led for 10 years finds a replacement. (Courtesy of Piedmont University)

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Piedmont University President James Mellichamp announced he will retire once the school he led for 10 years finds a replacement. (Courtesy of Piedmont University)

Mellichamp named in lawsuits and received a vote of no confidence from faculty

In recent months, Piedmont University in the North Georgia mountains has eliminated teaching positions, navigated financial troubles and seen its provost resign over budget cuts.

James Mellichamp, the school’s president of the last decade, who’s been blamed for many of the problems, announced during Monday’s board of trustees meeting that he will retire, according to a statement to faculty, students and staff. Mellichamp’s announcement seemingly preempted a vote about his firing just a month after a majority of the faculty voted no confidence in his leadership.

“We thank (Mellichamp) for his years of commitment to Piedmont and wish him the best as he moves forward,” read a statement by the faculty senate. “It has not escaped our attention that the press release carefully worded his departure as dependent on the naming of a ‘permanent successor.’ ”

The senate had called for an interim president to replace Mellichamp immediately and lead Piedmont as it conducts a wider search.

The faculty voted no confidence in Mellichamp in May because of issues including staff cuts due to financial troubles and multiple lawsuits against him and the university, some of which include accusations of sexual misconduct or retaliation for reporting incidents.

“President Mellichamp’s management has been damaging to the University’s reputation, stature and sustainability,” a faculty senate resolution stated.

The private liberal arts school of about 1,200 undergraduates expects to welcome its largest-ever freshman class in August.

“I feel a sense of a more positive attitude,” Dale Van Cantfort, chair of the faculty senate, said in a telephone interview after the board meeting. But he knows there are still issues for the school to handle.

“We need to work to avoid what’s called summer melt — because of all the controversy on campus, we hope we don’t lose too many students,” he said. “We’re going to work as hard as we can to provide our students a positive experience come August.”

Uncertainty related to staffing was the tipping point for many faculty members, Van Cantfort said.

He said Mellichamp told the university it was in great academic shape in November and that faculty would get raises. Two months later, the financial situation was apparently so poor that nine of 132 teaching positions needed to be eliminated.

“We surely didn’t like it, but what we wanted to have was confidence that this was going to be the only cut necessary,” Van Cantfort said.

When it came time to approve a budget, the board said it needed to eliminate more positions.

“Having the president promise on more than one occasion publicly that no further cuts would take place when in fact further cuts did take place — that was the impetus behind the vote of no confidence,” Van Cantfort said.

Those cuts pushed Provost Daniel Silber to resign in protest earlier in June, according to published reports.

“Now that this draconian measure is being implemented, I have no moral choice but to leave the institution,” Silber wrote in an email to the entire university, which has about 2,500 total students. He said he hoped his salary could be used to save teaching positions.

The faculty’s no confidence statement also refers to legal issues involving Piedmont and Mellichamp.

Former professor Rob Wainberg sued the school for wrongful termination in 2018. The school accused him of making sexually inappropriate comments in classes. Wainberg denied the allegations and said he wasn’t allowed to defend himself.

Along with alleging wrongful termination, the suit, which is ongoing, contains testimony from former faculty and students accusing Mellichamp and Piedmont of misconduct or failing to address it.

Rick Austin, a biology professor at the school and a former state representative, said the president had groped him. Austin later served as mayor of Demorest, the city where Piedmont is located.

Last year, he sued top leaders at Piedmont, accusing them of conspiring to fire him and remove him from office. He said they retaliated against him over the accusations he made in Wainberg’s lawsuit. Austin’s lawsuit was settled out of court, according to a published report.

Two former students each provided statements in Wainberg’s case that alleged sexual harassment — one against a faculty member and one against a coach. They each said they brought the issue to the university and Mellichamp and received no help, court records show.