Professor’s ouster leads to lawsuit, allegations at Piedmont College

A man walks across the bridge connecting portions of Piedmont College’s main campus in Habersham County. ERIC STIRGUS / ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM

A man walks across the bridge connecting portions of Piedmont College’s main campus in Habersham County. ERIC STIRGUS / ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM

It was a surprise to some when Piedmont College ended veteran biology professor Rob Wainberg’s teaching career at the end of the 2017-18 school year.

Wainberg had taught at the college's main campus in this small city near the North Georgia mountains for 30 years. Six months before Wainberg's contract was not renewed, a credit union made a $50,000 donation for student research to a newly created fund named after him.

College administrators, though, accused him of making several sexually inappropriate comments to students in his classes. Wainberg strongly denied the accusations and said he wasn’t given a fair chance to defend himself.

Wainberg’s defense, through a wrongful termination lawsuit, could roil this politically and socially conservative community where “repent” signs hang randomly along some of its busier streets and on a campus with long-standing ties to several religious organizations.

The lawsuit includes a claim that the college’s president sexually harassed a longtime biology professor who is also the city’s mayor.

The mayor, Rick Austin, said in an affidavit last month that the college’s president, James Mellichamp, groped him more than seven years ago before a meeting on campus.

“Dr. Mellichamp approached and grabbed my buttocks remarking ‘Oooh you’re in shorts today’… His action and language was clearly overtly sexual in nature to me,” said Austin, who has taught at the college for 22 years. He and Wainberg worked together as colleagues for 21 years.

Rick Austin, the mayor of Demorest and faculty member at Piedmont College, has accused the college’s president of sexual harassment in a court filing. CONTRIBUTED BY CITY OF DEMOREST

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Austin was a Republican member of the state’s House of Representatives when he said the incident occurred.

Austin, who said his complaint about the alleged groping wasn’t addressed, added the president has also “deliberately covered up unlawful acts of sexual harassment” by another college administrator.

Considering Austin’s allegations against Mellichamp, Wainberg’s attorney described the college’s sexual harassment claim against her client as “the pot calling the kettle black.”

Over the past week, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sought comment from Mellichamp through three attorneys representing the college in the lawsuit and the college’s communications director through multiple telephone calls and emails but never received a reply. An AJC reporter was told to leave the Demorest campus one day last week after asking a handful of students at the college if they were aware of the lawsuit. The reporter was also denied entry into a faculty meeting that day.

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In court documents, the college’s lawyers say many of Wainberg’s claims are unseemly. They attempted to stop Austin and six other faculty members from testifying because they are not parties to the legal dispute.

“Plaintiff’s Complaint in this case is not a ‘short and plain statement’ of claims, but rather bears the distinct markings of a ‘shotgun pleading,’ comprised of paragraph upon paragraph of entirely irrelevant and baseless allegations,” the attorneys wrote in late November.

Julie Oinonen, an attorney for Wainberg, said in responses to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she hasn’t received documents from the college concerning prior sexual harassment investigations. She said in court documents that the college has tried to suppress information about alleged past sexual harassment violations by Mellichamp from them and the college’s student newspaper. The student newspaper, The Roar, declined comment.

Many who live and work near Piedmont, a private college, are unaware of the lawsuit. Some students interviewed said they didn’t know about the lawsuit, but a few had heard a little bit about it. The college has nearly 40 members on its Board of Trustees who could also weigh in on the dispute.

Founded under the direction of a Methodist minister in 1897, Piedmont College’s main campus sits on a hill in the middle of Habersham County, population 45,000. The college’s white chapel towers over the Habersham campus. The chapel was recently renovated and has a 3,675-pipe organ. Piedmont College also has a campus in Athens.

Piedmont College President James Mellichamp. CONTRIBUTED BY PIEDMONT COLLEGE

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Mellichamp began his career at Piedmont in 1982 teaching music and became president in 2012. Upon his hire, John Foster, now a trustee emeritus, was quoted by one news site as saying Mellichamp “has exhibited outstanding leadership skills and communication skills, with the students as well as with the administration and faculty of the college.” A voicemail message left Monday for the college’s board chair, Gus Arrendale, was not immediately returned.

Music is important to the man who leads this private, liberal arts college of about 2,300 students. The college began construction last year of a $7.9 million Conservatory of Music that it hopes will make its music program one of the “finest in the Southeast,” Piedmont’s website says. Mellichamp has made appearances as an organist throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia. His concerts include solo recitals at such notable venues as the Washington National Cathedral, Berlin Cathedral, the Notre Dame Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, according to the college’s website.

The lawsuit, though, could rewrite Mellichamp’s biography.

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Wainberg’s attorney said in court documents he believes he’s been targeted for years by administrators for his outspokenness on some community issues, such as his environmental concerns about a local poultry processor’s plans to build a feed mill in the area that was supported by Arrendale, and because he accused Mellichamp of corruption. The college began a sexual harassment investigation into Wainberg in 2018, the former professor’s attorney says, after an unidentified student complained Wainberg’s efforts to describe various biological principles were sexually inappropriate. The student, Wainberg says, was angry after receiving a low grade.

Wainberg, his lawyer said, tries to teach “in a way that is entertaining and engaging with his college students.”

One female student aware of the lawsuit who took Wainberg’s class in 2017 told the AJC that the professor “was always funny and carefree. Kind of crazy, but in a good way.”

The chapel is the centerpiece of Piedmont College’s main campus in Habersham County. ERIC STIRGUS / ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM

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Wainberg said he was told the college wouldn’t renew his contract before he could meet with administrators to discuss the charges against him. The college eventually held a hearing and ruled Wainberg violated sexual misconduct policies. Wainberg said it wasn’t a fair hearing because, in part, much of the evidence he presented was missing from the case file. He wants back pay and the college to pay for his legal fees.

In one court document, Wainberg’s lawyer described Mellichamp’s investigation into the professor “hugely ironic and hypocritical.” It says Mellichamp once grabbed a female student’s buttocks and he purchased alcohol for underage students. The college’s attorneys did not directly respond to the specific allegations, but have disputed many of the claims in their November motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

And then there's Austin. In his affidavitAustin said Mellichamp squashed investigations of other sexual harassment allegations against another Piedmont administrator. Austin said in written responses to questions from the AJC that he immediately told the college's president at the time, along with Wainberg and another colleague, about the alleged groping. He was not presented with any paperwork to fill out about it and was never contacted by any college officials about his claim, he said.

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Austin said he didn’t publicly choose to disclose his complaint against Mellichamp, but answered questions from Wainberg’s attorney under oath. “I had no motivation regarding my testimony,” he told the AJC. The college’s attorneys, for now, have not submitted any documents rebutting Austin’s claims.

Austin declined an interview request, but emailed the AJC a written statement in addition to written responses to questions.

“I have always stood firmly for what is right and true,” he wrote. “I do so now, not only for Dr. Wainberg, but for myself and all victims of sexual abuse, harassment, and assault. It is an abuse of power that happens to both men and women. I urge all victims to live courageously, speaking truth to power without fear of retaliation, free from shame and self-doubt. Only then can we shine light in those dark places where predators and perpetrators hide.”