A senior staff member at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill recently resigned after Google Chat messages “of a sexual nature” between him and a student were revealed to campus administrators.
Monty Cook was director of the Reese Felts Digital News Project, and the story below is from Reesenews, a site operated by students in the UNC program Cook ran. The piece has generated useful conversation among students, alumni and administrators about the hiring process at the university. Issues of fraternizing between students and faculty aside, I’d love to see some discussion of an electronic communications policy come about out of this situation.
Additionally, many Gmail users may not realize that their chats can be saved unless the “off the record” option is selected. Check out Google’s Family Safety Center for more info on this setting. Despite his senior role in a digital program, Cook was ultimately affected by his own lack of digital privacy.
Reesenews producer Monty Cook resigns
Improper conduct over G-chat with student cited as cause
by Shane Ryan, Reesenews
Monty Cook, former executive producer of the Reese Felts Digital News Project, resigned on Tuesday due to improper conduct with a female student. Dean Jean Folkerts of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication announced the resignation in a meeting with reesenews staff Wednesday afternoon.
According to the student in question and several sources familiar with the incident, conversations of a sexual nature occurred between Cook and the student over Google chat, an instant messaging service provided by Gmail.
This might not be the first time Cook has engaged in illicit electronic conversations. Several members of UNC-CH faculty received an e-mail in May 2010, two months after Cook was hired, with the text of an alleged Google chat conversation between Cook and an unidentified woman. The conversation was explicit in nature.
The e-mail was sent by the woman’s husband and received by 25 faculty members, including Dean Folkerts. The stated purpose of the e-mail was to end the relationship between Cook and the man’s wife.
Cook, 46, is married with two children.
The e-mail was received after Cook was hired but before he began to work with students in his capacity as executive producer of the Reese Felts project. There was never discussion between Folkerts and other faculty about whether to terminate Cook. According to Folkerts, Cook assured her that the e-mail conversation was “not what it appeared to be.”
“I don’t police what people do with consenting adults,” Folkerts said. “There was no violation of university policy.”
Folkerts said she stands by her decision not to fire Cook last May. However, if Cook had not resigned, Folkerts confirmed he would have been terminated this week.
Dr. Rhonda Gibson, an associate professor at the school, was one of the faculty who received the e-mail.
“The similarities are distressing,” she said, “but I don’t know whether what we know now means that it should have been handled differently.”
Gibson said she was shocked when she received the e-mail, but did not disagree with how Folkerts proceeded.
The current situation came to light on Friday evening, when the boyfriend of the student in question entered the Reese Felts newsroom in the basement of Carroll Hall. A campus police report characterized the incident as “suspicious.” It is unclear whether police entered the newsroom, though eyewitnesses confirmed the boyfriend was angry.
Folkerts first became aware of the situation that evening.
“My first reaction was dismay,” she said. “My second reaction was action.”
Her initial move was to contact human resources.
Cook called Folkerts Saturday morning in an attempt to explain the situation, she said. The two spoke several times over the weekend.
After speaking with the provost’s office Sunday afternoon, Folkerts issued a letter relegating Cook to an “off-campus assignment” on Monday. Subsequently, she conferred with the university’s general counsel. She recommended that Cook’s position be terminated.
Police reports show that the student’s boyfriend visited the newsroom again on Monday. Campus police instructed him to leave, and the visiting student exited without incident.
On Tuesday afternoon, Cook sent Folkerts an e-mail with his resignation letter attached.
“We do careful checks on people,” Folkerts said, speaking of the school’s hiring practices. “If I had any indication that anybody would behave in an improper manner with students, I would not hire them.”
Cook, who graduated from UNC-CH in 1986, was hired by the school in March 2010. Prior to joining the faculty, he was a senior vice president and editor at The Baltimore Sun. Cook’s five-year contract with the school included an annual salary of $135,000. He will not receive any severance pay.
Assistant professor Don Wittekind has joined reesenews as executive producer on an interim basis.