Students at Winston-Salem State University, backed by two faculty members, allege that the chairman of the English department engages in bullying, including the use of a homophobic slur, in the classroom.
William Boone, who chairs the English department at Winston-Salem State University, consumed the majority of instruction time in his classes with “rants and tangents, yelling and standing on the table,” said Zana Holden-Gatling, a senior.
Worse for Holden-Gatling, Boone was also her faculty advisor, and she alleges that he subjected her to power games and evasion as she attempted to address a deficit in course credits. Due to his faulty advising, Holden-Gatling said, she wound up falling behind by 16 credit hours in the past academic year, and as a result will not be able to graduate with her peers on Friday.
Eventually she decided she’d had enough.
“I’m broken,” she recently emailed her new advisor. “I can’t do this anymore.”
On May 5, Holden-Gatling emailed a letter to Chancellor Elwood Robinson, along with Vice Chancellor and Chief of Staff Camille Kluttz-Leach, accusing Boone of an array of unprofessional conduct, including cursing at students and using a homophobic slur, along with faulty advising. On May 9, unsatisfied with the response from administration, Holden-Gatling copied the letter to Thomas Shanahan, senior vice president and general counsel for University of North Carolina General Administration in Chapel Hill, and asked his staff to investigate. Josh Ellis, a spokesperson for the University of North Carolina, said general administration typically defers to the campus administration to respond to student complaints, but stands ready to assist if needed.
As an example of Boone’s alleged bullying in the classroom, Holden-Gatling described a discussion involving the iconic photograph of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the two black Olympians who gave a raised-fist salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Boone erupted in anger, Holden-Gatling said in an interview with Triad City Beat, when one of the students mentioned Peter Norman, a white athlete who is pictured next to Smith and Carlos.
Holden-Gatling recalled that Boone interjected: “We’re not talking about him, brother. That’s the problem. You’re always trying to bring white people into the conversation.”
She said the student responded: “You brought it up; I was just trying to close the circle.”
After the student left the classroom, Holden-Gatling said Boone told the rest of the class: “You shouldn’t listen to what that f****t says.”
Holden-Gatling said when she confronted him about the homophobic slur, Boone told her: “Stay in your lane.”
A second student, who spoke to TCB on condition of anonymity, said they also witnessed the incident, and that it transpired as Holden-Gatling described.
Audrey Forrest-Carter, a professor and former chair of the English department, said faculty members are aware of the students’ complaints about Boone.
“On one or more occasions, students complained to me about Dr. Boone’s unprofessional behavior (ranting, bullying and berating them) in the classroom,” Forrest-Carter said in an emailed statement to TCB on Monday. “Several colleagues in the English department also indicated that they had heard of students’ complaints about Dr. Boone’s unprofessional behavior in the classroom.”
Elwanda Ingram, a professor emeritus and former department chair who retired from Winston-Salem State at the end of 2016, said that although Holden-Gatling was not enrolled in any of her classes, she heard from other faculty members that students complained about Boone.
“He was incompetent as an administrator, as a department chair,” Ingram said. “Some of the behavior that the students talked about — rantings and ravings — was evident in departmental meetings. He was erratic.”
Ingram went on to say that when she worked with him, Boone seemed to lack an understanding of departmental and university policy and procedures, and that she found his “rantings and ravings” to be unprofessional.
“It’s unprofessional behavior when you’re talking to professional people who are your colleagues,” she said. “Perhaps it was a tactic to camouflage his incompetence or intimidate us as faculty members.”
Other faculty members contacted for this story declined to comment, saying they had not witnessed any of the conduct described by Holden-Gatling or were prohibited by university policy from making any statement.
While enduring Boone’s classroom dramatics, Holden-Gatling said she was driven to the brink of desperation by what she describes as “a lot of run-around” from him in his role as her faculty advisor. By the fall of 2016, Holden-Gatling said she had fallen behind by four credits due to Boone’s “numerical oversight,” even though she had earned all her required major, minor and general education credit hours.
In September 2016, Holden-Gatling met with Boone, along with Dean Corey Walker to try to straighten out the shortfall.
“Here I am short a few credits,” Holden-Gatling said she told Walker and Boone. “How did this happen?”
Neither man offered a remedy, she said. Holden-Gatling said Walker displayed an indifferent attitude towards her and seemed more concerned with protecting Boone.
“He always listens to what Boone has to say and ignores everything else,” she said. “He hushes me down, saying, ‘This is your problem. I can’t help.’ His attitude was that he was not concerned. If he was concerned at all, it was with faculty.”
Holden-Gatling said she continued to fall further behind on her credit hours when Boone refused to see her and stood her up on appointments.
“I would call him, and he would say, ‘Sister, you got to make an appointment,’” Holden-Gatling recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, you’re right.’ I would make an appointment for 10. I would show up at 9:30 and he would never show up. I would call and email and threaten to leave the department, but I never heard back from him. He’s playing this cat-and-mouse game, refusing to do his job, which he claims can’t be taken away from him.”
Boone, who is traveling abroad with a group of students and will return on May 22, said through a lawyer on Monday that he “adamantly denies the occurrence of any misconduct or inappropriate behavior alleged by” Holden-Gatling.
The statement provided on Boone’s behalf continued, “It should be further noted that the student’s allegations and factual assertions directly relate to Dr. Boone’s current employment and his professional and personal reputation. The student’s allegations will be further assessed and responded to if and when and how appropriate but note Mr. Boone’s objection to these allegations. Dr. Boone anticipates a full accounting of the relevant facts with appropriate parties with said facts to necessarily include multiple facts beyond what the student apparently reported” to Triad City Beat.
Boone did not respond to an invitation to respond to the allegations in detail or provide documentation to challenge Holden-Gatling’s allegations by the deadline for publication. And Boone did not respond specifically to the statements by faculty members Forrest-Carter and Ingram. (The lawyer who had provided the statement said on Tuesday that he was no longer representing Boone.)
Holden-Gatling’s May 5 letter to the chancellor charged that Dean Walker bears responsibility, along with Boone, for the fact that she will not be graduating on Friday.
“This academic year, I have been given the run-around by Dr. Boone, the English department chair, and Dean Walker,” Holden-Gatling wrote. “I cannot adequately express the disappointment I have in WSSU, and the lack of support I have received from the dean, who has supported Dr. Boone’s unprofessionalism.”
Walker did not respond to multiple phone messages and emails for this story.
Elwanda Ingram indicated she is mystified by Walker’s support for Boone.
“I wonder why [Boone] was appointed [department chair] by the dean of college arts, sciences, business and education,” Ingram said drily, referring to Walker.
Earlier this year, Holden-Gatling said, Boone released her to another advisor for her 90-hour review, a critical check-in to determine if students are on track to earn the 122 credit hours needed to graduate, adding that he has yet to officially withdraw his name as her advisor despite her requesting it.
One day after requesting that UNC General Administration investigate her allegations of misconduct against Boone, Holden-Gatling received an email response from Kluttz-Leach, the vice chancellor and chief of staff at Winston-Salem State. Kluttz-Leach serves as the officer for the university’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action and Diversity. The office handles more than just employee matters; according to the university website, the office “is dedicated to fostering and nurturing an equitable, diverse and inclusive learning and working environment.”
In Kluttz-Leach’s May 10 email to Holden-Gatling, she wrote, “I apologize for the delay as we are in transition in our EEO office.”
Holden-Gatling was initially reluctant to file an official EEO complaint, saying she held no confidence that it would be investigated, but eventually she did file a complaint on Monday.
Jaime Hunt, a university spokesperson, said Winston-Salem State “is taking Ms. Holden-Gatling’s allegations seriously,” adding that, “due to the serious nature of her concerns the university has elected to conduct an investigation.
“The university is deeply committed to providing and sustaining a learning environment that is free from harassment, violence and discrimination,” Hunt said.
Elwanda Ingram, the retired English professor, said she applauds Holden-Gatling for speaking out about her ordeal.
“What she’s saying is valid,” Ingram said. “I’m glad she’s done so. I commend her for doing so. I certainly hope there will be some results in her favor.”
Holden-Gatling said her experience at Winston-Salem State has exacted a financial and emotional toll.
“I am now 16 credits behind in classes because of my faculty advisor, William Boone,” she told TCB. “I am going to have to take summer classes, which cost $10,000. I’m not going to ask my parents for help with that because it shouldn’t be their problem. I’ve gone out of my way to accommodate him.
“I am broken,” Holden-Gatling added. “I’m definitely not as confident. I down myself and sometimes walk on eggshells. I’m surprised I’ve made it this far.”
Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.
We believe that reporting can save the world.
The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.
All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.