Rodney Rouse, better known as radio/TV personality Jaxon Riley, says he was wrongly fired by Albany State University and is considering legal action. (Staff Photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — Rodney Rouse calls his radio/TV tech position at Albany State University “one of the greatest jobs I’ve ever had.”
Despite such sentiment, Rouse, better known in Southwest Georgia as radio/television personality Jaxon Riley, is now considering legal action against the university after he was dismissed on May 30 from the position he’d held for the past eight years for, among other charges by his former supervisor, “insubordination, poor quality of work and failure to complete a performance improvement plan.”
Rouse says his dismissal, which came precariously close to the date that would have left him vested at the university and thus allowed him to collect a monthly pension, was little more than the final act of an supervisor who he contends was unqualified and who he says targeted him because he is white, male and not among the educationally elite at the university.
ASU Radio/TV General Manager Connie Williams, who was dismissed from her position as general manager of the University of West Georgia’s campus television station in 2009 for “lack of improvement” following subpar performance evaluations, was not available to comment on Rouse’s accusations. ASU Human Resources Director Steve Grant, Fine Arts Dean Leroy Bynum, former ASU President Everette Freeman and college Chief of Staff/Legal Counsel Nyota Tucker also were not available.
Tucker issued a brief statement: “The university is not at liberty to discuss personnel matters in a public forum. Currently, the issue (with Rouse) is under review by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents. Albany State University stands behind its decision (to terminate Rouse’s employment) and is confident that the Board of Regents will review this issue fairly and fully.”
Rouse offers evidence to support claims that he was targeted by Williams, including emails that he received through an Open Records request. He also obtained a copy of Williams’ performance evaluation form from West Georgia for the period of April 2009 to June 2009, which showed her receiving “Unsatisfactory” or “Needs Improvement” scores on eight of 10 criteria.
“I don’t know that the experience she went through at West Georgia is what led her to target me, but if you look at the terminology they used in their evaluations of her, they’re very similar to the ones she used in her complaints against me,” Rouse said. “I spoke with some of the officials at West Georgia about Ms. Williams, and they said they were ‘shocked’ someone else in the University System would hire her.”
Contacted by telephone, West Georgia legal counsel Jane Simpson said the university would not comment on the performance of a former employee, but would release any personnel records allowed under Georgia’s Open Records Law.
Rouse, 62, came to Albany as a 16-year-old military brat and, after graduating Albany High School and Albany Junior College, studied radio broadcasting at DeKalb Community College. He got his first on-air job in Centerville, Ala., and came back to Albany a short while later to work at then-AM giant WALG.
He worked as an on-air radio and television personality and as a nightclub DJ in the region for the next three-plus decades. At the suggestion of longtime friend Bill Denson, Rouse applied for and was hired as a part-time radio/TV tech at ASU. When the position was upgraded to full-time, he retained the position.
“For the first six years I was at Albany State, I never heard a complaint about my work,” Rouse said. “I loved working there, around some of the sharpest and brightest kids you’ll ever meet. Frankly, I came to the job with a preconceived notion about Albany State. I thought it was where kids came to party. But I found out it is an excellent school.”
Rouse said his troubles with Williams started shortly after she was hired to head the communications department at the university.
“She accused Bill and me of lying to her about a computer key, which really upset us,” Rouse said. “We asked for a meeting with Dr. Bynum to clear the matter up, but that meeting was never held. I think if we’d met and cleared the air early, things might have been different.”
A short while later, Rouse said, Williams accused the two techs of withholding a computer password from her, and when Rouse won an appeal of Williams’ denial of three days’ vacation pay he took during the summer “when nothing was going on at the school,” he said the animosity ramped to a higher level.
“After my pay was reinstated, the complaints and derogatory statements (from Williams) were made on a regular basis,” Rouse said. “She accused me of missing deadlines, coming to work late, returning from lunch late and of providing poor-quality work. I was always on time for work, and if I came back from lunch later than usual it was because I went on an assignment during my lunch break.
“And in all the time I worked at the university, absolutely every event I videotaped or produced was broadcast by ASU-TV.”
Rouse said Grant entered the fray by “creating his own policy” in regard to 12 hours of time Rouse missed over a two-week period after his wife fell and broke her arm.
“My wife couldn’t drive, and as her caretaker I was responsible for taking her for doctor’s visits,” he said. “I had days of unused sick leave and comp time, but (Williams) accused me of ‘abandoning my post.’ I met with Steve Grant, and he required me to bring a doctor’s note any time I left to take care of my wife. I agreed under protest because University System of Georgia policy says that an employee is required to bring a doctor’s note after five consecutive days of absences.
“Later, when I was suspended by Ms. Williams and was preparing an appeal, I asked Mr. Grant to give me times, dates and specific information supplied by my accuser. He told me, ‘Albany State is not going to do your work for you.’”
Denson, who was chief radio/TV tech at ASU for 10 years, retired in the spring of 2012. While he would not comment on Rouse’s accusations, he confirmed that Williams had on a number of occasions told the pair she did not believe their responses to her inquiries.
Shortly after Denson left ASU, Williams informed Rouse he would have to work under a performance improvement plan, similar action to what she’d endured at West Georgia before being terminated. Rouse said she never gave him a written copy of the plan, as required by the University System, though she extended it three different times before firing him.
“I’ve yet to see a copy of my performance improvement plan,” he said. “Ms. Williams and Mr. Grant kept bringing up that plan, but they never showed it to me. It’s hard to meet the requirements of a PIP without knowing what those requirements are.
“From the time Bill left to the time I was terminated, she accused me of sabotaging equipment, of not following her direct orders, of poor work and, of course, of insubordination. She did things like manually changing my time card, deducting hours that I had worked, and when I commented about it she cried, ‘Insubordination.’ Those are just some of the examples of her harassment and intimidation, which I feel is a clear violation of my civil liberties. It was definitely a hostile work environment.”
Rouse said Williams went so far as to accuse him of having different levels of “emotional involvement” in various video shoots.
“She accused me of shooting higher-quality video of Dr. Freeman speaking at Deerfield-Windsor School than footage I shot at the Civil Rights Institute,” Rouse said. “I tried to explain that the lighting levels were different at the two shoots, that the folks at the Civil Rights Institute turned the lights down (during the video shoot) because the speaker was hot. She tried to turn this into a racial thing, which was totally ridiculous.”
When Rouse signed a work verification sheet for co-worker Russ Linder, who’d been hired to work in the communications department, in Williams’ absence, he said Williams accused Linder of fraud and fired him. Attempts to contact Linder for this article were unsuccessful.
Shortly after that incident, Williams fired Rouse, but not before requesting that any future pay due him be withheld because of “intentional sabotage” of TV equipment. Rouse appealed both his earlier suspension and his dismissal to Bynum, to a peer review panel, and to Freeman. All were denied.
Out of work now for almost six months, Rouse has been granted an appeals hearing before the state Board of Regents. He’s retained Albany attorney Howard Stiller to look into filing an EEOC claim, and Rouse said the next step could very well be a lawsuit against Williams and the university for age, gender and racial discrimination. He said an air of “prejudicial bias — which focuses on a group of people trying to protect their particular ‘in’ group, in this situation an elitist group that is part of a historically black university” — exists at ASU.
Messages left for Stiller seeking comment for this article were not returned by press time.
Rouse said he maintains deep feelings for Albany State, but he’s anxious for the community to know what happened to him at the university.
“I want the world to know I wasn’t treated fairly,” he said. “I’ve lost jobs before in the radio industry when new ownership took over or there were format changes. But I’ve never been treated this way before. I’ve never been accused of insubordination or had the quality of my work questioned.
“I’m broken-hearted over this. It breaks my heart to think someone would make these accusations against me that are so blatantly wrong and have other people of authority believe them. I’d looked forward to working another five years or so at Albany State, but Connie Williams has cut my throat to the tune of about $100,000. Now I have no insurance, little income, my wife is sick, and I’m having to dip into my savings just to make my house and car payments. I’m trying to make peace with all this, but it’s hard. It’s really hard.”