Is Emory Prof Jeffrey Sonnenfeld Caught in a New Dreyfus Affair?

The business guru Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is a larger-than-life character, and as he drove me to dinner in Atlanta at high speeds on April 26, one hand on the wheel of the gray Jaguar, the other paging through a document on the dashboard, I yelled, “I’ll do the reading. Keep your eyes on the road.” We made it to the restaurant. Mr. Sonnenfeld got a cardboard box of papers from the back and started cracking wise about a girlfriend of mine he knew in college. A beggar on the sidewalk held out his hat. Mr. Sonnenfeld balanced the box on his hip and fished out a $5 bill. We went inside, where he spilled the box out on the table. The waiter looked thrown.

On one day 17 months ago, Mr. Sonnenfeld was stripped of academic tenure and two big jobs over a vandalism charge. His Federal lawsuit against Emory University has exposed the evidence as laughable-at best, a scuff mark on a wall. Yet horror had brought me to Atlanta: the destruction of a high-flying classmate’s career in an instant by one of the richest schools in the land, using important dailies as lapdogs, amid murmurings of anti-Semitism.

Mr. Sonnenfeld and I met in 1972 at Harvard. We never became friends. We were too similar, both Jewish maniacs of Eastern European extraction, the sort who were then flooding Ivy League campuses. Like many other Jews of my generation, I was fascinated by the WASPs. I raged at them even as I studied their airs and dress in order to get rid of my rough edges. Mr. Sonnenfeld couldn’t care less about his rough edges.

Ten years out, he was already a big deal. A business professor, first at Harvard, then at Emory’s Goizueta School of Business, Mr. Sonnenfeld wrote four books, notably The Hero’s Farewell , a widely read discussion of the folklore status of the chief executive.

The charming and tireless professor had wangled interviews with 50 executives, the likes of David Rockefeller, and it was through these people that he became a star. The execs needed adult education, and Mr. Sonnenfeld began one-day leadership conferences that drew chief executives and scholars to Emory University from across the country. Quincy Jones, Ted Turner, Sumner Redstone, Steve Case of America Online, Michael Dell of Dell Computers-they paid to attend because Mr. Sonnenfeld was brilliant and fun and they could make deals in the hallway. The sessions were off the record, and the fiercest competitors let down their hair. “He could take two people that completely agree with each other and five minutes later have them argue philosophically like cats and dogs-that’s a talent,” said Emory business professor Edgar Leonard.

Mr. Sonnenfeld combined borscht-belt wonkiness with personal presence and vision. When an exec got out notes, he’d march up and rip them in two. “Make speeches and the phones come out,” he said. Seven years ago, he understood that the future of the Internet meant that cable execs who had begun their careers climbing telephone poles had to meet studio chiefs and writers. “He’s the Oprah Winfrey of business schools,” said Robert Pastor, a professor of political science at Emory.

The conferences gave Emory’s business school a national profile it had never had, raised millions for the university and placed scores of students in good jobs. Mr. Sonnenfeld went places, too. Every New Year at Renaissance Weekend in Hilton Head, S.C., he ran with Bill Clinton. In 1995, he advised the President to answer his setback in the midterm elections by holding regional economic summits, similar to the 1992 economic summit in Little Rock.

“We were on the inner trails because the tide was up that day,” Mr. Sonnenfeld remembered. “We stopped, and he pounded me with questions.” The summits were held; Mr. Sonnenfeld has been publicly credited for the idea.

He lets you know about it. “We juxtapose the dignified, elegant Katharine Graham with Ben Jerry in their Cherry Garcia, tie-dyed outfits, he bragged in the 20th-anniversary report of my Harvard class. “He’s generous to a fault with his contacts and access,” said Benn Konsynski, an Emory business professor. “He can be hyperbolic, but always in a positive way, promoting others.”

One of the more poignant aspects of his story is that the grand guru lacked the social antennae to understand how much his style got under people’s skin, especially at blueblood Emory. A 160-year-old bastion of old Atlanta, Emory has official links to the United Methodist Church, and its leaders operate with a nuanced, old-boy, telegraphic shorthand, cloaked in churchly piety. Emory liked the attention and money Mr. Sonnenfeld got, but he outshone his own dean and, privately, administrators spoke of him as calculating and selfish. In 1996, he helped organize a putsch against the feckless dean, and a year later when the school decided to replace him, Mr. Sonnenfeld, who wanted the job, did not do what a shrewd operator would do and lay low, but openly threw himself into the matter. He wrote a letter to the Emory president that questioned the composition of the search committee. The president rebuked him, in a sharp note attacking his “astonishing and dismayingly inaccurate judgment.”

Mr. Sonnenfeld responded with a three-page letter filled with abject apology and a repetition of the critique.

“You cannot imagine how badly I will be sleeping tonight,” he wrote.

The professor’s opposite is elegant, formidable. Emory president William M. Chace is a man of formal bearing, large forehead and icy reserve. He dresses with a hint of aristocratic flamboyance, and lives in a slate-roofed Tudor mansion in what looks like an English game park, called Lullwater. A Joyce scholar who has spoken sensitively about the alienation of Jews in Dublin (and their alienation here, in his book on Lionel Trilling). As Wesleyan president in 1989-1990, his condescending style was so off-putting that during turmoil over racial issues his office was firebombed. His manner can be overblown. In hundreds of pages of depositions in the Sonnenfeld case, Mr. Chace says “of an evening” for “at night,” affects the royal “We” in speaking of “the English locution,” and uses “decanal” as the adjectival form of dean.

Asked why students gave him a hard time at Wesleyan, Mr. Chace answered ironically, “The fact that I was white.… That in general I ran a Fascistic organization that did not tolerate dissent and that in general I was not walking abreast with the progressive laboring working classes of the global proletariat.” I read this explanation to several who knew Mr. Chace at Wesleyan. They said it was nuts.

It goes without saying that Mr. Sonnenfeld wouldn’t become decanal at Emory. And so in 1997 he went across town, landing the business dean job at rival Georgia Tech. G.T. wanted the visibility and Business Week ranking that only someone with Mr. Sonnenfeld’s passion and connections could bring them. They were willing to pay him $200,000, and during his last semester at Emory, Mr. Sonnenfeld began meeting Tech faculty, going to football games in the Tech president’s box, and pulling in a $300,000 gift from U.P.S. Not only was he taking his prestige associations away, but Mr. Sonnenfeld thumbed Emory’s eye by brazenly wearing a Tech lapel pin around Emory.

The announcement of his plans in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution planted the barb deeper. His news came out the same day as the news that Roberto C. Goizueta, the dying chairman of Coca-Cola, was in the Emory hospital as the new, $25 million Goizueta School of Business was being dedicated. Once again, Mr. Sonnenfeld had upstaged the old guard. An angered Mr. Chace, who saw the building as “the most handsome, newest building on campus built with a great deal of loving attention,” called The Journal-Constitution reporter to complain.

Enter now the smallest minds. Even as professors were moving their file cabinets and miles of shelves into the Goizueta building, administrators grew concerned over the recurrence of gouges and scratches in the beautiful cherry woodwork and on the walls. Chief administrator Charlotte Johnson felt the marks were intentional. She called the Emory police, and on Nov. 26, 1997, police officer Rick Allen hid a cigar-sized camera in the ceiling of a fifth-floor hallway and started a VCR, recording one image every second.

The next morning, Thanksgiving Day, Officer Allen stopped by the building and noticed what he thought to be fresh marks. He ran through the video. Many had passed through the hall, but one man’s progress caught his eye. At 6 o’clock the night before, a large man had ambled in a distracted way from one side of the hall to the other, three or four times kicking his foot out toward the wall in an antic, Chaplinesque way exaggerated by the staggered exposures.

On Monday, Dec. 1, administrators saw the video. “Oh my God,” one said. “It’s Jeff.”

Within hours, the tape was shown to none other than the elegant president, and the matter hardened in Mr. Chace’s mind: Mr. Sonnenfeld was guilty of vandalism. But there was to be no faculty hearing process for the tenured professor. The police were ordered to bring him in, issue him a criminal trespass notice, and give him “an opportunity” to resign.

Mr. Sonnenfeld walked into the police station that night thinking someone was playing a joke on him in his last week on campus. Then the police read him his Miranda rights and ordered him to sign the notice that it was a crime for him to set foot on campus. They played the video.

Mr. Sonnenfeld protested his innocence. He was lost in thought, he’d been walking around in a dorky way. His shoe was falling apart.

The police threatened to arrest and prosecute him. Meantime they were under instructions to get his resignation. The threat and interrogation, combined with the fact that he was about to resign, anyway, convinced Mr. Sonnenfeld to write out a one-line resignation-though he got assurance (the session was taped) that this was no an admission of guilt.

“I’m not the person that’s doing this,” he said. “Would it be any value to bring in those shoes later tonight?… I swear I don’t need them anymore.”

The police didn’t want more evidence. Their logbook said that they had “terminated” the $150,000 professor, closing the case. When one officer apologized for embarrassing Mr. Sonnenfeld, he shook his head: “The emotion is more frustration than feeling shame.”

That night police accompanied Mr. Sonnenfeld to clear out his desk, and the next night an undercover policeman sat through his last class. Meantime, a beefy bodyguard was posted to the business dean for two weeks because Mr. Chace felt that there was a chance Mr. Sonnenfeld might do violence.

Those militant actions perturbed the campus.

“My fear was that Jeffrey had had a nervous breakdown, and I was fearful for his well-being,” business professor George Benston said. “When I heard vandalism, I thought smashed windows or ‘Die Pigs’ in big red letters. And only over time did it come out that there was virtually no evidence that he had done anything.”

Mr. Chace was not done. The same day, Dec. 1, he called his counterpart at Georgia Tech, president G. Wayne Clough, with a message of “utmost urgency.” Mr. Chace said that Emory had videotaped evidence of vandalism by the man about to become a dean. At the same time, Bradley Currey Jr., the Emory board chairman, gave a friend with high Georgia Tech connections “a heads-up call” of the same character. Tech panicked. It had wanted a leader with energy and creativity. Suddenly Mr. Sonnenfeld was “controversial” (as Mr. Clough testified). Without seeing the video, it withdrew the job.

Then there was the matter of telling the world. Mr. Sonnenfeld’s attorney worked out a cover story with the schools, blaming his departure on high blood pressure. Emory agreed not to say any more, and Mr. Sonnenfeld adopted a bittersweet tone with his colleagues. In an e-mail titled “Regretful cancellation of farewell party,” he said he had too many responsibilities to attend the affair and added, “I would like to take this moment to thank all members of this wonderful Emory community.”

But by then, as Chairman Currey would later say, the “fat was in the fire.” One Emory administrator e-mailed another that Mr. Sonnenfeld could play statesman “unless and until the info is leaked out about what has happened.”

Soon enough info did. On Dec. 12, The Journal-Constitution disclosed, “Allegations of vandalism doomed Sonnenfeld at Tech.” Ten days later, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal followed suit with long stories about the guru’s downfall. Neither paper saw the videotape. Both gave credence to reports that Emory had video evidence that Mr. Sonnenfeld had defaced the building.

Titled “An Academic Superstar’s Mysterious Fall,” the Journal story included several significant inaccuracies, notably the claim that “Emory administrators confronted Dr. Sonnenfeld” and he “sent” his resignation. (Mr. Sonnenfeld said to me: “I never had a chance to have an audience of my administrative accusers. The police drove me out of there.”) The Times ‘ 30-inch story, on the National Report page, included Mr. Sonnenfeld’s denial of the charges as “malicious.” But reporter Kevin Sack quoted “one person who is familiar” with the case: “Suffice it to say that when the evidence was presented to Professor Sonnenfeld, he resigned immediately, no questions asked. He knew that the evidence that was given to him was sufficient and powerful and unmistakable.”

These articles staggered me and my 40-ish friends in the meritocratic elite. Mr. Sonnenfeld was one of us. We’d watched his flight from the corners of our eyes, awed by his daring, amused by the braggartry. (We also dropped names and promoted ourselves; we did it with finesse.) At a Harvard reunion in 1998, professors gawked at him and joked behind his back that he must have had a bad day. Business journalists Mr. Sonnenfeld had schmoozed and invited to his conferences printed malignant suggestions about why he’d lost his job. My wife and I hardly knew Mr. Sonnenfeld, but we and others snickered over vicious rumors that went way beyond gouges.

A few responded humanely. An Emory School of Business graduate named Eric Lesser was upset by the professor’s vilification in The New York Times , and wrote to Mr. Chace. Mr. Sonnenfeld had done so much for Emory, Mr. Lesser said. He had always gone the extra mile for his students. The alumnus pleaded with Mr. Chace to help restore Mr. Sonnenfeld’s “dignity.”

The president wrote him back in high form. “We have resolutely maintained a policy of not responding to press inquiries,” he said. “Your grievance does not seem to be with Emory but with entities over which we exercise no control.”

That was a lie. The anonymous source upon whom The Times relied for “unmistakable” evidence and “no questions asked” was none other than the president in his game park. Mr. Sack had been desperate for comment from Emory. “He had called me at home of an evening,” Mr. Chace said. And the president violated Emory’s policy.

“It was inaccurate to represent that no questions were asked; is that correct?” Mr. Sonnenfeld’s attorney asked.

“This is inaccurate,” Mr. Chace said.

Mr. Chace regretted talking to the reporter. He regretted something else, too: In late December 1997, Emory gave Mr. Sonnenfeld a copy of the video.

Mr. Sonnenfeld began showing it to anyone who would look. Almost everyone agreed that it was inconclusive. At most it suggested a scuff mark. (“Could you see any damage occurring to the walls of the hall?” Mr. Sonnenfeld’s attorney asked Mr. Chace. “No.”) The Times ‘ Mr. Sack saw it, and was disturbed.

“The video in my mind was at best ambiguous as to whether he committed a criminal act,” Mr. Sack told me. “You can’t tell. At that point I e-mailed President Chace and said, ‘I’ve now seen this videotape and it’s hard to tell whether anything criminal happened here. I’d like more comment from Emory.'”

The president’s response was brittlely dismissive: “Please reread your own copy of this story as you wrote it some weeks ago … and within that story, you quoted someone in a position to know the full extent of the evidence.”

Thus has Mr. Chace frequently hinted there is other evidence against Mr. Sonnenfeld. In his 500-page deposition, this evidence turned out to be literary and intangible, an “emotional trauma” generated by Mr. Sonnenfeld’s presence.

Over a period of time he had not only physically damaged the building but had sought to undermine the morale and the professional well-being of his colleagues, including the dean … This [damage] created deep anxiety, consternation, confusion, and in some quarters depression in the school.”

I told Mr. Sack that he and The Times had been used viciously by Emory, helping to make Mr. Sonnenfeld unhirable. The reporter said he did not know the impact of his story-“I haven’t interviewed people in academia”-and that as one of two reporters covering eight states, he would not revisit the matter until trial.

In fairness to Mr. Sack, he described the dubious nature of the videotape in a June 1998 piece on Mr. Sonnenfeld’s Federal lawsuit against the school. Few others have done even that much. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution buried the news in a tiny item on the obituaries page. The Wall Street Journal has done nothing to amend a story in which Emory was said to have video proof of gouges. “This is the horrible thing about your world,” Mr. Sonnenfeld’s friend Adam Aron, chief executive of Vail Resorts Inc., said to me. “Allegations are written on page 1. The retractions are on page 26.”

The liberal meritocratic elite hasn’t done much, either. At Renaissance Weekend last year, his career in tatters, Mr. Sonnenfeld trotted from one friend to another, showing the video. “He believed every single person knew about The Times and Wall Street Journal and believed it, and that this was going to save him,” said the author Patricia Marx.

Some wrote letters to Mr. Sonnenfeld expressing their dismay. His running partner, for instance. “I regret what you’ve been through,” Bill Clinton wrote, with a self-referential life-is-tough dismissiveness. “But as my critics say, I can feel your pain.” Could Bill Clinton have made one phone call to end his friend’s nightmare?

One public person has put herself on the line. Representative Cynthia McKinney, Democrat of Georgia, saw the video after Mr. Sonnenfeld left it in her mailbox. Seeing nothing to implicate the professor in any wrongdoing, she called Mr. Chace last year to try and resolve the dispute.

The president told her it was none of her business. “She had no standing whatsoever,” Mr. Chace said under oath. “She’s not a part of the Emory community.”

The highhandedness angered the black Congresswoman. “I felt Dr. Sonnenfeld had been mistreated, and that’s why I ran for public office to start with,” she told me. “And he’s been blackballed by potential employers because they didn’t want to get involved in the, quote, controversy. That’s even more appalling.”

Ms. McKinney struck back at Emory with an affidavit supporting Mr. Sonnenfeld’s civil rights suit.

But Mr. Sonnenfeld’s situation demonstrates Mark Twain’s principle that a lie will go halfway around the world in the time it takes the truth to put on its shoes. The discovery period is about to end in the lawsuit. Emory and Mr. Chace declined any comment for this article because the matter is under litigation. Meantime, Mr. Sonnenfeld manfully tries to keep up his life. He runs his institute for chief executives out of space at an Internet company. But at 45, Mr. Sonnenfeld is not doing what he does best.

“Jeff is at heart an academic, he loves to teach,” said Mr. Konsynski. A job possibility at Yale disappeared after an Emory professor told the senior member of Yale School of Management’s department of organizational behavior that the Emory dean had to get a bodyguard because of Mr. Sonnenfeld. “That was the end of any discussion of his appointment at Yale,” Yale’s Victor Vroom said. (Mr. Sonnenfeld said that Emory officials admit in sworn testimony that he was never known to have threatened anyone.)

One night at dinner in Atlanta, a business student stopped at our table to thank Mr. Sonnenfeld for the inspiring classes he had put together. Later, I asked if he ever lets on how much he has lost.

“No-success breeds success, you know,” he said, mantralike.

“But do you understand what was done to you?”

At last the joviality melted. Mr. Sonnenfeld’s eyes clouded. “I do. My house is such a mess of papers no one can come over. Every night I cry.” Suddenly, Mr. Sonnenfeld began to quiver and sob. Then just as abruptly he collected himself.

“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry about that.”

Among successful American Jews today, talking about anti-Semitism in the power structure is an uncomfortable subject. There is a social stigma in having victimhood as part of your identity, as it was for my father’s generation. We’re past that stage. We’ve married them, we socialize with them as peers. We’re not blacks.

“I think that bigotry played a catalytic role in my case, but I have no direct evidence,” Mr. Sonnenfeld said. It’s not as if privileged anti-Semites advertise their beliefs with swastikas or Jew jokes.

With five bishops on its board and a link to the United Methodist Church, Emory has a poor record of promoting Jews to administrative positions. Mr. Sonnenfeld’s (non-Jewish) lawyers have pointedly raised the issue in questions of the president and chairman. They could point to only one Jewish dean among a score of administrators. Many Jews have whispered that anti-Semitism may have been a factor in the case, but when I brought it up in interviews, they went off the record. As Mr. Sonnenfeld said, the fact that Jews won’t discuss it openly suggests that anti-Semitism remains something of an acceptable prejudice in old-line Atlanta-witness the prestigious private school that till recently had a policy against hiring Jewish teachers. Said one Emory business school graduate., Michael Feder (1991), “it’s the kind of anti-Semitism well-meaning people carry. It’s not a blacklist but a racism of cultural preferences: ‘He doesn’t fit in. He’s too aggressive.'”

One Jewish businessman called Emory board chairman Bradley Currey to ask him specifically if there was anti-Semitism at work. “I told him that was preposterous,” Mr. Currey testified.

Many agree with Mr. Currey. The Anti-Defamation League gives Emory high marks. About a third of the student body is Jewish, there are three Jewish members of the board, and Mr. Chace has been very responsive when anti-Jewish incidents have taken place on campus. “I see anti-Semitism in New Jersey more than here,” Donald G. Stein, the one Jewish dean at Emory, told me. “I haven’t encountered a shred of it here. I’ve never been made to feel unwelcome in this institution.”

Mr. Sonnenfeld reminds me of Jews of my dad’s generation. He can be schlumpy and clumsy, and jokes that he even drives like a Jew as he veers around a corner in his Jaguar, blowing by a stop sign. In an incident that upset one bloodless administrator, he jumped up from his chair to make a point, ripping his coat.

In depositions, the administrators seized on Mr. Sonnenfeld’s abrasive side, to demonize him. He loved his own work more than he loved Emory, they said. He was demanding, manipulative, selfish, a loner, temperamental, difficult, emotional. “Everything but money-grubbing,” Mr. Sonnenfeld joked.

One insider explained that Mr. Sonnenfeld had violated unspoken rules of the power structure. “In this part of the world, especially in the position that Emory occupies, there are certain codes of behavior. People are used to doing business a certain way. And when you buck those codes, they will make you pay.”

The insider said that you pay no matter who you are. Still, would a Christian professor have suffered as terribly as Mr. Sonnenfeld has? Isn’t Emory’s arrogance typical of the WASP power structure that has now vanished in most parts of this country? In testimony, the administrators sometimes invoked religious themes in trying to explain their culture. Chairman Currey (whose own company is said to have Jews in powerful positions) quoted the catechism: “One’s duty is to work, pray and give for the spread of the kingdom.” Mr. Chace cited Quaker values and, describing the school’s Methodist heritage, said, “We try to function as not a group of isolated people but a people working together toward a common aim.”

Such inspiring ideals! And then they read Miranda rights to a man who has raised millions for the school. They scapegoat a beloved teacher. And the board accepts its president’s disturbed view of the matter, never investigating for itself. Emory’s contempt for Mr. Sonnenfeld’s rights is reminiscent of the school’s attitude in 1915 during the railroading of Leo Frank, an Ivy League Jew accused of the murder of a girl at his pencil factory. In May 1915, Frank’s lawyer wrote to Emory’s leading trustee and former president, Bishop Warren A. Candler, pleading with him to read the evidence against Frank, to see how flimsy it was.

“Your influence in Georgia is deservedly great and your opinions count for much,” the lawyer beseeched him.

Seventy years before he was pardoned, and three months before he was lynched by a mob from a tree, Bishop Candler brushed Leo Frank aside. He’d read the state’s case. He needed to see no more. “I may say to you,” he wrote back loftily, “that I have been annoyed by letters from all over the country trying to draw me into the case on behalf of Mr. Frank.” Injustice can always find benediction. Is Emory Prof Jeffrey Sonnenfeld Caught in a New Dreyfus Affair?