Bashar Hanna assumed the presidency of Bloomsburg University in summer 2017 with a mandate: revive a campus plagued by low employee morale.
“The healing process was my number-one priority,” he said.
At least one member of his staff would argue that he rather quickly failed.
Four months into the job, Hanna was accused of harassing his executive assistant, who claimed that he had called her “dear,” rubbed her shoulder, and once kissed her on the forehead behind the closed door of his office.
It was not the first time in his career that Hanna had proved a divisive, rather than unifying, figure.
Before arriving at Bloomsburg, Hanna had been quietly pushed out of two other Pennsylvania universities after being accused of mistreating employees, women in particular. Some former colleagues have called Hanna a “bully” whose treatment left them ill from anxiety. His critics, more than a dozen of whom spoke with The Inquirer, include secretaries, department chairs, and deans.
None of that has held Hanna back. At both Kutztown University and Delaware Valley University, officials approved confidential separation agreements that allowed Hanna to move onward and upward in his career.
He signed his agreement with Kutztown officials in 2009 while he was facing a grievance from female faculty members, who had accused him of creating a hostile work environment and demanded that he be suspended for a year. Instead, officials placed Hanna on leave, then paid him more than $286,000 to go.
Eight years after leaving Kutztown, Hanna was hired to lead Bloomsburg, another school in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).
“That blew my mind,” said Kevin Mahoney, a Kutztown professor who was a union officer when the grievance was filed against Hanna. “To know that he was brought back into the PASSHE system as if nothing had ever gone on was … like a dark comedy.”
The Inquirer’s findings raise questions about the thoroughness of the presidential search process in the 14-school system, which enrolls nearly 100,000 students. One former member of Bloomsburg’s council of trustees was outraged to recently learn of the troubles in Hanna’s past, saying he wasn’t told before the vote. Many other school and state officials have declined to say what they knew about Hanna’s background when he was hired. Records detailing part of Hanna’s checkered career — the grievance filed against him — were in PASSHE’s own files.
Hanna said he was never asked about it as a candidate.
The dispute on the 8,900-student campus, in Columbia County about 40 miles southwest of Wilkes-Barre, was brought to light last year by a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by the school’s former business school dean, Jeffrey Krug. Krug claims he was wrongfully fired after helping Hanna’s assistant file her complaint, which the school denies.
PASSHE, after investigating the woman’s claims, found that Hanna’s behavior was “clearly inappropriate,” but not “sexual in nature.”
In an interview this month, Hanna, 52, defended his record, saying he left Kutztown and Delaware Valley because of disputes over leadership style, not misconduct. Officials from those schools have declined to talk about the separation agreements signed with Hanna, which do not state reasons for his departure.
“Every one of us has detractors. Every one of us has critics,” Hanna said. “When you are engaged in being a transformational change agent, some people who have done some things the way they have done them for 50 years might not like the direction we’re going.”
He seemed stunned when told that women have felt mistreated by him, and in his defense offered the names of female colleagues whom he said he had championed over his career. Reporters spoke to four, each of whom agreed that he had been a valued advocate and mentor.
“If I didn’t have his guidance and his drive to push me and to challenge me, I don’t know if I’d be where I am today,” said Helen Pappas, an environmental consultant who worked with Hanna at Temple and DeVry Universities.
Still, some higher education experts found his continued rise in rank puzzling. They said that while separation agreements for top administrators in higher education are sometimes appropriate, to avoid protracted legal fights, two such agreements should be a red flag for any potential employer.
“There were big signs here,” said Martha West, former general counsel for the American Association of University Professors and a retired law professor. “If you sent me his resumé, I could look at it and tell you, ‘This is suspicious.’”
Hanna, the only son in a family of seven children, emigrated from Syria at age 10 and learned English with the guidance of his fifth-grade teacher in Allentown.
A graduate of Temple with a doctorate in developmental neurobiology, Hanna worked for his alma mater for six years, then did a stint as dean of academic affairs at DeVry’s Philadelphia campus.
In 2005, he was hired as dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences at Kutztown, a 8,300-student campus 20 miles west of Allentown.
Kari Bell, then the tenured chairwoman of Kutztown’s department of modern language studies, said she greeted Hanna with the same skepticism she typically had for any new administrator. Her reservations gave way to contempt as she came to know him, she said.
“He was a misogynist,” she said, speaking last month from her home in Colorado.
Three years after Hanna’s arrival on campus, Bell and three other women filed a union grievance accusing him of making “inappropriate and unacceptable verbal comments and actions” toward a group of predominantly female employees, resulting in “undue tensions and stress and … a hostile working environment.” According to internal union documents obtained by The Inquirer, one of his accusers said Hanna berated her so often that she became physically ill and ultimately resigned as chair of her department.
“Additional witnesses may come forward if this issue goes to arbitration,” union officials wrote. “Many are currently too afraid of the dean’s vindictive nature. Fear of retribution is very real among this group.”
Bell said Hanna often put her down or lashed out at her in front of others. She recalled a holiday party where Hanna approached her and an assistant. When Bell started speaking, she said, Hanna snapped.
“He looked at me and said in a very loud voice, ‘Not you, not you, Kari, you’re not going to do this now.’ He bellowed it across the entire room,” she said.
Bell had no idea what set him off.
Bell said her complaints about Hanna were minor compared to some she heard from others but that she felt compelled to file the grievance because she was not as vulnerable to retaliation as others without tenure.
Hanna, in the interview this month, said he was never made aware of the grievance. After reviewing his files, he said he was notified of a “complaint” against him, but was never told what it was about or given a chance to defend himself.
Responding to the claims a decade later, he denied mistreating the employees and suggested they may have had an “ulterior motive,” noting that Bell had disagreed with several decisions he made as dean.
Hanna was placed on paid administrative leave after the grievance was filed, but contends it was not a factor in the university’s decision to remove him. Hanna said the then-provost, Carlos Vargas-Aburto, his superior, told him he was being forced out because the two men did not get along.
F. Javier Cevallos, who was then president of the school, remembers it the same way.
“My new provost approached me and said he couldn't work with Bashar,” Cevallos, now president of Framingham State University in Massachusetts, said. “So we thought we’d move on.”
Vargas-Aburto, who is no longer at Kutztown, declined to comment, explaining that he is barred from discussing Hanna’s departure under the terms of the settlement agreement Hanna signed with the school.
Under that agreement, the university allowed Hanna to resign with a $286,805 lump sum payout that represented the remainder of his two-year contract. That was on top of the $69,455 he received while on administrative leave, payroll records show. The school agreed to tell potential employers that he had left voluntarily. PASSHE’s chief attorney signed off on the settlement.
By the time of his August 2009 resignation, Hanna had secured a job as an associate provost at Ithaca College in New York. In his letter applying for the position, he described being busy at Kutztown with “several strategic and fund-raising initiatives,” and asked for confidentiality while his application was considered.
He made no mention of the fact that he was then barred from Kutztown’s campus without prior approval.
Hanna spent two years at Ithaca before being hired in 2011 as vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Delaware Valley University, a 2,000-student private university in Doylestown.
Adam Wichryk, then the university’s registrar, was on the search committee when Hanna applied for the job. He recalled Hanna in the interviews as personable, energetic, and possessing the “entrepreneurial spirit” needed to help the college grow.
He found Hanna as dean somewhat different.
“He was a very difficult, self-centered, egotistical man. So that made it very challenging,” said Wichryk, who left the school in 2012.
Four people who spoke with The Inquirer said Hanna was particularly harsh to his administrative assistant. School officials at one point hired an executive coach to help with his communication skills, according to a former administrator. (Hanna disputed that that was the reason the coach was hired.) The assistant, who is still employed by the school, did not respond to interview requests.
“She would cry to me in the bathroom,” said Kim Martin Long, then dean of the School of Business and Humanities. “He made her feel she could never do anything right.”
Two others also recalled seeing the woman in tears because of Hanna.
Martin Long recalled often being on Hanna’s bad side herself. He turned on her, she believes, after she had gently corrected him in a meeting with other administrators when he misstated a PASSHE policy.
From then on, she said, she thought that Hanna was finding small ways to bully her in an attempt to make her quit, or to document enough problems to fire her. Martin Long said Hanna so often criticized her during meetings that she came to dread them and feel sick in anticipation. Once, alone in her office after returning from a conversation with him, she felt a weight on her chest. She feared she was having a heart attack.
It was a panic attack, she was told at a hospital.
“I just finally said, ‘I’ve got to get out,’” Martin Long said.
In 2016 she quit and took a job as a dean at the University of New Orleans, where she works now.
Hanna denied Martin Long’s account of their relationship. He maintained as well that he was never aware of having driven his assistant to tears. He attributed hard feelings toward him on the Delaware Valley campus to his role in leading contract negotiations with the faculty union.
Biology department chairwoman Kathryn Sloan Ponnock, a supporter of Hanna’s, recalled him as being unfairly criticized at the time, which she attributed to his being a demanding boss who expected excellence from himself and others.
“Quite frankly, people started gunning for him,” she said. “They did not like being called on the carpet.”
Tracy Hunt, vice president of the union and an associate professor in the school’s business department, said faculty were divided on Hanna. He said those who had issues found Hanna to be abrasive beyond the bargaining table.
“Bashar soured a lot of the faculty with his one-on-one interactions,” Hunt said.
In late 2016, the university president, Maria Gallo, informed Hanna that she planned to remove him.
Hanna said Gallo, who had been on the job about six months, told him his “style” was not compatible with hers. Gallo declined to comment.
As Hanna negotiated the terms of his departure, he requested that he receive tenure, a citation from the board of trustees, and an article in the university alumni magazine celebrating his service. In his letter to Gallo, obtained by The Inquirer, he said the requests would afford him “the opportunity to salvage my career and provide for my family.”
Gallo denied those requests.
It was agreed that Hanna would take a semester-long paid sabbatical. If not employed elsewhere at the sabbatical’s end, he would be permitted to teach up to two semesters in the biology department.
He ultimately left with a recommendation letter, a list of references cleared to speak on his behalf, and a crucial pledge of confidentiality from Delaware Valley.
“The university,” Gallo wrote, “will not inform any inquiring prospective employers that you are ineligible for rehire or that you were involuntarily terminated.”
Bloomsburg was deep into its presidential search in April 2017 when eight faculty members, including several on the search committee, received an anonymous email warning about Hanna, a finalist.
The writers, who claimed to be Delaware Valley faculty, said Hanna had been “confrontational to faculty and staff, but particularly towards female faculty,” and had left Kutztown through a buyout.
Members of Bloomsburg’s search committee, including its chair, Superior Court Judge Mary Jane Bowes, and search consultant John Thornburgh looked into the allegations, according to a report by a Philadelphia law firm later hired to review the search process.
"Not a single person on the committee uncovered any truth to the allegations," the report said.
The state system hired Hanna.
The allegations by his executive assistant came just months later.
The woman, who is still employed by the school, has declined to comment. She told PASSHE investigators that Hanna’s behavior escalated from addressing her with terms of endearment such as “dear” to physical contact. Occasionally, she said, he would rub her shoulder or slide the tip of his toe against her shin. She said she started to sit out of his reach.
Then one day she went to him in tears over criticism she received from a manager in human resources. Hanna, she said, rose from his chair, wrapped her in an embrace and placed a soft kiss on her forehead.
Brenda Cromley, deputy to the president and the woman’s supervisor, recalled the woman as being “quite shaken” by Hanna’s behavior.
“It just infuriated me,” Cromley said, “that a person at that level, wielding that power over a subordinate, would do that.”
Cromley had experienced her own discomfort with Hanna. She said he had a temper and recalled a meeting where she brought up an unwelcome topic. He swept his hand before her face and declared, “Stop.”
She had held her job for 13 years, working under two former presidents, but said she left it because of Hanna. First, she encouraged Hanna’s executive assistant to report his behavior.
The woman did. Krug, the business school dean, accompanied her.
“She was just an emotional wreck,” Krug recalled.
Hanna denied most of the woman’s allegations but acknowledged placing his hand on her shoulder and kissing her on the forehead. He told investigators he considered her family and was trying to comfort her. He also offered that he had once kissed a male student — the student representative to Bloomsburg’s council of trustees — on the forehead as a way of apologizing for canceling a meeting. (The student, John Thomas, told reporters that the interaction did not make him uncomfortable, characterizing Hanna as a “father figure.” Hanna said the student was “literally like my own son.”)
The state’s report concluded that Hanna’s behavior towards his assistant, while “clearly inappropriate,” was not sexual harassment but rather "accidental, familial/friendly, or meant to be an act of comfort.” In a settlement with the woman, the school and PASSHE agreed to pay $40,000 for her attorney’s fees and to cover her tuition if she leaves the university before finishing her degree.
In light of the incident, Karen Whitney, then interim chancellor of the state system, instructed Hanna to develop an action plan “that satisfies my concerns that you will be able to lead Bloomsburg University as its president.”
Hanna described his plan, which PASSHE declined to make public, during two interviews with reporters. He said it mostly addressed deficiencies in how administrators dealt with his executive assistant’s claim, including confidentiality concerns.
But he maintained that it had little to do with his own behavior.
“The action plan was to address everything that was revealed,” he said. “Not about what Bashar Hanna did wrong.”
Later, through a university spokesman, Hanna clarified that the plan did address “specific mistakes he made,” but offered no details.
Of the dozens of people involved in hiring Hanna as Bloomsburg’s president — from the search firm, to a campus search committee, to the school’s council of trustees, to the state’s board of governors — virtually none will say whether they knew then about the separation agreements and grievance in Hanna’s past.
Bob Dampman, a former member of Bloomsburg’s council of trustees, is an exception. He is adamant that he was never told.
Dampman said Bowes, chairwoman of the search committee, did bring up the anonymous email containing accusations against Hanna when the trustees met to vote on which finalists would be recommended to the board of governors, which makes the final call. He said Bowes told the council only that Hanna had been accused of mistreating female employees, and that the claims were investigated and were unfounded
Bowes, who is the current chairwoman of the trustees, did not return a call and email seeking comment.
“One? Maybe. But two? No. No. No,” Dampman, a former Bensalem school superintendent, said of the separation agreements. “If you ask me, as a professional educator, would I consider hiring someone who had to leave his prior employment twice, I’d tell you, with all of the candidates out there, you'd have to be crazy.”
Hanna maintains that he was upfront with the search consultant, Thornburgh, of Witt Kieffer, a national firm based in Chicago. He said he told Thornburgh that he had been put on administrative leave and had his contract bought out at Kutztown due to clashes in leadership style between himself and the then-provost. Hanna said he told Thornburgh that the new Delaware Valley president had removed him because she wanted to select her own leadership team.
Members of the search committee and council of trustees, Hanna said, never asked about the details he had shared with Thornburgh.
Thornburgh declined to comment, citing his firm’s policy of confidentiality concerning clients.
Most members of the council of trustees declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries. Nor did many who were on the board of governors at the time of Hanna’s hiring, including Gov. Tom Wolf, Secretary of Education Pedro A. Rivera, and Guido Pichini, the board’s former chairman and a Hanna ally. Aaron A. Walton, then board vice chairman, said he did not recall Hanna’s history at Kutztown or Delaware Valley being presented before the vote. Another member, State Sen. Judith Schwank (D. Berks), when presented with The Inquirer’s findings, said only: "The information that you’re presenting is troubling.”
Board chairwoman Cynthia Shapira, in a statement, did not specifically address Hanna but said the system’s search process is “both thorough and effective.” She noted the use of a search consultant “to assist in the recruitment, review, and vetting of potential candidates.”
PASSHE officials declined to answer questions about Hanna’s record. Speaking generally, Peter Garland, PASSHE’s executive vice chancellor, said it’s not unusual for rising administrators to gain detractors, or for new presidents to pick their own administrative team. As for vetting candidates, he said, PASSHE explores “all of the issues that may be a part of any candidate’s past.”
He added: “We work carefully to make sure we get the right person at the right time.”
Hanna says he is that person for Bloomsburg University.
“I am not perfect. I have made mistakes throughout my career,” he said. “And if had the opportunity to replay some of those moments, I would do some things differently, especially in being softer in certain circumstances. But I want to stress … my moral and ethical compass, there has never been a reason to question them. Because that’s just not who I am.”
In lawsuit, former business school dean alleges wrongful termination
The allegations of impropriety against Bloomsburg University president Bashar Hanna became public in a whistleblower lawsuit filed by fired business school dean Jeffrey Krug last August.
In the suit, Krug, 60, accuses Bloomsburg of retaliating in response to Krug’s decision to help Hanna’s executive assistant file a sexual harassment complaint against the president.
After assisting her, Krug, who had once been a candidate for the presidency, said his office was searched and his email read. Rumors about his personal life began to swirl on campus. Krug said he believed school officials were trying to ruin his credibility and filed his own internal complaint. Soon afterward he learned he was under investigation by the school.
The university accused Krug of violating policy by disclosing the sexual harassment allegations to others, including two donors. Because Hanna’s assistant, who is 42, also was a part-time student, the disclosure was deemed to have violated federal law protecting the privacy of student records.
In Krug’s eyes and those of his lawyers, it was a sham charge. But a law firm hired by PASSHE to investigate found Krug culpable, and he was fired.
In answering Krug’s suit, the university denied his description of events and defended Hanna, maintaining that he “has never inflicted ‘severe and long-lasting mental damage’ to anyone he ‘interacted with,’” as accused in an anonymous email included as an exhibit in Krug’s suit, which is still pending.
Since he was fired a little over a year ago, Krug has been unable to find full-time work and fears his professional reputation has been ruined. Yet he said he would do the same thing again.
“I really believe I did the right thing,” he said. “You would think in today’s environment that universities would want leaders to risk their own jobs to protect women.”