Whistleblower trial begins for former University of Michigan student
Two divergent pictures of a former University of Michigan student emerged today during opening arguments in his whistleblower lawsuit against the university.Â
His attorney painted a picture ofÂ Robert McGee, 54, as aÂ hardworking U-M alumnus and a family man with industry experience as a scientist for Ford.
U-M's attorney called McGee a student with a spotty academic record who regularly missed deadlines.
Jurors will now have to decide which version to believe in a civil trial that accuses the university of wrongfully terminating McGee'sÂ graduate research assistantship last year.
Six women and one man were selected for the jury this morning in Washtenaw County Circuit Court, where opening arguments began mid-morning. McGee is suing the U-M Board of Regents for unspecified damages under the state Whistleblower's Protection Act.
McGee claims the school halted his assistantship unfairly last year after he reported alleged safety violations. U-M's attorneys deny that claim.
Christine Green, an Ann Arbor attorney who represents McGee, highlighted McGee's background in her opening statement. She said McGee earned bachelor's and master's degrees in aerospace engineering from U-M in the 1980s and held positions at Ford before returning to the school in 2004 as a PhD pre-candidate in the nuclear engineering and radiological sciences program within the College of Engineering.
From 2004 to 2008, McGee worked in various positions as he went to school at U-M, including as a graduate student instructor and a graduate student research assistant. Under the latter, he received semester-long appointments that fully covered tuition and provided salary and benefits.
During that time, Green said, McGee built a neutron science lab "from the ground up." He also built two neutron generators and had plans to earn his PhD based on related research and become a professor in the field.
In 2007, Michael Hartman was hired as an assistant professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences in the College of Engineering, and McGee worked under him in his position as a GSRA.
Green claimed their relationship went sour after McGee reported Hartman in February 2008 for safety violations, including entering another professor's lab without her permission, not knowing whether a highly radioactive source was active.
McGee also reported Hartman after he saw him wearing gloves and dumping what McGee thought were chemicals down a sink. Hartman learned of the reports, and within days, terminated McGee's appointment.
David Masson of U-M's Office of General Counsel said McGee's academic record was spotty at U-M, including during his previous degrees earned. In all, he has taken 11 incomplete grades. The latest was a 500-level lab course that is mandatory for his program.
Tension between Hartman and McGee didn't stem from the reported safety violations, Masson said, but rather repeated missed deadlines and broken promises concerning safety systems for the neutron generators and other items. The projects were funded with a Department of Energy grant that would run out at the end of 2008.
The complaints launched against Hartman were "completely unrelated" to the end of McGee's appointment, Masson said. Instead, Hartman realized it would be better to complete the work on the safety systems himself to ensure he met a Feb. 25 deadline. He released McGee from his duties in the lab Feb. 20, though McGee was paid through the end of his appointment.
"He promised and failed to do something, didn't return Hartman's calls and then walked off the job," Masson said.
Masson said the allegations about Hartman dumping chemicals down the sink were investigated and were not substantiated. He said containers used to store chemicals were being washed out, but it was part of a safe and regulated process.
McGee is not a student currently, but could apply for his master's degree with the credits he has already earned, Masson said.
The trial is continuing this afternoon.
Juliana Keeping covers higher education for AnnArbor.com. Reach her at email@example.com or 734-623-2528.