CMU faculty was alerted to "workplace toxicity” at consulting firm in 2016, former intern says
As early as 2016, an internship supervisor at Central Michigan University heard a report of inappropriate behavior by the owner of a Lansing firm where CMU had an internship program and which employed recent CMU graduates, according to the woman who made that initial report.
Tess Francke was in her senior year at CMU that fall when she interned at Vanguard Public Affairs, owned by CMU alumnus T.J. Bucholz.
The company was young then. “I was there for the ribbon-cutting,” Francke said.
Bucholz has now been accused ofsexual harassmentby at leasthalf a dozen women who worked at Vanguard between 2016 and 2020. Central Michigan University has hired a former federal prosecutor to lead its investigation into whether staff knew about the alleged harassment but failed to report it to the university.
One of the first to have an opportunity to know about Bucholz’s alleged behavior, Francke said, was Jim Wojcik, who was coordinating and supervising the journalism department’s internships.
She said she described to Wojcik a workplace that oscillated from extreme highs to extreme lows, including erratic and angry outbursts from Bucholz.
“I remember crying,” she said. “I was visibly upset and wanting to leave the internship.”
Wojcik was dismissive, she said. “I remember him telling me, ‘Stick it out. You need it to graduate. T.J.’s a great guy, he will give you a good grade, it will all work out.’”
“I definitely disclosed workplace toxicity and my discomfort in the office,” Francke said.
What she did not do, she said, was use the words “sexual harassment” in her account of Bucholz’s behavior.
“I feel so guilty saying this, but I really don’t think I understood until after my internship how bad it actually was. Because I was so young – this was my first position in a corporate setting – I thought this was part of the deal,” Francke said.
As one of the first CMU-affiliated people to work at Vanguard, she worries that she laid the groundwork for future harassment to go unchecked at the firm. As more allegations of misconduct by Bucholz came out in the last week by women who worked at Vanguard after Francke, she hesitated even to tell a reporter that she had spoken to Wojcik about her experience at the firm.
“I have some hope that he would not have reacted that way if I had been more explicit,” Francke said of the internship supervisor.
Wojcik referred questions about what he knew of interns’ experiences at Vanguard to CMU’s communications office. John Veilleux, CMU’s vice president for communications, told WCMU News that the university was investigating what its staff knew about the alleged harassment, but would not confirm who was under investigation.
Veilleux also said CMU only had a record of one student interning at Vanguard since 2015. Graduates of the university who have worked at the firm said that did not match their experience. “I find that extremely hard to believe,” said Francke. “I interned with another CMU student” in 2016.
Neither Bucholz nor his attorney responded to questions from WCMU News.
CMU students and graduates who worked at Vanguard after Francke said her decision to alert Wojcik to Bucholz’s behavior was brave, and did not fault her for not naming it as harassment.
Rachel Felice was hired at Vanguard in 2018, shortly after she graduated. At least two CMU interns were at the company during her time there, she said.
Bucholz’s behavior started out as a nuisance, Felice said. “He made a few lewd comments here and there and had some wandering eyes that looked me up and down,” she said.
But, “the longer I stayed, the worse it got. The verbal abuse was really bad,” said Felice. “Just rude, and lots of yelling, sometimes backing people into corners, getting in people’s faces, pointing hands. … He was an explosive person.”
As a graduate of CMU and a new Vanguard employee who was seeing young women interns from the university struggle at the company, she wanted to tell the internship coordinator about her concerns.
“I, for days, considered calling Jim Wojcik,” Felice said. “I was so concerned. I told people I work with that I wanted to call him to tell him, ‘Please, don’t put Vanguard on your list of internships. Please, just avoid it altogether because this is a toxic place.’”
But she said she couldn’t make the call. “I didn’t do it because I was scared,” said Felice. “I almost did, and I should have, but I’ll have to live with that.”
Francke, Felice and other CMU graduates who worked at Vanguard said they perceived a close relationship between Bucholz and the university.
Bucholz “made it clear” that he “has a lot of pull at CMU. A lot of friends,” Felice said.
Francke said Bucholz sponsored events at the university’s journalism department, and university staff whose judgment she trusted told her he was a good person, even as she grew to dread making the commute from Mount Pleasant to Lansing for her internship each week.
Veilleux, the CMU spokesperson, said the university was investigating Bucholz’s ties to CMU staff. His total financial contributions to the university, both as an individual and through Vanguard, amounted to $6,355, said Veilleux.
Abby Clark, a former Vanguard chief strategist, who was never a student at CMU (“I was definitely an anomaly at the firm, not having gone to CMU,” she said), also noticed what looked like deep connections between Bucholz and the university.
As Clark saw it, people at CMU “helped channel recent female grads his way.”
“Why don’t we have any MSU grads,” she remembers thinking. “It’s right down the street.”
Clark said from her perspective, CMU staff had to be looking the other way as Bucholz churned through a workforce of young women from their university.
“I don’t see how anyone didn’t see that. I mean, it was just so conspicuous,” she said.
Central Michigan University holds WCMU Public Media’s broadcast license. WCMU News reports on the university as we would any institution.