Students seek clarity, closure in student-professor relationship investigations

(Photo Illustration by Alexis Macklin)

(Photo Illustration by Alexis Macklin)

Recent allegations of sexual misconduct involving professors and students at Barrett, the Honors College, have left students dissatisfied with ASU’s sexual assault and harassment reporting and disciplinary processes.

The State Press has spoken with two students who said they have been mistreated and left in the dark during the process of reporting their professors for sexual misconduct. These students are ultimately dissatisfied by University investigations of what they feel amounts to inappropriate sexual behavior by their professors.

In an April 21 meeting with The State Press editorial board, ASU President Michael Crow said he is aware that there have been reports of inappropriate sexual conduct between Barrett faculty and students, but that inappropriate behavior differs from sexual assault.

 

 

“If that (inappropriate behavior) was against that student’s will, well, then that’s a crime,” Crow said. “If it’s consensual in a sense of the way that the law looks at things, then it is inappropriate from the perspective of how we expect our faculty members or our instructors to behave. So they are related but different.”

Crow said he realizes student-faculty relationships are inappropriate when a faculty member is in a position of power over a student, but said that “consent is a definition in the law,” and that the legality of the situation is a matter for the police.

“When we become aware of such a thing we take action once we know the facts,” he said. “Such a relationship is not allowed. It’s considered an abuse, if you will, of the person’s position and an inappropriate relationship.”

Meet Jane

In March, Barrett professor Joel Hunter was removed from teaching classes for the semester, and his contract was not renewed.

Jane (not her real name), a sophomore at Barrett, said she was in a sexual relationship with Hunter beginning in the spring 2013 semester and lasting until the end of that summer during her freshman year at Barrett.

She has chosen to remain anonymous because she fears that speaking out will jeopardize her future and make it “unsafe and traumatizing to be in the Barrett community.”

Jane said she got to know Hunter, her former Human Event professor, by going to his office hours, some of which were required. Hunter would touch her, give her hugs and make her feel special by giving her extra attention, she said.

“He took me out to lunch and to a park,” Jane said. “At the park, we kissed, and the relationship escalated to sex after that.”

(Photo Illustration by Alexis Macklin)

(Photo Illustration by Alexis Macklin)

Jane said she admired Hunter very much, so she was excited about the relationship but that she was unaware the power dynamic could create a caustic environment.

“That’s how abuse works, (by) making the victim unable to see the abuse,” she said. “Even though at the time I believed it was consensual and (that) I had control over my choices, I didn’t really.”

She said she was afraid of what might happen if she were to decline Hunter’s sexual advances and that Hunter grew increasingly concerned about the privacy of their relationship.

“I felt like I owed him sexual favors in exchange for things like letters of recommendation and extensions on class assignments,” Jane said.

Jane said at the time she felt that Hunter respected her for who she was, but that when the relationship ended, she felt “used, violated, and alone.”

“I desperately needed to seek counseling or reach out to friends, but I felt like I had to protect him and was worried that getting help would jeopardize his job,” she said.

Hunter’s lawyer, David Gomez, said ASU conducted an investigation into Hunter’s conduct and did not find that he coerced or took advantage of Jane.

A Crash Course in Reporting

ASU alumna Jasmine Lester founded Sun Devils Against Sexual Assault, a group that aims to inform students on the issue of sexual violence at ASU. Lester said she feels professors in Barrett are using a power dynamic to leverage sexual relationships with students and that the administration is not doing enough about it.

“SDASA is here to increase awareness about this issue and to let students know what their rights and options are when they are victims of sexual abuse and institutional betrayal,” Lester told a student at a tabling event during Consent Week in February.

In late summer 2013, The State Press spoke to Lester while she was in Washington, D.C.,  protesting at the Department of Education with Ed Act Now, a group of students from universities nationwide who are asking the Department of Education to better enforce the sexual misconduct aspect of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

According to whitehouse.gov, Title IX “is a Federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities. … Under Title IX, discrimination on the basis of sex can include sexual harassment or sexual violence, such as rape, sexual assault, sexual battery and sexual coercion.”

The website also states, “A school has a responsibility to respond promptly and effectively (to sexual harassment and sexual violence reports). If a school knows or reasonably should know about sexual harassment or sexual violence that creates a hostile environment, the school must take immediate action to eliminate the sexual harassment or sexual violence, prevent its recurrence and address its effects.”

This is where ASU is in violation, Lester said. She said she felt the University mishandled her sexual harassment case when she reported a Barrett professor in 2012.

Lester said she had also been in contact with a number of other students who were being or had been sexually victimized by professors at Barrett.

She said none of these students were willing to go public for fear of retribution or damage to their academic and professional careers.

That is, until she met Jane, who read about SDASA on the group’s blog and contacted Lester regarding her situation.

Jane said she was afraid to report Hunter, but there was something nagging at her that ultimately compelled her to speak up.

“The thing that really pushed me to report was the fear that (Hunter) would abuse other students,” Jane said. “The thought of him doing this to another student just killed me.”

Lester said the process of reporting sexual misconduct at ASU, especially when the accused is a professor, is fraught with victim-blaming and institutional betrayal. She said she tried to prepare Jane for the process.

“I gave her sort of a crash course on what happens when you try and report this kind of stuff at ASU, and (I told her) that the administration is not going to be friendly to you,” Lester said.

ASU’s Title IX coordinator Kamala Green, who is also the executive director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion, said there are multiple ways for a student involved in a sexual relationship with a professor to get support, including talking to faculty members, the school’s deans, Student Advocacy and Assistance or ASU Counseling Services.

“A student should be able to go (report) wherever there is a person in authority,” she said.

Green said it is then up to the staff or faculty member to make sure the information gets to the “appropriate place.”

In the case of student-professor relationships, the appropriate place is the Office of Equity and Inclusion, which students can also contact directly.

The Office of Equity and Inclusion then carries out the official investigation into a violation of University policy by faculty, Green said.

(Photo Illustration by Alexis Macklin)

(Photo Illustration by Alexis Macklin)

Jane said in early March she told a professor at Barrett about her relationship with Hunter. Shortly after, Kristen Hermann, associate dean for student services at Barrett, contacted Jane to set up a meeting with her and the other honors college deans.

Jane attended the meeting despite not wanting to but said the deans blamed her for the relationship, discouraged her from submitting evidence, emphasized the fact that students who make false allegations are expelled and refused to answer her questions.

“I cried the whole time, for like an hour, while they just intimidated me and berated me,” she said. “The Barrett deans were vicious to me before I reported and are even worse now that I’m telling the truth openly.”

Jane had text messages and emails confirming that she and Hunter were having sex, but she did not share that evidence with the deans, because she was not yet ready to report, she said.

Barrett Dean Mark Jacobs said in an email that he is not aware of any situation where a student is treated with hostility for reporting and that the deans at Barrett would never and have never discouraged any student from reporting.

Jacobs said if a student does not feel safe reporting to the deans, he would respect that decision and provide the student with contact information for other offices at ASU where the student can get help.

“We recognize the importance of enabling a student to retain control over decision-making, and that includes deciding which office or resource the student wishes to use,” he said.

There are training sessions and retreats regarding professors’ compliance with University policies, Jacobs said, adding that he personally attends these meetings to make it clear that this type of behavior is unacceptable and will result in separation from the University.

He said there is no culture at Barrett that condones inappropriate behavior in any way.

After the meeting, Jane said she did not feel supported by the deans or comfortable reporting to them, so she told a fellow student, who reacted by telling her that Hunter was the true victim.

She had to retell her story in a meeting with Student Advocacy administrators in early March and once again in a meeting with Green on March 17.

Jane said it was not difficult to convince them that Hunter was in violation of University policy, but that they did not seem to believe she was a victim.

Furthermore, she said her experience with Green was disconcerting because Green would not answer Jane’s questions and kept focusing on how Jane thought the relationship was consensual at the time.

(Photo Illustration by Alexis Macklin)

(Photo Illustration by Alexis Macklin)

Green made the process extremely uncomfortable by asking if she felt like her meetings with Hunter were dates between a young woman and a man, Jane said.

In the end, Jane said Green did not seem to agree that she was a victim of abuse and did not seem to think the deans were being unfair to her.

Green said she can’t speak about specific cases, but that her office ensures kindness and respect to anyone coming forward with a complaint. She said all investigations are treated promptly and impartially.

“ASU encourages students, faculty and staff to come forward with concerns they may have of inappropriate conduct,” Green said in an email. “… I cannot discuss individual cases, (but) rather reiterate the fact that all are treated with care in a non-hostile manner.”

On March 19, Green notified Jane that Hunter would not be on campus for the duration of the investigation, Jane said.

“I just kept thinking, ‘What the hell is going to happen to me?’” Jane said. “‘What if he isn’t fired?’”

After multiple requests to the University to release Hunter’s disciplinary records, the State Press obtained a memo sent to Hunter from Jacobs on March 20 informing Hunter that his contract would not be renewed.

According to the memo, Hunter was to turn in his keys and was “relieved of (his) duties as a lecturer for the balance of (his) appointment,” but Jane was not notified that Hunter would not be returning to Barrett or ASU in any capacity until March 24.

“For a week, I was terrified for my safety,” Jane said.

The memo sent to Hunter read, “This memorandum will serve as notice to you that your lecturer appointment in Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University will not be renewed after the expiration of the 2013-2014 academic year in accordance with the Arizona Board of Regents policy on ‘Conditions of Faculty Service’ (ABOR 6-201J.2.b). This action is being taken based upon your admission of (information redacted). You made this admission to the Executive Director for the Office of Equity and Inclusion on March 18, 2014. You will not be eligible for re-hire at Arizona State University.”

University spokeswoman Julie Newberg said disclosing the redacted information would violate federal privacy laws.

“In order to minimize disruption to students, classes are being taught by faculty members from Barrett, the Honors College, who have experience and expertise in teaching the subjects,” Newberg said.

Despite being relieved of his lecturing duties for the rest of the semester, Hunter was not fired from his position, as the memo also states that he will receive compensation and benefits coverage until May 15.

Jane said she is worried because Green has not given her a final determination letter notifying her of what policies Hunter violated. The last time the two were in contact nearly two weeks ago, Green told Jane the investigation is still ongoing, because Green’s office still had some interviews to conduct, Jane said.

Green reiterated that she cannot legally speak about specific cases but said that in general, even in cases where actions have been taken, the University is obligated to “ensure the safety” of the ASU community.

Green said the Office of Civil Rights asks that Title IX complaints be investigated within 60 calendar days of notification. She said her office usually completes Title IX cases within the 60-day period unless an extension is provided for “good cause.”

“With all of our cases, we try to get them done as quickly as possible,” she said. “Just because we’re given 60 days doesn’t mean we are going to wait until that 59th day to wrap it up.”

Jane said she is unhappy that Hunter is still being paid.

“What an insult to victims everywhere,” she said.

Testimonial Evidence

One of Hunter’s former thesis students, who chose to be referred to as Student X and who prefers to use the pronoun “they,” said professors at Barrett in general are perhaps too easygoing when defining boundaries with their students.

“I would say that most of my professors at Barrett were not healthy models of authority figures,” Student X said.

Student X said they stayed in the same hotel room as Hunter on a University sponsored trip but that they didn’t have sexual contact with Hunter.

(Photo Illustration by Alexis Macklin)

(Photo Illustration by Alexis Macklin)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I could see how (a situation like) that could happen, because he has so much power as a thesis director and as a professor,” they said.

However, Student X said the experience was an enriching academic one and that they think Hunter wanted them to do well in academia. They said getting flirtatious vibes from professors was not unusual at Barrett and at ASU during their time there.

“They are trying to teach the honors students to be self-aware when the professors aren’t even self-aware,” Student X said.

Two of Hunter’s other former thesis students said they had no issues with Hunter and that he was a good professor.

A Previous Case

Former ASU graduate student Tasha Kunzi, who attended ASU from 2009 until 2010, according to an article in the New Times, was pursuing a lawsuit against ABOR and two ASU professors because she claimed ASU officials failed to stop retaliation and harassment after she ended a romantic relationship with her professor, Travis Pratt.

The lawsuit states that faculty members and the director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Scott Decker, refused to meaningfully work with Kunzi after she ended a relationship with Pratt, according to the New Times. The lawsuit alleges that Decker also retaliated against another graduate student, Kunzi’s new husband, by grading him unfairly, according to the New Times.

The article also states that, at the time, Pratt allegedly “continue(d) to harass other female students.”

Newberg said Pratt’s employment with the University ended on Feb. 14 and shared court documents that showed ABOR and Decker have been dismissed from Kunzi’s lawsuit as of March 25.

Decker said the case was settled out of court and that he was dismissed before the case was settled, not as a condition of settling.

“There was no hostile work environment in the school, and the evidence of that is the outcome of the case in which both the University and myself were dismissed from the case,” Decker said.

He said he was not aware of a relationship between Kunzi and Pratt until Kunzi filed a report with the University and that when he found out about the situation, he took the action required by the University.

Decker said he was not aware of any relationships Pratt may have been having with other students.

“When people file allegations against you and they are dismissed and you deny them, the conclusion can be drawn from that, I think, is fairly straightforward, that I did nothing wrong and that I was dismissed from the suit, because the allegations couldn’t be sustained,” Decker said.

Decker said the terms of the settlement dictate that he is not allowed to comment specifically on whether or not he knew that Kunzi’s husband was a student in his class prior to grading his exams.

“In 38 years as a college professor, I have behaved ethically and never graded anyone because of anything other than the quality of their work,” Decker said.

At a meeting with The State Press editorial board in December, ASU President Michael Crow said the University takes allegations against professors in relationships with students very seriously.

“So there have been professors in relationships with students and when we find out about it, they are all fired,” Crow said. “So that’s the sanction and so the sanction is very harsh.”

Crow added a caveat, though, and said that no matter how appealing the story may be, it has to be proven.

“You have to find out that it’s true,” he said.

In February, Kunzi’s lawyer, Stephen Montoya said students usually “get the raw end of the deal” in professor-student relationships.

Montoya said testimonial evidence is the “stock and trade” of legal cases and that saying “prove it” is a “naïve, unenlightened cop out.”

“(Crow) seems to be suggesting that if it’s a he-said, she-said, or she-said, she-said, that the issue cannot be resolved,” he said. “But obviously President Crow is forgetting or is ignorant of the Anglo-American judicial tradition that relies on testimonial evidence, often times exclusively. … ASU is not too big to be sued and brought to justice under American law.”

Montoya did not return multiple calls for follow-up comments after Kunzi dropped the suit.

‘Consent Can Never Exist’

Jane said she has received support from friends and some fellow students, but she has also felt her fair share of hostility from students who say she is at fault and she should have known better.

However, Jane said she was afraid to say no to Hunter and that at times she felt like she owed him.

“He had power over my grades, letters of recommendation, relationships with other professors and my entire future,” she said. “Consent can never exist in that power imbalance.”

ASU has clear policies that prohibit sex discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct, Newberg said in an email.

“The University takes all allegations of misconduct seriously and investigates those allegations,” she said. “Where investigations do not substantiate a policy violation, no disciplinary action is taken.  Members of the University community who are found to have violated institutional policies are disciplined.  Disciplinary action can include separation from the University.”

Until 2011, ASU’s amorous relationship policy stated that student professor relationships could be considered sexual harassment.

Policy ACD 402: Sexual Harassment reads:

“In recognition of interests in privacy and free association, university policy does not prohibit fully consensual amorous relationships. Even an apparently consensual amorous relationship, however, may lead to sexual harassment or other breaches of professional obligations, particularly if one of the individuals in the relationship has a professional responsibility toward or is in a position of authority with respect to the other, such as in the context of instruction, advisement, or supervision. Due to the power difference, it may be difficult to avoid the appearance of favoritism or to assure a truly consensual relationship. Amorous relationships may result in conduct that amounts to sexual harassment or that violates the professional duties of even-handed treatment and maintenance of an atmosphere conducive to learning or working … “

In 2011, that policy changed and was separated from the sexual harassment policy. New policy ACD 402, titled Amorous Relationships, reads:

“An ‘amorous relationship’ as used in this policy means a relationship in which two individuals mutually and consensually understand their relationship to be romantic and/or sexual in nature.

No ASU employee shall participate in any key decisions or recommendations involving anyone with whom he or she is in a current amorous relationship. This includes, but is not limited to, any employment-related decisions such as hiring, evaluation, or discipline, as well as any kind of academic-related decisions, such as grading, transfer, or evaluation. The responsibility for key decisions must be assigned to another individual who is higher in administrative rank than either party. In some cases, it may be necessary to assign the responsibility to someone of equal rank (e.g., another dean, director, chair, or coordinator), but the responsibility for key decisions cannot be given to someone else whose own evaluation will be supervised by one of the parties …”

Nowhere in the updated policy is there language about amorous relationships between students and professors possibly constituting sexual harassment.

If a student or students are not satisfied with the manner by which the University handles the investigation, the student(s) can detail the ways in which the University violated Title IX and file a Title IX complaint with the Office of Civil Rights.

According to an April 16 story in USA Today,  33 Title IX complaints have been filed nationally with the federal Office for Civil Rights halfway through fiscal year 2014, surpassing the 30 filed all of last fiscal year.

In February, Lester and other members of Ed Act Now met with senior White House officials on the President’s Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which included Lynn Rosenthal, White House Advisor on Violence Against Women.

At the meeting, Ed Act Now recommended, among other things, that the Department of Education guarantee full transparency in Title IX investigations and release the names of Universities that are being investigated for possibly violating Title IX.

On May 1, the Department of Education released a statement that said ASU is one of 55 Universities under Title IX investigation “for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.”

Newberg said in an email that ASU thoroughly investigates all Title IX sexual misconduct complaints “very seriously” and  “delivers swift and appropriate punishment” when violations are found.

Photo illustration by Andrew Ybanez.

Photo illustration by Andrew Ybanez.

“The underlying matter leading to the University’s appearance on this list was handled consistent with these standards,” Newberg said. “As the Department of Education makes clear in its release, a college or university’s appearance on this list and being the subject of a Title IX investigation in no way indicates that the college or university is violating or has violated the law.”

She said the Office for Civil Rights, which came to ASU in September 2013 to gather information, has approached the University about possibly entering into a pre-investigation resolution.

On April 10, SDASA posted a blog telling Jane’s story and started a petition on change.org urging Crow and Jacobs to “stop protecting Honors professors who sexually harass and abuse students.” As of May 6, the petition had 750 signatures.

SDASA is also filing a Title IX complaint with the Office for Civil Rights.

On April 11, Jacobs responded with an email to Barrett students who had shown concern regarding “recent Internet postings.” He wrote that Barrett would sponsor a panel discussion in the next seven to 10 days “to make sure you and your fellow students are fully aware of what steps need to be taken so that you can help identify concerns and get those concerns addressed in a professional and timely manner.”

On May 4, Jacobs sent another email stating that he enjoyed talking with students at four open format meetings.

“Although for more than three years we have carried out regular training sessions for both faculty and incoming students on sexual awareness and appropriate relationships, we plan, as a college and as a university, to have more thorough and more frequent training in appropriate behavior between students and between faculty and students from this point forward, focusing on programs at the beginning of this coming fall semester for both students and faculty,” Jacobs said in the email.

Jacobs said the three town hall meetings and one breakfast with the dean were “openly advertised” to all Barrett students via the Honors Digest, which goes out daily. The Honors Digest is the “is the only way we can reliably contact the greatest number of (students)” he said.

“I am sure a lot (of students) still do not look at it, but that is their choice, and I have no other way to announce things to them,” Jacobs said.

The meetings were not advertised as a panel regarding recent internet postings but as open-forum discussions, Jacobs said. While any number of students were invited to attend the town hall meetings held on the Polytechnic, Downtown and West Campuses, the breakfast with the dean event, which was on the Tempe Campus, was limited to 15 students. Jacobs said seven students showed up for the breakfast event.

Jane said the University needs to be more active in educating students about the issue as well as disciplining professors who seek out relationships with students.

On April 28, the University Senate motioned to resolve the meaning of the word consensual in relationships between professors and students. If passed, the motion would amend ACD 402 to reflect that “an inherent power imbalance exists between faculty members and students,” thus making student-professor relationships nonconsensual.

“Because undergraduate students are the most vulnerable, we the University Senate support an interpretation of the word ‘consensual’ for the purposes of ACD 402 in which there is a presumption that an intimate relationship between a faculty member and an undergraduate student is not consensual, and that such a relationship constitutes a violation of the ‘Code of Ethics’ (ACD 204-01) and the ‘Standards of Professional Conduct for Faculty Members and Academic Professionals,’ (ACD 204-02),” according to the motion.

“The administration needs to train faculty members about the abusive, coercive nature of these relationships” Jane said. “Instead of telling them, ‘Don’t do it, because it’s against the rules and you’ll get fired,’ tell them, ‘Don’t do it, because it’s an abuse of power and your students can’t actually consent to you.’”

 

Reach the reporter at npmendo@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @NPMendoza