Below is an article that I, Nico Vitti ’12, wrote and would like to share with the Wesleyan community. If you are not interested in reading the entire thing, here are my main questions about current university policy and protocol regarding professors who harass students:
Why is a student banned from knowing the outcome of an investigation of a professor who harassed them? Who is in charge of students’ physical and emotional safety in Wesleyan classrooms?
The article is below, and there’s more after the jump.
I was sexually harassed and discriminated against multiple times by a Wesleyan professor, and the administration has failed to follow through with my investigation or make me feel safe at Wesleyan.
Let me be clear: I’m writing and publishing this here on Wesleying because the greater Wesleyan community needs to know that the administration is completely unprepared to deal with a student’s reporting a professor for inappropriate behavior. Throughout the entire process of reporting the behavior and seeking justice, I have never wanted to place myself in opposition to Wesleyan’s administration. I love Wesleyan and have had rewarding relationships with many administrators in the past through activist projects and residential life programs. I would have liked to work with the administration, not against them. But the events of the past 6 months have made it impossible for me to stay silent about the way the administration has treated me since I severed my relationship with a professor who harassed me repeatedly over a period of two semesters.
The professor’s inappropriate comments began in the first class I took with him spring of my freshman year (2009), and escalated in offensiveness. I began to feel less safe as the weeks went on, prompting me to seek advice from my faculty advisor last spring (2011). I decided to confront the professor one-on-one, before the end of that semester, to tell him I felt uncomfortable when he made inappropriate comments to me, but he was never available to meet. I finally decided to end my relationship with him last semester, when he sexually harassed me after pulling me into his office during class (a class I took with him because he is the only professor at Wesleyan who teaches it). After that incident I reported the professor to my class dean, David Phillips, and withdrew from the class.
Dean Phillips promised me a replacement academic credit and that the university would take the accusation seriously. I wrote a statement explaining exactly what happened in preparation for the university’s investigation, which I was told would be run by the Director of Human Resources (HR), Julia Hicks and Rob Rosenthal (Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost). I submitted my written statement to Dean Phillips and trusted that based on how obviously inappropriate this professor’s behavior was, and what an obvious threat he is to my safety and the safety of his students still under his supervision, the university would take action. I suggested in my statement that he be fired immediately. When Sonia Mañjon (Vice President of Diversity and Strategic Partnerships and Chief Diversity Officer) and Julia Hicks interviewed me as part of the investigation, both were sympathetic and assured me that the professor had clearly overstepped the boundaries of a professor-student relationship.
I was never informed of the outcome of the university’s investigation. As weeks passed after the interview with Julia Hicks and Vice President Mañjon, I wondered what had become of the professor, but knew he was still teaching since I ran into him several times around campus, prompting trauma-related anxiety symptoms. I did have an opportunity to make up the academic credit in a private tutorial with a professor in a completely different department, but was hurt and frustrated that no one had contacted me yet. I was informed by Dean Phillips that the professor in question would like to give me an apology letter if I would be interested in reading one. I was not.
Emotionally exhausted and headed toward finals week, I let it rest through the end of fall semester, and through the first few months of the spring semester.
In April I asked Vice President Mañjon for an appointment to discuss the outcome of the investigation. She agreed to meet with me, and told me that the case was taken seriously but that she couldn’t tell me what sanctions were placed on the professor because of confidentiality issues. She was also surprised that HR hadn’t followed up with me. I asked her what the confidentiality issues were, and she said it was both university policy and legal issues that prevented her from informing me. I asked her what policy she was referring to and she promised to email it to me. A weekend and a few weekdays passed and she still hadn’t sent it. I emailed her again, reminding her to send along the policy.
She responded by copying and pasting this section from the university’s policy on harassment and discrimination (link to policy) and vaguely mentioning state and federal laws about employee personal files: “When the investigation is completed, the person making the complaint and the person alleged to have committed the conduct will be informed, to the extent appropriate, of the results of the investigation” (emphasis hers). Vice President Mañjon copied Julia Hicks and David Winakor on the email. I had never heard of David Winakor and was not aware that he was involved in the investigation. With a quick Google search, I found out he is Wesleyan’s General Counsel.
Following that email, I set up a meeting with Michael Whaley (Vice President of Student Affairs) because, despite not being involved in the investigation, he had been friendly and honest with me in the past. Vice President Whaley told me that the general process for a complaint of harassment or discrimination against a professor is that a note will be put in the professor’s file but that because of tenure agreements professors are rarely fired on a first offense. I asked if my case was considered a first offense, even though the professor harassed me multiple times. He said he didn’t know. I asked Vice President Whaley who decides to what “extent appropriate” I would be informed of the university’s actions, and he said Vice President Mañjon, Julia Hicks, and David Winakor.
In a follow-up email I asked Vice President Mañjon, since she was one of the people who decided to what “extent appropriate” I should be informed, why she believed it was inappropriate to inform me of the investigation that I myself initiated. At the time of writing (May 25), she has not responded. I sent the email on May 10.
On May 13, I submitted a request through Dr. Jennifer D’Andrea (the Director of Counseling and Psychological Services and my personal therapist) that the professor in question not attend the commencement ceremony, as I did not want to be disturbed with the trauma-related anxiety symptoms his presence would cause on a day when I would be walking around campus with my family. Yesterday, May 24, I received a phone call from Dean Phillips. He said that he was sorry but he had been told to tell me that the professor in question would, in fact, be attending commencement. I asked who told him that, and he said Vice President Rosenthal.
That afternoon, I approached Vice President Rosenthal as he was leaving a meeting in Usdan and asked him why he was not going to ban the professor in question from commencement. Vice President Rosenthal said that since the professor has already been sanctioned, he is not willing to sanction the professor again. I explained that banning the professor would not a be punitive action, it would be directly protective of my mental and emotional health needs on a day when I should be allowed to move freely around central campus during and after the ceremony. Rob responded that, due to a special favor the professor has provided the university, he cannot be banned from the ceremony but if I told Rob where I was “going to be” during commencement, he would make sure the professor wasn’t near me. I told him this was unacceptable. Vice President Rosenthal said, “do what you need to do.”
What I need to do is make sure that the rest of the Wesleyan community knows how the administration is treating me, both in the hopes of seeing some kind of justice in my own case, and in the hopes that this doesn’t have to happen to any other students who have been or could be harassed by a professor. My questions now are: Why did both Vice President Mañjon and Vice President Rosenthal take so long in getting back to me (or never responded at all to my requests)? Why is a student banned from knowing the outcome of an investigation of a professor who harassed them? Who is in charge of students’ physical and emotional safety in Wesleyan classrooms?
Maybe if there is enough demand from students and faculty, and all the other wonderful people who care about Wesleyan, someone in the administration will answer.
I would really like to state the name of the professor here in order to protect my friends and classmates from his inappropriate comments and advances. But in order to protect myself legally I cannot. I believe the best I can do for myself and for Wesleyan is to make public the administration’s lack of commitment to the safety of their students, since they have denied my requests that the policy be applied fairly or changed. If it were, then maybe students would be able to make their schedules and attend class knowing that if a professor makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe, the administration would deal with the situation honestly, seriously, and effectively.
It pains me that it has come to this. I wanted to have some kind of resolution in time for me to enjoy the limited time I have on campus before I graduate on Sunday. I have been lucky to have extremely supportive friends, and family, and I’ve been able to trust several other professors for their advice. Unfortunately, however, I don’t think I can let this rest knowing that the administration is not being held accountable to the students they are supposed to serve.