Two tenured University of Minnesota professors disciplined for sexual harassment returned to the classroom this fall — and students sprang to raise alarms about how administrators handled their comeback. Some questioned whether the men should be back at all.
But in some ways, the episode signals a major departure for the U and other Minnesota higher education institutions: The Humphrey School of Public Affairs dean has discussed the professors’ cases at length in meetings with students and faculty — an uncommon airing of an issue traditionally swathed in silence.
The school took unprecedented steps to bring the two men — the only U faculty members suspended without pay for sexual misconduct at least since 2013 — back into the fold. As sanctioned faculty return to Minnesota public and private campuses in the MeToo era, administrators are feeling new pressure to talk about their cases more openly.
They are arguing that in place of quiet departures that saddle other unsuspecting schools with misbehaving professors, campuses should work to rehabilitate disciplined faculty, focusing on learning and healing rather than punishment.
“We have to create the space on our campuses for some people to change because if we don’t, they won’t,” said Katie Eichele, the head of the U’s Aurora Center, who has advocated for a harder line on sexual misconduct. “This is a really transformational time.”
Amid growing national awareness of how faculty harassment can derail the budding careers of graduate students they advise, some students are skeptical. Many are boycotting the classes of sanctioned professors. In a possible setback for its rehabilitation experiment, Humphrey last week tapped colleagues to take over the classes of James Ron, one of the disciplined faculty, without explanation.
For Nora Radtke, the U research position Ron offered her last year was a dream job and the culmination of her Humphrey graduate coursework, largely designed and overseen by Ron. But she says, the conversation about job duties and salary ended with a “power move” that blindsided her: If she were single, Radtke says Ron told her, he would ask her out.
“It felt like my life changed in a second,” she said. “This relationship was never about my professional development and academic work.”
Radtke, who had previously enlisted Humphrey administrators to talk to Ron about blurring the line between personal and professional, filed a formal complaint.
In late 2018, the U’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office (EOAA) found Ron and another Humphrey professor, Jason Cao, “more likely than not” to have violated the U’s sexual harassment policies — a “preponderance of the evidence” standard some critics argue sets the bar for discipline too low. Cao was sanctioned for allegedly making sexual jokes and inviting a student to his home in the evening.
After consulting faculty, Humphrey Dean Laura Bloomberg suspended Ron without pay and benefits for five months and Cao for eight, in addition to restrictions on advising and hiring research assistants. This fall, in one of a series of campus forums, Bloomberg fielded questions from students, who pressed her on how the school had made whole the complainants and more. She told them she stands by her decision not to seek termination and assured them Ron and Cao are back under “an extreme level of supervision.”
“This is hard; it’s painful,” she told students. “I acknowledge that for some people it conjures memories of our own experiences with sexual misconduct and abuses of power, and I am sorry.”
The forums are far from standard practice at the U. There was no outreach to students, for instance, when two separate investigations in 2017 found chemistry Prof. Gianluigi Veglia likely had violated sexual misconduct policies after students in his lab complained about frequent comments about women’s appearance, questions about their romantic lives and fear of retaliation. While discipline letters spelling out the complaints against them landed in Ron’s and Cao’s permanent files, Veglia’s letter includes no details.
All three professors declined to comment or did not respond; all three strongly disputed the complaints during the investigations.
Humphrey student leaders have said the administration should have alerted students about Cao’s and Ron’s return before fall class registration started and have called for changes that would make it easier to fire tenured professors who harass students. The Twin Cities graduate student government wants to see student input into sexual misconduct discipline decisions, automatic suspensions from advising graduate students and a move away from entrusting discipline decisions for faculty who might bring in millions in research grants to academic units, said its president, Kriti Agarwal.
Amy Pittenger, the head of the Faculty Senate, said faculty leaders are working on developing systemwide sanction guidelines after the Humphrey cases highlighted a “lack of trust in a culture of accountability” at the U.
In fiscal year 2018, when the U first tracked sexual misconduct complaints against faculty separately, 40 of the 104 such cases the EOAA office opened involved employees in an instructional role. During the past five years, six faculty members were formally disciplined for sexual misconduct. None was fired. The U said many cases are resolved informally, and in some, faculty can receive training, coaching and other measures not considered discipline.
Disciplined professors returned to other Minnesota campuses this fall — and administrators are talking about it. At Northfield’s Carleton College, officials told students who’d filed complaints against anthropology Prof. Jerome Levi in 2016-17 that they could not discuss sanctions against him. They declined to discuss the matter with the campus newspaper, saying Levi had chosen to extend a planned sabbatical. But when Levi was placed on leave this fall following an inquiry into a new complaint, again dating to 2016, the college released a public statement explaining they found Levi engaged in “sexually inappropriate” behavior and spelling out discipline measures.
St. Olaf College in Northfield also chose to discuss its decision to discipline music Prof. Martin Hodel following a 2018 investigation, which found he had used sexualized language and behaved inappropriately toward a student. Hodel was suspended without pay and barred from campus for a year. He’s back but faces restrictions on travel with student performers.
After a Star Tribune inquiry, Hodel told his students and colleagues about the investigation. Provost Marci Sortor said the college is prepared to answer student questions and accommodate those who wish to switch instructors: “We’re rapidly learning a lot about how going forward we can be more open about these cases.”
Hodel deferred to the college for comment, saying only he fully cooperated with the process and is grateful to be back on campus. An attorney for Levi declined to comment.
Both schools required the professors to receive counseling, and Carleton stressed there have been no recent complaints against Levi, who expressed regret for his behavior.
Some students have questioned whether campuses can redeem professors who have harassed other students — a grievous abuse of power, especially for graduate students, who depend on faculty advisers for help launching careers.
Radtke, the student who complained about Ron and left Humphrey without finishing her degree, says in moments of anger, she wishes Ron had been fired. But ultimately, she applauds Bloomberg for trying a more nuanced approach.
“As a student of human rights, I believe in rehabilitation and reconciliation,” she said. “That’s an important part of healing.”
Bloomberg says she is embracing a restorative justice model, with upcoming speakers and discussions. Ron and Cao were directed to craft professional development plans to better understand power imbalances in higher education and other issues. Greg Lindsey, one of two faculty members assigned to mentor Cao, says Cao has fully embraced the process.
Jennifer Freyd, a University of Oregon professor who studies sexual harassment, says the Humphrey School is on the front lines of a growing push to embrace restorative practices, though she stresses that disciplined faculty must take responsibility and the process must feel like more than “a slap on the wrist.” Still, the approach is promising, she said: “We are not going to fix this problem by scapegoating and shaming a few perpetrators. What’s been missing is deep education.”