Not Every Sexual Harassment Complaint is Legit
This will not start out as a good year for Professor Nick Flor of the University of New Mexico.
Beginning January 1st he will be suspended from this tenured position at UNM, without pay, for a full year. He is not allowed to get another fulltime job and the multimillions of dollars in grants he has received will dry up, his ability to win new grants will be next to impossible.
Flor’s predicament follows a rather bizarre and brief interaction with a 35-year-old graduate student who, reportedly, has a history of pursuing and then complaining about professors.
Under federal law (so-called Title IX) schools that receive public funds must investigate whenever there is a report of sexual harassment, violence or gender discrimination that could hinder a person’s education. The problem with Title IX responses has been the frequent inequitable way in which university investigations are conducted. Many males have protested saying their accuser’s claim of sexual misconduct is taken as gospel and they are left to prove their innocence in a process that denies them due process.
This is what Professor Flor says happened to him. In his case, he had only met the unidentified accuser face-to-face during a random five-minute encounter in the Anderson School of Management’s copy room. That was in mid-May 2018, and what followed was an avalanche of emails and texts that quickly turned romantic. During their six weeks long correspondence the idea was floated that she might work on an analytics project with Flor since he had $703 in leftover grant money. She rejected the idea. Emails between the single woman and the married older professor then became sexually charged. They never again saw each other in person.
“I can’t excuse my behavior,” Flor told Reason Magazine. “I exercised poor judgment,” he admitted.
Flor says he realized it was an inappropriate relationship and in early June he stopped responding to the woman’s incessant messages about love, horoscopes, their destiny and their past lives together. She didn’t stop. Her messages spoke of suicide followed by photos of flowers and hummingbirds.
She accused him of killing the romance. She then threatened to send intimate screenshots of their conversations to his bosses. On June 27, she wrote that she was “still relentless” and was going to do things, “that you would not believe I would do based off how you’ve acted and treated me.”
That day Flor reported the situation to his department chair who, in turn, reported it to UNM’s Title IX office. An investigation was launched, and the woman filed her own complaint alleging quid pro quo sexual harassment as evidenced by the professor’s job offer. To Flor’s astonishment he became the focus of the investigation.
Flor is still seething that UNM would take the word of the woman over his, especially after he turned over the 3,258 emails and 174 texts she had sent him which he maintains clearly show she was the aggressor. Nine months after he reported the woman’s threats Flor was informed that he had been found guilty of harassment and retaliation. His punishment – that life altering one-year suspension which will cost him his $130,000 salary.
“They’re treating me like I’m Harvey Weinstein,” Flor said.
UNM President Garnett Stokes declined my offer to comment on the fairness of Flor’s suspension. Recently, Stokes proudly announced that the U.S. Department of Justice was ending its 3-year-long investigation of UNM’s past questionable handling of sexual harassment and assault complaints. The DOJ had criticized UNM’s “labyrinthine policies” and long and inadequate investigations. Sound familiar?
Also declining to comment was the woman, who I tracked down via her August 2, 2018 Albuquerque District Court application for a domestic violence restraining order against Flor. The court denied her request.
Flor has one more possible (but unlikely) appeal left. But the UNM panel designated to hear his request to reduce his suspension isn’t set to meet until weeks after his banishment goes into effect. Flor’s lawyers are readying a lawsuit against the university. After 17 years at UNM Flor feels he deserves better treatment.
Look, everyone wants vulnerable students to be protected on campus and Title IX was designed to do that. But what will protect students and faculty from false allegations? Universities everywhere need to figure this out.