UConn prof says her support of outspoken student may cost her her job

UConn students rally on campus supporting the students who say the university mishandled their sexual assault complaints

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CT Mirror

UConn students rally on campus supporting the students who say the university mishandled their sexual assault complaints

Two professors who were publicly critical of the University of Connecticut’s handling of threats against a female student earlier this year have left the university and a third says she is being driven out by her department.

Heather M. Turcotte, a tenure-track professor in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department, was one of three faculty members publicly critical of UConn President Susan Herbst for what they characterized as the administration's poor response to threats of rape and violence made against a female student.

A few weeks later, Turcotte was told that the head of her department was recommending she be dismissed.

“I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive,” said Turcotte, who is in her fifth year at UConn and studies institutionalized sexual violence. Turcotte said she was told the department was dissatisfied with the quality of her research.

Dr. Judy Rohrer and Michael Gill, the two other professors who joined Turcotte in publishing the critical article, have already left the school. They wrote an opinion piece for The Feminist Wire, a news website, urging the university president to actively support and protect senior Carolyn Luby. Luby said she was the subject of threats of rape and violence following her published criticism of the university’s culture of “corporatism and athletic worship.”

The status of the three professors is outlined in the 38-page lawsuit filed by four UConn students who are suing the university for what they claim is its failure to protect them from sexual assault and rape. Their claims and the university's policies on reporting sexual assaults on campus will be discussed during a hearing at 2 p.m. today by the legislature's Higher Education and Public Safety committees. Herbst is not scheduled to attend.

“Three professors in UConn’s [WGSS] department published an article imploring the administration to respond [to the threats against Luby]. The administration did not respond. Upon information and belief, all three professors have been informed that their contracts will not be renewed upon their expiration,” reads the lawsuit.

But Nancy Naples, the director of the Women Studies program at UConn, says the claim that these departures are connected to their public discourse is “absolutely untrue.” Rohrer and Gill are the only two faculty members who have left the department recently, she said.

“One took a position that would allow him to be closer to his partner and the other took a tenure track position,” she said. “WGSS, like all other academic units, make faculty and instructor hiring and reappointment decisions based solely upon the individual’s productivity and performance with respect to research, teaching and service. I can confidently assert again that no one in WGSS has been wrongly terminated due to signing a petition or for any other political activities.”

Rohrer and Gill, former assistant professors in residence, declined multiple requests for comment.

“I have thought about this and don’t think there is anything I want to say publicly at this time,” Rohrer, who now teaches at Western Kentucky University, wrote in a email.

Few others at UConn were eager to comment, either. The CT Mirror called and emailed every professor in the women’s studies department asking for comment for another story last week, but the department head was the only person who would speak on the record. A few teachers were willing to speak privately, but asked their comments not be used following an email they received from university officials reminding them of UConn’s procedures when talking with reporters.

This posture by the faculty is not unique to UConn when it comes to Title IX complaints against a university’s handling of sexual assault, one women’s advocate says.

“It is across the board really rare for faculty to get involved,” said Annie Clark, who helped create End Rape on Campus, an advocacy group that has helped launch Title IX complaints at a dozen universities across the country, including UConn. She also was the lead complainant against the University of North Carolina for its handling of her sexual assault.

One exception is at Occidental College, a small liberal arts college in Los Angeles, where two professors filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights and led the public criticism of the school. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out that campus administrators had copied data from their computers and cellphones in an apparent “chilling” measure.

Generally, the public outcry about university policies on sexual abuse and mistreatment of women "has all been student driven,” Clark said of the wave of Title IX complaints recently filed at colleges across the country. “It would definitely be nice to have more faculty speak up publicly.”

But for UConn’s Turcotte who did speak up at UConn, she is awaiting word from the dean on her future. She's not hopeful she'll be able to stay now that her immediate supervisor has recommended her dismissal.

“There is a silencing,” she said. “There is no faculty response -– it’s crickets. And why is that?” she asked. “I feel that there is a culture of fear and silence for untenured faculty.”

Asked why she decided to speak publicly yet again, Turcotte said, “There’s not much more they could do to me than they are already doing.”

Meanwhile, the women’s studies department at UConn is hosting a “workshop/teach-in” today to help staff understand how they can better help students.

Naples said the purpose of this workshop is to create a “unified message” of what kind of support is available to students and what the department’s response should be.

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