A former Washington State University professor says the school unfairly dismissed her for helping a student write a paper, while going easy on male professors accused of more serious indiscretions.
Valerie Jenness, a 34-year-old assistant professor of sociology, levels the accusation in a $1 million civil rights claim filed recently with the state. She says the school discriminated against her on the basis of sex.
University officials deny any discrimination. Because Jenness did not have tenure, she was effectively on probation and could be dismissed without cause, said President Sam Smith.
The rules governing non-tenured faculty were “followed to the letter,” Smith said.
Pressed for the reason Jenness was not reappointed, Smith and Provost Geoff Gamble wouldn’t comment further.
Jenness claims the university is using official and unofficial reasons not to rehire her. The official reason, told to her by Gamble and former sociology chair Marilyn Ihinger-Tallman, is that she admitted to writing substantial portions of a paper for a graduate student.
Unofficially, she says in her claim, school officials are saying she sexually harassed another female graduate student. Jenness denies the accusation and says it is based on an improper investigation and no formal charges.
In a review of how Jenness’ dismissal was handled, the faculty’s grievance committee said the administration’s failure to follow school procedures “had a major, negative effect on the outcome of this investigation.”
“It got to be a witch hunt,” said Peggy Chevalier, chair of the committee at the time of the review.
WSU’s faculty guidelines stipulate that allegations of misconduct be handled by the faculty, said Chevalier. Instead, the Jenness investigation was handled by four administrators: Associate Vice Provost Karen DePauw, Vice Provost Geoff Gamble, Liberal Arts Dean John Pierce and Sally Savage, counsel to the president.
Jenness’ claim, the precursor to a lawsuit, is the latest in a string of allegations to state and federal agencies that the university discriminates against women, retaliates against them when they complain and lacks the means to fairly investigate wrongdoing.
Jenness, who lays out her complaint in a 10-page affidavit, limited her comments for this story to remarks left on a reporter’s telephone answering machine.
“I am disappointed that this matter could not be resolved internally at WSU and that I’m left with only one alternative, namely to use the legal arena,” she said.
Before late 1995, Jenness - an expert on sexuality, social deviance and gender - had strong evaluations from students and her department chair as well as a solid list of publications.
That December, she received a telephone call from Micki Archuleta, an intimate friend with whom she had recently broken up.
Archuleta, who was not one of Jenness’ students, said she was having trouble writing a short paper on “postmodern social theory and new social movements.”
Jenness went to Archuleta’s home and at one point sat at Archuleta’s keyboard and wrote several paragraphs.
“It was mostly Val’s prose,” said Archuleta, who is now president of the Graduate and Professional Student Association. “It doesn’t mean it wasn’t my ideas … OK, it was gray. But I don’t feel like I cheated.”
Nine days later, Jenness wrote Marilyn Ihinger-Tallman, then the chair of the Department of Sociology, and confessed to helping with the paper.
Ihinger-Tallman told Jenness that the incident was a mistake, according to the claim. She did not give her a written reprimand, took no formal action and led Jenness to believe her pending tenure was not in jeopardy, the claim says.
But the following April, John Pierce, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, confronted Jenness about her “involvement” with another graduate student.
The student, who told WSU officials she once was attracted to Jenness, said she felt sexually harassed when the professor gave her a book of photographs of lesbians. Jenness said she maintained a professional relationship with the student and gave her the book because she was the first sociology graduate student to pass comprehensive exams in gender studies.
“I can state, simply and unequivocally that I never have been involved in an intimate, sexual relationship with (the graduate student) or any other student over whom I have had supervisory power,” Jenness wrote to the sociology faculty when the issue was raised during her 1996 tenure review. “Moreover, I have never preyed upon or exploited any student at WSU.”
That’s more than can be said about other faculty, Jenness contends in her claim. She refers to an unidentified theater professor who had a homosexual relationship with a student. After their breakup, the student told DePauw he was afraid of the professor.
Jenness says DePauw took no action. DePauw wouldn’t comment.
Jenness also refers to a sociology professor requesting sex from a female graduate student in exchange for “academic favors.”
Riley Dunlap, the Boeing Distinguished Professor of Environmental Sociology, confirmed in an interview he is the professor mentioned and said he made a sexual overture to a student at a time when heart surgery and other personal problems had made him a “psychological basket case.”
He insisted it wasn’t for academic favors.
Ihinger-Tallman directed Dunlap to write a letter apologizing for “unprofessional and unethical behavior.” The student said she filed a sexual harassment complaint last month with the Center for Human Rights at WSU, just in case she has further problems.
While the administration did not take formal action against either of the male professors, it did press on against Jenness, she says.
In May, she says in her claim, Ihinger-Tallman gave the tenured sociology faculty personal letters and the book that the administration obtained from the former graduate student.
The faculty were concerned about both the paper-writing incident and what Ihinger-Tallman called “unprofessional mentoring.” But according to a May 14 memo from IhingerTallman to Dean Pierce, the faculty, who are to be consulted on contract renewals and tenure issues, disagreed on whether the paper warranted a reprimand or non-renewal of her contract.
Still, Ihinger-Tallman recommended to Pierce that Jenness’ contract not be renewed.
“She confessed to academic dishonesty,” Ihinger-Tallman said from Minneapolis, where she is on sabbatical. “Her contract was not renewed for academic dishonesty. It’s an issue of ethics.”
In her claim, Jenness quotes seven faculty and staff who gathered from discussions with DePauw that “more than the paper” was at issue in her nonrenewal.
While the practice is frowned on, said Chevalier, professors often go so far as helping students write whole chapters of their theses and dissertations.
But in the end, the paper-writing admission was all the administration had against Jenness, Chevalier said.
“They tried to find something on the sexual harassment,” she said. “Couldn’t do it. They came back to, ‘What is it that we have?’ They had the paper.
“It really came to, ‘Let’s find some way to get her,”’ she said.
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