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Accusations and Suicides

November 14, 2008

For the second time this year, a professor at the University of Iowa has taken his own life after being accused of sexual harassment.

For the university, which also has faced a scandal involving alleged sexual assault by athletes and a devastating flood this year, the latest incident added to an unsettling semester.

On Wednesday, just a week after he was accused of sexual harassment in a lawsuit, Mark Weiger killed himself. He was a professor of music known for his oboe performances and teaching. A former student and teaching assistant's lawsuit, filed in federal court against Weiger and the university, charged that he had a romantic relationship with another student, engaged in repeated classroom banter and touching of an inappropriate nature, and created a sexually hostile environment. According to the suit, the university conducted its own investigation of the situation last year, found Weiger had violated policies against sexual harassment, and then resolved the issue "informally." He was found in his car, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning, with the garage door at his home closed. Authorities said he left a note.

In August, Arthur H. Miller was arrested on bribery charges and accused of telling female students that he would give them higher grades if they let him fondle their breasts. In one case, he is alleged to have grabbed and sucked on a student’s breast and then sent her an e-mail telling her that she had earned an A+. He then shot himself in a local park.

"This has been a pretty big shock. I don't know of anything like this ever," said Emileigh Barnes, editor in chief The Daily Iowan. Some students who knew the professors have praised them, while others have wondered what it means to have multiple high profile cases in a year, she said.

The professors' deaths make it "hard to tell who is innocent and who is guilty," she said. But many students are left with many questions, especially since the university hasn't released many details about the allegations. "The university needs to give us more answers. And they may need to look at how they can protect students," Barnes said.

Michael W. O’Hara, president of the Faculty Senate at Iowa and a professor of psychology, called the two deaths "a horrible coincidence." He added that "sometimes in the great big wide world, events converge that are totally coincidental yet you begin to wonder if there is a pattern, and my view is that this is like having our 500-year flood. It seems inexplicable but it happened."

O'Hara said he knew both of the professors who died, but not the specifics of their cases. He said that Weiger "had a lot of support in the music school."

After Miller was arrested in August, the university announced that it would require all faculty members to undergo training about sexual harassment. That process is now going on.

Asked what the university should do following this latest incident, O'Hara said that "we have to separate the issue of sexual harassment from the issue of why a professor or anybody for that matter would commit suicide in the face of kind of public disclosure of something that is personally extremely embarrassing if not humiliating. Those are two different issues -- people face criminal charges all the time and don't commit suicide. It's not an inevitable consequence."

O'Hara added: "We have to continue on campus to educate ourselves and to be vigilant about sexual harassment and help everyone understand that as an academic community, these things aren't to be tolerated." At the same time, he said that the two deaths made him wonder about the treatment of "alleged perpetrators." It is important to remember, he said, that "being accused doesn't mean that something happened."

When Miller was arrested and before he killed himself, the university suspended him. In the case of Weiger, university officials said that he remained "in good standing" at the time of his death. Sally Mason, president of the university, on Thursday issued a statement expressing condolences to Weiger's family and friends, and letting people know of the availability of counseling services. She also urged people "to refrain from speculation about this event, but to support all who need assistance."

A spokesman for the university said that officials could not comment on the allegations against Weiger because the university remains a defendant in the suit filed by his former student.

Alison Smith, the lawyer for the plaintiff in the case, said that the lawsuit would continue. She said that her client left the university after the investigation of her allegations, when she didn't feel secure in continuing at Iowa. When she informed her client about the suicide, she was "very saddened and shocked," Smith said.

Much of the discussion in Iowa City this week has focused on Weiger, with friends and colleagues talking about how they did not believe the allegations against him. But Smith said that the university itself found violations a year ago and said she was "concerned" about the way the case was being viewed. "We offer condolences, but it's important that we remember that this young woman was a victim. It's important that we focus on the whole story."

 

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