Closing the Case or Covering it Up?

Critics call on University of Oklahoma leaders to go beyond cutting ties with the former president facing allegations of sexual misconduct -- and to be public about what investigations have found.

June 24, 2019
 
Statue of Boren on OU campus

When the University of Oklahoma announced this month that its popular former president was cutting all ties to the institution, its administrators strongly indicated -- without directly saying so -- that ending the relationship effectively released the university from any responsibility for continuing to investigate, or for acting on sexual misconduct allegations against former president David Boren.

The university leaders' response was surprising given the seriousness of the accusations against Boren, a former U.S. senator and Oklahoma governor who led OU for 24 years, until June 2018, and who has been one of the most powerful political figures in the state. Six former male students and staff have alleged that Boren and another senior university official sexually harassed or assaulted them. Leaked copies of a report by a law firm hired by the university to investigate the accusers' claims said their complaints were credible.

OU's Board of Regents has since run into a buzz-saw of criticism for its handling of Boren's voluntary disassociation from the university. The board's decision has also prompted questions about whether the university's response was in line with best practices for addressing and remedying sexual harassment and assault complaints on college campuses.

The terse and ambiguously worded statement issued by the board emphasized that Boren's decision to discontinue any affiliation with the university, including giving up his teaching position and emeritus status, "brings this matter to a close." It also implied that the case had been resolved, as far as the university was concerned.

The statement said nothing specifically about the university closing its investigation of allegations that Boren and Jim "Tripp" Hall, former vice president of University Development, sexually harassed or assaulted male students and staff. Both men are now under criminal investigation and have denied engaging in sexual misconduct. The statement also did not acknowledge the accusations by the alleged victims or say whether the inquiry had yielded any findings to support or refute their claims. Also left unsaid was what, if any, steps the university would take going forward to ensure students, faculty and staff, that such allegations are taken seriously.

Instead, the statement made repeated references to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education and requires educational institutions to investigate and remedy sexual harassment and sexual violence complaints.

" … the Title IX issue between David Boren and the University of Oklahoma has been concluded," the statement said. It also noted that administrators "worked very hard to bring to a close the Title IX issue between David Boren and the University of Oklahoma," and that "David Boren no longer has any relationship going forward with the university as a result of his resignation." The comments were attributed to Leslie Rainbolt-Forbes, chair of the OU Board of Regents.

"We are mindful of the OSBI investigation and will be watchful as to the determination of the grand jury," she said in the statement, referring to a separate investigation of the allegations being conducted by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

Meanwhile, a statue of Boren, looking regal and dressed in academic robes, remains on the main campus in Norman, as does another statue on the campus in Oklahoma City. The College of International Studies building also still bears his name, as do a prestigious professorship and several scholarships. The regents have said they have no intention of removing the statues or Boren's name from the professorship and scholarships.

The Board of Regents did not respond to written questions from Inside Higher Ed about the university's investigation and about the criticisms for using ending Boren's affiliation with OU as justification for closing the case.

For at least one of Boren's accusers, the regents' actions and statements seemed more intended to protect the reputation of the university and the widely beloved former president than to determine what may or may not have actually occurred.

"I think the university has proceeded at every juncture with the intent of keeping all the findings confidential and discrete," said Jess Eddy, who was Boren's teaching assistant during the fall semester of his junior year in 2010 and said he was assaulted by both Boren and Hall. "You can see this very clearly in the most recent statement. They didn't take any action; they let him resign. And once he resigned, they said the matter is closed."

Lauren Brookey, OU's spokesperson, said the university's decision was driven by legal concerns.

"We believe we're following the parameters of the Title IX law," she said. "It's our understanding that removing a threat, either by expulsion of a student or termination of an employee, it's the highest sanction under Title IX. President Boren's departure achieves that."

Kevin Reilly, presidential advisor for leadership at the American Council on Education, said when senior administrators leave a university under a cloud of suspicion or with allegations of impropriety or criminal misconduct trailing behind them, it's customary for the institution to investigate if any of its standards or practices were violated.

"It's generally accepted good practice to do so after somebody, especially the president, resigns under those circumstances," he said, noting that he was speaking about such cases in general and not about OU in particular.

"I think you want to know that in terms of your own rules and regulations," he said. "It helps the institution adhere to the regulations and determine how to do better in the future and minimize the chances of that happening again."

If the investigation concludes that there were not violations of the regulations, "then that's good too," he said.

Reilly, president emeritus and regent professor of the University of Wisconsin System, said being open about the findings of investigations helps institutions rebuild trust with students, faculty and staff.

It signals "that we take this matter very seriously and want to learn from it," he said. "That message is about credibility, going forward, with both internal and external audiences that are certainly watching" how universities handle or respond to embarrassing controversies and scandals.

"It does seem unusual to me that they would not have an interest in finding out on their own terms what actually happened or didn't happen," he said.

A former university system chancellor who did not want to be identified agreed with Reilly's assessment.

"These issues do not resolve themselves," she said. "Continuing to address the issue publicly is important for recovery and healing."

Suzette Grillot, an OU professor and former dean of the College of International Studies, blasted the board for accepting Boren's resignation without doing anything more.

"The OU Board of Regents seems to think (wrongly) they can just wash their hands of David Boren, put the whole matter behind them and move on," she recently tweeted. "We shall see."

Brookey characterized Boren's departure much differently.

"It is fairly significant," she said. "It cuts all of his ties and ends his relationship with the university. And it is very comprehensive and falls within the requirements of the Title IX law. In order to teach, he was technically an employee of the university, which has ramifications under Title IX. He was listed as an employee and on our payroll."

Outside critics said Boren's departure was not enough and that the university should not have ended its investigation of Boren, which was being led by Jones Day, a Washington law firm. (A special counsel is overseeing the separate investigation by the OSBI and will assist state grand jurors "in any proceedings" related to it, according to The Oklahoman.)

"Regardless of its legal responsibilities or lack of such responsibilities, I think that the OU Board has an ethical obligation to consider the Jones Day report and at the very least to determine if any of the University's internal systems (past and present) prevent legitimate investigations and also to decide what the University needs to do going forward to protect all members of the campus community from acts of sexual assault or harassment," said Susan Resneck Pierce, a former college president who advises university boards and presidents.

Grillot, the OU professor, likened the university's statements on adhering to Title IX regulations as pure obfuscation.

"Ah, the 'jurisdiction' justification. … that's not at all code for a CYA tactic that's part of a larger 'pass the buck, bury your head in the sand, sweep it under the rug' strategy," she tweeted last week.

Grillot has clashed with the administration on a number of issues including gender-based wage discrimination. She filed suit against OU in March saying she was paid less because of her gender and demoted because she spoke out against the university's leadership. She was demoted from her positions as dean, vice provost for international programs and the William J. Crowe Jr. chair in geopolitics. But she remains a tenured professor. -- Her complaints are not new, other faculty members were raising concerns about male-dominated cronyism on campus under Boren as far back as 2013.

Pierce, president emerita of the University of Puget Sound and president of SRP Consulting, LLC, said given the involvement of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the OU Board of Regents also "needs to think about its responsibility for the health and integrity of the university in all its aspects."

Said Brookey, the university spokeswoman: "Our responsibility is to fulfill the Title IX laws and observe the interest of the complainants in their situations and to make sure we remedy the situation for the complainants," she said. "That's our responsibility as a university."

She said the board's actions were focused on protecting the privacy of the alleged victims.

"That's the highest priority of Title IX," she said. "To ensure impartiality, fairness and privacy for the complainants."

She noted that university administrators are awaiting the results of the OSBI investigation to determine any possible further course of action.

Eddy, the former Boren aide, believes university leaders should do a lot more.

"It's clear that they're more interested in keeping the reputation of the university away from the fact that president Boren had preyed on students for years," he said. "They spent over a million dollars in taxpayer money and student fees to keep the bulk of the reports (on the allegations) private."

He said the Board of Regents has held about 25 hours worth of closed door meetings and executive committee sessions on this issue.

"They have not spoken about the investigation publicly, with the exception of a few written statements," he said. "I had to exercise my rights and struggle with them for weeks just to get three pages having to do with my situation" that was part of the Jones Day investigation report.

Brookey defended the university's handling of the case.

"We have the highest confidence in our Title IX office, and we believe the facts will bear that out through the various investigations," she said. "But we also understand that universities have seen increased complaints," of sexual harassment and assaults on campuses. "We are evaluating a staffing increase that our Title IX office may have in the future. That is under review."

In the interim, Levi Hilliard, another accuser, filed suit on Tuesday against the university and former Vice President Hall for allegedly repeatedly sexually assaulting him.

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