You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

The story of the professor at Goodwin College, Laura Champagne, who was fired for refusing to disclose the name of a student who had made a claim of sexual harassment, made me wince. It’s one of those cases in which actual human behavior refuses to fit into the categories that lawyers prefer, leading to situations in which every possible answer is at least a little bit wrong.

The very short version, which I’m cribbing from the Inside Higher Ed story, is that a student told Champagne about another professor who had offered the student a grade in exchange for sex. Champagne tried reporting the information up the chain, only to be confronted with demands to reveal the name of the student. Having repeatedly refused, Champagne was fired. The one who allegedly offered grades for sex is presumably still employed.

The story contains other details of boorish administrative behavior that I won’t even try to defend. But the basic dilemma rings true.

I’ll assume that the student’s story is credible. The campus provost and president now have reason to believe that they have a sexual predator on the faculty, which is obviously unacceptable. Should they choose to do nothing, they’re leaving themselves and the institution open to claims of tolerating a hostile environment. If the predator acts again, they were already on notice and failed to do anything to stop it. They have no choice but to act.

It’s one thing to receive an anonymous complaint, like a note slipped under a door. But in this case, they know that an employee who has “mandatory reporter” status for Title IX violations -- which sex-for-grades offers clearly are -- is withholding information vital to an investigation. They know that she knows who it is, and they know that she is legally required to share that information. If they just shrug and accept her obstruction of the investigation, they’re at least tolerating an intolerable situation. They don’t have the option of simply letting it drop.

From the perspective of someone in Champagne’s shoes, of course, being punished for trying to do the right thing is perverse. She’s trying to protect the student, which is intuitively admirable, while still putting the college on notice that it has a problem. At the moment the student told her, she probably didn’t have “I’m a mandatory reporter for Title IX violations” as top of mind. And even if she did, as unlikely as that is, she would have had to be able to see where the conversation was going and interrupt the student to tell her about mandatory reporting at exactly the right moment. While that would be legally cleaner, at one level, it could easily have scared the student off. If that happened, the predator would remain free.

Many of us have had the experience of students, or sometimes employees, telling us unsettling things without requesting any particular action. It’s often followed with a statement like “I just want you to know.” From a human behavior perspective, that’s entirely reasonable. But from a legal perspective, in certain cases, there’s no such thing as just knowing. If you know, or should have known, then you have a positive obligation to act, even if the person who told you would rather you didn’t. That rule is well intended, and it makes sense in many cases. One of the lessons of the last few years is that many predators don’t just act once; after the first victim comes forward, many others follow. That’s especially true when the victims are in vulnerable positions from the outset, as in the case of students being graded. So compelling someone to report can have the effect not only of addressing past harm but of preventing ongoing harm. But it puts trusted confidants -- and their supervisors -- in an awkward spot. Given that a student’s trust has already been violated by one authority figure, violating it again in the name of mandatory reporting can feel like adding insult to injury. That’s especially true when the initial statement was made abruptly, before any warnings could be given.

For the record, based on what the article contained, I agree that termination was overkill. And again, some of the administrative behavior as described in the story was not what it should have been. But I can understand the dilemma. While taking the action they took seemed draconian, failing to act would be negligence. They had to do something. They couldn’t just know.

This is sometimes where the campuswide email and announcement of “remember our policy about such and such” comes from. For most people, it’s merely pedantic or insulting, but it serves several purposes. For one, it constitutes “doing something.” More practically, it can serve as a signal to the perpetrator that the college knows that something is up; if it accomplishes nothing else, it may get the perpetrator to clean up his act, at least for a while. And it can serve as a signal to other students who may also have been victimized, letting them know that someone is ready to hear them. People read between the lines. A second victim who hadn’t yet told anybody may read the message, correctly, as a green light to talk to someone. Maybe the second student, or the third, will be willing and able to come forward with enough details to make an actual case. If that happens, then the predator can be held accountable, and future students can be protected.

I can’t imagine a law that makes an exception for mandatory reporting if the reporting feels awkward. That’s just not how laws work. If we’re going to have mandatory reporting, then sanctions for failing to report are a logical next step. If a college is going to be held accountable for failing to act on what it knows, then it needs to be able to get enough information on which to act. The alternative of doing away with mandatory reporting would solve one dilemma, but it could lead to a perverse incentive to avoid knowing anything. That’s not helpful, either. We have a long history of authority figures being silent about abuses taking place in the institutions for which they were responsible; that didn’t work out terribly well.

I don’t know what the right legal solution is in a case like this. Firing Champagne doesn’t seem right; she only tried to do the right thing. But given conflicting imperatives -- protecting confidentiality while getting enough information to root out the bad actors -- there may not be a single right thing. Laws are blunt instruments, but people are complicated. Sometimes there just isn’t an elegant fit. In this case, the college chose to err on the side of trying to protect other (and future) students. It overshot, but the direction was probably right.

Next Story

Written By

More from Confessions of a Community College Dean