Professor Quits Amid Charge of Improper Relationship

The former Washington University faculty member made his mark in the sciences, as a dinosaur expert.
October 11, 2006

An assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis who gained renown for helping to  discover a new dinosaur species has resigned amid allegations of an improper relationship with a student.

The case involves Joshua Smith, who taught at the university for four years in the earth and planetary sciences graduate department. Thought to be a rising star in the field, Smith was known for teaching a highly popular class on dinosaurs.

The issue surfaced this summer, when the university received information that was shared with Smith, according to M. Frederic Volkmann, vice chancellor for public affairs at Washington. Smith left the university over the summer, after the woman with whom he was alleged to have had a consensual relationship came forward, said a university official who wanted to remain anonymous. The student’s identity is not being revealed by Washington administrators. 

The university's policy is that a faculty member is restricted from engaging in a consensual relationship with a student when the professor has a professional “position of authority” with respect to the student.

A faculty member in the earth and planetary sciences department, who asked not to be named, said that “this matter has been dealt with secretly among members of the department.”

After the university announced Smith’s resignation in August, a number of other students came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct involving the former professor. It wasn’t the first time that Smith’s name had been attached to alleged wrongdoing.

In the spring of 2004, a former graduate student who studied under Smith at Washington alleged that during a class trip to New England, the professor had sexually harassed her in a hotel room. The university was not able to substantiate the claims, and there were varied accounts provided by students on the trip. “There was a sharp polarization of opinions, and the picture was not fully vouched,” said the anonymous official.

Smith could not be reached for comment. He and Julia Heathcote, the female student who alleged sexual assault in 2004, had worked together on dinosaur research and other projects. She left the graduate program before receiving her degree.

Tom Evans, an earth and planetary sciences graduate student currently taking a leave of absence, said he did not recall that Smith shared a room on that trip with two female students, as Heathcote alleged earlier this week in Student Life , Washington University’s student newspaper. 

“The case was made that Josh was a sexually aggressive kind of guy,” Evans said. “That’s not his style. His entire life was spent trying not to get in trouble -- all he was trying to do was get tenure. He’s not going to violate the civil rights of a human being.”

Heathcote told Student Life that she had been upset that Smith remained her academic supervisor even after the allegations. She also told the student newspaper that he “belittled” her and another student.

Raymond E. Arvidson, chair of the earth and planetary sciences department, declined to comment for this article.

After the 2004 report from Heathcote, two years passed without another public allegation against Smith. “I’m appalled that nobody had turned him in, knowing what we do now,” said the anonymous university official.

Evans described Smith as a friend, and said he has spoken to him only sporadically since his departure. Although Evans disputed the accusation that Smith sexually assaulted Heathcote, he said he is not surprised to hear about the recent charges about the improper relationship.

“I know he is not happy with his own actions,” Evans said. “He’s been fairly closed about the entire thing. His life is pretty much tainted.”

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