Indiana's highest court on Tuesday upheld the University of Evansville's decision to fire a tenured professor accused of violating its sexual harassment policy.
John Haegert, a professor at the private university since 1979, was fired in 2004 following an incident involving a female tenured professor. Margaret McMullan, then chair of the English department, was speaking with a prospective student and her parents in August 2004 when Haegert entered the department lounge and began to stroke the professor on her face and neck, calling her "Sweetie," according to court documents.
McMullan, who testified she was "embarrassed and humiliated" by Haegert's actions, filed a formal complaint against her colleague -- and that complaint led to his termination, following extensive internal review. Court documents reveal several female students had launched similar but informal complaints against Haegert since 2002.
Haegert, who argued that he was simply in an "extremely joyous" mood that day in 2004, and who "regarded the greeting as harmless, inconsequential and very brief," appealed to the university's board of trustees, to no avail.
In 2005, the professor sued the university for multiple breaches of contract, and sued McMullan for alleged defamation and other charges. A trial court ruled in favor of the university, but a local appeals court later sided with Haegert, concluding that the university failed to prove the incident qualified as sexual harassment.
The case ended up in Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that Haegert was justly terminated for his actions. The court found Haegert's conduct to be characteristic of sexual harassment, and therefore subject to termination of his contract. It also found the university followed proper procedures before taking such action.
University officials directed questions to Ken Yerkes, a lawyer who has represented both McMullan and the University of Evansville, where she is still teaching, since 2007.
"It has been a long and tortuous journey for the university and Ms. McMullan," he said in an interview. But both parties are "very happy" with the court's opinion, Yerkes said, adding they viewed it as a "complete and detailed vetting of the underlying facts."
Haegert's attorney, Darlene Robinson, could not immediately be reached for comment.