Scrutiny of 2 Presidents' Conduct

Details emerge of harassment allegations against a fired campus leader in Oregon; an incoming head of theological seminary admits to affair.

October 13, 2014

At two very different colleges, the conduct of presidents with regard to very different extramarital relationships -- in one case apparently consensual and in the other leading to harassment charges -- has become public in recent days.

In Oregon, The Statesman Journal succeeded in a court fight to obtain records on the college's investigation of Patrick Lanning, who was fired this year as president of the Yamhill Valley campus of Chemeketa Community College and was dropped as the favored candidate to become president of Central Oregon Community College amid allegations that he harassed another administrator. The records now released portray a group of college administrators at a conference hotel drinking tequila shots and Lanning giving a public (and some thought inappropriate) back rub to a female administrator. What happened after that remains in dispute, but the details -- even in Lanning's account, which involves a consensual encounter -- do not reflect well on him.

In Massachusetts meanwhile, The Boston Globe reported that Andover Newton Theological Seminary has been "badly shaken" by the news, days before his inaugural, that the Rev. Martin Copenhaver admitted to having had an affair earlier in his life. While the affair did not involve an employee of the seminary or past institutions where Copenhaver had roles of authority, the news was shocking at a religious institution. The board considered a delay in the inaugural, but opted not to. Still, the situation has prompted considerable debate.

'Huggy Sort of Person'

In the Chemeketa case, an employee of the college filed harassment charges with the college (and has since sued the college) over what took place after a day in which she, Lanning and others attended a conference. In a bar at the end of the day, the group of administrators ordered drinks and Lanning is accused of giving the employee (who is not named in the documents that were released) a back rub -- in front of other employees -- that the recipient and others thought was unusual in that setting. Lanning did not deny giving the back rub, according to an interview he gave the college's investigator (the full report, featuring all the interview summaries, may be found here). But he told investigators that it was consensual, that it was "therapeutic," that the recipient rubbed his crotch area when he stopped. He also said that he was a "huggy sort of person."

The next morning, the recipient, who had been walked to her room by other colleagues, woke up naked (not her normal custom for sleeping) and found Lanning's glasses in her room. While she reported not remembering what had happened, Lanning said he went to her room to check on her (although other employees said that they told him she was not feeling well and needed to sleep), that she gave him her room number, and that they had an encounter in which he said she encouraged him (over his protestations) and that he ejaculated in his pants.

Lanning told investigators that the entire series of events was consensual and did not violate college policies. His lawyer could not be reached this weekend, but the documents include a detailed response from him to college investigators.

Cheryl Roberts, president of the Chemeketa college system, rejected all of Lanning's arguments in the dismissal letter she sent him, and argued that he had violated college rules on sexual harassment even according to his own accounts of the night in question. "You do not seem to grasp the concept that for a supervisor, such as yourself, to touch a subordinate employee's person in an overly familiar manner in the presence of co-workers or to gain access to a hotel room late at night is the exercise of power and authority over a subordinate employee, such as [redacted name of employee] that may be perceived as an implicit term of the employment relationship," Roberts wrote.

Roberts added that "your statements establish that you engaged in repeated unwelcome physical contact." Further, Roberts wrote that Lanning's assertions that the other employee was the aggressor "are simply not credible."

While the college has defended its handling of the allegations, the Statesman Journal reported that it paid Lanning $38,391 last month so he would agree not to sue over his dismissal.

Higher Standards for a Seminary Leader?

In the Andover Newton case, there are no allegations about consent or possible violation of federal harassment laws. Rather, the question is whether someone leading a religious institution of this sort should be held to a standard higher than that applied to most academics. The Globe noted that the extramarital relationship ended before Copenhaver was a candidate to lead the seminary.

But the seminary board chair, Jim Sherblom, acknowledged to the newspaper that the revelation has distressed many. “People are going through a state of shock and sadness," he said. "I think it’s going to be a long process.”

Much of the public discussion has taken place on the blog of an alumna of the seminary, Rev. Victoria Weinstein, who has expressed concern about what the admission says about the seminary's new president and the institution. (Comments include many applauding her for voicing her concerns, while others disagree.)

While Weinberg noted that "there is no shame in being an institution dealing with human failing," she added: "It concerns me that my alma mater’s president should have violated the covenant of marriage for a long period of time, and that he and the board of trustees ask our forgiveness for that violation. I assume that the president of a Christian seminary, unless he explicitly states otherwise, upholds the covenant of marriage according to the definition of two people who are faithful to each other unto death."

Further, she questioned both Copenhaver for offering to resign (but not withdrawing) and the board's action of proceeding with his inaugural. "It matters to many of us in the community that this information came to light after a third party threatened to make the information public," she wrote. "It matters to many of us that rather than resign, the Rev. Mr. Copenhaver offered to resign and therefore left the decision in the hands of a volunteer board who was probably very tired, very inclined to want to be able to trust him, and that is mostly not clergy. Clergy have a particular stake in this decision because it is we who suffer most the public’s scorn when we behave in ways that validate their sense that religion is a special haven for hypocrites."


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