New Job, Old Habits

When professors leave one job due to sexual harassment allegations, they can land new jobs and repeat the behavior elsewhere, a recent case involving the University of Delaware and San Diego State University suggests.

December 3, 2015

Did the University of Delaware enable a known sexual harasser to continue to work with students? That’s what one former Delaware faculty leader says regarding Vincent Martin, a former tenured professor of Spanish there. The university says it can’t comment on a private personnel matter. But if the accusations are true, Martin’s case could be part of the “pass the harasser” phenomenon in higher education some say is all too common.

Martin was a tenured associate professor of Spanish at San Diego State University until last month, when he either was fired or abruptly resigned -- the university only has confirmed that he is no longer working there. The move followed student protests earlier this year over the fact that Martin was given only a 30-day suspension for allegedly sexually harassing four female students.

The suspension was the result of an arbitration hearing over the summer, in which it was revealed that Martin had asked several undergraduates out for drinks and to visit him at his home and hotel rooms during out-of-town conferences. In one 2011 case, based on arbitration documents, Martin suggested that one student whom he’d accused of plagiarism and then offered an assistantship show up at his hotel room in a French maid’s costume.

In a 2013, the documents show, Martin sent numerous texts to a 19-year-old undergraduate, asking her out for dinner and drinks. When she replied she was not yet 21, Martin responded, “not 21???? but ur SOOOOO MATURE!!! Wow!!! very impressed!!!” On another occasion, he texted that he appreciated the student’s wish to be a lawyer, but said “that’s not my interest in you!!! ; LOL.” He continued to ask her to visit him at his home, ostensibly about work, and said he’d have wine and “mimosas ready as ‘plan B.’”

Also in the course of arbitration, based on documents originally obtained by NBC 7 in San Diego, it was revealed that Martin had resigned his previous position at Delaware after being accused of sexually harassing a female student. The documents offer no additional details on that case, but the arbitrator, Richard Haden, a retired judge, did write that “given his previous experience at the University of Delaware, Professor Martin should have redoubled his efforts at professionalism. Instead, within a few months of his arrival at [San Diego State] strikingly similar behavior reemerged.”

A spokesman for Delaware confirmed that Martin worked there from 2000-2010, but said he couldn’t say any more about a personnel issue. That’s despite the fact that earlier this week, Jan Blits, a professor emeritus of education at Delaware, told NBC 7 that the university tried to cover up the Martin case when he was chair of the Faculty Senate’s Faculty Welfare and Privileges Committee. The body reviews complaints against faculty members.

Blits said he was hazy on the details but that in Martin’s case, “The administration bypassed the committee and evidently struck a sweetheart deal with the accused.” Blits said administrators circumvented the committee’s investigation and let Martin leave quietly because “they want to hide the fact that there are problems.”

“We were tough,” Blits said of the committee. But the university “didn’t want to have to fire a faculty member for sexual misconduct.”

Blits stood by his remarks, saying via email that Martin's case "should have gone to my committee for a hearing. That's the rule. In cases informally settled, the committee chair should be informed. That's been done in the past."

Martin’s attorney, Mark S. Stiffler, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Martin left Delaware in 2010 and landed a position at San Diego State in 2011, where within months he faced new accusations of harassment. It’s entirely possible that San Diego State had no knowledge of Martin’s history, since private personnel files don’t follow faculty members to their new jobs.

Joan Schmelz, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Memphis who’s long advocated against sexual harassment in the sciences, said it’s for that reason that “pass the harasser” is a real problem in academe.

“I know of several cases in astronomy,” she said -- including the recent case against Geoff Marcy, a former University of California at Berkeley astronomer who was accused of harassment not only at that institution but also in his prior position at San Francisco State University, according to Buzzfeed, which broke his story. In the Marcy case, Berkeley, like San Diego State, didn't seek to terminate the harasser. But eventually Marcy, too, resigned amid public pressure.

Schmelz added, “I've even heard a professor from University No. 1 say that harasser XYZ is now University No. 2’s problem.”

Sexual harassment complaints aren’t filed under the harasser’s name, Schmelz said, so it’s not possible to track complaints in that manner -- sometimes even within the same university. Privacy laws and legal concerns restrict what information employers can reveal about current and former employees' personnel files, but Schmelz said some of those restrictions should be reconsidered.

“An absolutely crucial change would be for universities to find a way to identify the second complaint against an individual,” she said. “Psychologists tell us that there is nothing that predicts future behavior like past behavior. The second complaint should set off alarms, but currently there is no way to connect the first and second.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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