Fired Over a Phallus?

Adjunct at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota says his contract wasn't renewed and he was fired from a custodial job on campus due to a play prop.

December 18, 2015

During the week, David Hillman was one of the most popular instructors at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, attracting students to study Greek and Latin not only through his expertise but his vast knowledge of the peculiarities of the ancient world (he’s written a book on drug use in ancient Rome and Greece, for example). On the weekends, the single dad cleaned Saint Mary’s toilets as a custodian to supplement his $15,000-a-year adjunct’s salary. But now, after three years at the university, he’s out of both jobs. Why? Hillman says he was the subject of vague sexual harassment claims -- which he denies -- but that the university was looking for any excuse to get rid of him after he ruffled administrative feathers by introducing phallic props into a play.

Hillman was contracted by the Catholic university this fall to translate Seneca’s version of Medea, a story largely about a woman’s revenge on a husband who’s abandoned her for a more politically advantageous marriage. But Hillman -- technically the production’s playwright -- also highlighted Medea’s undertones about greed, and suggested that cast members deliver admonishing lines about corporate greed while pointing fascina at the audience. Used in the ancient world in certain rites and to ward off evil, fascina are supposed to embody the divine power of the phallus. In that spirit, the props being prepared for the show looked distinctly like erect penises (one of the props is pictured at right). But they arguably weren’t any more obscene that what one might see, say, wandering around the ruins of Pompeii or, for that matter, flipping through a classics textbook (or even spending a weekend on a college campus).

Much of what happened next is in dispute, with Hillman and the director of the play, Judy Myers, a tenured professor theater and dance, on one side, and administrators on the other. Hillman says that he and Myers were called to a meeting with Michael Charron, dean of the arts, to discuss the “profane” nature of the props while the play was still in production. Both professors said that Charron told them he had sneaked into the staging area for the play and taken pictures of the fascina, and then asked them to change them. But Stacia Vogel, a university spokeswoman, said that Charron never met with Hillman about the fascina, and that a faculty member involved in the production -- not Charron -- had taken the pictures of the props.

Students caught wind of what was happening, created a petition to stop it and held a meeting with Charron and Jimmy Bickerstaff, the theater department chair (who did not immediately return a request for comment). Charron allegedly refused to answer questions about the fascina, and the crew eventually replaced them with what Hillman described as props resembling “big bananas.”

In the interim, Donna Aronson, the vice president of academic affairs, allegedly asked Myers to run by her anything she was planning to submit to the student paper, The Cardinal, about the play. Myers sent Aronson a draft of an op-ed explaining what the play was about.

“Other ancient practices included the processional of the actors to the performance space carrying an eight-foot phallus as well as an improvised set of insults hurled at the audience with a fascinum (a small hand-held phallus) in hand,” it said in part. “These insults were a means of holding a mirror up to the audience and confronting viewers with their lavish and corrupt lifestyles. The pope offers the same opportunity for self-reflection when he encourages us to be concerned about the greed and corruption that starves children all over the planet today.”

In response, Aronson sent the following email: “I do not think that this article is appropriate for The Cardinal. It may be incendiary and while at the end there is a comment about the challenges regarding age-appropriate attendance, it may stir up more response than we need. In fact it could alarm the conservative Catholic community. Thank you for running this by me. Please let me see what becomes the final draft.”

Myers decided not to follow up, and didn't publish the piece. The play -- big bananas and all -- opened successfully in November, without further interference from the administration. But news of the prop issue had spread, and some faculty members were concerned about its implications for academic freedom on campus. At a faculty meeting, another professor attempted to broach the issue, but faculty leaders allegedly told her to table it because another untenured faculty member was involved in the matter, and soon due for a pretenure review. Myers said she attempted to file a grievance after Aronson gave her an extension on the timeline for filing such complaints. But by the time she tried to file, she said, the extension was revoked.

Vogel said that statement was inaccurate, but that she couldn’t comment further because “information regarding faculty grievances is confidential per our Faculty Handbook.” (The handbook is available online here.)

Then, three weeks ago, Hillman was notified that a student involved in the production had filed sexual harassment claims against him. He said he hasn’t been given a formal copy of the investigation, but that from what he could gather, the complaints were vague and related to things he’d said or done in public during rehearsals. For example, he said, he suggested that the dancers in the production move their bodies sensually, in the manner of a snake. Hillman also allowed himself to be hit with a horse crop to demonstrate to the actors that it wouldn’t hurt when they used it to hit their castmates in the play (Medea whips two people). A third complaint related to his talk about gynomorphs, bigendered entities mentioned in the play.

Hillman said he wanted to bring a lawyer to his part of the investigation, but was told that any accompanying person had to be a preapproved university employee. And when he tried to bring his department chair, she was denied entry. He said he was never informed of the results of the investigation or given the opportunity to defend himself, but was recently told his contract would not be renewed for next semester. And on Thursday, he was informed that he also was being fired from his custodial position.

Vogel said she couldn’t comment on Hillman’s custodial position because it was a personnel matter. Regarding the investigation, she said she also was limited in what she could say, but that all sexual harassment claims at Saint Mary's “are investigated and acted upon in accordance with federal law,” and that grievance procedures don’t apply to sexual harassment claims. Sexual harassment claims are not vetted by a faculty body. That's contrary to a widely-followed policy recommended by the American Association of University Professors, which says that if a grievance officer is unable to informally effect a mutually acceptable resolution, the complaint is to be submitted to a faculty committee. 

Vogel said that pursuant to federal law and university policy, "Hillman was apprised of the allegations of sexual harassment and interviewed, as were others involved and witnesses." To protect Hillman’s and others’ rights, she added "the investigation and all outcomes are confidential.”

Just because no one else experienced the harassment doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. But for what it’s worth, Myers said she never witnessed anything untoward at rehearsals.

Hillman’s also an adjunct and, according to his contract, the university doesn’t need to give him a reason as to why it won’t rehire him. But his department chair, Dorothy Diehl, said he’s an “excellent professor” and that the university’s losing a lot in letting him go.

“Never before in the 16 years that I have been at Saint Mary's have I seen such interest in Latin and Greek as there has been since he joined the department,” she said. Noting that Hillman was versatile and also taught a medical terminology course in the biology department, Diehl said Hillman will “definitely be missed.”

Vogel said Hillman’s case wasn’t really one of academic freedom, because he wasn’t technically a member of the theater department -- just contracted to translate the play. She also cited the university’s artistic expression policy, which says that the principle must square with the university’s mission.

“Saint Mary’s University recognizes the integrity of artistic expressions, while reserving the right not to exhibit artistic expressions judged to be obscene, sacrilegious or racist, which promote ethnic or religious hatred, or which, for the purpose of advocacy only, promote values in clear contradiction of the university’s mission,” the policy reads.

Hillman’s playwright contract contradicts that somewhat. It says that he “owns all rights, title and interest in and to the play including its copyrights” and that “no changes, alterations and omissions shall be made in the play without the playwright’s consent.”

Myers, who was leading students in the play for credit, said the prop issue was a matter of academic freedom, and said it was like someone coming into her classroom and telling her she couldn't use a particular image in a PowerPoint slide. 

"There's no difference," she said. "Hillman's expertise in the historic context allowed us the privilege of learning how and why these various devices were used in ancient times and to incorporate them in the contemporary setting [and] ceremonies I chose for this production."

Hillman said he suspects that the administrators in his case were probably more concerned about offending donors than the play's content in relation to the university mission. In that sense, he said, there are parallels between Medea’s mediations on greed and his own situation. And that’s in itself is ironic, he said, because the popularity of his courses -- some of which were oversubscribed -- were helping the university.

“With my firing they shot a message across the bow -- ‘Look, this is what happens to people who stand up and insist upon speaking freely," he said. "It’s not academic at all.”


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