A Professor's Death, and Hard Truths

When rumors swirled about a professor reported missing and later found dead, Emerson's president risked sharing uncomfortable truths about the late filmmaker's conduct to set the record straight.

September 6, 2018
 
Robert Todd

In an unusual public statement, Emerson College’s president said this week that a professor who was recently found dead had been suspended for the fall semester for sexual harassment.

Administrators must often weigh personnel, student and institutional privacy concerns against the public interest. In many cases, this approach results in college leaders saying relatively little about punishments and reasons behind them in harassment cases. In this case, President M. Lee Pelton appeared to want to set the record straight about Emerson’s actions regarding Robert Todd, the late professor of visual and media arts.

Many have been mourning Todd's death and noting his many contributions as an artist. Some comments appeared to cast blame on Emerson for his death, widely believed to be a suicide.

“The circumstances surrounding Professor Todd’s death have been much discussed, and judging by some emails I have read, misleading and false statements have been promulgated with the sad patina of truth,” Pelton said in remarks to Emerson’s faculty that were later shared online. “These assertions, in particular, have alarmed and disappointed me as a member of an academic community devoted to critical thinking, sound judgment and discernment.”

While “I understand the very human and innate impulse to construct meaning out of uncommon human events, it is difficult for me to understand the impulse to assert and facilitate unsubstantiated hearsay or rumors without direct or corroborating knowledge,” Pelton said.

Pelton didn't say which rumors were circulating about Todd’s death, and it’s unsurprising that he wouldn’t want to repeat them. Instead, he offered facts.

In December, Pelton said, Emerson received a complaint from a staff member that Todd had “engaged in multiple, concatenated behaviors that might have violated the college’s sexual misconduct policy.” The campus office charged with enforcing Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender-based harassment, assessed the complaint and recruited an outside investigator. And a months-long investigation found Todd responsible for sexual harassment.

Additional allegations arose during the investigation, but the college found “insufficient evidence” of misconduct in those cases, Pelton said.

For violating Emerson's sexual misconduct policy, Todd was suspended without pay for the fall semester. He was also required to work with a professional coach to help him “understand the impact of his behaviors, as well as to ensure that they would not occur in the future,” Pelton said. Todd’s right to appeal was “abrogated by his death.”

The unnamed staff member who brought the original complaint has been supported by Emerson’s Healing and Advocacy Collective and others on campus throughout the case, including after Todd’s death, according to a transcript of Pelton's message. “We continue to support the member of our community who came forward, and we wish to make it very clear that the college will never tolerate sexual misconduct or sexual harassment, and will act decisively should findings of either arise.”

The past several weeks have “engendered a variety of perspectives and powerful emotions” and “many of us continue to search for resolution and meaning. This will be a process that will take time,” Pelton said. “However, I am hopeful -- even confident -- that our community will meet the challenges ahead of us with humanity, respect and allegiance to the truth for all those who are grieving now, those who have variously been impacted and perhaps, equally important, for ourselves.”

An earlier, much more typical statement about Todd’s death, which did not mention the harassment allegations against him, noted that he is survived by his wife, a graduate student on campus. Todd was a prolific avant-garde filmmaker and sound and visual artist who taught at Emerson for 18 years, according to that earlier announcement.

“Robert brought extraordinary talents and an incredible vision and dedication to his art and his teaching where he sought to inspire the next generation of filmmakers at Emerson,” Pelton said then.

Todd was found dead in a Boston park in mid-August. He was previously reported missing.

No cause of death has been released. Todd’s friends and family are planning an Out of Darkness walk in Boston, according to his website. Such walks are part of a community campaign started by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Michelle Gaseau, college spokesperson, said that Pelton provided a factual account that represents Emerson's statement on the matter.

"This is a difficult situation that the college is trying to treat with compassion and respect for those who have been impacted, while upholding its responsibility to be as transparent as possible with our community," she added.

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