Professor Fired Over Relationship

Catholic University says tenured faculty member admitted to sexual relationship with graduate student he hired as assistant. UPDATE: The professor responds.

December 14, 2018
Stephen McKenna

Catholic University announced Thursday that it has fired Stephen McKenna, a tenured associate professor of media and communication studies, for having a sexual relationship with a graduate student whom he hired as an assistant.

A university statement said he hired the assistant when he was serving as a department chair. The assistant was a graduate student in another department, and they became sexually involved shortly after she was hired. The university received an anonymous tip about the allegation last year but was unable to get detailed information. But then the employee contacted the university about the relationship.

Catholic referred the matter to a faculty committee, which determined that McKenna had violated university rules with the relationship and that dismissal would be an "appropriate" response. The university's board this week acted on the faculty committee's report and fired McKenna.

University policy explicitly bars any romantic relationships between faculty members or administrators and those they supervise. The relevant policy states, “A consensual dating or sexual relationship between a staff employee, a member of the faculty (including adjunct faculty) and a student, or an employee that the staff/faculty directly supervises, is prohibited when the staff/faculty has any current or foreseeable professional responsibility for the student or the employee … Voluntary consent by the student/employee in such a relationship is suspect, given the fundamental nature of such a relationship.” The policy also states that “violation of this prohibition may result in disciplinary action including dismissal for unprofessional conduct.”

The university statement on his dismissal said that McKenna admitted to the relationship "but argued that dismissal was inappropriate."

Many colleges and universities that dismiss faculty members in these circumstances do not draw attention to the decisions. But the statement from Catholic said that the faculty committee that reviewed McKenna's case "encouraged the university to publicize the matter widely, in the interests of accountability and deterrence."

UPDATE: Via email on Friday morning, McKenna offered this statement: "Although respect for the confidentiality appropriate to the disciplinary process limits what I can say, I think people would look differently at the dismissal if they knew that it was public knowledge that this relationship lasted for four years after we were co-workers, that I sought and was granted an annulment of my marriage from the church, and that we had planned to marry in the church. Furthermore, the person in question repeatedly told the university that the relationship was fully mutual and consensual, and she wanted none of this -- neither for me to be fired, nor any harm to come to me and my family. Most people at the university believe a different sanction would have been far more appropriate. Those who know and respect me here know a person quite different from the one portrayed in the university's communications. People tell me they are shocked by the nature and tone of the announcement."


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