Jill Hicks-Keeton, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, has a book on Jewish antiquity and numerous peer-reviewed articles under her belt. She’s co-edited another book, has one under contract and teaches courses on biblical literature, ancient Judaism and early Christianity.
But before she’d accomplished all that, Hicks-Keeton was a graduate student in religion at Duke University, where she says her professor, Melvin Peters, humiliated and harassed her.
She spoke out against Duke this week, after her former department congratulated Peters -- who faces additional allegations of harassment and who is not currently teaching -- on Facebook. The occasion? A mentoring honor, recognized by Duke president Vincent Price and presented at a garden party last month.
“I trust it is obvious why I would find this outrageous,” Hicks-Keeton wrote in a letter to Price, which she shared on social media, alerting Duke. “And there’s only so much outrage I can keep to myself these days.”
On one occasion in class, in front of her male cohorts, Peters asked Hicks-Keeton if her bra fastened in the back or the front, she says. She remembers that he also made regular comments about her appearance and suggested that she’d do well on the job market, not because of her credentials, but because she was attractive.
Hicks-Keeton says she considered reporting the professor at the end of the term, especially after some fellow students approached her about the behavior. But when the time came, she was too afraid of possible retaliation within the department that held her future. She was the only woman in the class in question, after all, so it would be obvious who complained. Plus, she hoped never to have to deal with Peters again.
Ten years on, Hicks-Keeton has changed. But Peters apparently hasn’t, she says. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Making a Report
Last year Hicks-Keeton read an article in Duke’s student newspaper about a professor accused of harassment. She later confirmed, through disciplinary backchannels, that the professor in question was Peters, she says. And for the first time, she realized her experiences were part of a larger pattern of harassment.
The revelation prompted her to report her experiences to Duke, by contacting professors in her old department, who put her in touch with a dean, who put her in touch with the Office of Institutional Equity.
Hicks-Keeton thought she was making a formal report -- one that would launch some kind of investigation. But she has heard nothing since.
Instead, she says, she saw the congratulatory post on the religion department’s Facebook page this week.
“Pres. Vincent Price has recognized Prof. Mel Peters as a Celebrating Mentors honoree,” it said. “He was honored at a special reception held on March 25th at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Way to go, Mel!”
Considering that she had still heard nothing about her complaint against Peters, Hicks-Keeton wrote up her experience in a letter to Price. She said wanted to know if Peters had in fact been removed from the classroom, as rumor indicated.
“I would like a response,” she wrote. “And if Peters has indeed been sanctioned by the Duke administration for sexual harassment, say it out loud. Rescind the mentoring award.”
Hicks-Keeton closed her letter with a comment on the “failure of the system that adds a further burden on junior (female) scholars that should not have to be borne: I’m now hard at work to earn tenure and make my way in my guild. I have a recent book out with Oxford University Press.”
She added, “I wish that were the principal reason my former (beloved) Duke professors were now in touch with me. I have a book under contract with Cambridge University Press. I wish that were the reason I’m putting words on a page right now. But it’s not. And that’s because Mel Peters sexually harassed me. Way to go, Mel.”
Echoing how she closed her letter, when she shared it on Twitter, Hicks-Keeton thanked her supporters and said, “to any who read: I hope you read my scholarship too.”
'I Could Not Believe It'
The department’s Facebook post was deleted soon after it appeared. Mark Goodacre, Frances Hill Fox Professor of Religious Studies at Duke, said Thursday that he first heard of Peters’s honor when he saw the note on the department page -- which he immediately took down.
“I could not believe it,” he said. “I deleted it because I knew of the allegations of sexual harassment against [Peters], and I was deeply concerned about the hurt that the post might cause.”
Laura Suzanne Lieber, professor of religious studies, divinity and classical studies, said her comments had to be limited due to the "many confidences” involved in the situation. But she said she first “became aware of the seriousness of the problem -- namely, that Mel’s offenses involved students, both undergraduate and graduate, and were not limited to my own unsettling experiences, which were not sexualized but nonetheless troubling -- in May 2017.”
At that point, Lieber tried on her own and with other senior colleagues to address "the harassment issues that were emerging through the appropriate channels.”
Beyond that, she said, “I can only say that I am profoundly disappointed in how this situation has been handled, and frustrated by my experiences with the Office of Institutional Equity.”
David Morgan, department chair, said he, too, was frustratingly limited as to what he could say, because he’s forbidden from commenting on personnel matters. And he's “very frustrated by the process itself."
“We wholeheartedly endorse Duke's policy of intolerance of sexual harassment,” Morgan said. “We stand solidly with the victims and we have worked hard to support the university's response to reported instances of harassment.”
A number of department members have commented on Hicks-Keeton’s Facebook page, criticizing Duke for its handling of the matter.
In some of those remarks and in on-the-record comments to Inside Higher Ed, several of Hicks-Keeton’s former Duke classmates confirmed her account.
Stephen C. Carlson, senior research fellow at Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry, said on Facebook, for example, that the class in question "was the most dysfunctional experience in my entire time at Duke. There was a constant stream of inappropriate, insulting and demeaning comments, and I don't think there was a single time he addressed you without commenting about your appearance."
One recent graduate who accused Peters of harassment has gone public with her account, as well, sharing it on social media. Among other allegations, she recalls Peters commenting on women's appearances, and says that he repeatedly told her class that students had offered to sleep with him for "grades."
Michael Schoenfeld, university spokesperson, responded to questions on behalf of Price. He said that Peters did not receive a mentoring award. Rather, he said, “Each year, the several hundred graduating seniors who make a contribution to the university are invited to acknowledge someone -- a faculty member, adviser or fellow student -- with their gift.” An acknowledgment of that gift is then sent to the people named by the students.
The university does not “direct or prohibit students from recognizing anyone they choose with their contribution,” Schoenfeld said.
An email invitation from Price to professors honored at the event, including Peters, reads, "Members of the Class of 2019 were inspired by their mentors to give back to Duke -- and that lifts our entire community. Thank you for everything you do to teach, guide, and support our undergraduate students."
Schoenfeld declined to answer other questions about Peters, citing a policy against commenting on personnel issues.
A review of department schedules shows that Peters is not currently teaching.
Whatever recognition Peters received, Hicks-Keeton underscored the language in the Facebook post that had so alarmed her: “honored in a public reception where the president presided.”
As to Duke’s statement, she said she was “distressed that President Price has thus far chosen to ignore me,” while making public comments.
Hicks-Keeton is also “distressed that Duke has no safeguards in place to ensure that a professor removed from teaching after investigations into allegations of sexual harassment does not receive a public honor for mentoring students at a reception where the president of the university presides,” she added.