‘I Want to Get the Truth Out’

Professor sues Wesleyan U, saying it failed to act against students who falsely called him a "sexual predator" for two years.

June 20, 2019
 
Michael McAlear

An associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at Wesleyan University is suing the institution, saying that it failed to appropriately deal with a what he calls a defamation campaign against him.

Michael McAlear, the professor, says he has never been accused of sexual misconduct. But he says he was nevertheless labeled a "sexual predator" in campus fliers after he defended other employees against such claims. 

Several administrators initially told McAlear that the students behind the campaign had crossed a line and would he held responsible, according to emails he shared with Inside Higher Ed and court documents. But two years later, McAlear says, the students haven’t been disciplined in any way -- even though Wesleyan allegedly knows who some of them are.

“It’s an overreach,” McAlear said Wednesday of the student campaign against him. “Students were concerned about something and I thought I was engaging with them in a fine discourse, and it went off the rails. And their response was, 'We’re going to destroy you in this internet culture -- we’re going to destroy everybody.' It’s been horrific.”

He added, "I've been slandered with lies for two years. I want to get the truth out."

McAlear also said it's "ironic" that some of the very administrators handling his case are those he defended to students.

Lauren Rubenstein, university spokesperson, said via email that Wesleyan “denies the allegations contained in Professor McAlear’s complaint and intends to vigorously defend itself.” She declined further comment, citing the active litigation.

The Case Against Wesleyan

Sometimes students make sexual misconduct complaints public when they feel that institutions haven’t done enough to address them, absent outside pressure. That’s not what happened to McAlear at Wesleyan, according to his lawsuit, filed recently in a Connecticut court. Instead, he says, students began to target him when he questioned aspects of their on-campus demonstration about others.

McAlear says that in late 2016, he was passing through the university’s science center when a group of student protesters approached him and told him that Provost Joyce Jacobsen and President Michael Roth, along with several faculty members, were “sexual predators” and promoters of “sexual violence.” Banners and posters picturing the faces of the accused said the same.

Professors at Wesleyan and on other campuses had at the time been accused of sexual misconduct, and students there and elsewhere publicly questioned their administrations' commitment to protecting them. But McAlear says he told the students that their approach was “over the line and slanderous.” In an interview, he recalled telling the students that they could not call Jacobsen, the provost, in particular, a sexual “predator,” as she had not been accused of misconduct. (Roth has not been accused of misconduct, either. University emails to McAlear confirm that he also has not been accused of misconduct.)

McAlear says that immediately following the encounter with the students, he met with Jacobsen in the library and told her about the protest. A few days later one of the protesters allegedly sent an email to a student group describing McAlear as a predator.

Several days after that, McAlear says a dean told him that his own face was now included on campus posters about sexual predators. McAlear again met with Jacobsen and was assured that the administration would address the problem, he says. Jacobsen also allegedly told McAlear that she’d contacted the University Residential Life and Public Safety departments in an attempt to identify the students responsible for the posters.

Several months later, in early 2017, the same dean emailed McAlear to alert him that there were more posters with his name on them and that they’d been picked up by a campus blog. “I really think this is outrageous and will try to see if something can be done about it,” the dean wrote.

Roth, the president, also wrote to McAlear, saying he agreed that “this is outrageous. We will do our best to put a stop to it and hold those responsible accountable.”

Jacobsen later emailed McAlear a link to an online post about the campaign against “sexual predators” and said that it “makes pretty clear that reprisal is indeed why they have singled you out. This will be useful evidence for when we find out who the posting person is.” She soon emailed McAlear again to say that a “small set of students” were handing out more fliers about him at Roth’s “Wesfest” talk for incoming students and their families. “The students have been identified and will be questioned regarding this activity,” she wrote.

McAlear says he attempted several times to find out what the students had said during questioning and was eventually told that nothing of note had come up. Nearly a year, later, however, he says, he was told by another university administrator that one of the students had in fact admitted to putting up the fliers.

In the interim, more fliers labeling McAlear a sexual predator went up on campus and in the surrounding community. The campus public safety office also allegedly has a video of an identified student suspected of posting fliers in a university area. Posters with his name on them were seen in “stacks” in a student office space, as well, the lawsuit says. And McAlear’s student evaluations of teaching have since included references to his being a sexual offender.

No action has been taken against any student, according to the lawsuit.

Change of Heart?

In March of last year, Jacobsen wrote to McAlear about his case, saying that “this series of events is upsetting and [I] want to reiterate that the university has taken action when possible and appropriate.” While the university tried “to see if there was any way to identify students or others posting to date,” she said, “there is not.” 

McAlear says that’s a lie, based on what he now knows. Through his lawsuit, he wants to correct the record and assert that he is not a sexual predator, and to force the university to fairly deal with the defamation. 

In addition to his lawsuit, McAlear filed a complaint against Jacobsen with the Wesleyan Faculty Rights and Responsibilities Committee, alleging that she “failed to protect and defend his rights as a tenured faculty member by not taking sufficient concerted action to identify or stop the persons who were conducting the degrading poster campaign.” He also complained that Jacobson violated his campus right -- articulated in Wesleyan conduct policies -- to be “protected against actions that may be harmful to the health or emotional stability of the individual or that degrade the individual or infringe upon his/her personal dignity.”

McAlear alleges breach of contract, arguing that the campus conduct code is part of his contract. Other counts include negligence, recklessness and breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

McAlear told Inside Higher Ed that he agrees with the university’s initial assessment of the case -- that the fliers targeting him went way beyond free speech. 

But more important than that -- and crucial to his case -- he said, is that "I'm not the one who decided that this was an actionable violation of the standards of conduct. It was the dean and the provost and the president who told me it was too much and that they were going to hold them accountable."

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