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A scandalous ethics charge in the South went public this week.
According to the charge document, David Sobek, formerly a tenured professor and director of political science graduate studies at Louisiana State University, had an affair with his graduate assistant, told her to research whether his wife and other professors were using critical race theory in their teaching, and instructed the student to send those professors’ syllabi to legislators who he thought would favor anti-CRT legislation.
“Dr. Sobek was particularly concerned with his estranged wife’s classes,” the five-page document says.
The Louisiana Board of Ethics is accusing him of just one illegality: violating a Louisiana law that bans state employees from lobbying for or against pending legislation, in their “official capacity” or on behalf of their “agency.” The charge says Sobek instructed his graduate assistant “to gather all of the ‘offending’ syllabi and distribute them to legislators who he thought would be in favor of passing anti-CRT legislation.”
LSU spokespeople, in response to questions and requests for an interview this week, sent a one-line, emailed comment: “Dr. David Sobek has not been with the university since February 2023.”
The Louisiana ethics board voted in July to file the charges, but no one publicized them. This week, however, the charge document began making the rounds on X. The state’s separate Ethics Adjudicatory Board, which doles out punishment for ethics violations, has a status hearing later this month, but Sobek is currently settling the matter.
The charge document says Sobek joined LSU’s faculty in 2004.
Sobek, whose research focused on international relations and the causes of war, denied the ethics board’s allegations in an interview with Inside Higher Ed Wednesday. He said he’s only settling and paying a yet-undetermined fine because “I want to move on with my life.”
When initially asked if he was having an affair with the graduate student, he declined comment. Later during the interview, he told Inside Higher Ed, “There was nothing physical that ever happened, never slept with her, never.”
Regarding his wife, Sobek said, “She’s not my estranged wife; we’re happily married.” He declined to give either of the women’s names, and Inside Higher Ed was unable to contact them.
Sobek also denied the lobbying allegations and blamed the student. He said she was interested in CRT and had collected information on it before, but he told her “I didn’t want anything to do with her actions.”
“Apparently, she went to legislators, sent them an email, used my name,” he said. He said he doesn’t know which legislators she talked to or what she sent them.
He said the student wasn’t even his graduate assistant—Sobek was her adviser, he said, a co-chair of her political science doctoral dissertation committee and also a member of her comparative literature doctoral dissertation committee.
Sobek said he was fired but wouldn’t say whether it was related to anything in the ethics charge.
Asked Thursday whether lawmakers had heard from Sobek or his graduate student, and whether the alleged lobbying had resulted in any legislation, a Louisiana State Legislature spokeswoman said in an email, “After checking with the House and the Senate, the initial response from both chambers was it did not sound familiar.”
The chairs of the state House and Senate education committees didn’t respond to Inside Higher Ed’s requests for comment.
Kathleen Allen, ethics administrator for the Louisiana Board of Ethics, said Thursday that “the allegations in the charges, we believe, support a violation of the legislative lobbying and disclosure act.”
But Allen didn’t specifically answer whether the board still stands behind all the facts it listed in its charge document from this summer, including whether Sobek had an affair with his graduate assistant. She said the ethics board hasn’t filed any other documents beyond the charge document, and the person who originally filed the ethics complaint is confidential per state law.
Belinda Creel Davis, an associate professor at LSU, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed, “Executive Vice President and Provost Roy Haggerty spoke with our entire department regarding this matter and indicated that there was no merit to the allegation that he surveilled his wife’s syllabi and that of other faculty regarding CRT.”
The Louisiana Illuminator published a story on the ethics charge Wednesday, after the document began circulating on X. On Thursday, Inside Higher Ed requested the same documents from LSU that the Illuminator received for its report, and the university provided them.
Many of the documents are completely redacted, but the records include Sobek’s department chair, Robbie Hogan, asking for updates on Sobek’s status ahead of his firing and for an explanation of it afterward. Hogan didn’t return requests for comment.
“Given that it appears that Academic Affairs has now officially fired David Sobek, will someone in your office make themselves available to explain this decision to our faculty?” Hogan asked in a February email to a provost’s office employee. “I think it is fair to say that in the minds of most people who work at this university, firing a tenured faculty member is far from an inconsequential event and it is one that requires explanation.”
The emails also include an Oct. 31, 2022, message from a redacted name to Hogan and others, containing allegations similar to the ethics charge. The writer says they are forwarding, alongside the email, some messages with Sobek—if the writer did forward them, those messages are redacted—in which Sobek allegedly talks about a “coalition” working to rid LSU of critical race theory.
“He talks about his coalition and needing to get allies to stop CRT and get it out of the University and how he says he talked to the Provost about all of this,” the email says. “I trusted him that if he said he was talking to the Provost about building a coalition to stop CRT and there being a Senator he said he was going to contact to get these ideas out of the University that this was true and that I was supposed to help as an ally, as he tells me in these messages I am supposed to be.”
The senator isn’t named. The email alleges that Sobek tried to enlist students in the anti-CRT effort.
“He was also asking me to bring him my students so he could gather data on them and use them for research purposes,” the email continues. “I was not supposed to tell them what they or their data were being used for or that they were even participating in a study at all and you can see we are arguing below because I was questioning him about these research methods with using my students and if this was ethical. He became angry at me because I was concerned about possible harm that might come their way.”
The email says Sobek “lied and told you and others in the Department that none of this even existed!--and that I contacted the Legislature on my own. He was instructing all of this and telling me I was doing this work for his coalition with the Provost in connection with the Faculty Senate.”
The Faculty Senate president and past president didn’t return Inside Higher Ed’s requests for comment.
“His objective was to get other University professors whose work he did not like fired,” the email’s sender said, “and my role was to go out on the ground and bring him their work and to bring him my students and any students I could find who might fit the type of profile he was looking for but not tell them that they were going to be used to have people fired.”