A Student Government Association senator is pushing the JMU administration for greater transparency and resources in Title IX proceedings after going through what she calls a “disorganized,” “unethical” and “corrupt” Title IX case that involved a professor’s unwelcome sexual behavior.
The big-picture items listed in the bill include an increase in the number of staffers in JMU’s Survivor Advocacy office and an increase in university programming to educate students and faculty on inappropriate relationships between faculty and students. Historically, Coogan said, Bills of Opinion — which are meant to represent the opinion of the student body — are “pretty rare.”
In the same Facebook post from Feb. 15, Coogan wrote that the bill needed 200 signatures in order for it to be voted on by SGA. She said the bill received all 200 signatures it needed to move on to the next step in the process within five hours of it being made public.
Coogan’s Title IX case concerned her time as a lead grader for the professor’s 295-person general education class. The teaching style of the class included a team of student employees working with the professor. While the professor did the bulk of the teaching, the class’ structure also included teaching assistants and a group of paid graders.
Part of the case’s formal complaint concerned an off-campus meeting between Coogan and the professor in May 2018 to discuss her new position as lead grader.
Copies of case file documents obtained by The Breeze say that in the conversation at the meeting, the professor discussed sex in a way that wasn’t “intellectual” and noted “how he had relationships with former students” dating back to when he taught at another institution, how he’d “never dated anyone over the age of 30” and how “he couldn’t imagine being with one woman sexually and romantically for the rest of his life.”
Coogan also recounted several fellow graders’ stories in her statement to “show a pattern of behavior.” Two students mentioned in the case file agreed to speak with The Breeze about their experiences.
Anna Kaplan, a senior mathematics major, was a witness to Coogan’s case and graded for the professor’s class her sophomore year. She said that while she graded, she was “close” with the professor and looked up to him.
In her statement to Title IX, Kaplan wrote that when she became a grader, older graders told her to make sure it was clear she wasn’t interested in the professor and that he was “very touchy” when they talked.
Rachel Swetnam, a 2018 alumna who was the lead grader before Coogan, submitted a statement for the appeal process that Coogan said wasn’t taken into consideration because it didn’t pertain to her situation directly.
In her statement to Title IX and an interview with The Breeze, Swetnam said the professor would put his hand on her back and make comments to her about what she was wearing. She stopped wearing certain outfits and lipstick to class because of the professor’s comments.
“He had favorite dresses or makeup things of mine, so whenever I would wear a certain dress or … have a certain type of lipstick on, he would be sure to tell me, like, pull me aside in class one day [and] tell me that it was working, basically,” Swetnam said.
During her senior year, Swetnam said she also went to Title IX, though she never followed through with the process. She said a Title IX representative told her that the office had heard concerns about the professor before.
Amy Sirocky-Meck, JMU’s Title IX coordinator, declined to comment on the matter.
After Swetnam graduated, she told The Breeze she went to the professor’s house to say goodbye. During their conversation, she said, he asked if she would ever be interested in having sex with him. The professor’s statement in the appeal process says it was the other way around.
In statements submitted in the original case file and in his response to Coogan’s appeal, the professor denied the allegations. He said the numerous stories included in the case from Coogan’s colleagues were “unsubstantiated” and weren’t related to the formal charge, and he referred to the comments as “hearsay.” He said he didn’t remember the exact words in his conversation with Coogan at the off-campus meeting but said the conversation wasn’t “graphic, explicit, or focused on sex.”
In October 2019, a Title IX hearing panel found the professor responsible for sexual harassment. Sanctions recommended by the panel included him being “prohibited from supervising undergraduate students in an employment capacity” and being “barred from mentoring student researchers for a period of three years” so the professor’s current students could graduate, which the professor’s dean agreed with in the final decision.
The panel’s recommendations and dean’s decision didn’t specify whether the professor was barred from teaching classes, but shortly after the case ended, registration for spring classes opened up Nov. 4, 2019. Prior to the start of registration, The Breeze found two classes available with the professor: one of the same large general education class Coogan, Kaplan and Swetnam graded for, and another smaller class.
Coogan said she filed an appeal for her case in November because she thought it was “disgusting” that the professor was found responsible for his actions but was still allowed to continue teaching the large general education class that’s historically comprised of mostly freshmen, who Coogan called the “most vulnerable students on campus.” The original decision and sanctions were upheld in December.
In Title IX cases that have to do with a faculty member working in an academic department, the dean’s decision and sanctions go on to be implemented through their supervisor, Vice Provost Marilou Johnson said.
Once the appeal process was over, Coogan said she spoke with Johnson and asked if the provost’s office or anyone in the provost’s office had any discretion over sanctions once they’re put in place. Coogan said that once the sanctions are handed down, the provost’s office has no further contact with the department.
“And I said, ‘So how do you know that they [carried out the sanctions]?’ And they were like, ‘Well, we trust our department heads,’” Coogan said.
When Coogan asked if the provost’s office was open to increasing transparency through annual meetings with the department to ensure the sanctions were followed, she was told that they would expect the department head to reach out if there were any issues. Coogan said that when she inquired further about the possibility of creating a “standard of meetings,” she was told the current system was efficient and that her comments would be passed along.
“They said that they hadn’t seen anything that would make it necessary to change, but it’s also like, how do you know because you don’t ever check in with [the department],” Coogan said.
Johnson wouldn’t comment on her conversation with Coogan, but she said it’s the department head’s duty to implement sanctions and said the provost’s office trusts them to do so.
She said that if there was a concern about sanctions being put in place, the provost’s office would take into consideration measures that would put the decision more in their hands.
“There is a flow of communication about all sorts of things, including this,” Johnson said. “But to think that we need something more, I mean, we hear that. When we hear those things, we’re not opposed to doing that; it’s just that we have communication already. And the sanctions are usually very clear and implementable.”
As she was printing out her schedule this semester, Coogan said she was curious about whether the professor’s classes were still offered. She said she knew it would be difficult to teach the class without changing the structure, so she thought they might cut the class or offer another in its place.
She looked on MyMadison and couldn’t find the professor’s name anywhere.
Coogan then called the professor’s department, which told her the professor wouldn’t be teaching the large gen-ed class that semester.
Coogan then called Sirocky-Meck, who wouldn’t give her information due to it being a personnel issue. She said Sirocky-Meck instead advised her to check the university website. Coogan said she found that the professor’s page on the JMU website no longer exists; a search by The Breeze yielded the same results.
Before the page was taken down, The Breeze found that it listed one of the professor’s areas of experience as consulting in “sexual harassment prevention.”
Caitlyn Read, JMU’s interim spokesperson, confirmed to The Breeze that the professor is no longer employed by the university but couldn’t comment on why he left or when.
According to the JMU Title IX resource guide, those who speak with the coordinator are allowed to request certain resources, among those being no-contact orders When a no-contact order is implemented, both parties sign, and the responding party isn’t allowed to contact the reporting party, whether it be directly or through another person, Coogan said.
In order to have a no-contact order placed, both parties should be members of the JMU community, Sirocky-Meck said. Because the professor is no longer at JMU, Coogan said she doesn’t know if the order would still be effective.
Sirocky-Meck said that if a person involved in a case was no longer on campus, it wouldn’t necessarily mean the no-contact order wouldn’t be in effect. She said if someone experiences an incident or suspects the order was violated, the Title IX office should be contacted to explore if the university can take action.
“We want people to call and to contact,” Sirocky-Meck said. “We don’t want people to feel like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to figure out if this would be a violation or not’ … We can certainly look into it and see what might be possible.”
If Coogan’s Bill of Opinion receives a 2/3 vote from SGA on Tuesday, it’ll have to accumulate 2,182 student signatures — 10% of the JMU student population — in a week before it’s seen at SGA’s next meeting. Then, it’ll be finalized.
Even if the bill receives the signatures it needs, Coogan said, she thinks she’s still going to need to keep pushing for it. She said she’s had multiple meetings with members of the administration about the changes she wants to make.
Coogan said she’s scheduled to meet with the provost and vice provost in early March and has reached out to President Jonathan Alger for a meeting, but he has directed her back to who she’s spoken with, she said.
Read told The Breeze that the university is aware of the bill and that senior leadership has been working with students involved. She said there are items in the Bill of Opinion that they’ve been working to implement, like “increasing training,” “implementing new prevention programming” and administering a “campus-wide climate survey.”
“There are things that have been in the works for a very long time, and we are planning to communicate with the campus community some of those changes and enhancements because, as you know, we’re always going to try to far exceed the minimum standard,” Read said.
Right now, Coogan said, she wants the bill to incite change. After alumni reached out to her, she posted a link for those interested to sign for their support.
“I’m done being quiet about it,” Coogan said.
Contact Abby Church at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.