“Working as a phone-sex dominatrix is a lot simpler than being on a college faculty”

So begins an article in this week’s issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education by Peter Schmidt.

But in reporting on a case at the University of New Mexico’s Department of English, Schmidt notes that it becomes problematic to do both. Long story made short: a female associate professor in creative writing began working under a pseudonym for a phone-sex organization, one where several departmental graduate students had been employed to supplement their income. The problem arose when the faculty member and female graduate student posed in a promotional photo “simulating sadomasochistic sex acts” and “accompanied by captions that used vulgar and degrading terms” at the website of at the Albuquerque-based organization, People Exchanging Power (no linkie for you – fair warning: it’s your choice to Google it).

Regular readers here and elsewhere know that I’m on record as being hands-off when it comes to private activities and hobbies by those in the academy. I also just wrote a post encouraging student-faculty relationships. However, I had not exactly considered this sort of case. In fact, I had no idea this case had been going on until I picked up my deadtree copy of The Chronicle last night (in fact, I’m writing a totally separate post about a fantastic story I found in their Chronicle Review insert).

The obvious problem, regardless of intent, is that the faculty member overstepped their bounds with photographs. Though staged, consensual, and posted with pseudonyms, the advertising images could easily be perceived as coercive and an abuse of academic power. Exceedingly poor judgment, behavior for which I think one would be asked to leave many other US universities, regardless of tenure status.

The professor quit the phone-sex job yet still remains on faculty and, according to some, creates a sexually-uncomfortable climate in the classroom. The bulk of Schmidt’s article discusses how the last three years have been turmoil at UNM and the creative writing program because of a series of suits, threats and accusations, counter-suits, internal and external investigations.

In February 2008, 14 tenured faculty members in the English department signed a letter to Richard Holder, the university’s deputy provost for academic affairs, urging the administration to let a faculty committee investigate Ms. Chávez’s conduct. The signers, who included Mr. Martin and Ms. Warner, said her actions raised “serious ethical questions” regarding “abuse of academic freedom and the professional ethics that must govern the relationship of a professor and her student.” It said the creative-writing program “has been harmed and continues to be harmed.”

Soon after, Ms. Chávez filed a discrimination complaint with the state alleging that the accusations against her stemmed from bias based on her being Hispanic and bisexual.

As you might guess, the case remains a lively topic with faculty claiming that the university has not acted in the best interest of the program, the accused claiming discrimination, while a saintly and understated English prof tries to keep the program on track:

“It becomes complicated, because I think that lawsuits, and the kind of climate of antagonism and fear that is brought by lawsuits, creates unpredictability,” she says. “Students are uncertain about how the program is functioning and about the future of the program.”

I love New Mexico – the entire Southwest, actually – and how diversity of all kinds are embraced in the academic centers of these areas. I have family and friends there and several colleagues in the biomedical arms of institutions like UNM. Three years of complications make it difficult for armchair academics to suggest how to resolve this case to the satisfaction of most, but I’m always saddened to see such rancor at places I love.

Not knowing anything more about the case than the article in The Chronicle, the simplest resolution would seem to be that the faculty member in question resign. You read the article and tell me – 105 comments have already accumulated there. For example, commenter #7 describes that the issues extend beyond the faculty member:

As a grad student in the UNM English department, I can tell you this has been a trial for us all.

I wish the writer [Schmidt, presumably] would have made some connections here to spur the university to quickly solve this problem. We’re already in a hellish crisis with funding cuts; with this ongoing scandal, it makes life at the English department complicated, frustrating, and, oftentimes, hellish.

There is still retaliation occuring for CW students who refuse to let this quietly fade away. Those students who have been unfairly accused by Lisa Chavez of potentially-violent behavior, indecent sexual relationships, etc., deserve reparation.

And in a final case to remind my students of their Internet persona: one graduate student involved complained in the close to Schmidt’s article that she’s worried about finding a job as coverage of this story has caused it to come up at the top of search results for her name. However, a commenter at The Chronicle noted that said student guest-posted all about the case at a blog in April, 2008 – under her real name.

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4 Responses to “Working as a phone-sex dominatrix is a lot simpler than being on a college faculty”

  1. becca says:

    It’s high time for ALL universities to have explicit policies about exactly what constitutes inappropriate relationships between students and professors (and possibly other personnel, but this is the obvious one).
    That said, it doesn’t look like she DID violate any policies here.
    I think the ‘ick’ factor clouds people’s judgments here. If a professor and student had both appeared in one of those skepchick calendars (which I don’t precisely endorse, but at least I *understand* why someone would bother), it would be fairly easy to see it as a matter of personal free speech and academic freedom.

    Much depends on what the classroom environment was actually like- I am concerned nobody took the students complaints seriously (although it’s highly context dependent- if it was an advanced elective and the syllabus very clear sexuality would be discussed, I have only minimal sympathy for adults who were made uncomfortable by that).
    Also, I do wonder if she actually had any direct authority over the students involved (I certainly hope she wasn’t any one’s thesis advisor!, though that probably would have been mentioned). She definitely should have excused herself from any thesis committees or other exams. Ideally, that would probably happen for ANY professors that have outside interactions with their students. For example, I don’t really want the professors I met at Obama rallies to be on my thesis committee- even the appearance of a lack of impartiality does not serve anyone well.

    However, I don’t think the problems in this department would be solved by her resigning. I mean, did you see the comment about a student and a prof being *murdered*? and the one about a person having an armed guard at their defense?

    Also, I find it vaguely unsettling that the department chairman asked someone to check this out from their home computer. It’s like “it’s obvious this is a private matter that should not be pursued with university resources, but I’m going to make it my professional business”

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  4. I wrote about this on my own blog, in the hopes that I could break the whole thing apart into something that could be approached more rationally:

    http://sexandscience.org/blog/?p=400

    I think there are too many things coming into play here to give us a good view and an easy answer.