Parsing the Medill #MeToo Debacle

Yes, even at the Jesus H. Christ School of Journalism Gods, people can be total dipshits:

Ten women released an open letter on Wednesday accusing Northwestern University Professor Alec Klein of persistent sexual harassment and bullying since he has been at the helm of the school’s “crown jewel” investigative journalism program.

Calling it the storied journalism school’s “#MeToo Moment,” the eight former students and two former staffers of the Medill Justice Project wrote that Klein’s “controlling, discriminatory, emotionally and verbally abusive behavior has to end.”

Klein, who has been at Northwestern for a decade and in charge of the Justice Project since 2011, has taken a leave of absence while the university sorts out all the allegations brought forth in the letter. This is likely to take some time, as a) digging into charges that range back five or more years isn’t easy and b) the women who signed the letter set up an email address for others to use if they want to add their stories regarding Klein and his behavior toward them.

Klein’s lawyer, Andrew T. Miltenberg, issued a statement that really does a nice job of making him look guilty as hell:

“While Mr. Klein denies the allegations that are being made, he intends to respect the confidentiality and privacy of Northwestern University and its internal process,” Miltenberg wrote. “It is unfortunate that these allegations are being made in a rush to judgment, denying Mr. Klein of due process. We are confident that upon review, the allegations will be determined to have been unfounded.”

If you are playing “clearly guilty bingo jargon,” you probably got the cover-all here: “denies allegations,” “respect the confidentiality” “respect the… process,” “rush to judgment,” “due process” and unfounded allegations.

Klein, for his part, issued a letter that blamed all of this on a “disgruntled employee” and then pivoted to how great his teaching evaluations have been.

The university conducted an extensive investigation, interviewing current and former employees, former students and others, and reviewing emails, expenses and other records. The complaint was determined to be completely unfounded. I was cleared of any wrongdoing and the claim was dismissed. The university determined the complainant was not credible and documented, through records and her own words, several falsehoods in her charges.

Klein, a journalist, needs to be a little more accurate here. According to media reports, the claim was not “completely unfounded,” but rather it was a situation where the U declined to roll the dice on pursuing it because it didn’t think it had enough to get the goods on him. It’s like that line from “And the Band Played On,” about what do we think, what do we know and what can we prove? In this case, you couldn’t prove the situation was rotten but it did have some serious stank on it. The school paid Olivia Pera off and as part of the payoff, the rule was that she couldn’t reapply for a job, not that she would want to:

 

“I went through absolute hell,” Pera said. “My family saw me go through such personality changes. My son saw me crying every day. That’s not something your kid should see. I have nothing but bad memories of Northwestern.”

The allegations regarding Klein are problematic, and there is nothing I would like more than to jump up and down on this guy. I have frequently come out against professors who treat students like sexual canapes, the arrogance of the elitism that comes with places like the Med-Dildo land that is that journalism school and people who are generally sleazy fucksticks. That said, there are really two sets of allegations here and they need to be separated before hanging this guy from a yardarm.

First set: He’s a sexually sleazy, lecherous fuck:

And let’s be clear: Some of us have also experienced sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.

  • He attempted to kiss a prospective employee, prior to hiring her. On the same occasion, he asked if she smoked marijuana and asked to smoke with her and ordered her several cocktails.

  • He asked a female employee to come to his hotel room “for drinks” on a business trip.

  • He gave unwanted neck massages while a female employee was trying to work.

  • He asked for a hug in return for giving an employee a requested day off.

  • He made other unwarranted physical contact, such as grabbing a student’s hand during conversations

  • He made sexually graphic remarks at work

  • He talked about his sex life and pressed for explicit details about others’

  • He frequently commented on employees’ physical attractiveness, appearances, attire and bodies

  • He told female students they would be good fits for broadcast journalism because they were “good-looking.

  • He asked if an employee was having another baby when she mentioned that her stomach hurt

  • He asked an employee if she was a stripper

  • He sent texts “intended for his wife” to a female

 

I’ll give him a pass on the text issue, as my Twitter followers have often been subjected to the, “So do we still need milk?” Tweets when I fucked up and hit the wrong button. Other than that… What the fuck? Your students are not a smorgasbord of pussy, so knock it off. And as for the asking the woman back to your hotel room thing, could you be any more sleazy while still being cliche? If you’re not with your wife and you suddenly have that pent up dick rage you seem to possess, there is nothing dumber than what you attempted to do. Here’s some advice: Go back to your room, find that little bottle next to the conditioner and go fly a solo mission.

Second set of allegations: He’s a fucking miserable human being:

Let’s start breaking these into “zones of danger.”

  • He repeatedly accused students of insubordination and reprimanded them to the point of tears over minor or perceived offenses, such as pushing back on an editorial misjudgment or offering an alternative method to pursue an investigation, or agreeing with a peer’s suggestion instead of what Alec Klein proposed. Several of us were summoned into his office individually, made to sit on a short cushion in a corner as he hurled accusatory vitriol about our mistakes and then refused to accept any apology. He sometimes retaliated by lowering students’ final term grades even though these disagreements had nothing to do with academics.

  • He retaliated against an employee by giving her a poor performance review after she defended herself against his verbal abuse.

  • He has yelled at employees and students and accused them of “ignoring him” for not immediately answering his phone calls or emails — at times, outside of working hours, or when one employee was on vacation, despite her returning his call within a few minutes.

  • He continued to show retaliatory behavior after discovering that students went to senior staff at Medill to voice their concerns about him.

  • He was openly dismissive in class to a student who struggled with English and made it apparent that he did not like her Middle Eastern accent. According to this student, he “killed” her confidence and made her feel like “nothing,” and he screamed at and hung up on her friend whom she had put on the phone with him for help.

The concept of retaliation, reprimand and dismissiveness are often in the eye of the beholder, especially in student-faculty relationships. Not saying these things didn’t happen, but on occasion students aren’t as amazing as they think they are and any attempt to demonstrate that is likely to lead to “melting snowflakes.” It also pains me to say this, but I have found that students at some of the best (as in most prestigious, highest ranked etc.) institutions are the ones that are the least able to deal with hearing that they don’t quite measure up. If I had a nickel for every time a kid blamed a bad grade on me or cried over not being told he or she was perfect in every way, I wouldn’t need a job any more. This group needs more cooking before it becomes soup.

Chunk two:

  • He has said: “You aren’t as smart as you think you are ”

  • He has said: “You will never be a journalist.”

  • He told one of us, after learning her mother is a professional writer: “Your mother is a writer, I’d expect you to be a better writer.”

  • He told one of us she needed an A- to earn his recommendation. He later promised a male student in the same class a recommendation in exchange for a B+.

  • He scolded employees for “taking too much credit” for their work and in one instance denied any credit until proof was provided.

When I hear back from students years later, I find out that a lot of shit came rolling out of my mouth that I can’t believe actually did. Part of it is working in a newsroom environment. Part of it is finding the need to buzz a kid with a fastball to back him or her off the plate a bit. Part of it was that I fucked up and learned that I needed to smooth off some of the rough edges. Part of it is that I’m just a dick sometimes, despite my best efforts.

I’ve said the first one, I’m sure. The second one was actually said to me when I was in high school, by a female teacher. She told me that not only would I never be a journalist, but that I’d never be ANYTHING and that I needed to go to a trade school if I wanted to be able to support a family. The third one is weird. The fourth one is something that I could easily see happening. I can’t remember what I ate for lunch yesterday as opposed to who I promised what to whom. The last one, again, some kids need to get backed off the plate or forced to prove stuff. Even students I’ve had dead to rights on plagiarism or other such things would deny it and threaten and bluster until I literally had to say, “You bring your proof and I’ll bring mine and we’ll see what the U has to say.” Then, they fucking crumbled. If these items alone were the basis for a complaint, I could see how the admin would wave this off and call it a day.

CHUNK 3:

  • He often required excessive and unnecessary closed-door meetings during which he pressed several of us to divulge deeply personal details about our lives, only to later use this information against us as a tool of manipulation.

  • He questioned whether an employee had actually attended her grandfather’s funeral after she had requested and taken the day off.

  • He has said about and to female students that they are “too emotional” and “immature.”

This is really problematic stuff in that a) it shows a gender bias and b) it infuses him into the private lives of his students and employees. The gender thing is already discussed above. The other one is something that is an issue because we have to draw lines as faculty and prevent ourselves from crossing them. I have always told newsroom students that I don’t care who you’re sleeping with or what you’re drinking or where you threw up last night. That’s none of my business. However, if I can’t get photos for the front page because my design editor was sleeping with the photo editor, but now they broke up and they’re not talking… OK, NOW I have to care.

I think logically that a lot of this stuff in chunks one and two wouldn’t be as horribly problematic if it weren’t for the first set of allegations (stuff on the harassment) and the last chunk of section two (getting involved in their business). Yes, this isn’t nice workplace behavior in those other two subsections, but I found out something once about stuff like this: There’s no law that prevents people from being an asshole at work.

I had a long discussion with HR and with a harassment specialty lawyer when I was getting knocked around by a particularly shitty colleague in ways like those listed in the two  (non-sex stuff) chunks. I was told, “Look, this isn’t good and he shouldn’t be able to do this, but there is no law against him being a dick.” I wasn’t pleased with that answer, but I got it.

However, there ARE laws about getting your business into my private business. There ARE laws about keeping your fucking hands to yourself and not treating everyone like they’re a fuckdoll with a personality, installed at work for your amusement.

And those laws need to be enforced everywhere, including this situation.

3 thoughts on “Parsing the Medill #MeToo Debacle

  1. Ten Bears says:

    I am … familiar with the label “disgruntled former employee” in academia. “Potential domestic terrorist” too. It is my experience those women’s careers are ruined. He will walk.

    Retire to a nice fat publicly funded pension.

    Like

  2. Jeff says:

    I taught law students for ten years and never did, and was never accused of doing, anything like this. None of it is acceptable and plenty of it, legal or otherwise, is good enough reason to be rid of an employee in any civilized workplace. We fire people for crappy behavior, not just breaking the law. Kosinski was a notorious asshole decades before he was known to be a harasser. His departure at any point would have been a fine thing. Same for this guy. Life tenure may be a good idea for professors and judges, but when the creeps and bullies among them are run off, it’s justice.

    One of the side benefits of metoo is that the men it bags are so often assholes in a comprehensive way, not just a sexual way. Clearing them from the scene has always been so hard. There’s this idea that the alphas are just like that, so if we want the top dudes we have to accept their bs until they break the law. Screw that.

    Like

    • Michael D. Storey says:

      If this sort of behavior had been directed at men students, how would you see it playing out? Would it have gone this far? what if the sexual stuff were removed but the general assholery remained? I think that we also have to see the sexism in inappropriate sexual behavior.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: