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Lawmakers and Students Say Professors Who Sexually Harass Should Face Stronger Consequences

After NPR Illinois and ProPublica found that several University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professors who violated policies were allowed to quietly resign and take paid leave with their reputations intact, lawmakers called for reforms.

Sally Deng, special to ProPublica

This article was produced in partnership with NPR Illinois, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

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State and national lawmakers, victims’ rights advocates and students called for a review of sexual harassment policies at the University of Illinois following an investigation by NPR Illinois and ProPublica that found gaps in the way sexual misconduct allegations were handled at the system’s flagship campus.

The news organizations reported last week how the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign allowed several professors to resign, some with provisions guaranteeing confidentiality, though they were accused of sexual misconduct and found to have violated university policies. Other faculty members facing similar accusations were allowed to stay on staff. Some were given extended periods of paid leave both during and following investigations.

“This article makes clear that this isn’t just an issue with students … but one that includes faculty,” U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican whose district includes the Urbana-Champaign area, said in a statement. “The U of I needs to review their policies to protect students and faculty.”

State Rep. Carol Ammons, a Democrat whose district includes the UIUC campus, said in a statement that there should be “a proper mechanism of discipline to ensure that perpetrators of this nature do not, in fact, benefit from harming students and university staff.”

Ammons, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee and co-chairs a Democratic statewide panel that explored sexual harassment and gender discrimination in politics, said she wants to work with the university and fellow lawmakers on a “comprehensive solution.”

Carrie Ward heads the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a nonprofit that represents a state network of rape crisis centers. She said many victims are wary of speaking out for fear of retaliation and stigma, and some don’t come forward. The cases reported by NPR Illinois and ProPublica, in which victims reported allegations of misconduct but perpetrators were allowed to quietly leave, are disappointing, she said.

“I found it both not surprising and also somewhat demoralizing because I think what happens is the emphasis once again is on protecting the person who has committed the harassment,” she said. “And by protecting, I mean protecting their reputation, perhaps protecting their salary, protecting their ability to go someplace else and be employed in the same field.”

In four cases reported on by NPR Illinois and ProPublica, the university used confidentiality clauses, which required professors not to talk about the reasons for their resignations. In two of those cases, the university promised to keep the details secret as well. The university’s leadership said it has stopped using the clauses.

Resignations are the typical way that professors who face credible sexual misconduct allegations and investigations are let go. Firings are virtually nonexistent for tenured staff.

UIUC Provost Andreas Cangellaris said the university is considering ways to change that.

In a statement to the Illinois public radio program “The 21st,” he wrote: “Sexual misconduct is always unacceptable at this university, and we are committed to making sure we have in place practices and policies that are truly aligned with our values. … These behaviors and actions undermine every aspect of our university missions of education, scholarship and service. We are taking actions to ensure that we live up to our responsibility.”

He said that disciplinary processes are under review “to allow us to take quicker and more forceful action when employment misconduct is proven.”

Task forces and committees continue to look at related issues, and a report is due this year from one group looking specifically at faculty misconduct issues. UIUC also says it has already ended the use of confidentiality agreements.

Ali Mirza, a junior studying political science and chief of staff for the student government association at UIUC, said the association plans to take its concerns to the administration in coming weeks.

“We need to do better. … There shouldn’t be any room for error in something like this.”

Rachel Otwell is a reporter at NPR Illinois.

NPR Illinois was part of the Illinois Newsroom collaborative, which secured the initial grant for this project.

NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Media are part of the University of Illinois System. The university has no editorial control or oversight of news content produced by either. Reporters at NPR Illinois, however, are considered “responsible employees” under the university’s policies and are required to report allegations of abuse to the university. As a result, news tips should be sent to ProPublica staff.

Our reporting won’t stop here. Have you faced sexual harassment or violence from a faculty or staff member at a university, college or community college in Illinois? We need your help — here’s how you can get in touch:

  • Fill out our questionnaire
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Update, Oct. 10, 2019: This story has been updated to reflect that the callout is being done solely by ProPublica and not in partnership with NPR Illinois. For more information, read this Closer Look column.

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