Seven instructional or supervisory staff members at regional state universities were the subject of sexual harassment investigations over the past four years.
At least two of those employees, both instructors at UW-Stout in Menomonie, are no longer employed on that campus.
Those are among the details revealed in newly released records about sexual assault and harassment investigations in the UW System.
The records, released in response to an open records request by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, showed that nearly 100 complaints of employee sexual misconduct — harassment or assault — have been formally investigated since 2014 at the 13 four-year and 13 two-year campuses in the UW System, which employs more than 39,000 faculty and staff statewide.
The cases involved only teaching, supervisory and advising staff, and the released records don’t identify any of the employees targeted by complaints. The numbers don’t include people who chose not to file a formal complaint, pursued a complaint informally or wanted to stay anonymous,
West-central Wisconsin campuses were on the low end in terms of numbers of cases investigated, with three at UW-Stout and two at both UW-Eau Claire and UW-River Falls. The campuses with the most investigations during the period were UW-Milwaukee with 34, UW-Oshkosh with 18, UW-Whitewater with 11 and UW-Madison with seven.
Teresa O’Halloran, affirmative action director and Title IX coordinator at UW-Eau Claire, said she is glad the university had among the fewest cases in the UW System but recognizes that instances of sexual assault and harassment likely are underreported. She emphasized that the university wants students and employees to feel comfortable reporting inappropriate behavior.
“If it’s happening, we want to know about it,” O’Halloran said.
At least half the statewide investigations found claims were substantiated and either university policies were violated or the employee received a warning or was referred for sexual harassment awareness training, the Journal Sentinel reported.
In the most recent of two area cases involving employees leaving university employment, a student at UW-Stout complained in 2017 that her former instructor was making her uncomfortable with actions that included commenting on personal matters and asking her to meet.
The academic staff member was contacted by the dean of students and told to no longer have contact with the student. When he didn’t follow that request, he was contacted by police. The student eventually received a restraining order to keep the instructor, who is no longer under contract at UW-Stout, away from her.
A 2015 case involved a student complaining that her instructor commented on her clothing and appearance and would show up places where she was present. That instructor was not offered another employment agreement.
Campus spokesman Doug Mell said the university takes sexual harassment claims seriously.
“When we see evidence that it has occurred, we take decisive action,” Mell said. “Because of what’s happened nationally, I think everybody’s got an increased focus on avoiding situations that potentially could be problematic.”
He was referring to the rash of high-profile sexual harassment and assault claims sweeping Hollywood, Congress and other sectors of society that have resulted in the #MeToo movement.
Mell noted that every new employee at UW-Stout goes through training about avoiding sexual harassment.
The other UW-Stout case involved a student employee who complained in 2017 that her supervisor, a faculty member, touched her on the leg, made comments regarding her dress and inquired about the status of her relationship with her boyfriend. Records show the employee was counseled on appropriate behavior and a no contact order was put in place. The employee offered an apology letter, but the student declined to accept it.
Records indicate both UW-Eau Claire cases involved student complaints about faculty members.
In a 2014 case, a student complained about inappropriate touching during travel. An investigation found that a violation occurred, and the faculty member was banned from traveling with students and required to undergo sexual harassment training.
Another violation was found to have occurred in a 2015 case in which a student complained about inappropriate comments and emails from a faculty member. The employee was ordered to take sexual harassment training and submit to email monitoring.
Both UW-River Falls investigations involved students who filed complaints last year alleging unwelcome advances of a sexual nature by an employee.
A faculty member was deemed to have committed a violation in one case and was disciplined and required to undergo training. The other case found no sexual harassment by a student worker’s supervisor, but the supervisor, an academic staff member, was still reprimanded for unprofessional conduct and required to go through training.
Another case, which didn’t fall under the records first released to the Journal Sentinel because it didn’t involve an instructional or supervisory employee, occurred this fall at UW-Eau Claire. The case was investigated after a co-worker complained about a university employee’s behavior and pattern of inappropriate comments. O’Halloran confirmed that the offending employee no longer works at UW-Eau Claire but declined at this time to say if the person was fired or left voluntarily.
Changing the culture
UW System President Ray Cross created a task force on sexual violence and harassment in 2014 that included representatives from every UW campus and system administration. Several of the panel’s recommendations, including systemwide training for all employees and students, are being enacted at UW institutions, said system spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis.
O’Halloran said about 90 percent of UW-Eau Claire faculty and staff have completed the online sexual assault and harassment training since the program began a year ago.
“It’s not a cure-all for sure, but the training helps raise awareness that sexual harassment is not an acceptable part of the workplace for any employee,” O’Halloran said. “We try to enforce that, and we believe it.”
The system also has launched a website — wisconsin.edu/sexual-assault-harassment — that connects victims of sexual violence or harassment with campus support services, shares university policies on sexual harassment and provides information about filing a complaint.
Considering the enhanced outreach and training efforts, it’s not surprising and is a sign of progress that reporting numbers have gone up, Marquis said.
“We are focused on changing the culture on our campuses and beyond so victims feel empowered to come forward,” Cross said in a statement. “Sexual assault and harassment impacts all of us, and it is an upsetting commentary on our society. We have been implementing real, tangible approaches at our institutions to continue tackling these challenges. Our campus communities should be safe and welcoming places to live, learn and work — and there is no room for compromise on this commitment.”
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