Jacques: False Title IX complaint stalls female UM prof’s career

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Pamela Smock should be at the top of her career, reaping the benefits of tenure, having clocked more than 20 years at the University of Michigan.

But she’s not.

“These have been the worst 22 months of my life,” Smock says.

What went so wrong for this sociology professor and demographer? It all starts with finding herself on the wrong side of a Title IX sexual misconduct investigation.

First a bit of background. Smock, 56, previously never had any complaints filed against her while at UM nor had she been disciplined for any reason. Her research focuses on family and gender issues and she considers herself a feminist. Over the years, she has mentored at least 50 students. No problems.

She’s even written handbooks for the university on mentoring. And she’s received an award for her teaching.

Oh, and she’s heterosexual.

In fact, mentoring students had become a highlight for her and she was devoting significant time to a group of female graduate students in the spring of 2016.

“Mentorship was always one of the most rewarding parts of being a professor,” Smock says. “Producing science requires being close and having a genuine relationship.”

Smock and these three students had worked on scholarly research projects together, and they were getting another one ready for publication. It was going well. She’d mentored them for several years. Two of the students were “mature” and had families of their own.

Then her world came to a halt.

A few weeks prior, while at a conference with one of the students, Smock had gently confronted the woman about a paper she had turned in for another class. Smock had reason to question whether this was her student’s work, and she was concerned.

The student did not take the conversation well.

Within a few weeks, campus police stormed Smock’s office, searching for a reported gun (she didn’t have one). And around the same time, she was informed harassment allegations were filed against her with the university’s Office for Institutional Equity, which investigates Title IX gender discrimination complaints.

From 2015 to 2016, that office received 157 complaints. The number went up 40 percent the following year.

Smock was floored. She had thought she and these graduate students were close. They had spent hours together and had a great rapport.

“Although I had more power than they did, I always felt I was treating them as junior colleagues,” Smock says. “We were also friends.”

While Smock was eventually cleared in December 2016 of creating a sexually hostile work environment under Title IX, the report still found her behavior “inappropriate.” The dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, Andrew Martin, found the report “troubling” and decided some punishment was necessary. So he sanctioned her, meaning her salary is frozen, she can’t take a sabbatical and she can’t serve as the primary or sole adviser to doctoral students for at least three years.

Because of the distress caused by the investigation and the sanctioning, Smock has been unable to return to work since 2016.

Since the university refuses to lift the sanctions, Smock decided to sue UM, including Martin, President Mark Schlissel and the Regents for violating her constitutional due process and her free speech rights. The lawsuit was filed in federal court last month.

“I felt a sense of institutional betrayal,” Smock says.

UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald says the litigation is still pending, and the university hasn’t yet filed its official response. He also says the university is preparing a motion to dismiss some of the claims.

“The university has great confidence in the process that was followed in this situation,” Fitzgerald said in an email.

In sanctioning Smock, the dean referenced the Title IX complaint. Even though she was cleared of official wrongdoing, there was still something he didn’t like. But neither Martin nor anyone else in the department has specified exactly what Smock did wrong — or what policy she violated.

And in regard to the OIE report, the students had brought up complaints of conversations they’d had with their professor — although the topics were often related to the work they were doing, which dealt with sexuality, relationships and fertility, among others. Smock believes this is an attack on her First Amendment rights.

David Nacht, Smock’s attorney, deals with a lot of Title IX-related cases at UM, but this is one of the more egregious he’s seen. He calls it symptomatic of the “new McCarthyism” on college campuses.

“This is a woman professor who is a feminist who is being subjected to the same lack of due process men are facing,” Nacht says.

That’s thanks in large part to Department of Education guidance issued in 2011 under the Obama administration telling universities they had to change how they investigated Title IX campus sex assault complaints. They had to use a lighter standard of determining guilt, which has led to a loss of due process for the accused.

In many cases, it is young men who are subjected to investigations. But as Smock learned the hard way, it’s also women like her. In 2015, Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis faced a Title IX investigation brought by several graduate students. Her misdeed? Writing a piece about why universities should have less strict rules for professor-student relationships.

It’s dozens of cases like these that encouraged Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to scrap the former Title IX guidance last September. She’s still working on the new framework, but it’s expected this spring.

DeVos and her department are getting strong pushback from women advocates and civil rights groups from doing anything to change the process, which they believe could harm victims. The #MeToo movement has strengthened these calls.

Yet as Smock’s situation proves, women are also falling victim to this flawed system — one that’s supposed to protect women.

“This really derailed my career,” Smock says. “I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”