A Normandale Community College professor made a sexual advance toward a student on the eve of deciding that student’s grade. The school suspended him for three days.
At Minnesota State University, Mankato, a faculty member sent sexual text messages to a colleague and made some students feel uncomfortable with sexual comments and unnecessary physical contact. He received a reprimand.
Disciplinary records the Star Tribune requested and reviewed in these cases and more than a dozen others show that such outcomes are not atypical in the Minnesota State system’s 37 community colleges and universities.
As the MeToo movement trained a national spotlight on sexual misconduct on college campuses, Minnesota State administrators have fielded dozens of complaints of sexual harassment and other misconduct against employees. In the overwhelming majority of cases that resulted in final discipline since 2015, the punishment was a written reprimand or a brief suspension, according to discipline data and records.
Often, when campus investigations found a sexual misconduct violation, employees resigned before they received sanctions, which kept information about the cases private. Minnesota State leaders say that in these cases, campuses took a firm stance against misconduct, essentially forcing out employees when presented with strong evidence of wrongdoing.
But student advocates voice concern that these quiet departures have concealed the issue and might have sent harassers to other unsuspecting higher education institutions. Michael Dean, executive director of the college student association LeadMN, also described some of the public discipline employees received as “slaps on the wrist” and said many students do not feel comfortable coming forward with complaints.
Minnesota State officials say they take the issue seriously and have acted to strengthen the system’s response. Still, Chancellor Devinder Malhotra called some of the cases the Star Tribune reviewed “deeply disturbing and painful” and said he wants to do more. He vowed that the system will roll out mandatory sexual harassment training for all employees later this year.
“Even one experience of someone being violated or someone not feeling safe and supported is one too many for me,” he said. “In keeping with our commitment, we will have a renewed focus on this highly important issue.”
This academic year, the return of faculty who have been disciplined for sexual misconduct has spurred debate about proper sanctions at the University of Minnesota and private schools such as Carleton College. While the specifics of each case vary, those professors received unpaid suspensions of six months to a year and loss of leadership positions as well as mandatory training, counseling or peer mentoring.
Last year, Katie Corwin, a Minnesota State, Mankato graduate, filed a complaint against a staff member in Normandale’s admissions office. She and the employee, Ryan Wessel, started dating when she got a summer job in that office in 2014. They broke up three years later but, she told college officials, Wessel continued to send her hundreds of text and social media messages, some of them apparently during work hours. The messages and phone calls continued after she repeatedly asked him to stop, according to the discipline letter.
The college found Wessel had violated the system’s policy against harassment. The discipline letter said he had “caused the complainant to fear for her safety and caused her emotional distress.” But Corwin, who assumed Wessel would be fired, says she was taken aback when she learned of the sanction: a five-day unpaid suspension.
“I don’t think one week of unpaid leave is going to teach anyone a lesson,” she said.
At Normandale, suspensions lasting five days or fewer have been typical for employees found to have likely violated sexual misconduct policies.
In 2018, a student in Charles Nikles’ human sexuality class complained that the professor had sent a Facebook message saying he hadn’t yet determined that student’s grade for the class — and proceeded to make a sexual overture, according to Nikles’ discipline letter. The student told investigators the experience led him to drop out of Normandale.
A college administrator gave Nikles a five-day suspension. He appealed the decision, pointing to his record as a faculty member and to an apology he’d made to the student. The college reduced the suspension to three days. Nikles declined to comment and Wessel did not respond.
In a statement, Normandale said it could not comment on specific cases. But it said the school has worked to provide education, training and other resources to prevent sexual misconduct and inform employees and students how to report it. All complaints are reviewed promptly, considering relevant circumstances, Normandale officials said.
“Normandale Community College is committed to an environment that is safe, respectful and supportive for all students and employees,” the college said.
According to data for the past five years reviewed by the Star Tribune, institutions in the Minnesota State system received about 120 complaints of sexual misconduct against employees. Of those, 104 were formally investigated. Campus administrators meted out final discipline in 17 cases: generally, written reprimands and suspensions of one to five days.
At Minnesota State University, Mankato, music Prof. Kimm Julian, who has since retired, received a reprimand for sending unwelcome sexual text messages to a colleague while students complained about behavior that was seen as “sexual in nature and causing discomfort,” including unnecessary touching perceived as uncomfortable, the discipline letter states. The Inter Faculty Organization, the university faculty union, said the case exemplified the process working well, with a focus on problem-solving rather than punishment.
“Dr. Julian was deeply concerned and remorseful about the impact of his actions and sincerely desired to correct his behavior,” the union said on his behalf.
One employee during the past five years was fired after a sexual misconduct finding. St. Cloud State University terminated Pranava Jha, a computer science professor, after the university received a report that he asked someone to touch him sexually on campus and offered money when the person said no.
He denied the allegation, but his discipline letter noted he had been previously suspended for a “not dissimilar violation” involving a student. Jha could not be reached.
The discipline letters offer only a partial look at how the system handles the issue. In most of the 40 cases when investigations found sexual misconduct, there was no final discipline, usually because employees quit first. The system’s institutions give employees notice of intent to terminate them, offering them a chance to resign. Quitting before they are disciplined or fired keeps their cases private under state law.
One administrator at a metro-area community college was found a few years ago to have violated both the sexual harassment and sexual violence policies by propositioning a colleague and groping her on the job, according to a letter about the outcome of a campus investigation. An e-mail to staffers announced that the administrator was leaving to pursue other higher education opportunities, and touted his contributions.
The woman provided the documents on the condition that the Star Tribune not reveal her and the administrator’s identities, as she said she remains traumatized.
Critics such as Dean, of LeadMN, say Minnesota State can do more to hold employees publicly accountable for such misconduct.
“We see a culture that is more concerned about hiding these issues under the rug than truly holding staff and faculty accountable for disgusting behavior,” he said.
But system officials say that criticism is unfair: They stress they are legally required to issue termination notices and must protect private data under state law.
Kathryn Engdahl, a university faculty union attorney, said Minnesota State takes reports of sexual misconduct seriously and has handled them with a firm hand. And though employee resignations can keep the cases off the public record, Engdahl said, “losing your job is a pretty severe consequence.”
Matt Williams, the college faculty union president, said Minnesota State has not forcefully cracked down on sexual harassment. He said that it is no coincidence that no administrator has been formally disciplined for sexual misconduct during the past five years and that faculty who have experienced harassment are reluctant to complain.
But system leaders said they have taken decisive steps to root out sexual harassment and other misconduct.
Generally, said Eric Davis, the system’s vice chancellor of human resources, the system’s policies and practices have led to “discipline that is appropriate and proportional.” The system follows a progressive discipline approach, with escalating consequences.
Still, Malhotra said Minnesota State can do more, and the Star Tribune’s inquiry has spurred a fresh look at how administrators can ensure that discipline matches the seriousness of the violations.
Meanwhile, the university faculty union said it is working with the administration to pilot a restorative justice model when appropriate. Engdahl said students and employees who file complaints don’t consistently get a say in the outcome, and the focus is rarely on learning for the disciplined employee and healing for the community.
Saundra Schuster, of the national Association of Title IX Administrators, said even as the MeToo movement has roiled campuses nationally, a lack of national standards persists on handling sexual misconduct by college and university employees. But she said the Minnesota State system is hardly an outlier, as many institutions across the country remain “timid” in disciplining employees, particularly tenured faculty.
“Universities are getting better at handling sexual assault,” said Abby Honold, a local advocate on the issue. But, she said, “in cases where there was no physical contact, they tend to underplay the impact misconduct has on victims.”