Darnell, Title IX links probed

Over two months after John Darnell announced his resignation as chair of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department and one-year suspension from the Yale faculty, Title IX experts said that his illicit relationship with a student-turned-professor may also be associated with a breach of Title IX regulations.

A complaint addressing Darnell’s relationship with associate professor Colleen Manassa ’01 GRD ’05 was listed in the January semi-annual report released by the University, which includes cases of sexual assault and harassment brought to Yale officials. Experts said the University may be at fault under the Title IX statute for failing to address what two sources close to NELC described as a “hostile work environment” created by Darnell and Manassa’s relationship. The experts also said the University was not at fault in allowing Manassa to retain her faculty position because violations of consensual relationship policies — which govern intimate relationships between individuals and their superiors — usually result in strong punishment for the superior and little or no repercussions for the subordinate.

“Administrators have to address the culture in that department with appropriate investigations and documentation,” said attorney Saundra Schuster, an advisory board member of Association of Title IX Administrators.

Title IX protects against discrimination based on gender and sexual miconduct under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. It also requires academic institutions to respond to official notices of potential violations by launching an investigation, halting the discriminatory behavior, providing remedial support for injured parties and ensuring that the incident will not occur again.

Schuster said Yale could be seen to have fulfilled the requirements — the incident was included in the University’s Title IX report, Darnell faced termination as chair of NELC and suspension from the faculty and administrators have created a temporary advising system for graduate students in his absence. But she added that the University has not made explicit efforts to ameliorate the alleged hostile work environment, which could be perceived as a failure on the University’s part to uphold Title IX policies. Schuster cited the example of department-wide workshops as a means of improving conditions.

But Erin Buzuvis, a Western New England University School of Law professor, said a hospitable professional atmosphere can be a “hard standard to meet.” Deputy Provost Stephanie Spangler, who is also the University Title IX coordinator, could not be reached for comment  on the University’s efforts to improve NELC’s working environment.

While issues of amorous relationships between faculty members and students can be problematic and create issues of favoritism, Katherine Erwin, Title IX coordinator for the University of Colorado at Boulder,  said they are not categorically related to Title IX. She added that a consensual relationship between two adults does not generally translate into an issue of gender discrimination.

Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University, said universities do not normally punish individuals involved in intimate relationships with their perceived superiors, even if such relationships violate consensual relations policies. Erwin said Boulder would also generally refrain from punishing a subordinate, such as a student, who violated the University’s consensual relationships policy.

In typical cases involving consensual relationship policy violations, the superior generally faces explicit consequences, Lake said.

Title IX attorneys said cases should be decided in an equitable manner so that all parties involved receive fair treatment. But they said Manassa’s faculty position should not have been terminated because Darnell seemed to maintain authority over Manassa since the inception of their relationship, which allegedly began while Manassa was an undergraduate.

Lake said subordinates involved in consensual relationship disputes may also find public scrutiny of the relationship to be a “career killer” even if they do not face explicit punishment. But Rosa Gonzalez, Stanford University’s Title IX coordinator, said universities do not usually release the specific terms of a faculty member’s termination as a result of sexual misconduct or a Title IX violation.

Darnell announced his suspension from the faculty in a Jan. 8 email to his department, and the message was immediately followed by an email from University President Richard Levin, who explained how the department would move forward in Darnell’s absence.

Manassa is the director of undergraduate studies for Egyptology and is currently teaching a course titled “Egyptomania.”

Comments