When faculty members said the news of sexual harassment allegations against English professor Andrew Escobedo surprised them, Kelly Sundberg had a hard time believing them — she said she was warned about him in 2013, the year she started studying at Ohio University.
Sundberg, a creative writing Ph.D. candidate, is one of several English graduate students who have publicly demanded Escobedo be dismissed and has spoken out about a culture they believe sheltered him.
Interim President David Descutner has moved to dismiss Escobedo after the Office of Equity and Civil Rights Compliance found that he sexually harassed and inappropriately touched female students in incidents as early as 2003. Six students filed complaints with the office, and investigators found enough evidence to find Escobedo in violation of university policy in four of those cases.
Two of the female graduate students who filed complaints, Christine Adams and Susanna Hempstead, have filed a federal civil rights complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio Eastern Division arguing that Escobedo’s actions violated their right to equal access to education. Their complaint also argues that former English Department Chair Joe McLaughlin ignored a 2006 complaint against Escobedo and that the university remained “deliberately indifferent” to the allegations against Escobedo. Escobedo declined to comment.
After the two women filed the complaint, other graduate students rallied behind them. Many of those early conversations took place in secret.
Anonymous written messages appeared in bathroom stalls in Ellis Hall. "(Escobedo) is a predator. You are not alone," read one, according to the memorandum of findings. Some graduate students held secret meetings to draft a letter to English faculty asking for Escobedo’s dismissal. Forty-six graduate students signed the document.
“We didn’t want the faculty to know about those,” Sundberg said. “Every time they would see a cluster of grad students, they would look scared.”
Some of the 46 students are survivors of sexual violence themselves, and for them the allegations and the responses to them are especially difficult to tolerate. Sundberg said her ex-husband physically abused her and she has post-traumatic stress disorder from that experience. She “can’t even look at” the professors who voted to keep Escobedo in the department, and said she doesn’t want to be in a room with them.
“I know that’s harsh, but I … personally felt very hurt by (their support of Escobedo), even though I was not one of the victims,” she said. “It felt like a tremendous betrayal.”
At a Feb. 7 discussion among tenured faculty members, 14 voted in favor of dismissing Escobedo, eight voted against and two abstained.
Disagreement between faculty members who want Escobedo to remain and those who want him dismissed has divided the English department, April Fuller, a literature master's candidate, said.
“Several of them are very open about wanting to keep him and several are saying that they would never speak to the other people ever again because they want to keep him,” she said. “There’s a lot of tension in the air.”
None of the 50 English faculty members listed on the faculty directory page agreed to be interviewed for this article. Some said they did not want to speak publicly on the matter while the process was still ongoing, and others did not return emails.
English Professor Mark Halliday said in an email that he did not want to be interviewed in “such a fraught situation,” but offered a one-sentence statement.
"People who claim to be certain about how much culpability is involved in the case, or about its fairest outcome, might be overconfident of their own righteousness," he wrote.
Retired English Professor Samuel Crowl said he did not want to be interviewed because he was not a part of official proceedings, but added that he was “shocked and saddened” to learn of the charges against Escobedo.
“He's a distinguished scholar, a fine teacher and a most genial and co-operative colleague,” he wrote in an email. “I am having difficulty in reconciling the man I know with the man accused of sexual harassment.”
Sundberg said some faculty members initially denied that the sexual harassment took place. Once the memorandum of findings came out, she said they blamed his alcoholism for the events described in the memo and claimed alcohol treatment would fix the troubles.
“I’ve been amazed by the leaps that people will take and the lengths that people will go to to continue to defend their friend,” she said.
Some of the graduate students said their subordinate role in the department has made it difficult to speak out. They feel the university prioritizes the needs of faculty over those of students because students eventually graduate and leave. Sarah Minor, a creative writing Ph.D. candidate, said the department’s reaction to the allegations has made her feel “expendable.”
The graduate students also know that they will be seeking jobs soon and feel that their image could affect their marketability. Sundberg said she worries she could be labeled “difficult” for speaking out against Escobedo and thinks employers might not hire a “difficult” woman. Rachael Tanner, a rhetoric and composition Ph.D. candidate, said she feels pressured to get along well with faculty for similar reasons.
“They do have a position of power over our lives here, and our lives past here,” she said. “A lot of times ... if you’re likable, you get a job. And it’s also that if your faculty mentor talks well of you while you’re on the job market, you get a job.”
Tanner and Sundberg said they have experienced retaliation for speaking out against Escobedo. None wanted to describe the incidents because more could still follow.
Fuller, Sundberg, Tanner and Minor each said the majority of faculty members have condemned Escobedo’s actions and supported the students speaking against him. They said they each have considered dropping out of the English program and some said the support of certain faculty members has helped them remain.
“There have been people who have come up to me in the elevator and they wanted to make sure no one could hear them, but they’d say, ‘I’m really proud of what you’re doing,’ “ Fuller said. “I think a majority of the department … they do support what we’re doing, even if they don’t actually come forward and say they support it.”
As Escobedo’s disciplinary process nears its end, some graduate students are unsure how the English department will recover from the division.
Minor is proud of the work she and her fellow students have done and considers the disciplinary process against Escobedo a victory. But the past year has also cast doubt on her desire to be a professor and disrupted professional and personal relationships.
“For the remainder of my time here, it will be made more challenging to walk in the hallway and go to the restroom and send an email to everyone in the department,” she said. “Even small things will be made more difficult because … the institution is mad for being poked, for having some part of it fixed.”
Although the harassment allegations have divided the department, many graduate students have grown closer together. Sundberg didn’t know Adams, Hempstead or Tanner until the allegations came to light. She now knows them all well.
On Feb. 24, students held a rally demanding Escobedo be dismissed. Some English faculty and graduate students attended, including Sundberg. She said she felt a sense of community there that had often been missing during the investigation and disciplinary process against Escobedo.
“I cried. I thought it was beautiful,” she said. “This past year has been … really isolating and scary and just to see the support and the openness with which the undergraduates were able to deal with it, it was a relief to me.”
Minor said Adams and Hempstead have been an inspiration to her. She said they’ve stood up for themselves and supported each other and those around them — including her — throughout the process.
“It’s not over for them, and it won’t be over for them for quite some time,” she said. “I think they’ve sacrificed more for the sake of this process than any of us will really understand.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated which students faced retaliation. The article has been updated with the most accurate information.