Firing Melissa Click was messed up, and you don’t have to like what she did to think so.

As I’m sure you already know, Melissa Click was fired from the University of Missouri on account of her conduct during the student protests last fall.  Faculty at Mizzou have already raised concerns about due process. I think those concerns are legitimate and worrisome irrespective of whether or not you think, at the end of the day, firing would have been the right thing to do.

But forget, just for a moment, about whether or not you think Click’s behavior contravened her duties as a professor, or what would have happened were her due process rights fully respected and consider this, from earlier this month, by way of contrast:

“A UCLA history professor involved in an ongoing Title IX lawsuit reached an agreement with UCLA that will allow him to return to teach.”

And what exactly is this lawsuit about? Two students accused a professor of sexual assault. Here’s what happened before UCLA decided to help him return to teaching:

[A]n earlier, independent investigation by UCLA found enough evidence to warrant a litany of punitive actions for Piterberg. Yet according to the settlement agreement that Takla and Glasgow’s lawyer released last week, Piterberg was given only a slap on the wrist – he paid the UC Board of Regents $3,000, was suspended last spring quarter and participated in a sexual harassment training session. The only other punishments set for Piterberg were just as inconsequential: He may now only speak with students during open-door office hours and cannot try to establish any romantic or otherwise inappropriate relationships with students.

But, as it turned out, the punishment was even less stringent than it sounds. Piterberg’s spring quarter suspension was spent in Europe as a fellow at the European University Institute. While it is unclear if UCLA knew of this fellowship before administering the punishment, the fact remains that a professor accused of sexually assaulting students got to spend his quarter off in Europe and return to the university 10 weeks later.

Well, that’s at UCLA, you might say — and Click was at Mizzou. Yes. But then there’s this story. And this one. And this one. Oh, and this one (I’d keep going, but this could quickly get very depressing).  As for Mizzou itself, it doesn’t have a great record of appropriately handling sexual misconduct. In the recent AAU survey, students at Mizzou reported the third highest rate of having been subject to sexual misconduct. They’ve received attention from Outside the Lines for their handling of misconduct by student athletes, including violence against women. And the university itself admitted in 2014 that it screwed up by failing to investigate the alleged rape of Sasha Menu Courey, who committed suicide a little over a year after the alleged incident. None of that resulted in a national outcry. None of that resulted in the state legislature threatening to cut the university’s budget.

In academia, students’ cameras are treated as more sacred than students’ bodies. And whether or not you think Melissa Click was in the wrong, that seems pretty messed up.

22 thoughts on “Firing Melissa Click was messed up, and you don’t have to like what she did to think so.

  1. It may be that Title IX coordinator Pamela Thomason was incompetent. She is now California State University’s Title IX compliance officer.

    But I think just as important is this lesson: if the aim is to exact retribution against sexual criminals, a university Title IX office is the wrong agency for the job. It would be much better for the victims to go to court.

    The article quoted says that there was “enough evidence to warrant a litany of punitive actions for Piterberg.” There’s no link for that, so I wonder what the basis for it is. Anyone know? An earlier Daily Bruin article says: “Officials denied about 90 allegations by default because they did not have sufficient information to admit or deny them.” This makes no sense; taken literally it says that the officials denied the allegations because they didn’t have enough information to deny them. I *suspect* it means there wasn’t enough evidence to *support* the charges. But I couldn’t find any solid information about what happened.

  2. gopher, there are all sorts of reasons folks may not want to go to the courts or criminal justice system, e.g., but moreover, Title IX is not about exacting retribution against sexual criminals — it’s about maintaining an educational envionment free of sexual discrimination. See here for more:

    Further yet, I take it philodaria’s point here was not so much about Title IX itself, but about the double standards at play in what sorts of things result in the termination of a professor.

  3. I don’t know if Melissa Click was denied due process, but if she was, then it’s wrong and she ought to be reinstated and given due process. But I still think that, when due process has run its course, she should be fired. And I don’t see what would be messed up about that. It’s simply unacceptable for a professor to threaten a student with the use of physical force. I honestly don’t see how anyone reasonable could deny that she was in the wrong, so I don’t understand why you want to leave that question open, as if there could be any doubt on the matter. Perhaps one could argue that, even though what she did was wrong, she shouldn’t be fired, but even that strikes me as a tough case to make.

    In any case, it just seems wrong to conclude from that incident that students’s cameras are treated as more sacred than their bodies, for Melissa Click didn’t just threaten the student’s camera but his physical integrity. On the video, she can be heard saying “Hey who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?”, followed by “I need some muscle over here”. I think what caused an outrage is not just that the student was a journalist, but also that Click threatened him with the use of physical force. The fact that he was a journalist, I’m inclined to think, was just the cherry on top of the cake.

    I also don’t think it’s right to conclude that, as you suggest with the comparison you make, that people care more about the rights of journalists than about sexual harassment. Perhaps they do, I honestly don’t know, but I don’t think the comparison you make shows that. Indeed, one crucial difference between the case of Melissa Click and the sexual harassment cases that you mention is that she was caught on camera threatening the student with physical force, whereas in those other cases I don’t think any of the perpetrators was caught on camera sexually harassing someone.

    I suspect that, had one of them been caught on camera doing that, it would have sparked an even bigger outrage. I’m not saying that it’s not fucked up, just that it’s how things work. When it comes to getting people fired up, a video just has a lot more power than a written report, no matter how shocking the facts detailed in that report are. It doesn’t mean that people care more about the rights of journalists than about sexual harassment. Again, perhaps they do, but I don’t think the comparison you make shows that.

  4. The student was in fact not a journalist, though he said he was:

    The point isn’t that she shouldn’t have been fired based on her actions alone. My point is that given what people don’t get fired for, given what the state legislature does not threaten to cut the university’s budget for, given what does not lead to a national outcry, I think it’s pretty clear that Click was fired for political reasons, not for reasons of merit — irrespective of whether or not it would have been merited were it the case that we treated everyone fairly. And, yeah, video evidence is powerful. But it also so happens that there are lots of cases of sexual harassment and assault where the evidence is incredibly powerful. Cases of serial behavior spanning multiple victims, multiple years, and still, professors aren’t terminated.

  5. I also should point out, I don’t think the evidence paints a picture where his bodily integrity was certainly threatened. It’s implied, but in the context of the larger video, where people are using their own bodies to form walls to prevent the journalists from entering the protesters camp, it seems equally likely that she was calling for “muscle” to do just that.

  6. It doesn’t matter that he wasn’t in fact a journalist, what matter is that Click thought he was, but didn’t care. Indeed, in the video, she can be heard call him a reporter. But, as I said, I don’t think his status as a journalist is really what caused the outrage, I think the physical threat is. Now, you don’t think the evidence paints a picture where the student’s bodily integrity was *certainly* threatened, but you’ll have to forgive me if I think that even a little bit of uncertainty is still too much. When you call for “muscle” to remove someone, you don’t know what’s going to happen, which is just completely irresponsible on the part of anyone, but even more so on the part of a professor talking about a student at her university. As for the power of video footage, I wasn’t talking about its evidentiary power, but about the power it has to generate media attention. I agree that non-video evidence can also be very powerful qua evidence, often even more so than video footage, but my point is that it doesn’t have the same potential to generate media attention as video footage. You may well be right that, in a sense, Melissa Click was fired for political reasons. But I think that it’s only in the sense that, had her case not generated so much attention in the media because of the video, she might not have been fired, not because people care more about the rights of journalists than about sexual harassment. My point is that the evidence doesn’t favor your interpretation over mine. In any case, had Melissa Click not been fired, I think it would have been wrong because she ought to be fired for what she did, just like people who are known to repeatedly harass students ought to be fired and it’s outrageous that they are not. Perhaps they are not because people care more about the rights of journalists than about sexual harassment, but I doubt that and, in any case, I don’t think the comparison you make shows that.

  7. I am not disputing that a risk to bodily integrity does contravene one’s duties as a professor — I am pointing out that if you look at cases where student’s bodily integrity was not only threatened but actually violated, professors have still not yet been fired, and this is normal. Nor am I disputing that in those cases, firing may be the right response too. What I am saying is that given the difference — and note, this difference holds regardless of whether or not you think it’s because of media attention or because people care about more student journalists’ rights as student journalists than they do students’ rights to an education free from sexual harassment or assault — termination is not being handed down as a sanction in a principled way but rather a politically motivated way. And that’s not ok.

  8. Okay, if that’s all you want to say (not that it’s not worth saying), then I agree with you. But that’s a much weaker point than the one you originally made in your post, which was that the comparison between the way in which Melissa Click was treated at Mizzou and the way in which known sexual harassers were treated elsewhere shows that people care more about the rights of journalists than about sexual harassment. For all I know, that may still be true, but the comparison you make doesn’t show that.

  9. Oh, no, I still think what I wrote above — I am just not arguing the point with you because I don’t think it matters to make the larger point. But note, I didn’t say people care more about student journalists than sexual assault, I said, “In academia, students’ cameras are treated as more sacred than students’ bodies” — again, I think the above does demonstrate that, but I don’t see the need to argue about it.

  10. Philodaria,

    Of course.
    I’m just saying that *if that’s the aim*, then…
    As to the retributive bit, I was just responding to things like this:

    “… warrant a litany of punitive actions…”
    “The only other punishments set for Piterberg were just as inconsequential…”
    “… the punishment was even less stringent…”

    Those are about punishment, not preventing future problems.

  11. gopher, I think you were replying to me. And yes, you’re right that there was punishment at issue, but I take the aim of Title IX cases is not to enact retribution on folks as sexual criminals, though it may involve deterring future discriminatory action through punishment (among other things), albeit significantly less stringent that criminal sanctions. To that end, taking ten weeks off from campus that you were going to be taking off anyway seems like it’s a PR move rather than an attempt to deter or restore equity.

  12. A much better argument would be to compare a case where the student was actually filmed sexually assaulting another student, where that sexual assault was obvious, and the outcome was that student getting a free pass.

    Administrators lack the investigative or prosecutorial prowess to confirm guilt or innocence in the vast majority of cases, and thus their presumptions about what may have happened behind are highly suspect and confirm virtually nothing in the vast majority of cases as to whether any kind of crime occurred.

  13. Jonathan, okay, here you go:

    “James Madison University punished three fraternity members for sexually assaulting a female student and sharing their video of the attack by banning them from campus — after they graduate.

    The school found the men responsible for sexual assault and harassment in the spring break 2013 attack on Sarah Butters, and determined that they shared the video widely with others on the JMU campus in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The unusual “expulsion after graduation” sanction allowed two of the men to graduate on time in May. The third plans to remain on campus for his senior year in 2014-15.”

  14. “Oh, no, I still think what I wrote above — I am just not arguing the point with you because I don’t think it matters to make the larger point. But note, I didn’t say people care more about student journalists than sexual assault, I said, “In academia, students’ cameras are treated as more sacred than students’ bodies” — again, I think the above does demonstrate that, but I don’t see the need to argue about it.”

    Well, you may think that the comparison you made in the original post demonstrates that, but it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t. As I already noted, a crucial difference between Melissa Click’s case and the sexual harassment cases you mentioned in your original post is that none of them was shot on video, shared on the Internet and even broadcasted on cable news. So another explanation for why she was fired and the sexual harassers weren’t is that, as her case received a lot more of attention from the media (for reasons that have nothing to do with your claim that in academia students’s cameras are treated with more respect than their bodies and everything to do with the fact that video has a lot more power to generate attention from the media than other kinds of evidence), the university was under a lot more pressure to fire her. I don’t see how any of the evidence that you mentioned in your original post favors your hypothesis over mine.

    Now you bring up another case, which unless I’m mistaken you didn’t mention in your original post, that prima facie seems to favor your hypothesis over mine but really doesn’t. The crucial difference in that case is that, while the sexual assault was also filmed, the video was – thank goodness – seen by far less people than the one that shows Melissa Click threaten a student with the use of physical force, which again was made widely available on all kinds of media. Do you really think that, if the video that shows three assholes sexually assault Sarah Butters had somehow ended up on cable news, they would have gotten away with such a mild punishment? I personally don’t think so, but in any case the evidence you mention doesn’t speak to that, because for obvious reasons that video did *not* end up on broadcast news, unlike the one that shows Melissa Click behave like a thug.

  15. I was fired this year. I worked 18 years at Wayne State college in Wayne , ne. I was full tenured professor. I was fired because of a disagreement with an administrator and them some colleagues got together and used this. They didn’t like me. I never knew it and don’t completely understand now. The students had a rally for me ands protest in front of the board. No one cared. I reached out. Nothing. The students had a support dr Karen Walker facebookpage with 456 members. Are only certain women faculty worthy of help? Certainly feels like it.

  16. Absolutely right, I was replying to noetika but wrote “Philodaria”.

    I agree that Title IX cases adjudicated by campus authorities *should* have a protective aim rather than a punitive one. I would say that there should definitely not be focus on their deterrent value, because it is unjust to harm someone in an attempt to deter others without a much more definitive determination of guilt than a campus Title IX hearing can realistically afford. But if your point is that this particular one failed, pretty much no matter what its aim was, then I’m afraid you are correct.

    Philodaria, the James Madison incident is horrible. The assault took place in Florida, not at JMU, so maybe Title IX applies to the subsequent acts by the assailants but not the assault itself. It seems to be another example of why the enforcement of sexual assault law is not an appropriate job for a university agency.

  17. Philippe, you may think that it “pretty clearly doesn’t,” but I don’t. And while I have already said I don’t care to argue the matter because it’s irrelevant to the larger point of my post, yes, as you have said repeatedly, there is a difference between the Click case and the cases I mention insofar as Click’s behavior became a matter of widespread public concern and outrage — but as I have said, I am pointing to a difference in treatment, and that a case becomes subject to widespread public concern and outrage, or doesn’t, falls under the category of treatment. You are offering a hypothesis as to why the cases have been subject to different treatment. Now, you might think that from the mere fact that we are, according to your explanation, just more psychologically interested in videos than other kinds of evidence, it follows that there is no indication of a meaningful difference in treatment, but that seems implausible to me (among other things — there are videos of all sorts of heinous and awful things, e.g., horrendous treatment of animals on factory farms, that don’t go viral and it seems implausible that we ought to set aside any questions of political interest in order to explain what becomes fodder for public outrage and what doesn’t).

  18. Regarding your point, gopher, that Title IX is not the appropriate venue for enforcement of sexual assault law, agreed — but I don’t think anyone (well, maybe not anyone, literally) who thinks that universities have obligations to respond to sexual assault when it affects their community think so either.

  19. gopher, I meant deterring the particular actor from repeating their behavior rather than deterring others. Do you have non-punitive protective measures in mind that you think would be particularly effective?

  20. Noetika,
    Oh, I see. So the worry is that Piterberg will harass other women. It is a particular problem because he’s alleged to be a serial harasser. I would have thought that just being publicly named would have been a pretty good “special deterrent”, but maybe not.
    I do think Clery Act training is pretty effective prevention (at least, that’s what a Title IX coordinator told me). For deterrent purposes I think the court system is vastly better than university disciplinary processes.

    Probably not, and yet Piterberg never had to face a judge, speak to a police officer, be questioned by a lawyer, and the miscreants who assaulted Sarah Butters are getting off scot free, in both cases because someone thought it would be better to use a university disciplinary system. In Butters’ case it’s particularly disappointing because her father is a police officer who insisted that charges not be pressed.

  21. Well, I don’t know about that. In France, just last week, a video that showed people brutalizing animals in a slaughterhouse went viral and was showed on every news show in the country. That video was probably what went the most viral in France in the past few weeks. Indeed, I was rather under the impression that people in that industry were doing everything they could, sometimes going as far as lobbying to change the law, to prevent activists from filming what’s going on in slaughterhouses, farms, etc.

    Even if you were right, it would only show that people are more shocked by a professor threatening a student with the use of physical force than by the brutalizing of animals, but I don’t see how that would in any way reduce the plausibility of the view that, *keeping fixed how bad people think a particular type of behavior is*, the existence of a video showing that behavior dramatically increases the attention it draws from the media and the pressure on the employer of the person who engaged in that behavior to fire him. This view just strikes me as obviously true.

    So again the question is: do you really think that, if a video clearly showing a professor at a university sexually harassing a student was shared on the Internet, a mediatic shitstorm would not ensue and that the professor in question would not be fired as a result? I personally find that completely implausible but, if you really think so, I think we can only agree to disagree on that point. However, even if you disagree with me about what would happen in that case, what’s clear is that the evidence you produced doesn’t favor your hypothesis over mine because none of the sexual harassers in the cases you mentioned was filmed.

    In fact, I think it even favors my hypothesis to some extent, because in at least one of the case you mention (the one about the head of cardiology at Yale), the culprit was forced to resign after the NYT wrote an article that revealed that Yale had surreptitiously reduced his punishment. In that case a video wasn’t even necessary to draw attention from the media and put the pressure on the university to do the right thing. Now, perhaps you think that the difference in the case of Melissa Click is that, even if there hadn’t been a mediatic shitstorm, she would have been fired. I personally find that highly unlikely but, in any case, the evidence is silent on that since there was indeed a mediatic shitstorm about what she did.

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