Wednesday the NY Times published a lengthy description of another Title IX investigation run amok. This case is unusual for a couple of reasons. First the accuser eventually turned out to be a professor from another school and second, the accused was a lesbian professor and her wife. It all started when Sarah Viren, who wrote the piece for the Times, applied for a job at a college in Michigan.
At first, back in early 2019, things looked hopeful. Sarah received a job offer from a school in Michigan and was told a “dual-career coordinator” would be helping to find a suitable job her wife Marta, also a professor, could take. But weeks passed without hearing back from the school. And then some anonymous posts appeared on Reddit claiming that Marta, Sarah’s wife, has sexually propositioned students.
Its author wrote: “Lesbian professors, too, are capable of harassing students despite common narratives.”
But it was the second post that scared me. “Hi y’all,” it read. “I’m looking for advice. My linguistics professor has offered me wine several times in her office and acted inappropriately when I see her in various queer spaces in Tempe or Phoenix.”
Both Sarah and Marta were convinced the claims were false, but how do you prove an anonymous accusation is false? In the meantime, more anonymous accusations were being delivered to the school where Sarah and Marta taught. Someone claiming to be a grad student named “Rebecca James” claimed she had been propositioned by Marta.
The person investigating the claim on the school’s behalf, Melanie, quickly discovered that no such student existed. Sarah asked if the fact that the accuser didn’t exist meant the investigation would be closed and Melanie explained that’s not how things work:
“If you can figure out that it’s an outsider or somebody from the outside that’s posing as a student,” I finally said, “can you just close the investigation?”
“Good question,” Melanie responded, her voice bright again. “Because of the funding that we receive through Title IX, we’re required to investigate everything. And with that we want to really run everything to the ground.”
I nodded. I knew that universities could lose federal funding if they didn’t show they were protecting students, and I was glad — I am glad — for that. But I was still confused. Melanie continued. “If we find out that — and Marta asked the question — if we find out that the information is false, for our purposes that’s not really our end goal; we’re just trying to determine whether or not there’s a policy violation.”
Listening to my recording of our conversation recently, I wondered why I didn’t stop Melanie at that point. Was she really saying that if they realized the accusations were invented, if the accuser herself was a fiction, they would still investigate? Did it not matter whether the complaints were true or false?
Eventually, Sarah realized that a person who had been competing for the same job she’d been offered in Michigan was the person making the false allegations, probably in an attempt to ensure he got the job instead. In the story he is simply identified as J. In order to prove this theory, Sarah and Marta hired an attorney:
We filed what is known as a “John Doe” lawsuit. The lawyer we had hired explained that the suit would allow us to subpoena identifying information associated with the emails used in the accusations and the Reddit posts, and once we had that proof, we could directly sue whoever owned those email addresses…
Around the middle of April, J. learned about our lawsuit. That same day, he started telling people that he was being trolled online. Homophobic comments about him were posted on the subreddit for his university that afternoon, and an anonymous letter was sent to his university mailbox that read “Die fag professor” later that week. He even did a presentation about the harassment as part of a panel at his university on discrimination, subtext and the power of language. The audience was outraged and horrified.
“That’s a classic horror-movie move!” a friend of mine said when I told her what was happening. “The villain injures himself.”
Eventually, the John Doe lawsuit resulted in a three page document they received from their lawyers. Sarah at first thought it didn’t contain anything useful but then noticed the source of the emails making allegations about them had been associated with a specific phone number. Checker her phone, she realized that number was the same one she had for J.
Sadly there’s no happy ending to this story. The school where Sarah and Marta worked eventually cleared them. Sarah was still offered the job in Michigan but they eventually said they could not find a job for Marta so she had to turn it down. More importantly, after J was sued, he suddenly claimed that he had been sent messages from an anonymous stalker who claimed they were responsible for all the accusations against Sarah and Marta:
The confession read like the end of a “Scooby-Doo” episode, when the mask is pulled off and the criminal lays out his line of transgressions. It was the kind of confession I had once hoped J. would give us.
The lawsuit was settled in July but J never admitted to any wrongdoing.