What do you do when a rival professor is about to land your dream job teaching creative writing at the University of Michigan? If you're "J.", the villain of a terrific, horrifying story in today's New York Times, you file a series of anonymous, false sexual misconduct allegations against the professor and her wife—trusting that Title IX's byzantine investigative process and the accompanying rumors will sabotage their career and make you the next job candidate in line.
J.'s victims were Sarah Viren and Marta Tecedor, a married pair of professors at Arizona State University (ASU). Their story—composed for The Times by Viren—is worth reading in full, but to summarize: Viren received a job offer at Michigan, and Tecedor initiated the process of finding one as well (universities often make "partner hires" when one half of a married academic couple is interested in moving). J. believed he was a runner-up for Viren's position, and in order to take her out of the running, he sent emails to ASU's sexual misconduct investigator—who operates under the auspices of Title IX, the federal law mandating sex and gender equity in education—accusing fist Tecedor and then later Viren as well of soliciting sex from unwilling students.
Viren and Tecedor had never done any of the things they were accused of doing, but the emails were authored under fake names, and it was thus extremely exhausting for them to prove their innocence. Moreover, the Title IX investigator, "Melanie," was only tangentially interested in whether the accusations were false. Here is a direct quote that Viren obtained by recording her Title IX interviews:
"We just want to figure this out as quickly as possible," [Viren] told [Melanie]. "It might have already jeopardized our job opportunities —" My voice broke.
I reached for a tissue. Melanie was young, probably in her late 20s or early 30s, with long straight hair and an impassive face. "You're fine," she said, though it was clear I wasn't.
"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."
The email accusations were incredible from the start, but the university insisted on proceeding as if they were real—indeed, the university felt obligated under federal law to take the matter seriously.
In the end, Viren and Tecedor had to do much of the detective work themselves, finally deducing J.'s identity and building a convincing enough case that they were found not responsible for violating Title IX. By then, however, it was too late for Tecedor to receive a partner hire, and the pair lost out on their dream move to Michigan. They also accrued $10,000 in legal fees while dealing with J. And as part of a settlement, they are prohibited from publicly naming him.
It's an appalling travesty of justice (despite technically being an outcome in their favor), albeit one that is common to Title IX adjudication. I would hate for Times readers to come away with the impression that this was some sort of exceptional scenario. I've written numerous stories about students, administrators, and professors using the Title IX process to exact vengeance on their enemies. Take the cases of University of New Mexico Professor Nick Flor, former Michigan State medical student "Dev," or Harvard University's Damilare Sonoiki and Bruce Hay. (These are just the most recent, most outlandish stories, but I've covered dozens of others.)
The ordeals suffered by academics like Viren, Tecedor, Flor, and Hay are just part of the reason that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was absolutely right to revise the federal government's Title IX guidance to colleges and universities.