Barrett, the Honors College at ASU, Is a Close-Knit Community; Some Say Too Close

Barrett, the Honors College at ASU, Is a Close-Knit Community; Some Say Too Close
Brian Stauffer

One morning last spring, Becca Smouse, a first-year student at Arizona State University's Barrett, The Honors College, jumped in her car and headed to Tempe for her intensive freshman seminar course, the Human Event.

The Human Event in many ways is the linchpin of Barrett's programming. It covers an ambitious topic -- the history of human ideas -- and is designed to challenge how students think through intensive reading, writing, and discussion.

Through the Human Event class and subsequent study-abroad trips, Barrett students begin to form the strong relationships with professors they will need as they move on to become teaching assistants and interns, to seek supervisors for their honors theses, and to apply for graduate school and jobs. The class is important, and so are the relationships it helps students to form.

But that March day, Smouse and her classmates found an unexpected note on their classroom door. It informed them that their professor, Dr. Joel Hunter, wouldn't make it in that day, or for the rest of the week.

Smouse found the message odd, especially because Hunter usually was very communicative and it was unlike him to let students come all the way to campus just to find out that class was canceled. "Why didn't he just e-mail us?" she wondered.

Turns out, Dr. Hunter was never coming back.

A substitute arrived the next week, and students were told that Hunter wouldn't return that semester. Smouse says she and other students were worried about him at first.

Then, rumors began to swirl. Jokes about Hunter getting fired for sleeping with a student soon turned into campus-wide gossip.

But Barrett's administration remained silent. Smouse says she was disappointed in the lack of transparency, especially given the tight-knit nature of the school.

And she began to hear another rumor: This wasn't the first time something like this had happened at Barrett.

When an anonymously written blog post confirmed the gossip about Hunter, Smouse, a young journalist in training, responded the only way she knew how. She wrote about it, in an April 14 opinion piece for ASU's campus newspaper, The State Press.

"Unfortunately, the professor's controversial dismissal seems to have been left largely untouched by Barrett administration," she wrote. "Rumors buzzing and parental concerns rising, the spotlight is shining brightly on the college's lack of acknowledgement. Many also see firing the professor as a cop-out, simply sweeping the problem under the rug of Barrett embarrassments. By cutting out the professor, it seems the college hoped to avoid confronting the situation all together."

Turns out, sweeping Barrett's troubles under the rug hasn't been so easy.

 

The Palm Courtyard marks the entrance to Barrett's large Tempe campus.
The Palm Courtyard marks the entrance to Barrett's large Tempe campus.
Evie Carpenter

One of Rebecca Smouse's Barrett classmates, Jane -- who asked to not be identified by her real name -- also was disappointed in the school's response.

But Jane wasn't just a student in Joel Hunter's class. She also was his lover.

In an April 10 blog post for a website called Sun Devils Against Sexual Assault, Jane laid out details about her relationship with Hunter, the process of reporting him to the school, and his subsequent dismissal.

In the first 72 hours after her post was published, an attached petition calling on Barrett's dean to fire predatory professors collected more than 400 signatures.

"For the past 15 years, ASU's Barrett Honors College has been home to professors who sexually harass and sexually abuse students," the petition says. "While romantic relationships between professors and students may seem consensual, the imbalance of power makes these relationships inherently coercive and abusive."

Today, the petition has more than 1,000 signatures.

Jane's story is not unique.

In the past few years, Barrett has terminated the contracts of at least three professors who engaged in sexual relationships with students. Joel Hunter and Dr. Eric Susser were told their contracts were not being renewed after they admitted to violating ASU's student-professor relationship policies, and Dr. David Conz committed suicide after his contract was dropped when a student reported he'd given alcohol to the Barrett freshman he was dating. Police records, documents given to New Times by involved students, and reports by other media outlets confirm the terminations.

But some say the number of Barrett faculty members skirting the rules -- and whose contracts may have been dropped -- actually is far higher.

Barrett administrators aren't talking, but Mark Johnson, an ASU spokesman, replied on their behalf. "Such relationships are inappropriate and do not comport with how we expect members of the faculty and lecturers to behave," Johnson says, "and when such relationships are brought to our attention, appropriate steps are taken."

In a three-month investigation of the issues at Barrett, New Times interviewed former and current Barrett students and staff and reviewed hundreds of pages of internal university documents, written student testimonials provided to the government in a formal complaint, and police reports.

ASU president Michael Crow did not respond to an interview request. Many of New Times' public records requests -- asking for everything from personnel files to police reports on these and other cases -- went largely ignored or unfilled. Much is still unknown.

But one thing is clear: Inappropriate student-professor relationships at Barrett have been a poorly kept secret for years.

ASU has, in fact, had its share of troubles when it comes to sex.

In May 2014, just a few weeks after Jane's blog post was published, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights made an unprecedented move: It announced the names of all schools being investigated for possible violations of Title IX, the federal legislation dictating how sexual violence and harassment complaints should be handled at schools that receive federal funding.

ASU was on the list of 55 schools. A Department of Education spokesman says the Office for Civil Rights is still investigating the university, but he did not provide further details.

For the most part, the problems at ASU have been linked to two worlds where these issues are better known: fraternities and athletics. ASU previously settled federal lawsuits dealing with the university's responses to two alleged sexual assaults, one involving a football player and the other a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity.

But a Title IX complaint filed in June 2014 by Jasmine Lester, a former Barrett student, asks the Office for Civil Rights to focus on a different sexual abuse problem on campus: that of professors sleeping with their undergraduate students.

At Barrett, and across all of ASU, professor-student relationships are banned in certain contexts, like when a student is currently in a professor's class or when a professor is supervising a student's thesis. But this policy still allows room for involvement between professors and students.

And particularly at Barrett, which educates more than 5,000 of ASU's nearly 60,000 undergraduates, there have been repeated issues with professors skirting -- sometimes, even defying -- the rules.

Prestigious universities across the nation have drawn much harder lines in regard to such relationships. In 2010, Yale University banned faculty members from forming relationships with any undergraduate students, noting in its updated policy that undergrads "are particularly vulnerable to the unequal institutional power inherent in the teacher-student relationship." In 2013, the University of Connecticut implemented a similar ban.

Last fall, ASU's faculty senate debated whether to replace its own policy with an outright ban on professor-undergraduate relationships.

At a senate meeting in November, Cynthia Tompkins, chair of the committee drafting the proposed policy changes, referenced the scope of ASU's problem. She said at least 20 faculty members across ASU have been dismissed for having inappropriate sexual relationships with students in recent years.

ASU hasn't provided the exact number of dismissals stemming from Barrett or elsewhere. "We do not keep a running tally of faculty who are disciplined for [relationship policy] violations," a spokesman says. A representative from the university office charged with investigating these policy violations wouldn't comment on how many investigations she has conducted.

But when ASU was named on the list of schools under federal review, Michael Crow did speak to The State Press' editorial board, and he addressed the problem at Barrett.

Student journalist Nicholas Palomino Mendoza reported on May 7, 2014, that Crow said he was aware of "reports of inappropriate sexual conduct between Barrett faculty and students."

"If it's consensual in a sense of the way that the law looks at things," Mendoza quotes Crow as saying, "then it is inappropriate from the perspective of how we expect our faculty members or our instructors to behave."

"There have been professors in relationships with students, and when we find out about it, they are all fired," Crow told the paper.

The revisions to ASU's professor-undergraduate relationship policy would aim to switch the school's focus from reactive to proactive, and from firing violators to improving the culture around these relationships on the front end.

At the first reading of the proposed revisions in early October, Helene Ossipov, president of the faculty senate, made clear what the policy changes would mean.

"To put it rather bluntly," she said, "ASU students are not part of your dating pool."

 

Joel Hunter was told his contract would not be renewed after he admitted to violating ASU's student-professor relationship policies.
Joel Hunter was told his contract would not be renewed after he admitted to violating ASU's student-professor relationship policies.
barretthonors.asu.edu

Barrett, the Honors College, is a school within a school.

Admissions documents say Barrett consists of "living-learning communities" of academically driven students from across ASU's four campuses. Barrett is where the cream of the ASU crop goes to be educated.

Barrett marked its 25th anniversary in 2013. The University Honors College was granted official status in 1988, when it became the first residential honors college in the nation. It was renamed for former Intel CEO Craig Barrett and his wife, Barbara, a former ambassador to Finland and Arizona gubernatorial candidate, after they endowed the school with a $10 million gift in 2000. The college has undergone great growth in recent years, with its current student body size rivaling its alumni population.

In its admissions literature, Barrett distinguishes itself from the wider university. Though the majority of ASU students were in the top 25 percent of their graduating high school classes, for example, most Barrett students were in the top 10 percent. One year, students donned T-shirts that read "_arrett, the Honors College. We don't get B's."

All of Barrett's honors faculty fellows hold Ph.D.s, and the school boasts a 15-to-1 student-faculty ratio, small in comparison to ASU's ratio of 22-to-1. Students, sometimes called "The Commas" in a reference to the school's stuffy title, almost universally refer to Barrett as tight-knit.

The college's largest campus is at the corner of Apache Boulevard and Rural Road in Tempe, neatly tucked behind a set of iron gates on ASU's central campus. The Barrett campus is fully enclosed, and were it not for some classes they take elsewhere, Barrett students practically could spend their college lives there. Students are, in fact, expected to live on campus for at least their first two years.

Barrett's central campus is reminiscent of the exclusive private schools Barrett emulates. It's got everything but the ivy and, indeed, references to the Ivy League (Harvard of the Southwest, anyone?) are not uncommon. Some students jokingly refer to the campus as "The Nerd Cage."

Outside, students gather in groups and study in solitude on the sandstone benches surrounding Barrett's green lawns. There's an outdoor fireplace for cold-weather gatherings and a volleyball pit.

Inside, Barrett's buildings serve multiple purposes, reflecting the insular nature of the Barrett community. One can find professors' offices, student dorms, and classrooms interspersed throughout any given structure.

In the Honors Hall -- in many ways, the hub of Barrett life -- there's a gym with flat-screen TVs and elliptical machines, a spiral staircase leading downstairs to a coffee shop, and a recreational area with ping-pong tables.

There's also the beautiful Refectory, or, as students call it in a reference to Harry Potter's Hogwarts, the Great Hall. On a Friday afternoon in December, one student casually played the grand piano as others sat at long tables with high-backed chairs and feasted in the hall's wood-paneled dining room.

In an adjacent hallway, photographs of Barrett students who went on to win prestigious fellowships line the walls: 185 Fulbright scholars, 52 Marshall scholars, 54 Goldwater scholars. The list goes on.

Barrett students major in any field they choose, taking classes in the disciplinary college of their choice. One student says there can be tension between Barrett and the rest of ASU, in part because of the special privileges afforded to Barrett students. Barrett students get to register for classes before others, for example, and sometimes are offered special courses the general ASU population can't take.

This includes the Human Event, a mandatory two-semester seminar taken during freshmen year.

Barrett freshmen may take a different professor for each semester of the intensive course, but they are encouraged to stick with one. They also are encouraged to participate in for-credit, study-abroad trips with their professors during the summer after the course finishes.

The Human Event is "a wonderful course to get students into the idea of working closely with a professor," says a former staff member who asked to not be identified. But she says she also believes the class has contributed to the problem of too-close professor-student relations.

"Because it was so friendly," she says, "if you had any faculty members who were not terribly ethical in how they related to youngsters, it was a situation in which they could take advantage."

With these professors, sources tell New Times, office hours turn into intimate meetings. Examination of the ancient Greeks may have an odd focus on the sexual relationships between mentors and mentees. Trips abroad are fueled more by alcohol than by learning.

To many, Barrett's very structure, intended to create a close learning community for students and professors alike, has instead become something sinister: a way for predatory teachers to grow close to -- sometimes, even sexually -- the young and ambitious students in their tutelage.

 

Eric Susser was told his contract would not be renewed after he admitted to violating ASU's student-professor relationship policies.
Eric Susser was told his contract would not be renewed after he admitted to violating ASU's student-professor relationship policies.
Screen shot from the Cooking Channel's Belly Up!

Jane first was drawn to Barrett because of its strong sense of community. She enrolled in the school in 2012.

Her story unfolds in her blog post, interviews and e-mails with New Times, and a pile of documents she provided to the government in a Title IX complaint against ASU. The documents include Jane's personal e-mails and text messages as well as copies of e-mails she received from ASU detailing the investigation into and eventual dismissal of Dr. Joel Hunter.

Hunter, a Barrett faculty member since 2008, admitted to the university and to New Times that he violated ASU's professor-undergraduate relationships policy before his contract was dropped.

On his personal website, Hunter lists the many awards he won during his time at Barrett, including accolades for teaching excellence, academic service, and faculty mentoring.

Since he left the school, Hunter also has posted a lengthy student tutorial on how to succeed in Barrett's difficult freshmen seminar course. "It is best to err on the side of formality," he wrote in a late September post focused on how to best communicate with one's Human Event professor. These professors are "incredibly friendly and funny, yes," he writes, "but they are not in your peer group."

It seems hindsight is 20/20.

By the end of Jane's fall semester in Hunter's Human Event class, she and the professor had grown close.

In December 2012, Hunter e-mailed Jane, asking her to interrupt a meeting so it wouldn't drag on. "Plus, I would get to see one of my favorite Human Event students twice in one day," he wrote.

Jane signed up to take Hunter's class again in the spring.

By January 2013, the two began getting together regularly for meetings and meals. Soon, they were texting, and by early February, their texts hinted at a sexual relationship.

Some texts reference a trip the two took to a local park, where Jane says Hunter provided her with alcohol and massaged her, suggesting that doing so would be easier if she didn't have clothes on. They spent the afternoon kissing.

A few weeks later, Hunter texted Jane about 2 a.m. from a Harry Potter conference he was attending in Albuquerque:

Joel: get your ass to albuquerque now dammit. I just closed down the hotel bar with a harry potter student of mine who will not, i'm sure of it, sleep with me. All alone am i . . .

Jane alleges that Hunter shared with her sexual fantasies about other Human Event students and said he'd fallen in love with a student before.

The two went on to have a covert sexual relationship -- aside from the clear violation of policy, Hunter was married with children -- having sex in cars, in Hunter's office, and in parking garages around campus. Jane says Hunter gave her extensions on schoolwork because of their relationship.

In their talks, interspersed with innuendo, was conversation about Jane's future.

Texts from the day after their trip to the park:

Jane: How is my letter of recommendation coming? :)

Joel: It'll be done this afternoon.

And an hour later:

Joel: Letter submitted electronically. They won't be able to give you the scholarship quickly enough . . .

Jane: You mean I don't get to read it? Noooooooooooooo

Joel: I'll share it with you later. It's totally hot.

Then, in April of Jane's freshman year, Barrett Professor David Conz committed suicide shortly after his teaching contract was dropped. Conz's dismissal was linked to a relationship with one of his Human Event students. Jane says Hunter made out Conz to be the victim of an unfair administration and began expressing fears about losing his own job.

Upcoming Events

A text conversation in the days that followed:

Jane: I know you didn't want a hug, but are you ok? I don't think I've ever seen you look so sad.

Joel: Im ok. Shook up, sad and feeling vulnerable. Life.

In May 2013, Jane and Hunter had sexual intercourse in a motel.

The spring semester came to a close, and Jane fully expected that she and Hunter would resume their relationship when she returned for her sophomore year. The two even texted occasionally during the summer.

But when Jane returned to campus in August, she says, Hunter told her he'd learned that their affair was risky after a discussion at a Barrett faculty retreat. He abruptly broke off the relationship.

"One thing my professor said to me when he ended this affair still sticks out to me," Jane wrote in the closing of her Title IX complaint testimony. "He had no idea that what he was doing was wrong or even against the rules, because it was so common for Barrett Honors College professors to be involved with students that all of the honors faculty saw it as normal."

Hunter declined to be interviewed, and New Times isn't aware of what he is up to today. On his personal website, he says he is a married father of three.

 

David Conz was told his contract would not be renewed after a student reported he'd given alcohol to the Barrett freshman he was dating. He killed himself shortly thereafter.
David Conz was told his contract would not be renewed after a student reported he'd given alcohol to the Barrett freshman he was dating. He killed himself shortly thereafter.
Courtesy of Rebekah Hollenberg

On a Monday afternoon in early November, Arizona State University's faculty senate gathered to discuss, among other things, a motion to revise the Academic Affairs Manual (ACD) policy governing "amorous relationships" between professors and students. That policy, ACD 402, has been on the books since 1982.

In Tempe's Education Lecture Hall, a single observer watched from a seat toward the back. Jasmine Lester, a 2011 Barrett grad, is a small woman with curly brown hair. She wears glasses and looks younger than her 25 years.

Helene Ossipov, president of the faculty senate, first laid out some ground rules. She asked senate members to refrain from dominating, and she made clear just who was invited to discuss this motion.

"Observers are welcome to observe as much as you want," she said. "But be like children. You may be seen but not heard."

For many years, ASU's amorous relationships guidelines fell under the university's sexual harassment policy. But in 2011, they were parsed to create a policy focused exclusively on consensual romantic or sexual student-professor relationships.

As written today, ACD 402 bans ASU employees from making key decisions -- grading, hiring, disciplining, or offering recommendations -- over anyone with whom they are in a sexual relationship. The policy bans faculty members from engaging in relationships with any students currently enrolled in their classes, and it says violations can result in disciplinary action up to termination.

But in 2014, the senate began considering revisions to ACD 402 that would give the policy much greater reach, banning all relationships between ASU faculty and undergraduate students.

If approved, the revisions would require faculty members to report any such relationships to a supervisor immediately, with policy exemptions made on a case-by-case basis.

"Our current policies regarding faculty-student relationships are inadequate as written," university spokesman Mark Johnson tells New Times. "The faculty senate should be applauded for taking steps to strengthen those policies to ensure that faculty members and lecturers have only professional relationships with students."

That November day, Cynthia Tompkins, who chaired the policy-revision task force, addressed the faculty senate. During the month-long comment period that preceded this meeting, she explained, many seemed to think the proposed revisions had come out of left field.

Tompkins acknowledged that professor-student relationships historically have had a wide range of acceptability -- you hear stories of professor-student couples that happily marry, she noted -- but she said many unacceptable versions have taken place at ASU in recent years.

In addition to the 20 firings mentioned above, Tompkins said, ASU has had at least one unwanted student-professor pregnancy this year.

The intent of the policy revisions, she said, is to put students back at the center of focus.

The floor was opened for discussion. Faculty members approached the microphone to raise questions and concerns.

Many were worried about the scope of the revised language. ASU is a big school. Would professors need to start IDing everyone they meet in Tempe?

The new language doesn't make clear just which relationships would be exempt. What about pre-existing ones? And what would happen if a professor reports a relationship and doesn't get an exemption?

"You really think about whether you want that relationship," Ossipov answered. "One person would have to leave the university."

Tensions rose.

"I want to be blunt. I think this policy is very invasive," a female faculty member said. "Every amorous relationship is not a 40-year-old faculty member and an 18-year-old-student."

Concerns were raised about privacy and the motion's intrusiveness and scope.

Finally, a frustrated female senator in the back of the auditorium walked up to the microphone and moved to vote down the controversial motion.

Twenty senators voted in favor of the policy revision. One abstained from voting.

And with 62 votes against the changes, the motion was -- for the time being, at least -- dead.

Ossipov said the motion would be returned to Tompkins' committee for further revisions. "However, this will come back," she said. There was uncomfortable laughter.

On January 26, the senate will hold its next vote on the revisions.

As the faculty senator who effectively silenced the conversation made her way back to her seat, Jasmine Lester glared at her, her middle finger raised in the air.
"This is my whole life," Lester said. "And she just shot it down."

 

Jasmine Lester, a 2011 Barrett grad and founder of Sun Devils Against Sexual Assault, filed a federal Title IX Complaint against the school last summer.
Jasmine Lester, a 2011 Barrett grad and founder of Sun Devils Against Sexual Assault, filed a federal Title IX Complaint against the school last summer.
Evie Carpenter

Jasmine Lester is an Arizona native with ASU roots. She grew up in Ahwatukee, the child of a mother who handles internship programming at the university and a father who is a professor and former dean of humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Science. Lester's parents aren't affiliated directly with Barrett.

Lester enrolled in the honors college in 2007. Like Jane, she formed a close relationship with a professor, who hasn't returned New Times' request for comment.

New Times is limiting the details of Lester's story because of ongoing legal action.

In conversations with New Times and in her Title IX complaint, Lester says her relationship with the professor took on a dynamic that extended beyond professional boundaries.

In 2010, Lester went to ASU's Office of Equity and Inclusion to discuss the matter with Kamala Green, the office's executive director and ASU's Title IX compliance coordinator.

Green's responsibilities include investigating Title IX violations when a faculty or staff member is the accused.

But Lester says Green didn't see her situation as a violation. "I was trying to tell her that this is how the power dynamic creates an inherently abusive dynamic or situation," Lester says, "but she didn't understand that. She kept being like, 'You don't know what rape is.'" Lester says she felt unheard -- silenced, even -- by the school.

A university spokesman says Lester's claims were investigated and that there was no finding of any policy violation on the part of the professor. Green cannot comment on individual cases, but says, "ASU takes these cases very seriously, and we investigate every one of them as quickly as we possibly can."

Lester never got the outcome she wanted from ASU, but she funneled her frustration into helping others.

In 2013 -- two years after she graduated -- Lester founded Sun Devils Against Sexual Assault, an advocacy group focused on connecting ASU students with the national Title IX movement. Through that work, she began collecting stories of abuse, and by June 2014, she had enough information to file a formal Title IX complaint against ASU. Lester's complaint, which is still under investigation, will be incorporated into the ongoing federal investigation of ASU.

"I know how administrators maintain the status quo," Lester says. "They wait for people to graduate. I didn't leave after I graduated. I stayed bugging them about it for the next three years."

Lester's complaint focuses on several areas: sexual violence in Greek culture, a lack of resources for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students on campus, and the culture at Barrett.

The Barrett portion names names. It tells stories of alleged abuse by 11 Barrett professors, many still employees of the school.

Lester's complaint also details the school's response to Jane.

Jane was devastated when Hunter broke off their relationship. She continued to see him on campus, and she says she became depressed to the point of attempting suicide. As time passed -- and after she learned of Lester's work on campus -- Jane says her view of the relationship changed.

"He took advantage of his power over me to coerce me," Jane says in an e-mail. "This wasn't a consensual relationship. It was sexual abuse and it was rape."

In the testimony she provided for Lester's complaint, Jane says she felt trapped by the need to maintain Hunter as a reference, as well as fear that coming forward would mar her reputation, make her feel unsafe, and harm her relationships with other faculty. So she didn't say anything.

But in March 2014, she broke down and told two Barrett professors about the affair. Without warning her, they reported the situation to Barrett's dean of students. Jane was asked to come in -- against her will -- for a meeting.

In a process she calls "organized intimidation," Jane says she told her story to Barrett's deans, to campus counseling and advocacy offices, and eventually to Kamala Green.

"I was put through the ringer, dragged across campus to people I didn't want to talk to, not provided any university support like a victim's advocate or anything, and victim-blamed either directly or indirectly at every single step," she says in an e-mail.

Days after Green and Jane's meeting, Hunter was sent a letter releasing him from all duties, effective immediately.

Barrett's deans called for a meeting of the faculty. A former staff member who wishes to remain unidentified says faculty were told that any additional complaint of abuse by a professor would lead to the dissolution of the signature Human Event course.

Because that seminar distinguishes Barrett from the rest of ASU, its dissolution could mean Barrett faculty no longer would be necessary.

In June, three months after she first filed her complaint, Jane received a final written decision from the university provost, based on the investigation conducted by Green's office. The investigation found that Joel Hunter violated ASU's policy on amorous relationships, as well as the university's code of ethics, by engaging in a sexual relationship with Jane while she was in his class.

Hunter declined to be interviewed, but he did send New Times a brief comment by e-mail.

Hunter confirmed that his contract was not renewed because he violated ACD 402.

But he still speaks highly of Barrett. "My experience was that it is a great culture with caring, supportive deans and staff, a stellar faculty who are committed to teaching excellence, and the brightest students I've ever had the pleasure to teach," he wrote.

Jane currently is a junior at the honors college. "For the most part, I avoid Barrett," she says. "I just go to classes, and I live off campus now, so it's not as bad. But the thing at Barrett is you always run into people you are trying to avoid. It's this wonderful honors community, where the deans and professors are always out socializing with the students," she says with obvious sarcasm.

"There are individually decent people in the administration," Jane notes. "The problem is they can't change anything. There's nothing they can do as individuals to change the overwhelming institutional problems of rape culture and prioritizing the school's reputation over supporting victims."

The very community that drew Jane to Barrett now is a disappointment to her. She points to the deans' treatment of her; the school's reporting process, which she says was marred by poor communication and missed deadlines; the faculty and staff who have ignored this problem for years; and the students who looked for reasons to blame her.

"They should really be ashamed of themselves," she says.

 

The Refectory -- sometimes called "the Harry Potter room" -- serves as a dining and lecture hall.
The Refectory -- sometimes called "the Harry Potter room" -- serves as a dining and lecture hall.
Evie Carpenter

Dr. Eric Susser, an award-winning Barrett professor -- he was both the first non tenure-track recipient of the prestigious Founder's Day Faculty Achievement Award in Teaching and voted "Hottest Professor" in The State Press' annual poll on more than one occasion -- also had his contract dropped because of ACD 402 violations.

(New Times Managing Editor Amy Silverman and Susser's ex-wife, Deborah Sussman, have co-taught a local writing workshop for more than a decade.)

On www.ratemyprofessors.com, a national website on which students post anonymous professor reviews, comments show how the intimacy and intensity of the Human Event course can sometimes shift the tone of student-professor relationships down an inappropriate path.

Susser received the following comments from students in his class:

• 9/18/2005: "Susser understands how to relate to college students. He's very entertaining and engaging. He's incredibly smart and the class is very thought-provoking . . . I loved this class. Plus I sort of had a crush on him."

• 7/20/2010: "Dr. Susser is wonderful! Not only did he take a special interest in me, he sought out students who needed extra help & made time for all of us to meet with him 1:1. If you need coaching for your writing or classroom participation, he's the guy to go to. But he's also full of himself. Don't let on that you think he's hot. Play it cool you'll be OK."

Susser, who taught at Barrett for 15 years, developed and led the college's wildly popular trips to Paris. Like all Barrett professors, Susser pushed his Human Event students to join.

Rumors about inappropriate happenings on those trips swirled for years. A former Barrett staff member who wishes to remain anonymous says she heard students saying they wanted to go on the Paris trip specifically in hopes of sleeping with Susser.

The Paris trips eventually came to a stop, right around the time Susser left the school.

ASU hasn't fulfilled New Times' requests for copies of personnel files, including those of Susser, but Fox 10 News did obtain the records for a September 17 report.

According to documents shown in Fox 10's newscast, Susser's contract was not renewed in 2012 after he admitted to having sexual relationships with three Barrett students.

Susser, who divorced in 2005 and remarried in 2012, hasn't returned multiple requests for comment.

ASU did provide New Times with a July 2012 letter in which Barrett Dean Mark Jacobs notified Susser that he would not receive an annual academic year appointment.

Instead, Susser was offered a "limited appointment" for the fall semester only. He was told he would work on curriculum development, as a telecommuter, until his final date of employment on December 21 of that year. He no longer would have office space at Barrett -- he was given two weeks to clear out his personal belongings -- and he was told he no longer would teach or supervise student projects.

The letter doesn't detail why Susser's relationship with the school changed.

Though the university wouldn't share more detailed records with New Times, ASU Police Department records do describe the former professor's behavior.

According to one ASU police report, on the morning of March 31, 2014 -- 15 months after Susser's contract ended -- a staff member at the university's largest library, Hayden, found a brown bag that had been left behind on the second floor.

Inside, she located an ASU identification card with Eric Susser's name on it. She tried to e-mail Susser about the bag, but the e-mail -- likely because Susser no longer was employed by ASU -- didn't transmit.

The staff member continued to look and found more than she expected in the backpack. She contacted ASU's police.

Police listed the impounded bag's contents in their report. In addition to two ASU identification cards, a bill, and a MasterCard all bearing Susser's name, police found "2 lancets, 3 meth pipes (one with residue), two pill containers (one possibly containing crystal meth), a bag of empty pill capsules, and a prescription bottle made out to Susser which contained various tablets."

The tablets: "oxycodone, amphetamine, Viagra," and more.

Police initially were unable to contact Susser -- his driver's license was suspended, they wrote in the report -- so the case was marked as pending. Mark Johnson, an ASU spokesman, says Susser recently was served with a no-trespass order barring him from campus.

But this wasn't Susser's first incident at ASU's libraries, or the ASU Police Department's first hint that the professor might be troubled.

Susser once was the subject of a handwritten field interrogation card, also drafted by ASU's police force. That 2002 document details some of the professor's other alleged extracurricular pursuits.

"Susser was contacted after a 101" -- in police code, a 101 is a woman in a car -- "said he exposed himself on the third floor of law library," police wrote.

The officer noted that a subject matching Susser's description was involved in a similar incident, in the same location, just two days before.

According to the report, Susser admitted to the officer that he was "checking out women," but he denied having exposed himself.

The officer who wrote the report tells New Times he has no specific recollection of the incident.

But at the time, he clearly knew who Susser was. He listed Susser's ASU affiliation as "faculty," and under employer, he wrote: "ASU (Honors College)."

Just what happened after ASU police learned that the professor allegedly had flashed students is unclear.

The ASU Police Department says it no longer can find a copy of this document in its files. Kamala Green wasn't aware of the incident, though she wasn't in office at the time, and Mark Johnson, the university spokesman, hasn't provided specific comment on this report. For now, the trail ends at the ASU Police Department, which hasn't responded to multiple requests for comment.

Johnson says he doesn't know whether police notified Barrett or ASU administrators of the incident. "Under current police department practice, the department would notify senior administrators and the relevant department," he says. "I can't speak to what the practice may have been under the previous police administration."

But one thing is clear: Susser kept his job for another decade after this report.

It's unknown whether Susser has found employment as a university professor, but he apparently has kept busy since leaving ASU. In June 2014, the Cooking Channel aired an episode of its show Belly Up! -- a kind of Bar Rescue rip-off -- titled "Hidden Issues." The episode focused on Susser's latest endeavor: a bar in West Phoenix called The Hideaway West Bar and Grill.

A student commenter on www.ratemyprofessors.com wrote of Susser in 2008: "Susser is amazing because he lets the discussions go where they will and interjects when he has something important to say. Very intelligent professor, although a little slimy as a person."

 

David Conz with his partner, Rebekah Hollenberg. Conz committed suicide after his contract was dropped.
David Conz with his partner, Rebekah Hollenberg. Conz committed suicide after his contract was dropped.
Courtesy of Rebekah Hollenberg

The problem at Barrett admittedly is complex.

Even 18-year-old freshmen are adults capable of giving consent under the law.

But experts tend to agree that stricter policies, such as the one ASU is considering, make more sense. Doctors can't sleep with patients and lawyers can't sleep with clients, so why should professors be able to sleep with their students?

Dr. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, an expert on young adults, author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties, and professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, says his research supports "a taboo" on all faculty-undergraduate relationships.

"It's almost inevitably exploitative," he says, "even if neither side thinks of it that way."

Arnett coined the term "emerging adulthood" to describe the time from 18 to 25 before people take on the full set of adult responsibilities, like career, marriage, and family. His research on emerging adults in many ways reflects common sense: People between these ages look and can act like grownups, but they just aren't equipped to make the greatest decisions.

"People's decision-making abilities are not as developed at 19 or 20 as they will be at 40 or 50," Arnett says. "Do you really want to be 19 and in a class with a professor you like, and your roommate's dating him? That is weird by any standard, and it's disruptive to the central mission of the university, which is to teach young people, to prepare them for adult life."

Seth Schwartz, a professor at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine and the incoming president of the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood, similarly is concerned.

"It's sort of hard to say no," Schwartz says. "That's the major problem with these relationships between students and faculty: Are you willing to say no to someone who is in a position of authority over you?"

 

Dr. David Bruce Conz died with his pants around his ankles.

Conz, 39, was open with the university about a relationship he'd formed with a former student. But his tale took a tragic turn.

His autopsy report lays out what happened:

"Cause of death: gunshot wound to head and brain."

"Manner: suicide."

Under "Diagnoses and Significant Findings," the medical examiner lists "history of depression over work situation."

Friends and family didn't see it coming.

Conz was a two-time ASU alum, and he began teaching at the school in 2005. A dedicated home brewer, Conz was nicknamed "Professor Beer" and led a popular ASU course in which students developed their own concoctions.

Conz formed a relationship with a Barrett freshman who recently had completed his Human Event course. Soon after, he shot himself in the mouth.

Rebekah Hollenberg was Conz's long-term girlfriend. The two met while swing dancing downtown, and they had been together for two and a half years at the time of his death. "He studied do-it-yourself things, and he would make his own biodiesel and raise his own chickens," Hollenberg says. "He was brilliant in so many ways."

Conz and Hollenberg were polyamorous -- they were open with each other about dating other people -- and in late December 2012, Conz told Hollenberg that he was seeing a former student.

"The type of relationship we had is sort of unconventional and hard for people to understand," Hollenberg says. "I was supportive of [the student] and Dave's relationship. I made them dinner. I gave them gifts. I wanted to make them happy."

The former student asks not to be identified and declined to be interviewed for this story, but much of her tale is revealed in a detailed police report on Conz's death.

Around February 2013, Conz told Hollenberg he was called into a meeting at Barrett to discuss the relationship, "a kind of review to see that everything was above board," she says.

Conz told Hollenberg that they were given the all-clear. The student no longer was in his class, so the relationship wasn't in violation of ASU policy.

Regardless, Conz began worrying about his job security after the meeting. He was scheduled for a formal contract renewal review later in the spring, and because Barrett doesn't offer its professors tenure, the meetings always made him nervous.

And then, the police report says, Conz accidentally received an e-mail that was about him but not for him, one that referenced an upcoming meeting of the deans to discuss his relationship with the student.

At his April 3 review, Conz was told that his contract wouldn't be renewed.

"It was just a shock for him," Hollenberg says. "They told him that it was okay."

The student later would tell police that Conz was terminated after it was reported to a Barrett dean that he had given her alcohol. Under state law and current ASU policy, it's more problematic for a professor to hand an underage student a beer than it is for him to sleep with her.

After his firing, Conz spiraled. "He was kind of acting like his life was over," Hollenberg says. "That was his identity, and it was sort of just taken so suddenly."

She says she and Conz discussed their options -- moving to Vancouver, working full-time on DIY projects -- "but he just wasn't able to get that vision yet," she says. "And he was worried that if they put something in his record that seemed derogatory, he would never get another professorship anyway."

Conz began drinking heavily.

Five days after he was fired, on April 8, 2013, Hollenberg became worried when Conz didn't pick her up for a date they had planned. She called him, and he sounded drunk. So she went to his house.

Meanwhile, the student told police that she had arrived at Conz's house about 5 that evening. She found him in bed, drunk, next to two bottles of Black Velvet Whisky -- one empty, the other half full -- and a loaded .38-caliber revolver at his side.

The student hid the revolver in a closet and called Conz's ex-wife, a psychiatrist. While they were on the phone, Conz ran from the house.

Hollenberg arrived about 5:30 and met Conz and the student in the driveway, where the student told her what was happening.

At 5:59, the student called police, who told her to keep Conz out of the house, away from the guns. When Conz tried to go inside, she tackled him.

Hollenberg told police that a full-fledged fight ensued, with the student and her former professor punching and kicking each other. She says Conz called the student "cunt," "bitch," and "asshole."

The student told police that Conz told her "it was her fault, that she got him fired."

Finally, Conz broke free, yelling at the student: "You caused this."

He ran into the house and locked the women out. They got inside using a spare key, and almost immediately they heard gunshots coming from the locked hallway bathroom. The first shot blasted through the door, passing just above the student's head. Seven seconds later, a second shot entered Conz's mouth.

Police found Conz seated on the toilet, his pants pulled down. The bathroom floor and wall were splattered with blood, and a silver revolver was on the floor. A bullet had exited through the top of Conz's skull.

Conz was conscious on the way to the hospital -- he admitted to paramedics that he'd shot himself -- but he was listed in critical condition upon arrival.

Hollenberg visited Conz frequently. Though he was unconscious, she sang to him, read to him, and talked to him.

Conz's mother removed him from life support on April 12, and he died later that day.

Months after his death, Conz's mother gave police a note she found on a torn piece of paper in his home. It's not clear who it was intended for, but police found the note significant enough to include in their report.

"Your love blossoms within me," Conz wrote. "Like a parasite to liberate or embrace you I must die."

Throughout his autopsy and the lengthy police report, Conz's job loss -- consistently tied to his relationship with the student -- is named as a key contributing factor in his suicide. In the course of their investigation, police even interviewed Frederick Corey, the dean who had let Conz go. Corey did not return requests for comment on Conz's case.

The student later provided testimony for Jasmine Lester's Title IX complaint. In it, she says she saw her relationship with Conz as above board. She'd even introduced him to her parents.

"The relationship was highly pleasurable and showed no outward signs of abuse besides the innate power imbalance that resides within a 20-year age gap," she wrote.

"He was loved by many, and still is."

The student took off three semesters after Conz's death. She no longer speaks to Hollenberg, who moved to Illinois.

Never in her testimony does the student say she regrets dating Conz. Instead, she takes aim at ASU's rules on such relationships.

"We continued the relationship," she writes, "because we realized ASU had no policy regarding faculty-student relationships as long as the student is no longer in the professor's class."


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