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

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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."

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Ashley Cusick
Contact: Ashley Cusick