Longform

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

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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.

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Ashley Cusick
Contact: Ashley Cusick