A UCSD Professor Sent a Student Porn. Here’s Why it Took a Year to Fire Him.

Education

A UCSD Professor Sent a Student Porn. Here’s Why it Took a Year to Fire Him.

It took a year for UCSD to dismiss a professor with a history of earlier complaints against him after he sent explicit material to a student, highlighting the complex and lengthy procedures governing discipline for tenured faculty members.

The University of California San Diego campus / Image via Shutterstock

By the time the University of California Board of Regents fired former UC San Diego psychology professor Nicholas Christenfeld in November 2019 for sexual misconduct, more than a year had passed since he’d emailed a student pornographic material – something he has said was an accident.

Christenfeld had been the subject of multiple complaints over more than a decade. That he received nothing more than a warning as a result of those complaints, and that a year elapsed between the incident for which he was fired and his dismissal illustrate the complex and lengthy procedures governing discipline for tenured faculty members. Until 2019, those procedures lacked solid deadlines. Yet even with the new structure, some key decisions still lack clear procedures and timeframes.

In September 2018, UCSD’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination found that Christenfeld had emailed one of his students pornographic material, according to records obtained through a public records lawsuit. He was placed on leave that same month, said UCSD communications officer Christine Clark.

Eight days after Christenfeld’s firing, a UCSD representative on the system-wide Academic Senate announced that the university was working on a new policy banning the transfer of “obscene material” through university equipment following “events that happened on the UCSD campus.”

According to the investigation report, Christenfeld told an investigator he accidentally sent the pornography; he meant to email the photos to a friend. He offered a slightly different explanation to the student in an email apology, the report notes, in which he wrote that the email had been intended for his wife.

The report said he told the investigator “if he was trying to come on to a student this would be an ‘awkward’ and ‘bizzare way to do it.’”

“[Christenfeld] has an obligation as a professor and as someone who has studied psychology to understand the ethical and moral obligation to his students,” the report said the unnamed student who filed the Title IX complaint told the investigator.

UCSD’s investigation found that Christenfeld may not have intended to email the student, but his conduct still constituted a Title IX violation because the email was “of a sexual nature” and it negatively affected the student’s academic experience.

Christenfeld could not be reached for comment.

‘A Pattern of Poor Judgement’

According to separate documents obtained by Voice of San Diego, five people previously filed complaints against Christenfeld for sexual misconduct, ranging from inappropriate relationships to sexual harassment. And he had a history of dating students, the documents suggest.

In 2004, a student filed a sexual harassment complaint against him because his staring made her uncomfortable. The student also reported hearing rumors that Christenfeld dated students. In response, the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination held a “warning and education meeting” with Christenfeld.

In 2008, an unidentified individual filed a complaint against Christenfeld for dating a student. According to the documents, UCSD did not conduct an investigation because Christenfeld and the student did not have a supervisory relationship. Under UC policy, faculty may not date students if they have, or may have, an academic relationship.

A similar complaint filed in 2013, however, did lead to an investigation. The report shows that two people working for Christenfeld’s department went to his office and found him with a student. His actions, according to the report, led them to believe they interrupted “intimate activity” between him and the student. The student was previously in his class, but the investigation found they started dating after that class had ended.

The university, however, found Christenfeld guilty of a “lie by omission” because he did not recuse himself from evaluating the student’s application during the graduate school admissions process, which occurred while they were dating. The documents say the process ended with an “early resolution” – the details of which, said UCSD communications officer Erika Johnson, are “confidential personnel record” and can’t be disclosed.

“His relationship with [the student] appears to be part of a pattern of poor judgement regarding appropriate interactions with students,” wrote the investigator in the report.

In 2014, UCSD found Christenfeld didn’t violate sexual harassment policy in a separate instance, though the university’s reasoning isn’t completely clear. A summary of the complaint, provided by the university, refers to “her rejection of Respondent’s sexual advances” but doesn’t elaborate. The university did not provide further information.

Yet another complaint in 2017 caused the university to enact “preventative measures” after an unidentified individual complained that Christenfeld was “inappropriately flirtatious.” But again, the details are lacking. The university did not provide further information.

What it Takes to Get Fired

Firing a tenured professor in the UC system is a lengthy process, and it can be confusing to all parties involved because sexual misconduct policy is constantly changing in response to lawsuits, policy workgroups and federal guidelines. More recently, the UC system amended the investigation procedure to add hearings during the appeal process following a court ruling in a lawsuit against the University of Southern California.

In August 2020, the U.S. Department of Education implemented new Title IX guidelines mandating a hearing for sexual misconduct investigations and narrowing the definition of sexual misconduct. As a result, many colleges, including the UC system, created two sexual misconduct categories: Title IX sexual misconduct and non-Title IX sexual misconduct. In the UC system, Title IX sexual misconduct is subject to the hearing procedure, while sexual misconduct outside the scope of Title IX is investigated using a different procedure.

Experts and advocacy organizations said the new Title IX guidelines could stifle reporting of sexual assault on campus because the new hearing process, with cross examination, could be retraumatizing for survivors. In May, Joseph Vincent, an associate consultant at TNG Consulting, a group that consults on Title IX implementation, who also serves as an advisory member at the Association of Title IX Administrators, told Voice of San Diego the hearing procedures also give respondents who can afford attorneys an advantage over other respondents who may ask a friend or professor to represent them.

After a Title IX investigation finds a staff member guilty, the report goes to the university chancellor to determine disciplinary action, if any. Tenured faculty are protected under a lengthy disciplinary process that requires the chancellor to file charges with the Academic Senate, then hold an Academic Senate committee hearing.

Process To Fire a Tenured Professor

But in order to fire a tenured professor, the chancellor must make a recommendation to the UC president following that process, and then the UC Board of Regents members vote on termination if the UC president agrees with the chancellor’s recommendation.

Before July 2019, there were no time limits for any step of the firing process. In July 2019, the procedures were amended to add limits to the chancellor’s recommendations and the hearing process, but there are still no time limits for the UC president’s or the UC Board of Regents’ decisions, meaning termination proceedings can go on indefinitely.

“The president and regents try to address this necessarily deliberative process as quickly as possible, even without stipulations on timing,” said UC Office of the President communications specialist Stett Holbrook.

The UC system’s process is unusual, said Saundra Schuster, an Association of Title IX Administrators advisory member and a partner at TNG Consulting. Schuster said that after the Title IX process, it’s typical for the faculty member to go to departmental review or the academic senate, but it’s unusual to go to the board of regents.

“In some cases, and fairly extreme cases, it would go to a faculty senate vote, but going beyond that to a governing body that governs more broadly is pretty unusual,” Schuster said.

UC San Diego’s media relations department initially agreed to an interview with the chair of UCSD’s Academic Senate Privilege and Tenure committee, but never scheduled the interview after several months of follow-ups.

Change Is Unlikely

The UC system is by no means the only one struggling to conform to Title IX policy. But what’s happening in other parts of the country is being held up locally as a progressive model.

At the University of Texas, Austin, the Coalition Against Sexual Misconduct, a student-run organization demanding accountability for faculty found guilty of sexual misconduct, overcame resistance from administrators to get several new Title IX policy reforms implemented. That includes an automatic termination — what’s known as a presumptive firing policy — for all staff found guilty of certain types of sexual misconduct unless the complainant doesn’t want the staff member fired.

The coalition held several sit-ins before the school agreed to a student working group to explore policy changes.

“Each time, [the sit-ins] got bigger, and admin got more resistant to us. They even threatened to call the cops on us,” coalition organizer Kaya Epstein, a student at UT Austin, said. “At some point, they agreed to form a working group because the press was really bad.”

The university held a forum last year for students to voice concerns and share their experience with interpersonal violence. Epstein said the school had to create an overflow room for people to view a livestream of the forum because over 300 people showed up. “It was an admin massacre,” she said.

In March, the university agreed to several policy changes recommended by the working group and outside legal firm Hush Blackwell, which included a public list and presumptive firing policy for staff guilty of sexual misconduct, consolidation of the bureaucratic processes governing Title IX and implementation of a restorative justice process for survivors.

UT Austin implemented the new policies in August. Jeffery L. Graves, associate vice president for legal affairs, and Title IX Coordinator Adriana Alicea-Rodriguez told Voice of San Diego that no one has been fired under the new policy yet, and the list of staff hasn’t been published because no one has met the criteria; the list is for staff found guilty of sexual misconduct who were not fired.

In order to include students in the policy process, the UC system created a Title IX student advisory board in 2018. The board, made up of graduate and undergraduate students from each UC campus, released several recommendations in June 2019 to improve transparency and support for students. Holbrook told VOSD that many of the recommendations have been implemented or are on the path to implementation, including resources and training.

But in November 2018, UC Santa Barbara undergraduate representative Jennifer Selvidge resigned, saying the university wasn’t listening to students. In her letter, she said the University of California Office of the President suspended her from the board because it did not like her interpretations of the policy quoted in an article for The Daily Nexus, UC Santa Barbara’s student paper.

“It is now my belief that this committee serves no purpose other than to soothe public pressures and stave off student activism,” Selvidge wrote in her resignation letter.

Schuster said the policy changes at UT Austin are highly unusual, and student activism is unlikely to cause the UC system to change Title IX procedures because the tenure process guarantees a certain level of protection. The UC regents set the policy granting only themselves the right to terminate tenured faculty, and any change would require the Board of Regents to agree to give that right to another organization, like the Academic Senate or UC president.

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