Thursday, June 4, 2020

MSU professor describes alleged sexual harassment by associate dean

December 3, 2018
<p>Hannah Administration Building on Aug. 29, 2015. Courtney Kendler/The State News</p>

Hannah Administration Building on Aug. 29, 2015. Courtney Kendler/The State News

Photo by Courtney Kendler | The State News

In an essay posted on Medium, a now-former Michigan State professor came forward to discuss the alleged sexual harassment, online harassment and "utter institutional failure" she said she experienced during her time at the university. 

She wrote that her complaints were ignored by MSU and she received little-to-no support from the community. As a result of this, she is firing MSU as her employer. 

Joy Lisi Rankin — a historian of computing who was a jointly appointed assistant professor in two of MSU’s residential colleges, James Madison and Lyman Briggs — shared her story that began in her first year of teaching at the university. 

Her alleged harasser — Rob LaDuca — was an associate dean of Lyman Briggs, as well as a tenured professor in a role that contributed to faculty evaluation and reappointment, she wrote. 

The Office of Institutional Equity, or OIE, determined LaDuca did not violate MSU's Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct policy or federal Title IX laws, according to an email LaDuca sent to Lyman Briggs faculty that The State News obtained. 

Rankin's essay also confirms LaDuca was cleared in the summer of 2017.

Despite his OIE investigation coming back clear, LaDuca admitted to making a "couple jokes in bad taste," and that he felt "ashamed for having made Dr. Rankin feel uncomfortable because of them," in the email obtained by The State News. 

The essay also notes that since then, "the harasser has assumed even greater responsibilities and prominence at the university." LaDuca is the chair of Faculty Senate and the Steering Committee. He also runs a popular Facebook group called MSU Memes 2.0.

In LaDuca's email he said he the two jokes he made did not meet the level of severe and persistent that Title IX law requires. The rest of the allegations were determined to have insufficient merit by OIE. 

He also said Lyman Briggs colleagues were welcome to read his hard copy of the 77-page OIE report.

Without naming her harasser in the essay, Rankin described the events, stating that they began during weekly faculty meetings. She wrote that the associate dean inappropriately stared at her, touched her without her consent and made comments that made her uncomfortable.

At one point, she wrote that after asking her "increasingly personal questions," LaDuca threatened her by saying: “You better stay close to me ... I’d hate to have to do another search to replace you.”

“I was under extreme stress, constantly enduring a hostile work environment and trying to protect myself — because others had failed to do so,” she wrote. 

When Rankin filed her first complaint against the associate dean with OIE in December 2016, she wrote that in February, the office claimed no complaint was filed at all. 

She said the harassment persisted, and she filed a second complaint in May 2017. A month afterwards, a "serious and toxic" research misconduct allegation was filed against her by Elizabeth Simmons, who was then the dean of Lyman Briggs. Her allegation was supported by the statements of two individuals who repeatedly harassed Rankin online and worked to discredit her research, she wrote. 

In response to a talk Rankin gave based on the extensive research she conducted for her book, "A People’s History of Computing in the United States"  a "self-described technology entrepreneur" named Brian Dear wrote a lengthy blog post on her research that was described by other scholars as a "personal attack" and a "screed." 

The blog post circulated to hundreds of people via a listserv for Special Interest Group Computers, Information and Society, or SIGCIS, which is a part of the Society for the History of Technology. Rankin wrote that the post "was so toxic that it ultimately precipitated a three-month closure of the SIGCIS list."

A second individual named C.K. Gunsalus complained about Rankin's talk in multiple emails she repeatedly sent to MSU, citing Dear's blog post. 

"One colleague affirmed that although the Dear attack was unpleasant to endure, it certainly would not affect my career. If only that had been true," she wrote. "You see, my employer and ostensible academic home — Michigan State — did the opposite of support me."

Rankin wrote the actions of Dear and Gunsalus constitute as common tactics to harass scholars, and a guide titled "Online Harassment Information for Universities” urges that in this situation, university officials should “investigate the merit of claims or threats and discuss them with the researcher for further context and clarification before acting.”

But instead, Rankin wrote that Simmons did not communicate with her about the harassment tactics, that was the basis of her allegation, before the research misconduct allegation was filed. It was later cleared in September 2017, even though Rankin wrote the allegation hung over her head for four months, and had "high potential energy to damage my academic reputation."

"Rather than protecting me, my scholarship, and academic freedom, Elizabeth Simmons and MSU legitimized Dear’s attack against me by using his unvetted personal blog as grounds for a research misconduct allegation — after that same blog had been repeatedly and publicly censured by fellow academics," she wrote. "Simmons capitalized on the opportunity in what seems like a textbook case of retaliation for my sexual harassment complaints."

Rankin wrote that two other Lyman Briggs faculty members were able to provide evidence of her sexual harassment, and that OIE also refused to investigate Simmons’s research misconduct allegation against her. 

The summer her OIE investigation came back, Rankin finished her book manuscript. She left MSU out in the acknowledgments, and in her essay wrote that she does not "acknowledge the people of MSU who perpetuate these profound imbalances of power, this culture of sexual trauma."

"I do not acknowledge anyone at MSU. I can count on one hand the number of colleagues who supported me when I told them about the harassment and later, the retaliation," she wrote. "Many, many more excused my harasser, or told me maybe it was my misunderstanding, or that he was always joking around 'like that.'"

According to her personal website, Rankin is no longer employed with the university. "I am currently institutionally homeless," her website reads, "having fired Michigan State as my employer."

"I was afraid that nothing would change," the end of her essay reads. "But I have changed. And MSU, I am firing you."

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