Gillian Applegate ’17 will never forget one of the darkest points of her time at Carleton: the week Professor of Anthropology Jerome Levi groped her inner thigh during her work shift in the Sociology and Anthropology (SOAN) department office.
Applegate was one of eight student complainants in a 2016-17 Title IX investigation into the professor’s conduct, which was adjudicated with an opaque set of sanctions. Applegate’s story emerges amid campus-wide confusion about the nature of the allegations against Levi and the cause for his continued employment at the college.
Two weeks ago, the Carletonian reported that Levi was suspended from teaching this term after he was found guilty of sexually inappropriate conduct, a verdict that came from a separate case brought against him in May 2019. Carleton’s Sexual Misconduct Policy defines sexually inappropriate conduct as offensive oral, written, or electronically transmitted gestures. This standard of harm is considered a notch below sexual harassment, which extends to physical conduct.
At this point in time, the Carletonian is aware of at least nine Title IX claims against the professor.
Prior to the incident, Applegate had her suspicions about Levi. “He had been creepy in other ways,” she said. “He made me feel very uncomfortable. There was another incident where he was in a dark room with me and pressed his body against me,” Applegate recounted. According to Applegate’s redacted Title IX investigation report, Levi gave her a copying task and followed her to the copy room in order to have her teach him how to use the copy machine, leaving the two of them alone together in the dark.
“I tried to avoid him but I worked in the SOAN department office four days a week,” Applegate said. “He was an anthropology professor. There wasn’t much I could do about having to see him.”
On October 26, 2016, Applegate was at work in the SOAN department office when Levi touched her. “He put his hand between my legs and started fondling my thigh three times in rapid succession and was yelling at me at the same time,” Applegate said.
According to Applegate’s Title IX report, Applegate stated that “Professor Levi touched her upper thigh three times with the inside of his fingers.” The first time, Applegate thought it was an accident, the report says, but “the next two times seemed less accidental.”
Applegate’s Title IX report indicates multiple encounters in which she felt trapped and unsafe in the SOAN department office with Levi, without others in the department in close reach.
“Once he put his hand between my legs, I was so distraught that I didn’t go to work for the first time in my life,” Applegate said.
Two days after the incident, Applegate submitted a Community Concern Form (CCF), a process which is separate from filing a formal Title IX complaint. She then spoke with Mary Dunnewold, Carleton’s Sexual Misconduct Investigator, who compiled a report detailing the incident in the SOAN office. One week later, on November 8, Dunnewold and former Associate Dean of the College George Shuffleton met with Levi and gave him a no-contact order, Applegate said. “At that point, the only thing they had was my word,” Applegate added.
But only four days after Levi was told he could not communicate with Applegate, he sat directly behind her in Sayles-Hill Campus Center, she said. One of Applegate’s friends took a photograph of Levi sitting behind her, which she brought to Associate Dean of Students Cathy Carlson, Dunnewold, and Shuffleton as evidence that Levi was ignoring the no-contact order. Shuffleton told Applegate in an email that “on a small campus like ours, accidentally crossing paths may be unavoidable,” but also said he emailed Levi to clarify that the no-contact order “includes encroaching on your space in public settings.”
Following the no-contact order violation, the college opened a formal Title IX investigation into Levi, which included Applegate’s complaint. On April 5, 2017, the college announced that Levi’s off-campus studies program to Guatemala, slated for the following winter, would not run. That same day, complainants in the 2016-17 Title IX investigation, including Applegate, were told that Levi had been sanctioned, but were not told what those sanctions were. At the time, Levi told the Carletonian that he would be taking a sabbatical in light of the program’s cancellation: “I have decided to extend the sabbatical I was already scheduled to take in the spring to also include the winter and fall,” Levi said in April 2017.
Former Chair of Sociology and Anthropology Clifford Clark likewise characterized Levi’s sabbatical as a “decision.” Moreover, Dean of the College Beverly Nagel told the Carletonian that “no Carleton faculty member has been suspended for this upcoming year.”
Clark and Nagel’s April 2017 descriptions of Levi’s sabbatical, however, do not match those in the statement issued by Carleton on September 19, 2019. According to the statement, Levi was “required to take a sabbatical during Fall 2017 and undergo college-mandated counseling and coaching.”
When asked about this inconsistency, Nagel maintained the accuracy of the College’s most recent statement and reiterated that Levi’s sabbatical was not voluntary. She did not address the inconsistency further.
Levi returns to campus
Since Levi’s return to campus in the fall of 2018, students have raised questions about his continued presence at the college.
In a recent interview, the Carletonian asked Nagel how she might respond to concerns of bias toward the professor, given her role as SOAN department chair at the time of his hiring in 1993, as well as her authority as sole adjudicator in faculty-student Title IX investigations. The adjudicator’s responsibility is to determine appropriate sanctions in cases of sexual misconduct.
Nagel said that she raised this concern with College President Steven Poskanzer, and that Poskanzer made the ultimate decision to retain Nagel as the sole adjudicator in the investigation of the May 2019 complaint.
But Poskanzer told the Carletonian that “I do not have any official role in the faculty sexual misconduct discipline process and did not have any decision-making role in any complaint involving Professor Levi or the selection of the adjudicator.”
Tenure plays a murky role
Additionally, the Carletonian asked Nagel if tenure has an impact on the severity of sanctions assigned to faculty implicated in Title IX investigations. According to Nagel, tenure would have no impact on a college’s decision to keep a professor on campus. However, she also noted that “to break tenure is a very difficult process.”
Though tenure was designed to protect professors’ academic freedom, it virtually guarantees that a professor will never be fired from their college of employment. In order for a tenured professor found guilty of sexual misconduct to be permanently removed from campus, the Faculty Judiciary Committee would have to recommend dismissal as the appropriate response, and the college president would have to approve the committee’s recommendation.
However, according to the “Faculty Appointments” section of the Faculty Handbook, the faculty in question has “the right to request a suspension of some or all of his or her teaching duties for a reasonable time in order to prepare his or her defense.” If a faculty member decides to request a suspension amid a disciplinary hearing, that suspension would include normal pay. When contacted by the Carletonian, Levi told reporters to defer to his two attorneys.
Moreover, according to the Campus Handbook, faculty members facing disciplinary action will not be suspended “unless the continued service of the faculty member poses an immediate and serious danger to the College or any member of the College community.” Even after the investigation into Applegate’s claims, as well as those of seven other students, the College has not determined Levi’s continuing presence on campus to pose a risk. Levi is slated to return this winter, when he will teach Introduction to Anthropology and Economic Anthropology.
But tenure is not always ironclad, especially in cases of sexual misconduct, according to S. Micah Salb, Principal Attorney of Lippman, Semsker & Salb in Maryland. Salb has over 25 years of experience litigating cases of higher education employment law and business law.
“It is exceptionally unusual for a professor who is found to have committed sexual impropriety to remain on faculty,” said Salb. “If any employer does not get rid of an employee that engages in improper behavior and the employee does it again, the employer’s liability is greatly magnified,” Salb continued.
Salb explained that, more often than not, colleges and universities will hurriedly dismiss faculty members accused of sexual misconduct, which can result in lawsuits from professors who feel their cases were inadequately investigated. Carleton’s approach, in Levi’s case, has been the opposite, Salb noted.
Levi’s absence from the SOAN department this fall has not come without challenges. Along with Assistant Professor of Sociology Wes Markofski’s sabbatical, the department is down two faculty members who would otherwise advise Comps, leaving five professors with 25 Comps advisees. Moreover, faculty who might otherwise teach elective courses on topics of interest have had to reshuffle their course offerings and teach major requirement courses.
While recounting her story, Applegate expressed appreciation for the administration’s concern for her immediate well-being. “I think one piece of advice I would have to survivors is, just ask for what you want,” Applegate said.
Her main asks—to be repaid for the time she was unable to work, to be placed in a new campus job, and for Levi not to attend her graduation—were granted. “Don’t be afraid to ask for things that you want,” she said.