ELLENSBURG — When does an inappropriate relationship become sexual harassment? An internal Central Washington University investigation sheds light into how the university nearest to the Columbia Basin answers that question, and how it investigates possible sexual misconduct.
On Nov. 17, 2017, a month after an internal investigation found Central Washington University professor Brian Carroll had violated university conflict of interest policies by failing to disclose two sexual relationships he had with students, Carroll attempted to tender his resignation.
University officials initially did not accept the resignation. Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities Todd Shiver, who would later tell union representation that Carroll’s actions were tantamount to sexual harassment, informed Carroll the same day that Carroll would instead be terminated. Shiver did not respond to a request for comment, and it’s unclear whether Carroll attempted to resign before or after learning of the dean’s decision.
What is clear is that five months later, after intervention from the faculty union and despite resistance from university officials, Carroll won out: he was able to resign, the university was forced to withdraw and expunge his termination from its records, and he received a letter of recommendation. University officials were directed to reference only this letter of recommendation if prospective employers inquired about Carroll, according to a resignation agreement between Carroll and the university.
Carroll worked in CWU’s Department of History from 2010 to 2017, earning tenure in 2016. He was involved with the university’s American Indian Studies program for five years and was the director of the AIS program from 2016 to late 2017.
The investigation into Carroll’s behavior focused on the professor’s failure to disclose sexual relationships with two female CWU students, referred to in the report as Student 1 and Student 2. Carroll’s relationship with Student 1 lasted from January 2016 to August 2017, including five months when she was a student at CWU.
While Student 1 did not take classes from Carroll during this time, he was her advisor during at least a part of their relationship. Carroll also traveled with her in an official capacity and oversaw in some capacity her employment at a nearby historical society, where Carroll officially represented CWU, during their relationship, according to the investigatory report.
Carroll’s relationship with Student 2, which he described to the investigator as “a fling,” lasted three weeks in August 2016, after she had graduated and before she re-enrolled. She took classes with Carroll both before the relationship began and after it ended, according to the investigatory report. Carroll failed to disclose the potential conflict of interest when the student took another class with him after the end of the relationship, in violation of university policy.
CWU policies regarding “family or intimate” relationships between professors and students indicate that faculty shall not “grade, supervise or direct the educational endeavors” of such a student without written authorization by the Dean of the college.
But Carroll chose not to disclose the relationships in order to protect his marriage, he told university officials. Carroll’s wife also taught in the AIS program, and the two sometimes co-taught classes.
Carroll argued in his defense that he and Student 1 worked between themselves to mitigate any conflicts of interest, and that his relationship with Student 2 occurred while she was not enrolled and rules regarding disclosing past relationships were unclear. He also argued that he did not help Student 1 get a job at the historical society, and that his role there was irrelevant to his duties as a professor at CWU.
Though at least one anonymous female student told investigators that the AIS program was going to “implode” due to Carroll’s affair with a student involved with the program, the investigator did not consider it to be an official complaint of perceived preferential treatment, and the investigation concluded there was not sufficient evidence that any CWU student’s Title IX rights were violated.
But despite the consensual nature of the relationships, Carroll’s behavior may have violated the civil rights of other students, said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a civil rights lawyer and founder of Champion Women, an organization that advocates for equity for women and girls in sports.
“Consent is not a factor,” Hogshead-Makar said. “Particularly when it comes to academics, in many cases these are zero-sum games, which means that if someone is going to get an advantage, someone isn’t going to get one.”
If evidence of a civil rights violation could have been found with further investigation, the investigator did not look any further.
“While further investigation… would provide more information,” wrote investigator Gail Farmer in her final report, “it would also certainly cause disruption to both the History Department and the AIS Program, and could negatively impact the academic environment for current students.”
This is indicative of an institution attempting to shield itself from litigation, said Hogshead-Makar.
“What they’re saying is they don’t want to alert somebody that they may have a cause of action, that they may be able to sue the university for allowing sex discrimination,” Hogshead-Makar said.
Farmer is employed by the university as the Equal Opportunity and Talent Acquisition Manager and did not respond to a request for comment. In other cases, CWU has sought an independent investigator to oversee these formal investigations, including in the recent investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct against Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, who was employed until recently at CWU as a tenured professor of political science.
In grievances filed to the university, United Faculty of Central, the union that represents CWU faculty, argued that CWU had not found that any sexual harassment or Title IX violation had occurred, and therefore could not simply fire the history professor.
But Shiver rejected the grievance, arguing that Carroll’s behavior constituted sexual harassment.
“Although the investigation reports appears to reach a different conclusion, I understand this conclusion as referring only to the ostensibly consensual nature of the relationships with Students No. 1 and No. 2,” Shiver wrote in response. “The report states no conclusions addressing the hostile working and learning environment created for others in the program as a result of Professor Carroll’s sexual activities.”
Shiver also noted that Carroll only disclosed his behavior when it was clear “his indiscretions were about to be publicly exposed.”
In response to a second UFC grievance, CWU Provost Katherine Frank said that Carrol had “caused serious damage to his academic program,” and that the school’s focus should be on “repairing the damage.”
The case was eventually brought to arbitration, and in mid-April the university agreed to accept Carroll’s resignation. Along with it was a letter of recommendation touting Carroll’s abilities as a professor and signed by Frank.
“It’s called passing the trash,” Hogshead-Makar said.
Frank was not immediately available for comment.