Two Women Fight Sexual Harassment, Academia To Save Themselves< < Back to
That’s how Christine Adams described her odds of getting into the creative writing graduate program at Ohio University. She applied because it was one of the top ranked programs in the country, and she dreamed of being a poet.
Then she got in.
“I remember getting that voicemail and just starting to cry because it seemed impossible that I would get to go here,” Adams said.
Susanna Hempstead dreamed of being a teacher, and sharing her love of literature with future generations of English students.
“Because I’m a Ph.D. student, you largely either go somewhere because it has a good reputation or you go somewhere because it has somebody that is perfect to study with, that studies what you study,” Hempstead said.
Three years later, Hempstead has moved away from Athens, and Adams’ poetry is no longer about family and flowers.
“Right now, I mostly write essays about sexual violence, and power dynamics and gender,” Adams told WOUB.
The change came in the winter of 2015, when Adams and Hempstead attended an end-of-the-year gathering at a local restaurant with Dr. Andrew Escobedo. They were both in a class taught by Escobedo that semester.
The gathering was filled with graduate students, and, as she would later tell OU’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights Compliance, Adams saw “a link between these social outings and a graduate student’s support and success in the academic program.”
Escobedo purchased drinks for and drank with the graduate students at two different establishments throughout Athens. Escobedo himself admitted to investigators that he was intoxicated but “was not so intoxicated that (he) could not notice signs of intoxication in others.”
Adams told university investigators she felt she “lacked capacity to consent to sexual contact” because of the amount of alcohol she’d consumed. Escobedo denied any sexual contact occurred.
At one point, Hempstead called Escobedo a name in response to a comment he’d made, to which he responded, “Careful. Grades are not submitted.”
‘It felt like I had to be three different people at the same time…’
During that night, Escobedo touched both women without their consent, including putting his hands up Adams’ shirt, on her buttocks, and on her vagina over her clothes. He touched Hempstead in similar ways, as they both told investigators. Hempstead texted her then-boyfriend about it.
“…I am going to make so many jokes about last night in order to repress the fact that the man who still has yet to grade my 25 page paper on Chaucer touched my crotch,” the text read.
Still, the women didn’t “make a scene.”
Adams said she was worried her grades or reputation might be affected. She changed the way she was sitting at the table to avoid Escobedo’s hands. She made “noticeable, uncomfortable faces” toward Hempstead and two other witnesses. She used another “as a shield against (Escobedo),” as she stated in the ECRC report.
She and Hempstead moved book bags, purses and coats into Escobedo’s seat to discourage him from coming back.
At the end of the night, Adams told investigators, the professor kissed her without reciprocation. Again worried about backlash from her peers and other professors, Adams asked the professor not to tell anyone what had happened.
“(Escobedo) said, ‘You better not tell anyone either,'” university investigators were told.
The next morning, Adams woke up to another day of being a graduate student.
“I got up and I put on my clothes, because I knew I had to go teach, and realized as I was walking to class that my hands were shaking so bad that I couldn’t carry what I was carrying,” Adams said.
That’s when she and Hempstead realized they needed to do something. The women reached out to a student representative in the creative writing department, who notified a committee of professors within the department of the accusations against Escobedo. The head of the committee, as a mandatory reporter under state law, took the allegations to ECRC.
They began their three-year battle with university bureaucracy and investigators, even a discussion with police that left them feeling less sure of themselves (they decided not to press criminal charges because of the experience). All of this while trying to maintain their status as graduate students in the programs they’d hand-picked.
“It felt like I had to be three different people at the same time,” Adams said. “I had to be a student, and I had to be a teacher and I also had to be a complainant.”
Throughout the process, they also had to inhabit the English department, where Escobedo was still working before he was put on paid administrative leave months later. Hempstead said they felt they had to project an image of themselves for those around them.
“We had to look and act credible and dress professionally so that people didn’t think we were little whores, to be blunt,” Hempstead said.
They waited for the investigation by the university to conclude, while feeling the need to juggle their responsibilities and the need to advocate for themselves, Adams said. They weren’t sure why the process of investigating Escobedo was taking so long. They’d given their statements separately. So had 11 witnesses, they’d later learn.
Investigations and Court Cases
University investigators had found incidents dating back to 2003 involving Escobedo. Others questioned during the investigations said an inquiry was made in 2006, when ECRC was called the Office of Institutional Equity. But investigators stated in the 2016 report that ECRC “no longer has a record of the 2006 contact with Institutional Equity.”
ECRC did not respond to requests for an interview with WOUB.
Investigators found both Adams’ and Hempstead’s claims to be substantiated, and recommended Escobedo be banned from campus. After review by a faculty committee and the university provost, the detenuring process began. Escobedo would resign two weeks before a faculty hearing he requested could take place.
Requests to speak with Escobedo’s attorneys have not been returned. But, in January 2017, before the faculty committee met, he wrote a letter stating his side of the story.
He said he bore “serious responsibility for what happened,” and was ready to accept disciplinary action. However, he denied doing “everything the allegations charge.”
“I did not intentionally coerce anyone or abuse my authority,” Escobedo wrote. “The complainant’s behavior at the scene strongly suggests that they remained at the bar without coercion or, in other cases, that they did not witness what they claim.”
When he resigned, almost two years after the reported incidents, Escobedo wrote to other faculty members acknowledging his responsibility.
“I acknowledge the humiliation, anguish and emotional trauma my actions caused Ms. Adams and Ms. Hempstead,” he wrote.”I also acknowledge their loss of future professional opportunities.”
But these words didn’t come until after a civil lawsuit was filed by Adams and Hempstead, against Escobedo, but also against the university and a member of the English faculty and head of faculty senate.
By the end of the lawsuit, the women had settled privately with Escobedo, and received a $670,000 settlement from the university.
With the lawsuit settled, and Escobedo no longer a member of the OU faculty, Hempstead and Adams are down to the one job they wanted before any of this began: graduate students.
Their dreams have changed — they both now want to go into advocacy to help people who have gone through some of the same things they have — but they are glad to be able to finish their degrees.
They’re happy, too, to say goodbye to the investigations and bureaucracy.
“We’ve had moments where we’ve said to each other, we should have just left it all behind,” Hempstead said. “Then we’ve had moments where we’ve said this is worth it, we fought for this, this feels good to finish.”
Part of the settlement they agreed to with the university allows them to help improve OU’s response to sexual assault. Adams and Hempstead said learning from their experience includes acknowledging the fact that the vulnerability of students is sometimes overshadowed by faculty academic success and authority.
“I think that our situation speaks to the fact that, especially in relation to matters of consent, we are not adequately taught how to factor in power dynamics and to consider the ways in which we have power over others and the way in which other can be powerless,” Adams said. “I think the fact of the matter is there’s a lot of power in being a tenured professor and there’s not a lot of power in being a grad student.”
Most importantly to the women, they plan to teach their students and others the mantra they had to teach themselves along the way.
“Don’t let anyone try to talk you out of your own worth,” Adams said.
This article includes a clarification on the invocation of mandatory reporting by a student representative to a faculty committee.