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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Who wants to do the teacher?

In some ways, working as a phone-sex dominatrix is a lot simpler than being on a college faculty. Your relationship with others is clearly defined, no one formally complains about anything you say to them, and you stand little risk of getting caught up in messy struggles over power.

It gets complicated, however, if you try to do both jobs.

Life has become extremely complex in the University of New Mexico's English department in the three years since Lisa D. Chávez, a tenured associate professor, was discovered moonlighting as the phone-sex dominatrix "Mistress Jade," and posing in promotional pictures sexually dominating one of her own graduate students. Although she quickly quit the phone-sex job, admitted to a serious lapse of judgment, and was not found by the university's administration to have violated any law or policy, Ms. Chávez remains at the center of a bitter controversy that has raised questions about faculty governance, the obligations of professors to protect students, and the exact definition of a hostile workplace in an environment of shifting sexual mores.

Several members of the English department accuse Ms. Chávez of abusing her power over students, and allege that the administration retaliated against professors who complained about her extracurricular activities. They also say that the university administration violated a basic principle of shared governance by not entrusting the investigation of Ms. Chávez to a faculty ethics committee.

For her part, Ms. Chávez has accused her accusers, in complaints to the university and the state, of discriminating against her because she is bisexual and Hispanic.

The department has been riven by resignations, as well as by three faculty members' lawsuits, still pending, that stem from the controversy. Many faculty members complain that they now work in a deteriorating atmosphere, which is taking its toll on students.

Gaining Experience

Graduate students in the department were the first to take on phone-sex work, about five years ago. They found it locally at People Exchanging Power, an Albuquerque-based company that offers people with various sexual fetishes a support network, phone-sex services, and opportunities to rendezvous with some of its employees in real life.

The students found it easy to talk about such work with Ms. Chávez. The professor, 48, takes pride in having close friendships with graduate students, often inviting them to her house for parties students characterize as fairly raucous. "I have been told repeatedly since all of this happened that I am stepping over boundaries by being friends with students," Ms. Chávez says. "And I don't think that is true—especially in creative writing, where we end up knowing students so well just through their writing."

When students brought up phone-sex work in her classes, Ms. Chávez, who describes herself as "a pro-sex feminist," spoke approvingly of how empowering such jobs were, of how the students had found a great way to gain outside income and life experience they could draw upon as writers. In February 2007, Ms. Chávez quietly took a job herself at People Exchanging Power. She says she had just gotten divorced, was having trouble making her mortgage payments, and viewed working for the service, which paid more than $40 per hour, as a great way to earn money in her spare time and gather material for her fiction. Working under the Mistress Jade pseudonym, she fielded calls dispatched to her home but, she says, did not meet personally with clients. Her advertisement on the company's Web site asked potential callers: "Do you want a biker bitch, an imperious goddess, or a stern teacher ready to punish unruly students?"

Liz Derrington, a 27-year-old graduate student in the creative-writing program who was going through a divorce herself, went to work for People Exchanging Power at about the same time. "The pay was good—it was far better than waiting tables or anything like that," she says. Ms. Chávez and Ms. Derrington ran into each other at the service and agreed to be photographed simulating sadomasochistic sex acts. A former New Mexico graduate student employed there also appeared in the photos, which were accompanied by captions that used vulgar and degrading terms.In the meantime, a few of Ms. Chávez's students complained to other faculty members in the department that they felt uncomfortable about the sexually charged conversations in her class. One professor, Diane M. Thiel, says she took these concerns to David R. Jones, then the English-department chairman, but he "seemed unconcerned." (Mr. Jones has categorically denied Ms. Thiel's allegations over his handling of the matter.)

In July 2007, some of the photos of Ms. Chávez landed on the desk of Mr. Jones, attached to a note signed "appalled parents." He asked Sharon Oard Warner, a professor of English and Ms. Chávez's boss as the creative-writing program's director, to check the People Exchanging Power site on her home computer to determine if any of the program's students were involved.

Accusing Accusers

In fact, there were several current or former students pictured on the Web site. Among them was Carrie Cutler, a 33-year-old graduate student who had worked for the company before Ms. Chávez took a job there. Ms. Cutler, who remains in the creative-writing program, says she had hoped that taking phone-sex work, which she had heard Ms. Chávez praise in class, would not only help her pay bills but help her remedy Ms. Chávez's complaints that her writing was not dark or edgy enough. She says she quit after growing tired of being on the phone at all hours and dealing with prank callers or people who asked for things she felt uncomfortable providing. Ms. Warner says she passed information about the student and faculty involvement in the company to Mr. Jones. When Mr. Jones then confronted Ms. Chávez, she told him she had considered the outside work partially as research for her writing. But she nonetheless quit the outside job and asked the company to remove her photos from its Web site.

In a document filed in connection with one of her own discrimination complaints, which have been dismissed, Ms. Chávez says Mr. Jones told her that Ms. Cutler was the origin of the accusations against her. The document shows Ms. Chávez raised concerns at that time about Ms. Cutler's mental stability, telling others that "the student who originally started all this had serious mental-health issues, was actively trying to hurt me and my career, and was, perhaps, a danger to me and others." But, her discrimination complaint continued, no one at the university took her concerns seriously. Several faculty members and students in the program say Ms. Chávez later spread word that Ms. Cutler had had a psychotic breakdown that fall and had been threatening to murder fellow students. Ms. Derrington, for one, appeared to take these warnings about her fellow graduate student seriously. She requested that an armed university police officer be present in the room when she defended her dissertation.

Ms. Cutler denies ever having had any sort of breakdown, and several students and faculty members who knew her during this period say she appeared fine. Ms. Chávez, in an e-mail, declined to comment on her interactions with Ms. Cutler.

Widened Scrutiny

Soon after the "appalled parent" letter arrived, the university began to look into the matter, first to see if Ms. Chávez had crossed any lines, but then to see if her colleagues had been out of line in their dealings with her.
The investigation started with the university's Office of Equal Opportunity, which asked various people involved if Ms. Chávez had created a hostile learning environment for her students. But in a confidential e-mail sent to Ms. Warner in early October 2007, Mr. Jones said that the university's president, David J. Schmidly, had decided to call off that investigation, and to hire an outside lawyer to conduct a different one altogether. The subject was not Ms. Chávez's treatment of graduate students, but the conduct of people in the English department as a whole. Ms. Chávez, it appeared, had gone on the offensive, threatening defamation lawsuits against faculty members who, she alleged, were falsely accusing her of engaging in outright prostitution and being romantically involved with a student, Ms. Derrington. She filed a discrimination complaint with the university in which she accused Ms. Warner of having it out for her because she is Hispanic.

In late November 2007, university administrators announced the completion of the investigation. It concluded that Ms. Chávez had exercised bad judgment but did not find her guilty of allegations of maintaining a hostile learning environment, sexual harassment, or other illegal activity or violations of policy that suggested she was unfit for her job. Faculty members who had raised concerns about Ms. Chávez were urged by administrators to enter into mediation with her. One of them was Gregory Martin, an associate professor of English. In a court document, Mr. Martin says Brenda Claiborne, dean of the university's College of Arts and Sciences, subsequently warned faculty members that if they continued to demand action be taken against Ms. Chávez, they could face negative consequences, including lawsuits for slander or a decision by the university to abolish the entire creative-writing program.

The warning did not deter them. In February 2008, 14 tenured faculty members in the English department signed a letter to Richard Holder, the university's deputy provost for academic affairs, urging the administration to let a faculty committee investigate Ms. Chávez's conduct. The signers, who included Mr. Martin and Ms. Warner, said her actions raised "serious ethical questions" regarding "abuse of academic freedom and the professional ethics that must govern the relationship of a professor and her student." It said the creative-writing program "has been harmed and continues to be harmed." Soon after, Ms. Chávez filed a discrimination complaint with the state alleging that the accusations against her stemmed from bias based on her being Hispanic and bisexual.

Refusals to Surrender

Provost Holder refused to hand the matter over to a faculty panel for adjudication. In a letter to those who request he do so, he characterized the investigation of Ms. Chávez as thorough, and said he had heard from many other faculty members who attributed the deteriorating atmosphere in the creative-writing program "not to the underlying situation but to the persistence of some in pursuing this matter."
And there was persistence. The faculty members appealed Mr. Holder's decision to President Schmidly and the acting provost, Viola Florez, but they stood behind Mr. Holder.

Then came the reaction: Resignation and lawsuits. Joy Harjo, a prominent American Indian poet who had signed the letter to Mr. Holder, quit the faculty, saying she did not feel comfortable working where she could not protect her students. Ms. Warner resigned as the creative-writing program's director, saying she already been implicitly stripped of her authority and her job had become "untenable." Her resignation letter said, "Evidently, university administrators are more concerned about spurious threats of litigation than about protecting the learning and working environment." Ms. Warner filed a lawsuit against the university last year. She claims that her efforts to pursue complaints against Ms. Chávez led to her being subjected to administrative threats and various acts of administrative retaliation, including an unusual financial audit of a writing conference she oversees and rejection when she later sought to become chair of the English department. Her lawsuit accuses Mr. Jones of keeping those investigating Ms. Chávez in the dark by failing to pass on to them the incriminating photos from People Exchanging Power's Web site.

A separate lawsuit has been filed by Ms. Warner's husband, Teddy D. Warner, a psychologist at the university's medical school. He contends that he suffered a pay cut and was denied a promised private office in retaliation for his wife's activities. The university had denied the couple's allegations. A third lawsuit was filed by Ms. Thiel, the creative-writing professor whose work relationship with Ms. Chávez had been poor even before the phone-sex imbroglio. Ms. Thiel alleges that she was subjected to a hostile work environment by Mr. Jones, Ms. Chávez, and other faculty members in connection with the whole controversy. The university has asked the court to dismiss Ms. Thiel's lawsuit on technical grounds, saying it was filed in the wrong venue because she lives in a different judicial district.

The conduct of Mr. Jones factors heavily in the lawsuits filed by Ms. Warner and Ms. Thiel, even though the university as a whole is the named defendant. In an e-mail, he defended his conduct. "I stand by all my actions in that troubled time, actions intended to protect the rights and safety of a number of students and faculty members, including Warner and Thiel, when we all found ourselves in an extraordinary situation."
Although Ms. Chávez also is not named as a defendant in the lawsuits, she says she seems "to be the target of those in a lot of ways," given how they focus on the university's refusal to punish her. Although she continues to teach and advise students, she says the stress she has suffered as a result of the controversy "has put a real damper on my writing."
Julie Y. Shigekuni, a professor of English who now directs the creative-writing program, says she is trying to keep the program on course despite the controversy. "It becomes complicated, because I think that lawsuits, and the kind of climate of antagonism and fear that is brought by lawsuits, creates unpredictability," she says. "Students are uncertain about how the program is functioning and about the future of the program." Ms. Derrington, who has graduated from the program, likewise would like to put the whole controversy behind her—not because she feels any shame for her phone-sex work, but because people misunderstand what it involved, and she fears she will have trouble finding academic work as a result of it. In the Internet age, however, she is not optimistic about escaping this chapter of her past.

"If you Google me," she says, "this whole issue is the first thing that comes up."

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