The complaints were nearly identical: Two women at Central Washington University reported that a renowned music professor had kissed them on the face and made comments such as “I love you.”
After a troubled review at the university that resulted in fiery internal memos, one of the women also complained that the music department dropped her from her performance major in retaliation for filing the complaint. Then the university came up with a solution: The student would get free tuition for a year and other benefits, according to records, so long as she remained silent about “the contents of this settlement agreement.”
In a recent interview with The Seattle Times, the former student recalled that university officials said she would be sued if she made details of the case public. Terrified, she ultimately signed the May 2015 settlement.
“It was hush money. It was literal hush money,” said the former student, who requested that she only be identified by her initials, E.F.
That agreement, released to The Seattle Times under public-disclosure laws, gives a glimpse at how some of the state’s public universities have worked to prevent embarrassing details from getting out. While Washington state lawmakers have limited the power of nondisclosure agreements in the wake of the #MeToo movement, nothing appears to prevent the universities from including such requirements when settling with students.
Most of the student-involved settlement documents obtained by The Times do not include confidentiality provisions. But Western Washington University included one in a settlement with a student after an investigation found “sexual banter” between her and a professor.
The University of Washington included confidentiality provisions in a series of settlement agreements over the past five years, but the university has refused to disclose the underlying complaints to show what the cases are about, citing student privacy.
Sen. Karen Keiser, a Des Moines Democrat who has worked on legislation addressing workplace harassment, said she was appalled that a public university would use nondisclosure agreements in such situations.
“It’s just not right for a public entity to try and instate some sort of secrecy clause,” Keiser said. “It just makes my skin crawl. Something is usually amiss when you’re forcing some kind of secrecy.”
A spokeswoman at CWU declined to comment about the settlement agreement. A spokesman at WWU said the terms were a product of mediation.
“Confidentiality provisions are very common in settlement agreements and have been included upon agreement by both parties involved in the settlement,” said UW spokesman Victor Balta.
E.F. spent a lot of alone time with her music professor. With lessons taking place in his office on the CWU campus, E.F. said she began having issues with him starting in her sophomore year. At times during lessons, the professor would give her a kiss on the face or tell her “I love you,” she said.
E.F. said she felt uncomfortable and thought to herself that she needed to make sure not to reflexively respond with an “I love you, too.”
“I never said it back. I always made sure to never say it back,” she recalled. She also reported a time when he put his hand on her thigh.
In a 2014 conversation with her peer, M.N., the two women were discussing the professor’s behavior — which they described as volatile, quick to anger at times — and began talking about the kisses and comments. They’d had similar experiences, with both kisses on the face and comments of “I love you,” the women said in interviews with The Times.
The professor said in an email this week that he “fully cooperated with the University in its review of this matter and was informed by the University that I was cleared of any wrongdoing.” As part of the university’s internal records, he acknowledged hugging students and making a comment such as “I love you kid,” and he recalled kissing one of the women on the cheek as a farewell after a recital.
The women both filed complaints in May 2014. An internal equal-opportunity investigation took just a month, determining that the students had recanted their contention that the kisses from the professor were sexual or romantic. The women said in recent interviews that they disagreed with that conclusion, feeling that they didn’t know the professor’s intentions but feel it was grooming behavior.
Two university officials also questioned the handling of the investigation, according to internal memos.
Joy Stochosky, a case manager who dealt with student rights on the campus, grew concerned after attending the investigator’s interview with one of the students.
As she later summarized in a memo, Stochosky was bewildered that the investigator, Gail Farmer, hadn’t reviewed some of the documents — including journal entries, notes and names of other students — that E.F. had prepared about her experience, and that Farmer had gone on a tangent about how she appreciated the professor as a musician, recalling how she cried when seeing him perform.
Farmer told Stochosky that there was more to the professor than his behavior with the students, Stochosky wrote in her memo. She recalled Farmer saying that while the professor was abusing his position, she was trying to wrap up the investigation.
“I just want to tie a bow on this, I’ve got other things to do,” Stochosky recalled Farmer saying. Farmer said in an interview this week that she stands by the investigation and that she always acted professionally and in good faith.
The investigation was completed a few days after Stochosky and Farmer had met. It concluded that in all likelihood the professor “did not engage in illegal sexual harassment.”
The chair of the department at the time, Todd Shiver, did warn the professor, who is not being named because the investigation did not find misconduct, about “his ‘touching’ and his ‘I love you babe’ comments to his female students.”
“I feel this has all been a wake up call for a veteran faculty member who is still living in the 70’s and is in desperate need to awaken to the new century,” Shiver wrote in an email to Farmer.
E.F. later complained about retaliation, contending that her complaint resulted in music department officials dropping her from the music performance major. The university and the student reached the settlement agreement in May 2015. M.N., who graduated around the time of the 2014 investigation, said she was not offered a similar settlement.
Under the terms of the settlement, the university promised E.F. “a full-tuition waiver for the 2015-16 academic year” — worth about $6,900. E.F. was also offered a private audition with other music staff, with the potential to receive private lessons from one of them.
The agreement said that neither party would release the contents of the settlement “to the extent authorized by law.”
E.F. said she has been willing to speak about the case because she believes the university violated the terms of the agreement by reneging on the potential private lessons, and she wants the truth to be known.
Ann Fromholz, a California-based employment attorney and workplace investigator, said confidentiality agreements have been widespread in workplace cases over the years. Fromholz said the agreement to give free tuition may have been a simple solution that satisfied both sides of the dispute.
“It’s a creative way of settling. I haven’t heard of it, but I don’t think it’s anything outlandish,” Fromholz said. She said, however, the #MeToo movement has caused a shift to curtail confidentiality provisions.
Keiser, the state senator, said she finds the nondisclosure agreements to be a serious mistake, especially from a public institution. She said it can have the effect of preventing an institution from correcting an underlying problem.
Last year, Washington state approved new legislation around confidentiality agreements. One prevents nondisclosure agreements signed upon hiring from applying to cases of harassment or other specific circumstances. Another says nondisclosure agreements cannot shield information from being discovered or used in civil lawsuits or administrative actions.
California has gone further, prohibiting sexual-misconduct settlements from containing confidentiality provisions.
Keiser said she wants to learn more about how the universities handled their cases to see if there is a need to explore changes to Washington state law.
WWU and UW
The Seattle Times obtained through public disclosure requests a variety of settlement agreements at the state universities, many of which did not contain confidentiality provisions. But in one case that did at WWU, the university reviewed private Facebook messages between a student and a professor, finding that the two had engaged in consensual banter.
Given the sexual nature of the messages, a university investigation of the professor concluded that he had violated policies that prohibit intimate personal relationships between faculty members and students under their supervision.
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the university agreed to give the female student $15,000 and mandated that the parties “agree not to seek publicity or provide comment to third parties” regarding the complaint or agreement.
At the University of Washington, the confidentiality components appear to be commonplace. Some appear to involve vehicle accidents. One was related to the loss of a knee brace.
But, in another, a student received $8,000 after complaining to the University Complaint Investigation and Resolution Office, which handles allegations that an employee has violated policies around discrimination or retaliation. In another case, a complaint to the UCIRO office was resolved in a settlement that included a $4,624 reimbursement for a quarter’s tuition.
Another settlement was linked to a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, while a fourth included a complaint to the Washington State Human Rights Commission.
But the UW has refused to disclose records that would explain the details of those complaints, claiming the detailed allegations were “student records” not subject to public records laws. As a result, it is unclear if any of the school’s agreements requiring confidentiality involved sexual misconduct.