Title IX Gone Wild?


The Knoxville News Sentinel reports that “University of Tennessee officials are investigating a claim of sexual harassment after reports surfaced online that a student received a zero on a geology quiz for answering a question about his lab instructor’s name with that of a semifamous lingerie model. Neither the student nor the teaching assistant filed a complaint, said university spokeswoman Karen Simsen. Rather, faculty in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences raised the issue Monday after spotting a post about the incident online at the website totalfratmove.com.”

“How might one violate Title IX on a quiz?” the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wondered:

The first question on the quiz asked “What is your Lab instructor’s name?” and invited students to “make something good up”—that is, a joke—if they don’t remember his or her name. The student, Keaton Wahlbon, couldn’t remember his lab instructor’s name, so he wrote a generic first name, Sarah, and a common last name, Jackson. Writing Sarah Jackson—an altogether ordinary name—landed Wahlbon in hot water with his lab instructor and his professor. In fact, the quiz was returned to Wahlbon with the word “inappropriate” next to his Sarah Jackson answer.

As it turns out, Sarah Jackson happens to be the name of a Canadian actress and lingerie model. It is also a name shared by thousands of other people across the world. Wahlbon tried to explain to his professor that he wrote what he thought was a generic name on the quiz and did not intend to be crass. According to an email screenshot obtained by Total Frat Move, his professor wrote:

“I have no way of determining your intention. I can only consider the result. The result is that you gave the name of Sarah Jackson, who is a lingerie and nude model. That result meets the Title IX definition of sexual harassment. The grade of zero stands and will not be changed.”

The first thing that occurred to me when I read this was surprise that the professor or perhaps the T.A. had even heard of this “lingerie and nude model.”  The name Sarah Jackson was before this incident utterly meaningless to me and, I suspect, would be as well to most faculty members.  It’s not such an uncommon name, after all, and most professors don’t spend much time perusing lingerie catalogs (at least I hope they don’t), much less committing to memory the names of the models in them.  (In today’s New York Times crossword, one clue was to the name of an apparently well-known model whose principal claim to fame is that she was in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue for ten years. I’m a crossword fanatic, but I never heard of her either, although it turns out she’s Russian and hence her name may be a bit less generic than Jackson’s. I wonder whether the Times crossword might be charged with sexual harassment if it were published in a college paper.)

When I googled “Sarah Jackson,” the images that came up were indeed of a young woman in lingerie (but not nude or sexual), but the actual links were all over the place.  The first was to the Wikipedia page of a now-deceased Canadian sculptor.  Other links were to an event manager, a writer, and a piccolo player with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, among others.  I had to dig to find the model Sarah Jackson.  When the author of the Total Frat Move article did the same, the first name to come up was that of a local psychiatrist.

“It’s not that it’s going to affect my grade,” Wahlbon wrote in an email to the professor, but “it’s just the principle of the whole thing.”  When his appeal was rejected, Wahlbon went public, which apparently sparked the formal Title IX investigation based on the complaint filed by the professor’s colleagues.

“The university is aware of the issue,” the university spokesperson said. “Our Office of Equity and Diversity is looking into the matter, as they are required to consider all complaints brought to them by a member of our campus community.”

This is crazy.  Even if it could be proven that Wahlbon intended to confuse his T.A. with a lingerie model — and his protests that he did not certainly seem more than reasonable — how would this even constitute harassment?  As FIRE points out, “the Supreme Court defined peer-on-peer harassment in the educational context as conduct that is so ‘severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.’  No reasonable person could believe that a student giving an incorrect quiz answer rises to the level of harassment defined by the Court.”

As the AAUP’s recent report on “The History, Uses, and Abuses of Title IX,” notes,

the current focus of Title IX on sexual violations has also been accompanied by regulation that conflates sexual misconduct (including sexual assault) with sexual harassment based on speech. This has resulted in violations of academic freedom through the punishment of protected speech by faculty members. Recent interpretations of Title IX are characterized by an overly expansive definition of what amounts and kinds of speech create a “hostile environment” in violation of Title IX.

While the AAUP’s concern in our report was mainly the academic freedom of faculty members, we are also concerned that abuses of Title IX can place students in a difficult position.  One can only hope that Tennessee’s Office of Equity and Diversity will dismiss the charge and that common sense will prevail.

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