Don't stand so close to me: When does a popular professor's friendliness become inappropriate?

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The HooK: COVER- Don't stand so close to me: When does a popular professor's friendliness become inappropriate?

 

 

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Holiday 36


 

PHOTOS BY JEN FARIELLO JEN@READTHEHOOK.COM

At the University of Virginia, where faculty members are known to hole up with their research, students praised James R. Sofka as a welcome anomaly.

The young assistant professor met with students whether he had office hours or not. On warm afternoons he could be found on the university's famed Lawn playing chess with undergraduates. As a faculty adviser to a debate society and a campus sorority, he could be counted on to attend students' plays and concerts, or meet up later for a drink.

His fall course on international law filled up quickly. Since he became a full-time professor at Virginia in 1998, his dynamic lectures on 18th-century international relations and early American foreign policy have dazzled students.

But after hours, some of his former students allege, Sofka put his hands where they did not belong. In a January 14 letter, a university dean informed the politics professor that because of repeated complaints of "inappropriate behavior" with female students, he was being removed immediately from his position as dean of an undergraduate honors program. His contract, which is set to expire in 2007, would not be renewed, he was told.

In the letter, the dean ordered the professor to refrain from having drinks with students off campus, and from "touching and hugging" them. But it did not give names or details about any of the complaints.

Sofka maintains that he has no reason to feel ashamed of his interactions with students. He calls the dean's allegations an attack on his character. The professor, who is not on the tenure track, complains that he has never had a formal opportunity to defend himself. He has appealed to the provost and president.

Regardless of the outcome, Sofka's case illustrates the risks of being a chummy professor. When does fraternizing become unseemly? Is it okay to have drinks with students, or give one a hug after a big accomplishment? What about taking out a student of the opposite sex off campus? What about inviting a student home when one's spouse is away?

Ultimately, it seems that what made Sofka so popular–his desire to be close to students– became his downfall.

 

Big Man on Campus

 The square-jawed professor with close-cropped hair looks younger than his 37 years. Sofka, who received his Ph.D. from Virginia in 1995, is married; his wife, Amy Sofka, works on a child-literacy program in the education school at Virginia. Often dressed in a conservative blazer and preppy tie, Sofka might be confused for a stock trader.

Florian P. Aigrain, a sophomore, says that Sofka even has the personality of someone who works on Wall Street. "He's not your typical professor who's artsy-fartsy," says Aigrain. Sofka is dynamic, opinionated, and aggressive, the sophomore says, but not in a negative way. When Aigrain was applying to colleges, meeting Sofka helped persuade him to attend Virginia.

"He was young, he was smart, and involved with student life," says Adele Bruce Shartzer, who graduated in 2003. "And he's not unattractive. For every girl who's had a crush on a professor... ," she says, her voice trailing off. Shartzer goes on to explain that it is easier to have a relationship with a professor who is more on "your wavelength, closer to college than to retirement."

Sofka relished his reputation. "I'm a popular and well-known professor," he explains in an interview. He says he has drinks and lunches with students, and if he has an extra ticket to a concert, he occasionally invites an undergraduate.

Sarah C. Greer, a sophomore, was assigned Sofka as her faculty adviser in the Echols Scholars Program, the honors program for undergraduates that Sofka had directed since 2002. Greer says he encouraged her to apply to an even more elite honors program that accepts only a few politics majors each year. "A lot of these advisers are like, Let's shovel these students through the door ... I have better things to do," she says. Sofka, in contrast, "really believes in his students."

In an open letter to others at the university, the professor defended his interactions with students, calling them "the source of great joy to me and the genesis of many lasting friendships. Indeed, my cherished times of ... taking an interest in the lives of my students have been publicly documented and praised."

The professor acknowledged that while some may see any close relationship between students and faculty members as "the appearance of a conflict of interest," he sees it as "the vital humanism of academic life."

But Edward L. Ayers, dean of arts and sciences, apparently did not see it that way. In his January letter to Sofka, Dean Ayers said he had warned the professor back in 2003 about his interactions with students.

"Specifically," he wrote, "I directed you to cease inappropriate behavior with female Echols Scholars." The dean said he was removing Sofka because of complaints that the behavior "has not abated." Ayers reassigned him to teaching full time in the politics department.

The news came as a shock to Sofka. "Nobody really has ever seen a letter like that," he says.

But what about the 2003 complaints? According to Sofka, a female student with whom he attended a concert that spring was spreading rumors about him. He heard that she was telling people that his leg had brushed up against hers and that he had propositioned her. He says the student had received a D on the final exam in his course and protested to a teaching assistant.

Sofka says he encouraged the student to file a complaint with the university's equal-opportunity office, which investigates sexual-harassment claims. He wanted to clear his name. She filed a complaint, he says, it was resolved, and the grade stood. He says the recommendation that resulted from the investigation of her complaint "was as bland as they come."

Ayers did call him in to tell him to be careful, Sofka says. But he maintains that it was a broad, collegial talk. And he has not faced any complaints since, he says.

 

The Lecherous Professor?

 Students at Virginia say rumors have persisted for years that Sofka was not always professional with his female students. Some dismissed it as campus gossip. But three women say that their experiences with the professor suggest otherwise. The women, who are all graduates, agreed to speak about the incidents only if their names were not used.

One graduate says that Sofka, who was her adviser, constantly asked her out to dinner and drinks alone. She says he even asked her to have a Scotch with him when his wife was out of town– an invitation she found "creepy." At events where she knew Sofka would show up, she began timing her entrance to avoid him. She considered leaving the university because she was so uncomfortable, but decided to stay.

Another graduate, from the class of 2003, says she was initially impressed with Sofka, also her faculty adviser. "He had seemed so wonderful and friendly and non-intimidating," she says. Early in her undergraduate years, she says, he invited her over to his apartment. She went, thinking it was to discuss her major.

"It felt not right," she says. Even though she was under age and had driven to his home, she says, Sofka offered her Scotch. According to her account, they began the meeting sitting opposite each other, but the professor later moved next to her on the couch. "He'd talk and pat my leg," she says. She was uncomfortable, so she told him she had to go, left, then called a friend. "I was very shaken up," she says.

But she didn't file a complaint or tell an administrator. "I didn't want my time at the university to be tainted," she says. Instead, she stopped going to his office. The only time she would was to get her course-registration forms signed.

A third woman says she was "thrilled" when Sofka first paid attention to her as an undergraduate. She describes herself then as a dorky, high-strung student who loved attention from faculty members. Sofka, who made his home number available to his students, seemed to invite relationships with undergraduates. In his office, she says, he had a bulletin board where he tacked up notes from some of his students. "That was really attractive– to be one of his favorites," she says.

One night, with her graduation date drawing near, she says, they were out at a bar drinking. While he was walking her home, she says, Sofka put his arms around her. "He really wrapped his arms around my waist, like body to body," she says. "I pushed him away."

She went inside and says she never saw him again. She didn't tell anyone, not even her friends. She thought people would think she had encouraged him.

"I really thought I was going to get blamed for it," she says. "I didn't want people to think I was flirting with the professor."

 

The Aftermath

 Sofka, when told about the women's descriptions of his behavior, says he has no idea who they are. "Without names, I can't say anything," he says. Through his lawyer, he "denies that he ever made any inappropriate romantic advances towards any student."

Sofka has not been allowed a hearing to respond to the recent complaints mentioned in the dean's January letter. The equal-opportunity office does not investigate anonymous complaints. And a university spokeswoman says that because Sofka has no expectation of continued employment, the university does not need to hold an appeals hearing regarding its decision to terminate his contract. Sofka says he has been denied due process and has hired a lawyer.

 

Student Support

 When the news of the popular professor's troubles first broke, some students rallied around him. "We were just appalled at how it was dealt with," says Greer. She sent a letter to Dean Ayers, saying she was disappointed with the outcome. She was especially concerned that the Echols Scholars Program lost "its passionate leader," she says.

Aigrain agrees, noting that the administration did not handle the situation "as properly" as it could have.

But a groundswell of support for the politics professor never materialized. Faculty members have been loath to openly discuss Sofka's plight. Marcia D. Childress, chairwoman of the Faculty Senate and a professor in the medical school, says she hasn't heard from professors who are upset about the issues surrounding Sofka. But one professor, who declined to be named, says a chill has gone through the faculty.

Sofka "was given no real warning about this," says the faculty member. "Most professors realize this could have been them." The professor also suggests that top officials are "enormously unhappy with the dean for having created this mess."

Ayers did not respond to telephone messages, and his assistant referred calls to the university's public-relations office. Carol Wood, a spokeswoman, declined to discuss the case in detail, calling it a "personnel matter." But she says that Ayers continues to have the full support of both the president and the provost.

A better approach, says the professor who requested anonymity, would have been to quietly put Sofka on administrative leave while investigating the allegations. "If this guy is such a threat," adds the professor, "then please explain to me why he's been put in front of hundreds and hundreds of students in political studies? ... It has people mystified."

Billie Wright Dziech, a professor of language arts at the University of Cincinnati who has written several books about sexual harassment, says she doesn't know much about the details of Sofka's case, but says it is clear from the letter that the professor had been warned. Dziech suggests that faculty members, in general, should maintain certain boundaries when dealing with students. She suggests not going places with them alone and not drinking too much– or at all– with them.

"You can be sympathetic without ever touching them or drinking with them," she says. But following a set of rules is not as important as learning to take cues from students' body language and facial expressions, she adds. "If you're really a good teacher... you know when you've offended someone."

 

The Safest Approach

 "You can still be a mentor without engaging in touching, hugging, or drinking," says Michael W. Hawkins, an adjunct professor at Xavier University in Ohio and a lawyer who has represented colleges in sexual-harassment cases.

The most conservative approach is often the safest, agrees Dziech, because people have different concepts of personal boundaries. She says, "You don't have to French kiss someone or rape someone to offend them."

Dziech says buddy-buddy professors who make passes at students often fit the same mold: They have very good student evaluations and are considered entertaining in and out of class. "It's all about making people like you so you can get an inroad," she says. "It's like a teenage thing: I want the people to like me." A professor who takes advantage of his or her popularity puts students in a bind, she says. Students often feel they have to drop a course, change majors, or switch advisers to get away.

Even if a faculty member is not guilty of acting inappropriately, being known as the professor who's always hanging out at the student bar can damage one's reputation, let alone career.

At Virginia, Sofka has become the butt of student jokes. The April Fool's Day edition of the student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, featured a doctored photo of Sofka in a tuxedo with three scantily clad blondes. The article joked that he has been named head of the women-and-gender-studies department and suggested a new course, "Studying A Broad: Sexism in Foreign Countries." Priority registration, it said, had been given to sorority members and the women's volleyball team.

And yet just 10 days later, his two actual fall courses filled up within 24 hours. More than 130 students are already on the waiting lists.

This story originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It is republished in the Hook by permission.

 
"I have no reason to feel ashamed of my conduct towards any student–male or female– in eleven years of teaching," says Sofka.

CAVALIER DAILY PHOTO BY PETER DUNN #

 

 

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