You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
top story

Lawsuits, public pressure surround USC's removal of art professor accused of sexual harassment

  • Updated
USC Campus STOCK Photos01.jpg (copy) (copy) (copy)

Students walk along the Horseshoe on the University of South Carolina campus. The university announced Tuesday it has removed an art professor from teaching duties in response to a pair of recent lawsuits that accused him of sexually harassing fellow instructors. File/Andrew Whitaker/Staff

COLUMBIA — The University of South Carolina announced Tuesday it has removed David Voros from teaching duties this spring in response to a pair of recent lawsuits that accused the art professor of sexually harassing fellow instructors.

"Professor David Voros will not teach classes at the University of South Carolina this spring," university spokesman Jeff Stensland wrote in a statement Tuesday morning. "He will instead be assigned to other duties outside of the classroom until further notice."

The university’s move follows weeks of public pressure from student activists who pushed the school to fire Voros and other USC officials who they say enabled the tenured professor to harass and intimidate students and faculty alike over the past few years.

The school has faced criticism for continuing to employ Voros since at least 2018, when a former graduate student, Allison Dunavant, filed a lawsuit alleging the painting professor subjected her to "unbearable" living conditions and unwanted sexual advances during a study abroad trip in Italy after she walked in on the painting professor having an affair with another student.

The case has shined a bright spotlight on USC’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations against a professor at a time when colleges are working harder than ever to show they are taking such accusations seriously.

The lawsuits filed by Dunavant and two of Voros’ former colleagues, Jaime Misenheimer and Pamela Bowers, accuse officials in USC’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and the School of Visual Art and Design of failing to properly investigate allegations against Voros and standing by for years as he retaliated against women who complained about him.

Students say the allegations show USC must overhaul how it accepts and investigates such complaints. An online petition calling for Voros and other officials involved in the case to be fired had garnered more than 2,200 signatures by Tuesday.

The attorney for Voros’ accusers says the case also shows how the tenure system protects established professors.

“Tenure is a powerful thing,” Columbia lawyer Samantha Albrecht said. “I do think that tenured professors maybe have more protection sometimes than is necessarily helpful.”

Efforts to reach Voros, who makes $81,681 a year at USC, for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Stensland said the university could not comment further on Voros’ case because it is a personnel matter and because of the pending lawsuits.

The protection of tenure

Firing a tenured professor is not easy.

The concept of tenure was designed in 1940 to protect the academic freedom of accomplished, experienced professors and shield them from pressure or retaliation for exploring controversial research. Tenured professors can be fired only for certain serious offenses, including sexual misconduct.

But the process of giving a tenured professor the boot is lengthy. It is a two-step process that a good defense lawyer can drag out for months or years.

It requires the school to investigate the allegations and either determine they are valid or dismiss them. A tenure panel, usually made up of faculty members, would then decide whether the professor’s tenure should be revoked as a result of those findings.

“At most universities and college systems, the rules give professors more tools to defend themselves,” said Chris Slusher, a Missouri attorney who has defended students and faculty members accused of sexual harassment and misconduct.

Voros' accusers have alleged the university didn't seriously investigate the professor and too often ignored complaints.

“There wasn’t an actual investigative process at all,” Dunavant said of her case.

Stensland, the USC spokesman, said he could not provide more details on Voros’ case or confirm USC is conducting an investigation into the complaints against him. But he did say the university is aware of no other complaints against Voros other than the ones filed by Dunavant, Bowers and Misenheimer.

He said Voros' new duties while he is sidelined from teaching next spring “are still being determined.”

'A powerful voice'

Colleges across the country have been grappling with the same issue as sexual misconduct allegations against professors has become more common in the #MeToo era.

Earlier this month, the University of Washington fired a professor, the former director of its young scholars program, after finding he exploited his position to have “inappropriate sexual conduct” with a 17-year-old student in the program.

Last year, Dartmouth College settled a federal lawsuit brought by nine women who accused the school of ignoring years of harassment and assault by a trio of psychology department professors. The Ivy League school agreed to fork over $14 million to students who could prove they suffered abuse.

The Academic Sexual Misconduct Database, established in February 2016, has logged more than 1,000 cases of documented sexual misconduct allegations at U.S. universities, including the 1992 finding that former USC President James Holderman made sexual advances on favorite students.

Student activists have pushed their colleges to do more to respond to such allegations. They have complained of broken internal reporting systems that protect the accused and force victims of relieve their trauma as investigations drag on for months, even years.

Earlier this year, under pressure from students, the University of Texas agreed to make termination the default punishment for faculty members who are found guilty of sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking or interpersonal violence. The school also became the first in the country to publish the names of faculty members who had been disciplined for sexual misconduct.

Andrew Miltenberg, a New York attorney who represents students and professors accused of misconduct in colleges across the country, said colleges have every incentive to take complaints seriously.

“Student groups have become a very powerful voice,” Miltenberg said. “You can have a rally in the quad in front of the president’s home by students protesting the lack of consideration given to sexual assault victims. Or you can dispense of the accused.”

At USC, student groups such as the Feminist Collective, College Democrats and College Socialists have cited the three lawsuits against Voros in calling for change.

Sophie Luna, the 20-year-old geology major organizing the "Fire David Voros" movement, said the university’s current process for investigating sexual misconduct has done little for Voros’ accusers. She said students will consider in-person protests next spring if nothing more is done.

“He has been at this for two years now and nothing has happened to him so far,” Luna said. “That’s really what has angered people.”

The allegations

Voros’ biography on USC’s website, which remains live, indicates he was a finalist for USC’s undergraduate teaching award in 2006 and the school’s graduate teaching award in 2008.

On RateMyProfessors.com, Voros’ former students describe him as a scatterbrained genius who rarely showed up on time to his own classes and graded leniently.

Voros’ accusers, however, say the professor is a bully who used his power within the School of Visual Art and Design to forge inappropriate relationships with students, shower faculty and students with unwanted sexual advances, and retaliate against anyone who complained about his behavior to superiors.

USC settled Dunavant’s 2018 lawsuit for $75,000.

Last month, former professors Misenheimer and Bowers — Voros’ ex-wife — filed their own lawsuits that lent more credence to Dunavant’s claims.

According to Misenheimer's lawsuit:

Voros asked Misenheimer to retaliate against Dunavant by giving her a bad grade after the student filed a complaint against Voros related to the Italy study abroad trip.

Voros made an unwanted sexual advance on Misenheimer in a dark closet of the school building in February 2017, putting an arm around her and whispering in her ear.

Voros retaliated against Misenheimer for complaining about that incident to superiors, giving her poor performance reviews and blocking her from teaching classes.

Misenheimer resigned from the university in 2017.

Meanwhile, Bowers' lawsuit states she separated from Voros in 2016 and divorced him in 2017 because of his "one or more" sexual affairs with students.

According to her lawsuit, Voros made "unwelcome physical and sexual advances" to Bowers in her campus office after the couple split.

When Voros found out Bowers had complained, the lawsuit alleges he became more aggressive.

Bowers alleged Voros would stand in her doorway while she was teaching in order to intimidate her, used his knowledge of her schedule to stalk her, and tried to hug and grope her in her office in the School of Visual Art and Design.

Bowers, who is on leave from USC, and Misenheimer alleged officials in the SVAD and USC's Office Equal Opportunity Programs office were dismissive of their complaints.

In a tweet reacting to Tuesday's news, Dunavant wrote the school must do more.

"Great step, but he is being protected by #uofsc by not being fired," she wrote. "He continues to receive his salary, & this removal is only specified for one semester. This is not enough. This is still USC interpreting its policies in a way that is grey & unfavorable to the safety of students."

Albrecht, the accusers’ attorney, said she doesn't know what to make of USC's decision.

"It probably should have been done several years ago," she said. "I don't know how much of this will last or if that means he will be permanently removed."

Documents obtained by The Post and Courier on Tuesday show this is not the first time the school has disciplined Voros.

In January 2019, USC Vice Provost Paul Allen Miller chastised Voros for recruiting and taking two students to his study abroad program in Italy even after the university denied his application to teach the course, according to a letter that was first reported by The State newspaper. The school then banned Voros from taking students abroad or participating in their independent study courses.

Reach Avery Wilks at 803-374-3115. Follow him on Twitter at @AveryGWilks.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

Breaking News

Columbia Breaking News

Greenville Breaking News

Myrtle Beach Breaking News

Aiken Breaking News