The decade's most triggering comedy
Robert Frodeman was a tenured philosophy professor at the University of North Texas, where he also chaired the Department of Philosophy and Religion. He is yet another professor caught up in cancel culture, forced to resign by a university seemingly hellbent on destroying his career.
He is not a conservative by any means, though his questioning on certain philosophical dogma probably made him seem like one to his colleagues. In a lengthy article for Quillette, Frodeman, whose inquisition by Title IX does not appear to have received the same media attention as other accused professors, details his downfall, which began in June 2018. At that time, he was contacted by the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and told someone had filed a sexual harassment complaint against him. An interview on the matter was conducted over the phone:
The interviewer began by asking if I had invited a newly hired departmental lecturer to a local coffee shop? Yes, I had. Why? To welcome her to the department, as senior people are supposed to do with new colleagues. The interviewer wanted to know if she had asked how she came to be hired in the department, and if I had replied “I have no idea.” Yes, I had. What had I meant by that statement? I told the interviewer what I had told her—that I hadn’t been on the search committee, or looked at the candidate’s files, and was not part of the deliberations. And some months later, had I asked this same lecturer for recommendations for readings in feminist approaches to film noir? I had. I was teaching a class in aesthetics and wanted feminist perspectives on Double Indemnity. She had recommended two and I had used one of them in class. The interviewer had nine such questions. Innocuous interactions were now fraught with innuendo. I recalled warnings from male colleagues that they would never invite a female colleague out for a cup of coffee, much less a beer, and how I had ridiculed their excessive caution.
It wasn’t until August that Frodeman heard back from the OEO and learned he had been cleared, yet he still worried that the allegation was still on his record. Frodeman would later learn that three allegations had been lodged against him, all filed within days of each other in May 2018, all stemming from incidents a decade or so earlier. He wasn’t even informed of the other two complaints until months later, after the university hired an outside law firm to investigate him a second time.
“One of these complaints involved one of the new faculty members. She claimed that I had made her feel ‘potentially unsafe,’ even though we had only met a couple of times, and then at faculty meetings. Her reason? A year and a half earlier, at the faculty dinner for her on-campus job interview, I had asked what her husband did for a living and how her parents were employed. The third complaint had been filed by a male colleague after another faculty member informed him of inappropriate conduct that was supposed to have occurred back in March of 2006. He told me later that he felt compelled to turn in a report lest he be fired for overlooking an allegation of sexual harassment,” Frodeman wrote.
As Frodeman noted, even though the allegations were dismissed, they “implied a pattern of harassment.” The notion that it was “an organized campaign to damage” his reputation for reasons other than sexual harassment was of course not considered.
On September 17, barely a month after being found not responsible, Frodeman was informed in a letter from the university that he was the subject of a Title IX investigation, meaning he had been accused of some form of sexual misconduct. He was told an anonymous complaint from faculty members prompted the investigation but said nothing about disciplinary action. The letter said that he had been accused of having “an alleged inappropriate relationship with former graduate student beginning in approximately 2006.”
Frodeman said the letter was riddled with errors.
Twelve days after receiving the letter, on September 29, 2018, the dean of his department called him to say he was being removed from his classes and no longer allowed on campus, nor was he allowed to contact any other faculty, staff, or students. If he did, he would be fired. He wasn’t told at that time why this had happened and couldn’t defend himself.
“The process was shambolic, dishonest, and lacked accountability. Rules were applied without explanation and then changed without warning. Every step of the proceedings—including that first letter of September 17th—was filled with distortions. The allegations changed over time to fit a predetermined end. I was kept in the dark about the charges and the investigation for months. And the safeguards I thought would offer protection, of due process and unbiased inquiry (not to mention tenure), were swept away,” Frodeman wrote of his ordeal.
Frodeman was forced through a Title IX inquisition under Obama administration rules, which did not require schools to provide the accused with even the detailed allegations against them. The allegations against him were anonymous and from a decade earlier – and he wasn’t allowed to see the evidence the school allegedly had against him.
Frodeman believed the inquisition against him came because of various questions he asked at department meetings that went against the preferred narrative. For example, at one meeting, his department chair said they needed to fill two open faculty positions with women or they would “be in deep s***.” Frodeman said that diversity was important for the department and for the students, but it shouldn’t be the sole criteria with which to evaluate candidates. He said he was given looks that “made it clear that these remarks had not been well received.” In another discussion, he asked if it was legal to hold a workshop on feminism only available to women.
“Inconvenient inquiries like these have traditionally been central to the philosopher’s trade. Questioning ought to be non-denominational, and I ask equally pointed questions in conversation with liberals and conservatives, theists and atheists. My colleagues, however, now viewed matters differently. A growing list of issues was no longer open to debate, and my questions stamped me as a defender of repudiated points of view,” Frodeman wrote.
After being informed that a second investigation had been opened against him, Frodeman realized the predicament in which he found himself:
The challenge I faced was to prove a negative from 12 years earlier when I did not even know the specifics of the charges. I would have no information about the allegations until being interviewed by the lawyers. During the six weeks until then I was unable to contact or reply to colleagues and students—leaving projects hanging, student questions ignored, and letters of recommendation unwritten. I was forbidden to even tell people that I could not communicate with them under threat of being fired.
On October 30, Frodeman was interviewed by a law firm hired by the university to investigate him. The lawyers told him they were just trying to figure out the truth, yet their very first question was whether Frodeman had been charged with sexual misconduct at previous universities.
“I had not, but how was this relevant to allegations concerning my time at this University? I was asked questions about my marriage: Did your wife know about your relationship with a graduate student? This was a complex question that assumed something that had not yet been established. I was interrogated about my entire professional life—relationships with colleagues, undergraduates, graduates, and staff, from the beginning of my career to that morning. This was not an interview. It was an inquisition,” Frodeman wrote.
The former professor said that the lawyers eventually focused on a relationship with one graduate student and events from March 2006. Frodeman and this grad student were at a conference. He was there to run a workshop. The discussions lasted three days and meetings “ran nonstop from morning into the evening,” Frodeman wrote.
The graduate student was there as a research assistant because she was the only one who showed interest in looking “at environmental disasters from an interdisciplinary point of view.” The attorneys who grilled him about this conference asked if he shared a hotel room with his assistant, whether he held her hand during a meeting, and whether he had a sexual relationship with the student during the conference. He answered “no” to all the questions. He wrote that all the allegations were false but he couldn’t provide times or witnesses to back up his denials since he hadn’t been provided the details of the allegation ahead of time.
Questions surrounding the graduate student moved from the events of March 2006 to 2007 and further – after the student had graduated.
Prior to the interview, Frodeman had repeatedly asked for the details of the allegations against him. He continued asking even after the interview. It was not until the law firm he hired to represent him, Nesenoff & Miltenberg LLP, reached out to the University’s general counsel did he receive a response – one that made no sense. The school claimed there wasn’t even a complainant, writing:
The current investigation in which you are a Respondent was initiated by the University in response to information collected during the investigation of a separate matter. As such, there is no complainant, nor is there a specific person who identified you as a Respondent. Title IX requires postsecondary institutions to promptly investigate incidences of suspected sexual harassment. The University therefore initiated this investigation without a complainant.
“Set to one side that this is an inaccurate account of the original (redacted) letter, which I would later discover had made specific claims about me. I was charged with sexual harassment, but no one was doing the charging, for there was no one claiming that they had been harassed. The investigation was generated by hearsay: Someone was claiming that someone else had been harassed by me 12 years earlier. I was removed from the classroom and campus and suffered irreparable professional harm on the basis of an anonymous surmise made about someone else’s experience more than a decade before,” Frodeman wrote.
Frodeman was interviewed a second time, on December 6, 2018. At the first interview, he focused solely on denying a relationship with the woman while she was a graduate student. At the second interview, he admitted he had an affair with her – “after she had finished her thesis, left town, and begun a PhD program in another state.”
He said he didn’t mention this in the first interview because his personal life had nothing to do with the university. He provided the lawyers with a letter written by the woman to her parents, explaining the relationship began in October 2007 and nothing happened between the two while she was a student at the University of North Texas. The attorneys contacted the woman and she confirmed the letter.
On December 30, he happened to check his campus email to find a message from the university’s Title IX officer, informing him the law firm finished its draft report and he had until January 2, 2019 to say if he wanted to respond. As Frodeman noted, the timing seemed to be an effort to keep him from responding.
“Of course I wanted to respond,” Frodeman wrote. “The Title IX officer said that I would have to come to her office to see the draft. I was out of town for the break. She refused to send me the draft, but after some haggling she said that the report would be made available to me on a secured website for 24 hours. I asked why I was not being given a copy of the draft, and why I had only a limited amount of time to review it. I was told that I was being belligerent. When I asked if the provost and other university officials would also be similarly constrained in their viewing the Title IX officer hung up on me.”
After finally seeing the nine-page, single-spaced report, Frodeman learned that some of the allegations came from a fellow faculty member with whom Frodeman had previous difficulties. He had invited her to the workshop in 2006 to try to mend fences, but was unsuccessful. Others in the department seemed to have issues with her as well.
The draft report, according to Frodeman, obscured the fact that no evidence existed to support the allegations against him, including the fact that the alleged victim said he had never acted inappropriately toward her while she was a student at the university.
Instead, the report relied on anonymous, unrelated allegations of Frodeman’s general demeanor:
Combative, abusive, harassing, and generally difficult to work with. Although these additional allegations do not rise to the level of sexual harassment and are not the subject of this investigation, we felt it important to communicate in this Report that many of the Respondent’s colleagues share these concerns…
As Frodeman wrote, faculty members who spoke highly of him were not included in the report. The final report buried the fact that he had been cleared of sexual harassment.
Frodeman’s ordeal still was not over, even though he had been investigated twice and twice cleared.
In March 2019 he was informed by the dean that the university was not beginning its own internal investigation to determine whether Frodeman violated campus policy regarding consensual relations. Since Frodeman’s affair with the graduate student began after she left the university, he felt the investigation would end as the others had.
Not so. The letter from the dean accusing him of having an affair with the student claimed he did so while he oversaw her work at the university.
“He was in error,” Frodeman wrote. “The student’s degree plan (the final document recording that all work had been completed for the masters) had been turned in before the relationship began. But eventually the real point became clear. Even though Jane Doe had moved out of town in May, only returning to successfully defend the masters one morning in July, had matriculated in a PhD program at another university in August (only possible because she had completed her masters), and had turned in her revised thesis and degree plan to the graduate school in September, the chair still considered her a University student because she had not walked across the stage to receive her diploma. And this, apparently, was a ‘violation’ worthy of termination.”
When Frodeman explained this to his department chair, he was told he wasn’t taking the allegations seriously. Frodeman tried to express remorse for not paying closer attention to the guidelines and tried to point out how marginal his alleged infraction was – and that no other incident had occurred in the 12 years since.
It didn’t work, the department chair recommended to the dean and provost that he be fired. The dean wrote a letter suggesting Frodeman should not be fired but have a $5,000 salary reduction, get no merit increase for a year, and be barred from teaching or working with graduate students for three years. Frodeman responded by pointing out that the students would be punished (some chose the university specifically to work with him) for something that happened a decade earlier.
The provost then provided a letter to Frodeman saying she wanted him fired. He met with her and provided documents to prove that his relationship began with the graduate student after he or anyone else had a say over her degree. Undeterred, the provost still recommended he be fired.
Frodeman asked the faculty senate for a grievance hearing, thinking they were biased toward protecting faculty. The hearing was held in June. Prior to that, Frodeman was told he had to submit the presentations he would use to defend himself. The provost was supposed to do the same, but Frodeman was told she had no prepared remarks. Of course, at the hearing, she read from prepared remarks and clearly based her arguments on the defense materials he provided. Even her argument changed from the previous allegations. She now claimed it was wrong for Frodeman to attend a field class in Chile in May 2008 – long after the graduate student in question “walked.” The provost claimed Frodeman’s presence made other faculty uncomfortable but provided no evidence. She didn’t even bother to explain how this violated campus policy.
The provost called one of the attorneys from the law firm that previously investigated Frodeman and asked if he hear “any other rumors” about Frodeman that weren’t included in the report. The lawyer answered by providing gossip.
Frodeman provided the evidence in his defense – that the affair happened after the student left the university and was done with her course work and that it was a marginal infraction that occurred 12 years earlier.
Two days later, the committee agreed to revoke his tenure and fire him.
Rather than attempting a last appeal to the Board of Regents, Frodeman resigned, hoping he might still be hired elsewhere in the future. He does not appear to be currently employed.