Education

UNT professor was accused of inappropriate comments about female students. He’s suing.

In the fall of 2017, at least three female students in a University of North Texas graduate class alleged their professor had made inappropriate comments about them.

Dr. Justin Trudeau, a tenured professor who arrived at the Denton college in 2005, learned of the complaints in December 2017, he wrote in a lawsuit he filed against the university last week. In the lawsuit, he disputes the allegations and criticizes the school’s handling of them.

The students, who were kept anonymous, alleged Trudeau had made inappropriate comments about them during the course, which focused on adaptation and staging in theater. The comments, they said, left them feeling embarrassed and afraid to speak up in class.

In one instance, Trudeau allegedly called students’ performance “hot” and “erotic,” according to the suit. He was similarly accused of giving one student sexualized feedback during a performance and telling another he would give her an A “if she convinced other students to perform in a sexual manner on stage, and questioned the pregnancy status of other students.”

Also, he was accused of calling one student “a psychopath” when he learned the individual had a mental health condition, the suit states.

The university’s Office of Equal Opportunity, which conducted a roughly five-month investigation into the claims, determined there was “sufficient evidence” to show Trudeau had violated policies relating to sexual harassment and non-discrimination, according to the suit.

In November 2018, the University Grievance Committee wrote to Trudeau to tell him their punishment, the suit says — two years without merit pay, or additional income based on performance. He was also not allowed to teach classes during the 2018 summer, he wrote in the suit.

But since this incident was a first-time case and there was support for Trudeau as a professor, the committee wrote to Trudeau, he wasn’t ordered to take sexual harassment training.

“We believe in maintaining an educational environment free from harassment and discrimination,” a UNT spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday. “The university found Professor Trudeau did not meet those expectations, and the appropriate disciplinary actions were taken.”

Trudeau — who outlined the allegations made against him in detail in the suit — says they were untrue and baseless, and that the class was discussing a topic where “eroticism” was relevant. He also alleges the school violated its own policies throughout the investigation, such as not providing him with the evidence against him so he could properly defend himself.

The school violated his due-process rights, his First Amendment rights and Title IX, according to the suit.

“The ‘investigation’ was predetermined, improper and deficient,” Trudeau’s attorney, Michael P. Kelly, said in the lawsuit.

Kelly didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story by deadline.

The lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 4 in U.S. District Court in Sherman, seeks a jury trial and lays out actions the school should take. Those include declaring the present investigative procedure is unlawful, removing negative evaluations from his file he contends are untrue, and awarding him damages in excess of $300,000 combined.

Trudeau claims the allegations have damaged his reputation on campus, bringing down his teacher scores and causing at least one graduate student to ask for another professor to be his chair. He also claims he has lost out on substantial pay and suffered embarrassment and emotional distress.

UNT wouldn’t comment on the suit on Tuesday, saying “the university has not been served with a lawsuit.”

“We will review any claims made by Professor Trudeau and his attorney, and then respond accordingly,” a spokesperson said Tuesday.

The fall semester of 2017

Trudeau, even though he denied the allegations, provided context on the class in question, Seminar in Adaptation and Staging. The class is for post-grad students and everyone gets an A, he said in the lawsuit, and in fall 2017 he assigned a book called “A Director Prepares” by Anne Bogart.

The book reportedly describes “eroticism” as a metaphor for directing actors. The content could be read as sensual, erotic or sexual, the suit says, and Trudeau had to talk about these subjects in his role as a teacher and an evaluator of students’ performances.

He reportedly learned of negative student evaluations, or Student Perceptions of Teaching (SPOT), and the Office of Equal Opportunity investigation after the fall 2017 semester. He then presented evidence to the lead investigator, such as students’ names, his SPOT evaluations and the fact that — on the first day of class — a student had told him another student made “inflammatory and demonstratively negative comments about him at a local bar.”

“At this time, Plaintiff had been teaching at UNT since 2005, and a graduate student reporting another graduate student’s malicious behavior towards him had never occurred,” Kelly wrote in the lawsuit.

But the OEO failed to look into this claim, according to the suit. And he was allegedly told there was no appeals process for the investigation, in violation of school codes.

The OEO never looked into the evidence Trudeau provided, the suit says. He was allegedly denied his due process.

The school determined he violated university sexual harassment and anti-discrimination policy in regard to certain allegations. There were two allegations — that he referenced one student’s breasts and commented on another student’s performance attire — found to have “insufficient evidence” to substantiate violations, according to the suit.

Trudeau claims when he was presented with his punishment, he was unable to provide any sort of response, in violation of school codes.

He alleged in the suit the university violated its own rules in other ways:

  • Allowing the investigation to go past 45 days and not receiving a “reasonable justification” as to why.
  • Allowing information about the claims and the investigation that was meant to be confidential to become known by all faculty members in the Department of Communication Studies.

Trudeau asked in the suit for an amount in excess of $100,000 for past and future lost earnings; an amount in excess of $100,000 for emotional distress, embarrassment and damage to his career; and an amount in excess of $100,000 for other damages to be determined at trial.

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Jack Howland is a breaking news and enterprise reporter. Before coming to the Star-Telegram in May 2019, he worked for two and a half years as a breaking news reporter at the Poughkeepsie Journal in New York. He’s a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
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