St. Thomas provost says he’ll step aside

VP chal­lenges han­dling of lewd email al­legedly sent by an­other col­league

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Lind­say El­lis

The provost at the Univer­sity of St. Thomas is step­ping aside at the end of the se­mes­ter, af­ter a law­suit chal­lenged his han­dling of a lewd email al­legedly sent by an­other ad­min­is­tra­tor to him, a fe­male col­league and a priest.

The provost at the Univer­sity of St. Thomas an­nounced he is step­ping aside at the end of the fall se­mes­ter, three days af­ter a law­suit chal­lenged his han­dling of a lewd email al­legedly sent by an­other ad­min­is­tra­tor to him, a fe­male col­league and a priest.

Do­minic Aquila said he will leave the provost’s po­si­tion at the pri­vate Catholic univer­sity but will con­tinue to work with home-schooled chil­dren and teach as a fac­ulty mem­ber. His de­ci­sion to step aside, he said in an email to fac­ulty, has been “long in the mak­ing.”

Adam Mar­tinez, as­so­ciate di­rec­tor of the univer­sity’s Faith and Cul­ture pro­gram, is ac­cused in the law­suit of send­ing an email that in­cluded a photo of male gen­i­talia on Aug. 20, 2015 to Aquila, as­so­ciate vice pres­i­dent Siobhan Flem­ing and a priest who leads Mar­tinez’s depart­ment.

Aquila did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment and Mar­tinez de­clined to com­ment. St. Thomas of­fi­cials said in a state­ment that they be­lieve the men deny the al­le­ga­tions set out in the law­suit.

Flem­ing, the univer­sity’s as­so­ciate vice pres­i­dent of in­sti­tu­tional as­sess­ment, filed the law­suit Fri­day against Aquila and Mar­tinez, ac­cus­ing them of “ex­treme and out­ra­geous” con­duct.

“As a de­vout Catholic, I think it was very shock­ing to her, that this was go­ing on,” said at­tor­ney David Tang, who is rep­re­sent­ing Flem­ing. “She’s got a lot of anx­i­ety. This both­ers her. You can’t un-ring the bell.”

St. Thomas lawyer Carter Crow of Nor­ton Rose Ful­bright said the univer­sity in­ves­ti­gated in 2015 whether the in­ci­dent broke poli­cies in­clud­ing but not lim­ited to sex­ual mis­con­duct. Later, he said, St. Thomas took “ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion,” de­clin­ing to spec­ify any steps.

St. Thomas pol­icy, which is avail­able on­line, for­bids “sex-based cy­ber-ha­rass­ment,” “dis­tri­bu­tion of porno­graphic ma­te­rial” and “sex­ual in­tim­i­da­tion and in­de­cent ex­po­sure.”

Tang, how­ever, said the univer­sity did not eval­u­ate

the email as sex­ual mis­con­duct un­der Ti­tle IX, the fed­eral gen­der nondis­crim­i­na­tion law, and he said Flem­ing was not in­ter­viewed for any univer­sity in­ves­ti­ga­tion in 2015.

The law­suit comes as uni­ver­si­ties na­tion­wide are un­der tight scru­tiny for how they han­dle al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual mis­con­duct, a broad cat­e­gory that the Depart­ment of Jus­tice has de­fined as sex­ual ha­rass­ment, sex­ual as­sault, sex­ual vi­o­lence and sex­ual ex­ploita­tion.

Fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors are prob­ing hun­dreds of cam­puses na­tion­wide for al­legedly break­ing fed­eral law that dic­tates how uni­ver­si­ties are re­quired to re­spond to these al­le­ga­tions on cam­pus.

Res­o­lu­tion sought

And the is­sue has par­tic­u­lar res­o­nance in Texas. The fed­eral Of­fice for Civil Rights is in­ves­ti­gat­ing 14 com­plaints on 12 Texas cam­puses, not in­clud­ing St. Thomas. Mul­ti­ple law­suits ac­cuse Bay­lor Univer­sity of mis­han­dling sex­ual as­sault com­plaints.

Aquila has held top po­si­tions at the univer­sity — in­clud­ing vice pres­i­dent for aca­demic af­fairs and provost — since 2008. A univer­sity or­ga­ni­za­tional chart on St. Thomas’ web­site shows he re­ports di­rectly to the pres­i­dent.

Mar­tinez has worked at the univer­sity’s Faith and Cul­ture Cen­ter since 2009, ac­cord­ing to his LinkedIn pro­file.

Univer­sity pub­li­ca­tions say that Flem­ing is a St. Thomas alumna. She re­turned to the univer­sity as an ad­min­is­tra­tor in 2013.

Crow, St. Thomas’ lawyer, said the univer­sity thought the mat­ter was set­tled af­ter it took ac­tion in 2015. Flem­ing re­newed the com­plaint in June and the univer­sity tried to “get an am­i­ca­ble res­o­lu­tion,” Crow said.

“Ul­ti­mately that was not pos­si­ble and Ms. Flem­ing de­cided to file,” he said.

Grow­ing stress

Tang at­tributes the de­layed fil­ing to his client’s grow­ing stress about the com­plaint, which he said “was eat­ing up at her.” Over the last two years, Flem­ing has con­tin­ued to work with both men but no­ticed a changed pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ship with her col­leagues, Tang said.

A univer­sity crime log in­di­cates that a re­port was filed on June 23, 2017 of an ob­scene dis­play or dis­tri­bu­tion from Aug. 20, 2015. Tang con­firmed that the re­port de­scribes the email in the law­suit.

Though St. Thomas is a pri­vate univer­sity, its po­lice re­ports are pub­lic records un­der state law.

When the Hous­ton Chron­i­cle sub­mit­ted an open records re­quest to ob­tain the po­lice re­port, how­ever, the univer­sity ap­pealed the re­quest to the Texas At­tor­ney Gen­eral, call­ing the in­for­ma­tion “highly in­ti­mate or em­bar­rass­ing, such that its re­lease would be highly ob­jec­tion­able to a rea­son­able per­son” and “of no le­git­i­mate pub­lic in­ter­est.”

That ap­peal is still pend­ing.

‘Ex­tra scru­tiny’

As a Catholic univer­sity, St. Thomas in­cludes moral stan­dards as part of its mis­sion state­ment and con­duct code.

Fac­ulty, staff and ad­min­is­tra­tors, the univer­sity says, “should be ready to ed­u­cate stu­dents about good­ness, dis­ci­pline (and) knowl­edge.”

The univer­sity says moral in­dis­cre­tions in­clud­ing sex­ual ac­tiv­ity are “mod­er­ate vi­o­la­tions” of a stu­dent hand­book.

Charissa Dvo­rak, an at­tor­ney at Spencer Fane law firm in Dal­las who fo­cuses on church and univer­sity re­sponses to sex­ual mis­con­duct, said it is chal­leng­ing to cre­ate a cam­pus cul­ture that en­cour­ages re­port­ing and in­ves­ti­ga­tion of sex­ual mis­con­duct at re­li­gious uni­ver­si­ties.

“There is a lot of ex­tra scru­tiny for an in­sti­tu­tion that has a faith-based mis­sion,” Dvo­rak said. “Many in­di­vid­u­als and in­sti­tu­tions rightly hold them to a higher stan­dard.”

Re­spond­ing to the added scru­tiny, cam­puses and other in­sti­tu­tions may at­tempt to keep al­le­ga­tions quiet, she said.

“Chris­tian in­sti­tu­tions and faith-based in­sti­tu­tions have the op­por­tu­nity to lead the way,” she said. “They miss out on that op­por­tu­nity when they don’t speak out right away.”

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