St. Thomas provost says he’ll step aside
VP challenges handling of lewd email allegedly sent by another colleague
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.
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.
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.
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.”