It started with a target. Phoebe had come to Augustana University with the assurance that she and her professors would be close—the South Dakota school advertised a 12:1 student-faculty ratio, and as a sophomore in 2014, she’d already been invited to bond with an instructor off campus. She and her new advisor, Professor Daniel Howard, shared a number of hobbies: an interest in insects, a commitment to snark, and a love of trap shooting.
Phoebe cocked her gun and fired, feeling triumphant. At 19, she hit her mark with ease as Professor Howard, then 49, threw clay pigeons. After shooting for about an hour, she said, he then invited her over for dinner at his house and casually mentioned that his wife was out of town.
At dinner, he brought out a pitcher of margarita and then another, she said. Two bottles of wine later, Phoebe said she could barely hold her head up. Soon, she said, he was leading her to the bedroom. According to Phoebe, he had sex with her several times that night.
It was the beginning of a seven-month relationship that Phoebe initially believed was consensual, and that would end with his wife’s discovery of the relationship, and an anonymous Title IX report. (Title IX prohibits sexual discrimination at any university receiving federal funding.) At Professor Howard’s alleged urging, Phoebe transferred to another school downstate at the end of the following summer. By the time the investigation was underway, she was gone. So was he.
Despite the school’s evidence that he was sexually involved with his advisee, despite Phoebe’s allegations that he gave alcohol to an underage student and had sex with her while she was too drunk to legally consent, Professor Howard pursued a subordinate at his next university, multiple students claim. His alleged behavior is an example of higher education’s worst-kept secret: Faculty members accused of sexual harassment are often allowed to leave with their reputations intact and resume the same behavior at other institutions—at the expense of students.
When professors leave one university where they have violated Title IX and assume a position at another, it’s often called “passing the professor.” Some professors even resign before the complaint is fully adjudicated. Each year, new examples of this phenomenon surface — but more often than not, these cases are regarded as singular events, rather than suggestions of a systemic gap in oversight.
Howard did not respond to multiple requests for comment over several months. A lawyer representing him initially sent VICE a letter on his behalf, expressing his intent to set up an interview with the professor; two weeks later, however, he informed VICE he was no longer representing Howard.
When it comes to spotlighting how often faculty who are serially accused of sexual harassment are shuffled from one university to another, data is elusive, because both university investigations and the hiring and firing of professors are cloaked in confidentiality. But a slew of highly public recent cases suggests that such circumstances might be pervasive in higher education. Despite ever-changing approaches from the Department of Education and attempts for reform languishing in Congress, a few universities are implementing new policies of their own accord.
The #MeToo movement has demonstrated that holding high-profile predators like Harvey Weinstein accountable often requires a groundswell of survivors who agree to come forward. Public cases of faculty members involved in pass-the-harasser scandals demonstrate this as well. Many survivors have not been comfortable being named until they were shielded by a critical mass of others—but they’re also often isolated from one another, separated by attendance at different schools, with the walls erected by higher-education institutions protecting the privacy of the offending professors.
The two women in this article, who allege harassment by the same professor, do not know each other. VICE reviewed emails, letters, text messages, Google chats, and recorded conversations to corroborate their accounts, and spoke with other students who were aware of the alleged harassment at the time it occurred. Fearing retaliation, both have requested to withhold their identities. Both women have graduated, and work in a field in which Professor Howard has sat on grant-review committees as recently as 2018 and continues to speak on his research at major conferences. Both said they were risking their careers by speaking out. Their cases suggest that what happens at one university stays at that university—even if the professor doesn’t.
“I don’t think I’d ever been that drunk”
Phoebe was a sophomore when she met Professor Howard in October 2014. Because of her interest in entomology, she said Howard urged her to switch from her original academic advisor—his wife, another biology professor in the department—and take him on instead. Phoebe made the change on Halloween.
The following sequence of events is derived from Phoebe’s interviews with VICE, her account that she told friends at the time, her subsequent recorded interview with the university Title IX coordinator nearly a year later in September 2015, and a timeline she provided to another Augustana student for a school paper on faculty harassment in 2017.
The trap shooting and drunken sex that followed took place on November 6, 2014, six days after Phoebe had elected to make Howard her advisor, she told the university Title IX coordinator in 2015. (In text messages reviewed by VICE between Howard and Phoebe in the lead-up to that day, Howard said that he “won’t pretend she’s 21” unless she out-shoots him.)
“I don’t think I’d ever been that drunk,” she told the Title IX coordinator. ”I was drinking, and it just kind of snowballed until it was like, ‘Okay, let’s stand up, oh wait, let’s not stand up.’”
The next morning, he told her to skip his 8 a.m. lecture and rest instead. He excused her 10-point participation quiz that day, giving her full credit. In the afternoon, he texted, inviting her to come back to his house for dinner that night, she said. Thinking they might talk about what happened, she alleged she arrived to find him with another bottle of wine, followed by another. With Phoebe drunk once more, they had sex again, she said. The next day, Professor Howard dropped her off on his way to pick up his wife from the airport.
For the next seven months, Phoebe and Professor Howard would meet once or twice a week to have sex, often while his wife was teaching class, Phoebe later told the Title IX coordinator. If she was traveling over a weekend, Professor Howard would invite Phoebe to spend it with him.
“To my little 19-year-old brain, this was a relationship. But I think once you’ve stepped away…” said Phoebe. “You don’t go to college thinking that you’re going to end up in one of your professors’ beds.”
Text messages between other Augustana students sent in 2016 about the incident corroborate that her perspective had changed by this point, with one student noting that, “Howard is still trying to get in touch with her and manipulate her” and that, “[Phoebe] doesn't have much money for legal advice but all of her friends are begging her to seek legal counsel and build a case against him or at least get a restraining order.”
Looking back, Phoebe said, it was a strange juxtaposition: She told the Title IX Coordinator Howard fantasized out loud about leaving his wife and starting a family with her. But he continued to advise her, oversaw her grades in his classes, and talked about transferring schools should she be accepted to a graduate school program so he could continue as her advisor.
In interviews with the Title IX coordinator and with VICE, she described not having language, at 19, for the power imbalance she sensed between them. But she knew Howard was an established presence in the field of science she wanted to pursue. During the spring semester of that academic year, she said, he secured her a summer job with one of his colleagues in another town in South Dakota.
To this day, Phoebe said she questions whether he gave her these opportunities and praised her competence because he respected her work, or because she was sleeping with him. And she knew the relationship was to be kept secret: She didn’t tell anyone at the time about what was going on with Howard, according to her later interview with the Title IX coordinator.
She said Howard’s wife found out about their relationship on May 14, 2015, the day before Phoebe turned 20. (VICE is opting not to name Howard’s spouse in this piece.) At his wife’s urging, Howard called Phoebe to end things that night. Both Howard and his wife were on the line, Phoebe later told the Title IX coordinator.
During the call, Howard’s wife was audibly upset. Phoebe said she heard her yell something she still thinks about at Professor Howard: She told Howard to call another woman, whose name Phoebe had never heard before, and “tell her that it happened again.”Phoebe said she and Howard never clarified who the woman was, or what his wife was alluding to.
Phoebe was left reeling. She and Howard didn’t speak much after that, though she continued to see him and his wife in academic settings—the day after the exchange, Phoebe had to give a biostatistics presentation at which both professors were present.
Phoebe completed her sophomore year and began her summer job on June 1, 2015. The next day, she said, she received a message from Professor Howard—he’d been called in on a Title IX complaint that day. He’d resigned immediately, he told her. Augustana’s Title IX Coordinator later told Phoebe that he resigned “right away” upon being informed of the complaint both in a recorded interview and email exchange obtained by VICE . (It’s possible Howard was already considering leaving the university—he later told Phoebe his wife had been interviewing at other institutions throughout the spring of 2015.) Frightened, Phoebe assured him by text that she had not reported him. He said he trusted her, Phoebe alleged in her account to the Title IX coordinator, but he warned that Augustana University was going to “come after her.”
“The way he was talking, I thought they were furious at me,” Phoebe told VICE. “It felt like campus security was going to come in, break down the door, and haul me away.” She applied for a transfer to a nearby university the same day she exchanged these text messages with Howard, according to her later interview with the Title IX coordinator and a timeline she provided to a friend in 2017 and shared with VICE.
The Title IX report had been filed anonymously by Betsy McCue, a senior. Like Phoebe, McCue was enrolled in Howard’s biostatistics class. A few weeks before the end of the school year, McCue told VICE, she opened Gmail on a school laboratory computer and found that it was already logged into another student’s account, full of emails and Hangout chats between the student and Howard. Confused, she clicked ahead.
“And it’s a few months’ worth of highly sexual things,” McCue said. As seen in the Title IX complaint documents reviewed by VICE, he’d taken and sent Phoebe a picture of another student sitting in his office, seemingly without her knowledge, suggesting he and Phoebe should have a threesome with her; he spoke explicitly about their sexual relationship over the last few months, including referencing a time she’d had to hide in his closet because his wife had come home unexpectedly.
“I just need to figure out how to help you get where you need to go,” Howard wrote in one of the messages. “And enjoy you at the same time.” (In text messages reviewed by VICE, Howard said similar things, such as, “You have a long way to go here at augustana, and I hope we have a wonderful time. But along the way, we just have to get you were [sic] you want to go and avoid having me lose my job.”)
The account was Phoebe’s, whose name McCue recognized from the class roster.
McCue said she felt conflicted. Phoebe and Professor Howard were both adults, and she didn’t want to take away Phoebe’s autonomy. “The thing that really concerned me was that I could tell from the messages that she thought that they were in love with each other. But from the tone of the messages and having heard rumors about Howard’s interactions with female students, she determined, as she said, ‘No, this girl is not anything special to him,” said McCue. “So that's when I decided it was really bad and that I needed to report it.”
At the time, McCue had been accepted to graduate school at Notre Dame. “[Professor Howard] knew I was going there; he'd talked to me about it,” she said. “I was worried that there would be retribution if I came forward at Augie.” McCue said she’d witnessed another Title IX case earlier that year in which confidentiality was accidentally breached. “I didn't have much faith in their ability to protect me.”
She held off until after the school year ended to tell the university what she knew. McCue said she then mailed photographs of the messages to three school administrators. Then she waited.
On July 8, 2015, a month after Howard resigned, Phoebe said she first received a call from Augustana University’s Title IX Coordinator requesting a discussion. Professor Howard encouraged her to remain silent, according to Google Hangout messages between the professor and his former student at this time, reminding her that he’d told them nothing, and that his lawyer had assured him the school could not force her to talk.
Phoebe evaded the coordinator’s requests, responding by email rather than phone, until correspondence stopped by the end of summer. Augustana’s coordinator declined to comment for this story.
Having been accepted to another university and at Professor Howard’s continued urging, she alleged, Phoebe formally withdrew from Augustana University on July 16.
“Do you feel like he forced you to transfer?” the coordinator later asked Phoebe during a recorded September 17 conversation obtained by VICE.
“I feel like he played a big part in it. I feel like he made it seem like Augie was going to come and bang down my door and question me and make me incriminate him,” said Phoebe. “I think several times he referred to Augie as ‘the people who want to hurt you.’”
"So he implied that Augie was going to get you in trouble," said the coordinator.
"Yes. That basically, I was going to have to transfer either way," said Phoebe.
Professor Howard drove up to visit her on August 6. He booked a hotel, and Phoebe spent the night. She alleged he spoke about leaving his wife. Four days later, Phoebe would learn that instead, he’d left the state.
Professor Howard began employment as a tenure-track faculty member at the University of New Hampshire just in time for the fall 2015 semester.
His new place of employment would bring him in close proximity to Laura, another young student.
“Passing the Harasser”
Publicized examples of “passing the predator” cases demonstrate how easily high-profile professors who have committed violated Title IX can slip through the cracks. In 2016, molecular biologist Jason Lieb resigned from the University of Chicago after university investigators found he’d violated Title IX policy by engaging in sexual activity with a student while they were “incapacitated due to alcohol and therefore could not consent,” as well as making unwelcome advances toward several female graduate students at an off-campus party held during a retreat for the department. Leib, who declined reporters’ requests for comment at the time, left before school administrators took any action in response to the findings.
The New York Times reporting revealed that before his hiring, the school had received an anonymous email alleging Lieb had been accused of sexual misconduct while teaching at both the University of North Carolina and Princeton University, and was aware that he’d left without explanation after just seven months of teaching at Princeton.
Michael Beitz, a tenure-track art professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, resigned in May 2019 after news broke that his former employer, the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, had reached a settlement with a student who alleged the school had violated her rights by failing to take action against Beitz in the wake of a 2015 Title IX investigation into his behavior while he was her professor. The student had alleged he emotionally and sexual abused her; Beitz denied any relationship with the student or that he ever coerced sex , though investigators noted he was an “unreliable witness.” The university found Beitz had violated the UW System’s sexual harassment policies. He was able to resign before the school took any action, and was hired at Boulder two months later.
A spokesperson for the Colorado university said at the time that they’d only learned of the Title IX investigation at Beitz’s former institution after USA Today Network-Wisconsin published a story about the case in 2018. UWO officials said they did not know if the investigation was shared with his new employer or if anyone was contacted for a reference. A CU-Boulder spokesperson told reporters the case had “heightened the university’s awareness of the need to ask former employers about any concerning behavior.” He declined to elaborate on whether any specific policies had changed, however.
In August 2019, ProPublica reported on seven cases of alleged harassment by professors at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that surfaced in the year prior, in which the university took steps to protect the faculty members’ professional reputations even after they were found to have violated the university’s Title IX policies. Two of these cases involved professors who were allowed to resign with confidentiality agreements; many involved allegations of harassment by multiple students or colleagues.
In Title IX cases involving faculty members accused of harassment, universities often claim personnel privacy laws forbid them from sharing findings with other universities who may be looking to hire the faculty member in the future.
“Part of the struggle with dealing with the pass-the-harasser problem is that many institutions interpret these things to be private HR records,” said Frazier Benya, Senior Program Officer at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS), which conducted the most comprehensive survey to date on the consequences of sexual harassment in STEM academia in 2018. “At institutions where there has not been an official finding, but an investigation has started, the institution could be potentially sued for libel if someone mentioned that the faculty member might have done this thing and they were under investigation. So that served to silence a lot of people from talking about it when called for references.”
In some states, schools are legally obligated to not disclose information in personnel files without the employee’s consent, including what factors were considered in the employee’s hiring and any Title IX finding. The University of New Hampshire, for example, denied a Freedom of Information Act Request filed by VICE for Professor Howard’s personnel file on these grounds.
Howard was eventually found in violation of Augustana University’s Title IX policy, according to a Title IX letter obtained by VICE dated October 12, 2015. But it’s entirely possible his new employer, UNH, was never formally notified of the findings — he was already moving through the hiring process before being informed about the Title IX complaint, and resigned from Augustana before the investigation was complete.
“I just don’t want him to go out there and do this to someone else”
As Phoebe started her new year at a new school, she said she started talking about her experience with Howard to a few friends.
“Watching them go, ‘What happened, what the hell?’ was just like, oh, this isn't like a normal thing, this isn’t something that everyone has happen,” she said. Professor Howard had acted as if he and Phoebe were equals, engaging in an equal affair, she alleged, and he’d led her to believe they’d face equal consequences for it. “But getting up here to my new university and having an advisor that doesn't sleep with you kind of opens your eyes,” said Phoebe. “I had never had any advisor but him for any extended period of time. You kind of normalize whatever is going on.”
She decided to reach out to her old school’s Title IX Coordinator, to make sure Howard’s new university was aware of what had occurred. She emailed them on September 14, 2015, finally giving the full details about why she left Augustana.
The coordinator drove up to meet her five days later. In a two-hour interview at her new university’s library, Phoebe recounted her entire experience with Professor Howard, recording the conversation on her phone.
“He’s obviously shown very predatory behavior with you,” the Title IX coordinator said during the conversation, acknowledging it was also inappropriate that Howard’s wife had not reported the relationship to the university when she found out about it in May. The Title IX coordinator went on to call the situation “insane,” and said that as the head of the Title IX program, they were trying to work through what they could say and do.
“Cause just cause people leave our school doesn’t mean—I mean, we may not be able to do anything, but I feel like ethically I kind of have a role,” they said.
But the coordinator noted they were “limited,” as Howard no longer worked at the university.
“To be completely honest, when we have a person resign…there’s certain things that I’m not privy to as it relates to more of the employee things,” said the coordinator during the conversation, according to the recording. “But what I can do is go back, and see what I’m able to do with this information.”
“I just don’t want him to go out there and do this to someone else,” Phoebe said. She mentioned what Professor Howard’s wife had said on the phone when she found out about the relationship —that it had “happened again.” At the end of the conversation, the coordinator promised to keep her in the loop about what actions Augustana could take to inform Howard’s current university.
For a little more than two months, Phoebe waited. She eventually sent a follow-up email in late October, directly asking if Augustana’s coordinator would help present her case to the Title IX Coordinator at the University of New Hampshire and be her point of contact at Augustana. “I feel that if you shared with them what I shared with you, it would make me feel more comfortable and give my case validity,” Phoebe wrote in the October 19 email. “If I need to come to Augustana to sign something that would allow you to share my information, please let me know.”
Ultimately, the Title IX coordinator told Phoebe the university would not get involved in contacting Howard’s new employer.
On November 17, 2015, they forwarded Phoebe a letter the university had sent to Howard on October 12 of that year, after completing their Title IX investigation. The letter stated that he had violated the school’s Title IX policy related to sexual misconduct and that the school had placed a note in his HR file that he was “not eligible for future employment at Augustana University.”
“As it relates to your question about reporting, the process would normally be for you to contact the Title IX Coordinator [at University of New Hampshire] and provide that person with the information,” the Augustana Title IX coordinator told Phoebe in the email.
It was the last correspondence Phoebe said she had with Augustana University.
Nearly a full year after Phoebe reached out to the Augustana Title IX coordinator, McCue, now safely in her graduate program at Notre Dame, also wanted to resolve what her alma mater had done with her anonymous Title IX report, she told VICE. She contacted Augustana’s coordinator on September 27, 2016, coming forward as the filer and asking them if there was anything else she could do to help.
“All appropriate steps and measures were taken in Professor Howard’s situation, in consultation with the University’s legal counsel,” the coordinator assured McCue in a September 28, 2016 email reviewed by VICE, noting she’d add the information to Professor Howard’s Augustana file. They then reiterated what they’d told Phoebe: McCue could feel free to contact UNH’s Title IX Coordinator directly.
Both young women recalled being confused—and disappointed—by the response.
“Sending him a letter is like saying, ‘We know what you did, don’t ask us for a letter of recommendation ever,’” said Phoebe. “But it's not like, ‘This complaint has already been forwarded to your university’ or anything. It was just, you know, ‘You naughty boy.’ But that’s it.”
A spokesperson for Augustana University declined to comment on a detailed list of allegations made by Phoebe and McCue about their handling of the Title IX case, or on any actions taken by the university to communicate with Howard’s new employer about the alleged incident. “Per university policy, Augustana University will not have any public comment on this personnel matter,” Jill Wilson, public relations and communications strategist for the university, wrote in an emailed statement.
Unbeknownst to the other, both women followed the coordinator’s advice and reached out to the University of New Hampshire directly.
On Nov. 12, 2015, Phoebe sent an email to the University of New Hampshire’s Title IX Coordinator with the subject, “Concerning Dr. Daniel R. Howard,” detailing her experience. She received no response, she said. A little less than a month later, on December 5, she forwarded the message to the university’s general Affirmative Action and Equity Office email address, noting the lack of reply from the Title IX coordinator and asking for help from someone in the office.
“When I learned that Dr. Howard had become employed at the University of New Hampshire, I became frightened,” she wrote. “I realized that the likelihood that he would pursue another student to have another affair with was very high. I don't want what happened to me to happen to anyone else.”
She said she again received no reply.
“I totally understand being a Title IX coordinator, having some random person contact you and say, ‘Hey, I want to file a Title IX against one of your new professors.’ I mean that's sketchy as hell, so I get it,” said Phoebe, noting that she’d intentionally sent the email from her school email address to try to bolster its legitimacy. “But at least bring it up or call his former institution before you completely dismiss it. Because he's a liability for the university.”
McCue forwarded her email correspondence with Augustana’s coordinator to the University of New Hampshire Title IX Coordinator on September 29, 2016. “I believe that Dr. Daniel Howard is a threat to vulnerable students enrolled in the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture at the University of New Hampshire,” she wrote. “I still possess the material that led to this man’s forced resignation from Augustana. I would be glad to assist you in any way you wish.”
UNH’s coordinator replied within hours, asking McCue to send the “materials” about Professor Howard she’d referenced. But McCue never did. She regrets this now, telling VICE she feels like she “'really dropped the ball in not sending them my evidence.” At the time, the screenshots were on another computer that she didn’t have easy access to, and after her experience at her alma mater’s Title IX office, she said she had grown skeptical of universities’ willingness to help students.
UNH declined to comment on any actions taken or inquiries made in response to either students’ allegations against Howard.
“Most pass-the-harasser cases are dealt with confidentially, so there’s no way to know about them”
For decades, relationships between students and professors occurred without question. But growing recognition of power dynamics have highlighted the ways these relationships are unequal, and in recent years, many universities have implemented policies that forbid relationships between faculty members and students they teach.
In 1977, Ann Olivarius was a senior at Yale and the head of the Undergraduate Women’s Caucus. Despite the recent passage of Title IX, after surveying women about their experiences at Yale, the Caucus found many students were having sex with professors because they feared the instructors would give them worse grades if they declined. When they had gone to the administration to complain, the students found there was no procedure for handling their sexual harassment grievances. With the help of a law student, Olivarius and four others sued the university.
Alexander v. Yale was the first case to argue that sexual harassment was a form of discrimination. The plaintiffs didn’t want money—they wanted a process for future students to report sexual harassment. Notably, Olivarius wanted Yale to establish a registry of faculty accused and found guilty of sexual harassment, in the hopes of preventing a “feedback loop” of tolerance for serial harassers.
The court dismissed the case, but held that sexual harassment constituted sex discrimination. There was now a legal precedent for demanding universities treat sexual harassment of students as a violation of Title IX. Yale established a grievance procedure, and universities across the country followed suit.
But Olivarius’s dream of a formal registry for faculty was never realized. Today, there is no federally mandated process for disclosing findings of sexual harassment by university staff, despite evidence that many faculty members who are permitted to continue teaching after an allegation of sexual harassment often go on to be accused again.
A 2018 analysis entitled “A Systematic Look at a Serial Problem: Sexual Harassment of Students by University Faculty,” for example, looked at 300 faculty-to-student harassment cases and found that more than half of the involved professors accused of sexual harassment by a student had previously been accused by another student, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as serial sexual harassment.
Nancy Chi Cantalupo, a nationally recognized expert on gender-based violence in education and professor of law at Wayne State University in Michigan, is one of the authors of the report. She believes her research, hailed as the most comprehensive study of faculty sexual harassment to date, is only the tip of the iceberg.
“Because most pass-the-harasser cases are being dealt with confidentially, there’s no way to know about them other than if you happen to be inside the particular institution where a particular case has happened,” Cantalupo said. “All of the cases that we looked at were public cases, which meant that either confidentiality had not been attempted, or that it had failed for some reason.”
The privacy policies that surround Title IX processes make researching the true prevalence of the pass-the-predator phenomenon next to impossible, Cantalupo said.
Howard may have already been debating leaving Augustana University by the time McCue sent in her anonymous Title IX complaint.
His wife was being considered for a job at the University of New Hampshire. According to faculty hiring data obtained by freedom of information request, the Durham-based institution approved an “exception,” allowing the position Howard would eventually be offered to forgo the traditional hiring search process in favor of a specific candidate, on May 19, 2015 — just two weeks before Augustana informed Howard of the Title IX complaint against him.
The exception request was made “in the spirit of diverse recruitment,” the document states, noting that the candidate’s wife was “hired to one of the COLSA Biological Sciences positions.” (Professor Howard identifies as being of American Indian heritage.)
It’s unclear when Howard was formally offered the job, or what level of communication UNH had with Augustana after McCue’s anonymous complaint.
Both Augustana’s Policy on Sexual Misconduct and UNH’s Amorous Relationship Policy discourage relationships where power differentials are inherent and require involved parties to disclose the relationship to university authorities. Both note that in the case of relationships where one party maintains a direct supervisory or evaluative role over the other, the university will take actions to remove the power dynamic or shift that responsibility to a third party — such as switching a student’s advisor or moving them into a course taught by a different professor.
Augustana University’s Title IX investigation resulted in a recommendation that Howard be fired from his position, and receive a note in his file that he was not eligible for future employment at the university.
“Of course, because he abruptly resigned before he could be terminated, our finding was that we accept his resignation and note in his file that he would not be re-hired,” the Augustana Title IX coordinator wrote Phoebe.
Whether Augustana University and UNH had any correspondence about his violation of Augustana’s Title IX policy after his hiring is also unknown—both universities declined to comment.
“I think that that brushes everything under the rug”
Laura, 22, said she was hired to work in Professor Howard’s university lab in February 2017. She’d just graduated with a B.A. in Wildlife and Conservation Biology from University of New Hampshire in 2016, and would be continuing remote research alongside one of his graduate students. As a field technician, she collected data at a nature preserve in Oklahoma, living in accommodations Howard had set up for her. Laura worked alone most days, but she said the two would communicate often, sometimes by email, occasionally by text.
Usually the messages dealt with logistics, but as time went on, Laura said some of Professor Howard’s messages, reviewed by VICE, began to feel inappropriate, with “I’m coming in early,” followed by “I know how much you miss me.”
Laura said she did her best to disregard these—she was planning on pursuing a graduate degree at her alma mater, and this was a good experience. She tried to quiet her own discomfort, thinking she might be reading too much into Howard's comments.
Professor Howard would visit every five or six weeks, she alleged, and would stay in the same bunkhouse as Laura, about 100 feet from the research center. One night in late April, Laura said they were sitting on the porch, eating the dinners they’d made. Laura went inside to use the bathroom, and according to statements she made to the graduate student she was working for and to VICE, when she came back out, she saw her glass of wine was fuller.
She said she confronted Professor Howard about it immediately. “I was like, have you been putting more alcohol in my glass?” Laura alleged. “And he just kinda laughed it off, saying, ‘Oh, I didn't know how long it’d take you to notice!”
Upset, she retreated to the living room and began to read a book on the couch. Howard followed, she said. “I thought he was coming in to apologize, so I scooted over and let him sit down,” said Laura. “But instead he held me down and…”
Howard began trying to kiss her, Laura alleged, but she shoved him off and was able to escape to her room. She remained there for the rest of the night, she said. He was gone by morning.
Because of its remote location, cell reception and internet service throughout the nature preserve is sparse—Laura’s cabin lacked both. “I couldn't call for help. I couldn't even just like text someone, and I had to wait till the next day,” said Laura.
After realizing Howard was gone, Laura drove 10 miles south to a strip of land she knew had service. She called the graduate student for whom she was collecting research, Julie (who also spoke to VICE and corroborated Laura’s account under the request that she be identified by a pseudonym) to ask if anything like this had happened before to other students.
Despite Laura’s initial wish to handle the incident privately, Julie, given her supervisory position, said she was obligated to report the incident to the Affirmative Action and Equity Office.
The office emailed Laura, she alleged, telling her they were looking into the incident, and told her to cut off all communication with Professor Howard. Laura objected. The research, which was critical to Julie’s master’s degree, required they maintain frequent communication, and at first, Laura had no intentions of quitting.
“I really liked the work that I was doing, and I felt a big responsibility for the other grad student too, because I know she spent a year planning this. Her thesis depended on it,” Laura recalled. She and the office instead settled on an agreement, she and Julie said: Howard would not visit the field site alone, and Laura and Howard were not permitted to speak to each other about the Title IX complaint.
But Howard continued to send her flirtatious text messages while the investigation was underway, Laura alleged. A text message sent from Howard in late May and reviewed by VICE reads, “You are adorable,” though it’s quickly followed by another that reads, “I meant to say I’m adorable :-)” Two days before, he’d messaged her about a dream he had where she got scared of a storm and “came to sleep on the boys side.” He added, “You startled me carrying your whole bedding arrangement over :-)”
Laura left the position after just four months, when another job opened up in Minnesota. “I was planning on staying with UNH, but I gave all that up for a healthier work environment,” she told VICE.
Professor Howard visited once more before she left Oklahoma, this time accompanied by Julie.
“Until the last day of the second trip, he had not made any more significant physical advances so I thought he knew better now,” Laura would later mention in an email to the Affirmative Action and Equity Office.
Because of this, on that last night of the trip, Laura told a UNH Title IX coordinator she allowed him to sit on the porch with her. Julie had gone to sleep, and Laura decided not to wake her, she wrote. But as they were sitting on the porch, Howard reached into Laura’s lap to hold her hand, she said. She pulled away. He proceeded to put his hand on her thigh several times, despite her repeatedly removing it, she wrote. This time, she reported the incident to the Affirmative Action and Equity Office directly, according to emails reviewed by VICE.
As seen in said emails, because of her remote location, the office sent her questions about the incidents, rather than having a conversation in-person or by phone; during the ongoing investigation, Laura said she felt the tone of them was often accusatory.
At their request, she took screenshots of four separate conversations and emailed them to the Office. On June 8, 2017, the then-Title IX Coordinator sent an email asking about a dream Laura had mentioned in one of the texts between her and Howard—Laura had dreamt he’d been standing at the foot of her bed one morning, and had texted him to ask if this was a groggy memory, rather than a dream—in case he was trying to wake her up to start work early.
In the email, the coordinator asked, “I just need to know about the dream because I am trying to figure out if there is any merit to the possibility that you may have dreamed the conduct that you allege is inappropriate on Professor Howard’s part?”
Laura answered the Title IX office’s questions, but eventually grew frustrated. "I’m sorry but I’m a bit confused as to why the investigation is focusing on this short dream, and not on the actual inappropriate conduct,” she asked in a June 12 email. “Can I ask what the underlying concern is?”
The coordinator replied, saying that they were simply responding to “some information they received,” but that they were keeping her allegations “front and center.” Nine days later, Laura reached out again.
“Can I ask how much longer this process will take?” she wrote. “I agreed to be involved with this case not just for me but to hopefully avoid situations like this from happening to his other female grad students.” They emailed Laura that day to say the investigation was actively moving forward, and they would update her when the administrative process was complete.
Laura never heard from the office again, she said.
In an earlier email, the coordinator had noted there were details Laura wouldn’t learn about her case—including any specific disciplinary actions taken against Howard in response to her complaint.
“I cannot share the actual personnel outcome, whether he was ‘disciplined’ or ‘warned’ etc., due to employee privacy concerns, but I can tell you we are taking steps to respond to your allegations, consistent with school policy and procedures related to sexual harassment allegations,” they wrote in a May 2, 2017 email reviewed by VICE. “This can include any number of consequences for employees depending on a lot of factors.”
Julie, the graduate student, said she was told the same by the university. “They said, ‘We can't tell you for confidentiality reasons. We can't tell you if something has been done, if we're going to do something, how we find him,’” Laura said. “I think that that brushes everything under the rug. It’s like, it's okay, we'll take care of it…but we're not going to tell you how.”
The University of New Hampshire declined to comment on a detailed list of allegations made by Laura, Julie, and Phoebe about Howard or their communication with the institution, citing “respect for the confidentiality of all parties involved.”
Erika Mantz, executive director of media relations for the university, said the allegations, which VICE sent by email, did not “accurately reflect the information disclosed to the University of New Hampshire.”
“An investigation was conducted and we are confident appropriate steps were taken,” she added. She declined to identify which parts of the emailed allegations were inaccurate, again citing confidentiality concerns. The staffer Laura communicated with during the process no longer works at University of New Hampshire, according to the Affirmative Action and Equity Office, and could not be reached for comment.
“The reason harassers receive jobs at other institutions is because they often come with millions of dollars in funding”
As awareness of the pass-the-predator phenomenon grows, a few universities and elected officials are attempting to promote transparency and prevent faculty members from committing sexual harassment across multiple universities.
Since January 2019, following its own pass-the-predator controversy, the University of Wisconsin has required all UW campuses to document instances of sexual harassment in faculty members’ personnel files, and share that information with other employers during the hiring process. Despite many higher education institutions’ concerns about defamation, there are few instances of lawsuits filed due to sharing of personnel records, according to Quinn Williams, general counsel for the UW system.
Three other universities with recent faculty harassment scandals have begun to create “reference check” policies of their own. Last year, the Davis and San Diego campuses at the University of California made permanent a two-year pilot program that requires final candidates for faculty hire to sign waivers allowing the university to ask their previous academic employers whether there have been substantiated findings of misconduct. That same year, the University of Illinois’ Board of Trustees finalized a similar confidentiality waiver policy based on the UC Davis model.
In both 2016 and 2019, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier [D-Calif.] has introduced the Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act in the House of Representatives. The bill would have required higher education institutions that receive federal funding to report any substantiated instance of sexual harassment in the last 10 years to federal agencies that award grants, including identifying the faculty member who committed the misconduct.
“We realized that we had to follow the money,” said a spokesperson from Speier's office. “Obviously the reason why harassers can still receive jobs at other institutions is because they often come with millions of dollars in grant funding. Although technically the grants are awarded to the institution, they can and often do follow the faculty member as they move to different schools.” The proposed bill would have done little to safeguard from harassment by professors who don’t bring in grant money. But it might have helped quell sexual harassment in science fields and research environments, which studies have found have some of the highest rates of harassment by faculty or staff in academia. The legislation has never passed the House. Speier is hoping to reintroduce the bill sometime this year, according to a spokesperson.
On May 6, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued final regulations on Title IX, which create firm, legally-binding requirements for how universities should handle sexual misconduct on campus. A long-promised initiative of the Trump administration, the rule was designed to create more protections for accused parties and reduced liability for universities. The rule, considered the defining legacy of DeVos’ tenure, went into effect in August of last year.
Under DeVos’s changes, critics expected the pass-the-predator problem to worsen. The rule limited Title IX’s reach to incidents that happen within the context of an educational program or activity, excluding most off-campus cases. It also adopted the Supreme Court’s definition of sexual harassment, which is “conduct that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a student access to education.”
Sarah Nesbitt, policy and advocacy organizer at Know Your IX, an organization that informs students about their rights under federal law, said this standard of “denial” is amorphous, opening up students who bring Title IX complaints against professors to a wider net of critique and a larger burden of proof. It requires students to have already lost educational opportunities before they’re able to file a complaint, rather than allowing them to do so before they’re pushed out.
And there’s an issue of a potential “chilling effect,” critics said—cases involving faculty members must now be filed as formal, rather than informal, Title IX complaints. Under the current rule, findings of misconduct can’t be issued in formal complaint cases until there’s a live hearing, with cross examination, or both accuser and accused.
“I think this was a recognition of the fact that there's power dynamics in faculty-student cases, and informal resolution might not be a safe, healthy option,“ Nesbitt said. “But at the same time, it's concerning, because in what world is a live hearing with direct cross examination going to be a safer option?”
In early March, however, on International Women’s Day, now-President Joe Biden issued an executive order directing the new education secretary, Miguel Cardona, to review all policies on sexual misconduct and gender and sex-based discrimination in schools, and potentially begin collecting comments in order to draft a new rule.
The move signals fulfillment of a campaign-trial promise to rollback DeVos’ sexual misconduct rule, which Biden said, “gives colleges a green light to ignore sexual violence and strip survivors of their rights.” In June, the Title IX rewrite process began in earnest—department officials held a weeklong hearing to listen to public comments, including from students who alleged experiencing harassment on campus —meaning the way such cases are handled may shift yet again.
Laura worked at the job she took in order to leave her position with Howard at UNH for several years, and then moved on to another position in the field. She’s grateful for the healthy work environment, but said it doesn’t extinguish thoughts of what life would have been like had she pursued further conservation study through the university, as she originally planned.
Phoebe thrives in her career—she has a partner she loves, and maintains her sense of humor. But she said she continues to feel haunted by her experience with Howard.
He and his wife are at almost every conference in their field of entomology. Phoebe says she still avoids professional opportunities, like participating in symposiums they co-moderate, because of him.
She and Howard haven’t spoken for years, she said, but packages from him have still come from time to time: The etymology books, the Patagonia sweatshirt.
“There’s not a day that goes by where he’s not on my mind for a few seconds,” Phoebe said. “Because it’s all just so strange.”
Professor Howard still taught at the University of New Hampshire when VICE first reached out to him — instructing undergraduates, advising graduate students, hiring fellows to work in his lab and serving as the associate director for education for the school’s Center for Acoustics Research and Education.
But shortly after VICE contacted the University of New Hampshire for comment, his name was removed from the Biology Department website.
At this time, it’s unclear if he’s working now, or where he’ll go next.