Feinberg student sues Northwestern under Title IX

Madeline Fox, Summer Managing Editor

A Feinberg School of Medicine student is suing Northwestern under Title IX saying the school responded with “deliberate indifference” after he reported he was sexually harassed by a professor.

A federal judge ruled last week that the student can move forward with his Title IX lawsuit against the University. His lawyer confirmed Friday that he will do so.

Judge Sara L. Ellis ruled Aug. 6 that the medical student can make his case that the University retaliated against him and did not respond as rapidly or as strongly to his grievances as it has to similar complaints filed by female students. Ellis dismissed the student’s allegation that the University responded inadequately to his sexual harassment complaint.

The student says a Feinberg microbiology and pathology professor sexually harassed him and later retaliated against him after the student rejected his advances by assigning him poor grades, opposing his application to a fellowship and directing others to discontinue a promised scholarship, according to the suit.

The professor declined to comment for this story.

The student, who is scheduled to graduate in May 2016, is suing for a declaration that the University’s response violated Title IX, and unspecified damages under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination by higher education institutions receiving federal funding.

NU filed a motion Feb. 25 to dismiss the student’s lawsuit on the grounds that his sexual harassment claim was no longer timely and that the professor’s alleged behavior was not sexual harassment. The University also said it wasn’t “deliberately indifferent” to the complaint and that the complaint did not successfully allege “any causal connection to (the student’s) gender,” as would be necessary for a gender discrimination claim.

NU spokesman Bob Rowley declined to comment Thursday on behalf of the University.

According to the lawsuit filed in November, the professor recruited the student in 2006 for NU’s Medical Scientist Training Program, a combined degree program that allows students to earn a Ph.D and M.D. simultaneously. The professor, then-director of the program, assured the student he would be able to concurrently pursue a third degree, a Master of Science in Clinical Investigation, and would have the financial support of a Ryan Fellowship for the first five years, with a guaranteed extension from years six to eight, according to the suit.

The professor began sexually harassing the student within three months of his July 2007 enrollment in the program, according to the suit. The professor allegedly started “making suggestive comments” about the student’s physical appearance and “ogling” him. At a 2010 off-campus retreat, the professor allegedly invited the student back to his room so he could cut his hair. The suit also claims that the professor asked the student’s peers about the student’s sexual orientation.

When the student rebuffed the professor’s alleged advances, the professor retaliated, according to the suit, by “interfering with his academic accomplishments and opportunities.”

Even after the professor was replaced as director of the program in October 2011, the professor “continued to retaliate and take adverse actions against (the student),” according to the suit.

In 2012, after the student’s Ryan Fellowship stipend stopped with his fifth year, the student learned the professor had directed a program official to discontinue the scholarship, according to the suit. The student was also told he would not be allowed to finish his promised third degree although he had completed much of the coursework, he said in the suit.

In November 2012, the student reported the harassment to his adviser, who reported it to Joan Slavin, the University’s Title IX coordinator, according to the suit. The adviser was later told NU would not follow up on the harassment claim because it had happened two years prior. Under Title IX, complaints must be filed within 180 days of the alleged violation.

Slavin did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2013, the student went to Slavin directly to ask her to investigate the complaint, which she did. Slavin found that although the professor made “ill-advised and unwelcome” comments about the student’s appearance, she did not consider them sexual in nature and therefore determined they did not violate the University’s sexual harassment policy, according to the suit.

Ellis dismissed the student’s harassment claim against the University because no sexual harassment occurred after the student filed his complaint with Slavin, and NU would not have been aware of the harassment prior to his complaint.

The judge did find that the student could make a case for retaliation because “failing to graduate on time, exclusion from educational events, and reputational harm within the department, taken together, are sufficiently adverse to deter a reasonable student from filing a sexual harassment claim.”

She said the student could move forward with claims for gender-based discrimination, saying his allegations “sufficiently connect Northwestern’s initial refusal to investigate with (the student’s) gender.”

Northwestern has until Aug. 28 to file a response to the retaliation and discrimination claims.

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