Former Medill students, employees accuse Prof. Alec Klein of ‘predatory’ behavior


Daily file photo by Meghan White

Medill Prof. Alec Klein at an event in 2012.

Mariana Alfaro, In Focus Editor

Medill Prof. Alec Klein, director of the Medill Justice Project, was accused of “harassing” and “predatory” behavior by former students and employees in an open letter sent to Northwestern administrators on Wednesday.

In the letter, former students and employees of Klein and the Medill Justice Project allege that the tenured professor displayed “controlling, discriminatory, emotionally and verbally abusive behavior” while working at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. The letter accuses Klein of attempting to kiss a prospective female employee and asking a female employee to come to his hotel room for drinks during a business trip, among other accusations.

The letter states Klein “talked about his sex life and pressed for explicit details about others,” and gave “unwanted neck massages while a female employee was trying to work.”

The letter alleges that there was one settlement paid out because of Klein’s behavior. According to a document reviewed by The Daily, the University paid $8,000 to a former employee to settle a complaint made against Klein in 2015.

In a statement to The Daily, Klein “categorically” denied the allegations made in the letter and said he intends to take legal action. Klein did not specify who he is planning on taking legal action against.

Klein alleged in the statement that many of the claims made involved a “disgruntled former employee who had been on a corrective-action plan for poor-work performance several years ago.” Klein also said the “bulk” of the other allegations made were reported to Northwestern’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Access, but the office did not find any violations in his conduct.

“Investigating potentially wrongful convictions is rigorous work, and it requires the highest-levels of accuracy, fairness and thoroughness because we are publishing for the world,” he wrote. “Our work sometimes challenges powerful institutions and is always closely scrutinized.”

Klein was hired by Medill in 2008 and became director of the Medill Justice Project, an investigative journalism center that enlists both undergraduate and graduate students to investigate potentially wrongful convictions.

Klein also sent The Daily copies of his CTECs, which are course and teacher evaluations made by students at the end of a quarter. Klein said in his statement the CTECs show that students have “overwhelmingly indicated they had a wonderful experience in (his) classes and not once have they accused (him) of any mistreatment.”

Klein provided over a dozen CTEC reports. Most show high ratings from students for “overall rating of the instruction” and “overall rating of the course,” among other questions. However, none of these reports included responses from every student enrolled in his courses.

The letter, sent to Medill Dean Brad Hamm and Provost Jonathan Holloway, was signed by 10 former students and employees of Klein and the Medill Justice Project.

Olivia Pera, a former Justice Project employee who worked for Klein from 2014 to 2015, filed a complaint against Klein with the Illinois Department of Human Rights in July 2015, according to documents reviewed by The Daily.

In an interview with The Daily, Pera said she felt Klein “preyed” on the fact that she was a single mother, adding she feared losing her job because of the way he treated her.

“Being at Northwestern, I thought, was such a prestigious, good place and I was so happy when I got this job,” she said. “(But) working there was the worst six months of my entire human existence.”

Pera’s complaint echoes some accusations in the letter, including statements that allege Klein attempted to kiss her.

Three 2009 Medill graduates — Alison Flowers, Meribah Knight and Kalyn Belsha — worked to coordinate its creation and distribution. In interviews with The Daily, the former students said their intent was not to highlight a single experience but to instead present multiple negative interactions students have had with Klein.

Flowers, a former Medill Justice Project research associate,  first met Klein as a student in Medill’s graduate program when she took his investigative reporting class in 2009.  Klein taught the class for three years and then became director of the Medill Innocence Project — now the Medill Justice Project — after former Medill Prof. David Protess stopped teaching at the school.

Protess left NU in 2011 after the University alleged he doctored emails and concealed documents from prosecutors, who accused him of ethical misconduct in a murder conviction investigation.

Shortly after taking over Protess’ job in 2011, Klein told The Daily that he aimed to “restore trust in the class and the project and rebuild it so that it becomes again a point of pride for students, faculty, alumni, Medill and Northwestern.”

Flowers was hired to be Klein’s first research associate. She told The Daily her time working for him, from 2011 to 2013, was “one of the most painful experiences” of her life.

“He exerted a lot of power over me, he was my professor and later my boss,” she said. “At the time, I was still finding my place and voice as a journalist.”

Though Flowers said she is grateful for the professional experience the program granted her, she said she considered leaving the research associate job “almost as soon” as she started.

Flowers said she did not report Klein’s behavior to human resources while she was at NU  because she was afraid of his possible retaliation. After leaving Medill, Flowers began connecting with other former students and employees of the program and found that many, like her, had kept quiet while they were at NU about negative interactions with Klein.

After releasing the letter Wednesday afternoon, Flowers said former students reached out to the email she and the other signees set up to receive complaints against Klein.

In his statement to The Daily, Klein said he has “tried to lead The Medill Justice Project with honor.”

“I strive for all of the students in my classes to have a wonderful experience,” he said. “It is also true that I have high expectation for my students and expect them to do their best because the goal is for them to become better journalists.”

In an email, Hamm and Medill Associate Deans Charles Whitaker and Beth Bennett said Medill takes “all complaints of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct seriously.” They added that individual schools do not handle investigations or sanctions.

“Northwestern University is a direct report university, which means all issues are sent or directed promptly to the University’s Title IX office,” they said. “This university process is intended to protect the privacy of complainants and ensure that a trained professional staff handles investigations and assigns any sanctions.”

In a statement, University spokesman Al Cubbage said Northwestern will review the allegations published in the letter.

Cubbage also said “many of the allegations” in the letter had been brought to NU’s attention several years ago by a former employee in a complaint but that a University investigation had not “substantiated” the complaint.

He encouraged victims of alleged harassment or misconduct at Northwestern to contact the school’s Office of Equity, which he said handles all complaints regarding sexual misconduct.

Other claims made in the letter include allegations of bullying and sexism in the workplace. According to the signees, Klein “repeatedly accused students of insubordination and reprimanded them to the point of tears over minor or perceived offenses” and once told a student “she needed an A- to earn his recommendation. He later promised a male student in the same class a recommendation in exchange for a B+.”

According to emails reviewed by The Daily, multiple former students of Klein and MJP employees offered to share their experiences with Klein with a coordinator at NU’s Title IX office in December. At least two former students received responses Monday from the University’s human resources office.

In the email responses, the office said it had reviewed their concerns regarding Klein’s alleged conduct and determined that there was not enough information to warrant “a formal investigation into a potential violation of the University’s Discrimination and Harassment Policy or the University’s Policy on Sexual Misconduct.”

Dwight Hamilton, Northwestern’s Title IX coordinator, declined to comment on the matter Wednesday.

The office told the former students that their allegations were enough to trigger an “Informal Action,” in which the office will meet with Klein “to inform him of the concerns raised, to review the protections afforded by these policies, and to discuss any necessary modifications to his approach.”

“We are writing this letter because despite numerous allegations, investigations and complaints — and at least one settlement — Alec Klein is still teaching,” the letter said. “He still has tenure. He is still leading the Medill Justice Project, a crown jewel of the institution. Many of us have spoken to Title IX officers. We’ve spoken to other university officials and still, nothing happens.”

A Medill Justice Project information session scheduled for graduate program students Wednesday evening was cancelled after the allegations were made public, according to an email sent to students that cited “unforeseen circumstances.”

Read the letter here:

Medill Me Too Letter by The Daily Northwestern on Scribd

This story was updated at 4:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Wednesday with comments from Prof. Alec Klein; Medill Dean Brad Hamm, Medill Associate Deans Beth Bennett and Charles Whitaker and University spokesman Al Cubbage; and Medill alumni and former employees of the Medill Justice Project.

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Twitter: @marianaa_alfaro