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The Dean's Demise: Sexual Harassment in a Divinity School
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
The Dean’s Demise offers a disturbing reminder that seminaries and the church are not exempt from the abuse of pastoral powers to coerce sexual demands from colleagues, students, and even children entrusted to their spiritual care. With over fifty years of experience in theological education in the roles of minister, professor, and dean, Richard Fletcher crafts a compelling fictional case study of Dean Karl Wolf and presents comprehensive ...
The Dean’s Demise offers a disturbing reminder that seminaries and the church are not exempt from the abuse of pastoral powers to coerce sexual demands from colleagues, students, and even children entrusted to their spiritual care. With over fifty years of experience in theological education in the roles of minister, professor, and dean, Richard Fletcher crafts a compelling fictional case study of Dean Karl Wolf and presents comprehensive viewpoints from the perpetrator, the victims and their families, and the school administrators.
Fletcher starts the book by describing young Karl Wolf as a promising scholar while foreshadowing his potential liability by alluding to his insatiable need for admiration and power. Fletcher then takes the reader through Wolf’s academic rise to become the dean of a prominent divinity school, all the while sketching his sexual hunts. Wolf is indeed a predator. The reading experience feels almost voyeuristic at times. Fletcher evokes a complex range of emotions in the reader with the secret intimate details of affairs and their aftermaths. Wolf’s blatant disregard for the wellbeing of his victims and his self-serving lies fuel an emotional response and at the same time demand that one thinks through one’s feelings with regard to the physical, emotional, and spiritual damages inflicted on the victims and their families.
In addition to providing a profile of the mind and actions of a sexual predator, in The Dean’s Demise we confront the response of seminary officials, including their theological and moral deliberations, and the process of how the school ends up resolving, or rather settling the sexual harassment case against the dean. In light of the multiple stakeholders presented in the unfolding narrative, this book is a rich resource for generating discussions on many fronts, including theological reflections on power and the brokenness of humanity, justice issues and accountability, personality and mental health issues in seminaries, and practical legality around sexual harassment cases.
A limitation to the helpfulness of this book is that the content is outdated. Although the book was published in 2016, the accounts of the events are recorded from 1979 to the early summer months of 1993. The content of the book, the nature of Wolf’s sexual predatory behavior, and the ways the school administration respond, are consistent with the time period in which the book is set. Since the early 1990’s, sexual harassment awareness and training initiatives in workplaces and schools have increased. As opposed to the blatant predatory behavior of Wolf detailed in the book, now there are specific definitions and criterion of more nuanced behaviors which constitute sexual harassment. With concrete definitions, guidelines, and policies in place, today’s academic administration’s deliberation and handling of such cases is very different than the deliberation portrayed in the book that relied on collective wisdom.
The school administrative demographics are another aspect which date the book – being all men, presumably white. With increasing female and minority faculty members, deans, and presidents in academic institutions, different understandings and experiences shape how power, abuse, and sexual harassment are defined and handled. Whereas all the victims in Fletcher’s book are female, in today’s reality there are more women in power positions that blur and render more complex binary and stereotypically gendered depictions of perpetrator and victim. As sexual predatory behaviors occur within the context of relationships of power and privilege, gender and cultural influences must be considered when deliberating sexual harassment cases.
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
Jon Krakauer’s book on the epidemic of sexual assaults on American college campuses is hard to put down, both because it is incredibly well-written and engaging, but also because it is so alarming. For the faculty member who is already aware of the problem (either from a statistical vantage point or from hearing the experiences of survivors on her or his own campus), some of the information presented is not surprising. The scope of the issue is quite shocking, however: Missoula, home of the University of Montana, is the focus of Krakauer’s case study and one gets the sense that this college town is especially unsafe. Towards the end of the book, however, Krakauer demonstrate that Missoula’s rape statistics are actually typical – perhaps even lower than the national average. Even though the problem presented is horrifying, Missoula is not even the worse case scenario.
Through interviews and legal testimony, Krakauer narrates the stories of several college-aged women who were sexually assaulted while they were students. Most of the accused rapists were members of the football team, so part of the story concerns the untouchable status of campus athletic teams (or, at least, certain high-profile athletic teams). But sports are not the only unjust system implicated here: Krakauer looks unflinchingly at the ways that administrators protect colleges from litigation, often at the expense of victims. He similarly criticizes the legal system for re-traumatizing victims and for consistently doubting women’s testimony when they come forward.
Krakauer’s accessible explanations of technical matters are very helpful: for example, he explains the different burdens of proof that apply on- and off-campus. A college or university is required by the U.S. Department of Education to use a “preponderance of evidence” standard as its burden of proof when adjudicating sexual assault accusations, while the criminal justice system uses the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard (179). Thus, a rapist may be found guilty in an on-campus case and expelled, even while the same evidence might not have resulted in a guilty verdict or prison time in the state’s criminal justice system. As another example, Krakauer uses psychiatrist Judith Herman’s foundational work to explain that traumatized people often act in bewildering ways that do not make sense to the outside world (perhaps by contacting the perpetrator or by continuing to attend class after experiencing violent trauma; moreover, the memories of a traumatic experience can be confusing and non-linear). Although these behaviors seem to indicate to others that “nothing happened” or “the experience must not have been that bad,” Krakauer (via Herman) shows that these are utterly typical behaviors of a traumatized person. Trauma so reorients a person that the behaviors a person displays in the aftermath can be counterintuitive to what non-traumatized people expect.
This book should be required reading for faculty and especially for administrators who adjudicate sexual assault cases on college campuses; it would probably be useful for those in law enforcement, too. Missoula would also be excellent for campuses that have required first-year or campus-wide reading programs, as it forces us to consider the realities that victims face on campus and to realize that judicial systems, both on- and off-campus, can and must do better.