Exchanging Dirty Jokes Is Now a ‘Sexual Relationship’ at George Washington University

Longtime professor Catherine Woytowicz is suing George Washington University (GWU) for how it handled a sexual harassment complaint against her. The complaint against Woytowicz was found to be without merit, but the school nonetheless dropped Woytowicz as an adjunct assistant professor—another casualty of the convoluted, secretive, and often unfair harassment proceedings that have overtaken U.S. schools.

For 17 years, Woytowicz taught part-time at the university, presiding over more than 65 courses in its chemistry and international relations departments while working full-time elsewhere. By myriad accounts, "Dr. Cat" was a compelling and effective instructor, winning accolades from her students and awards from the school.

But Woytowicz's good standing with the university started crumbling in January 2016, when one of her former students accused her of sexual harassment. The student, labeled John Doe in court proceedings, had taken chemistry courses with Woytowicz in 2015. During this time, he claimed, Woytowicz "overtly pursued a sexual relationship with him and threatened academic and professional consequences if he did not comply," according to GWU's motion to dismiss her lawsuit.

Ultimately, "there was insufficient evidence to support a charge of sexual harassment against her," the motion states. But the school's Title IX coordinator—the administrator charged with enforcing the federal rule that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education—"determined that Doe had consented to a relationship with Woytowicz," the motion claims.

Woytowicz maintains that she "has never had, or tried to have, a sexual relationship" with any of her students. She is seeking damages from GWU for violating her constitutional rights to free speech, free association, and due process; violating her right to a employment environment free of sex discrimination; conspiracy to deprive her of constitutionally guaranteed rights; breach of contract; and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

A 'Nebulous Fog' of Allegations

Rory Muhammad, Title IX coordinator at GWU, was tasked with investigating Doe's complaint against Woytowicz. In March 2016, Muhammad emailed Woytowicz to say she was under investigation for alleged violations of the school's "Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence Policy and Procedures."

As is typical of Title IX proceedings, the email provided Woytowicz little information about the allegations against her, according to her suit. It offered nothing on the specific nature of the allegations, or when and where they supposedly occurred. Little more insight could be gleaned from a subsequent meeting with Muhammad: Though it lasted more than two and a half hours, Woytowicz says the explanations offered were a "nebulous fog."

When Woytowicz asked whether she should retain a lawyer, Muhammad allegedly welcomed to do so but told her that if she did, it would bar any possibility of informal resolution of the student's complaint and compel GWU to get its own lawyers involved.

While providing little detail about the accusations, Muhammad allegedly peppered Woytowicz with "invasive questions about her personal life and sexual relationships," her lawsuit states. Throughout the meeting "Muhammad seemed to be gloating," and at the end

he became loud, hostile, and accusatory. While Prof. Woytowicz was headed out the door, Defendant Muhammad continued shouting questions at her about sex with an adult, who was not a student [at GWU] and had never been a student of the University. Defendant Muhammad asked if Prof. Woytowicz had had sex with this person, and she responded that she had not. Defendant Muhammad asked if Prof. Woytowicz had wanted a "three-way" with this person, and she responded that she did not....Defendant Muhammad never explained his fascination with trying to get Prof. Woytowicz to say she had had sex, or even an unusual desire about sex, concerning an adult nonstudent.

The school claimed to have "hundreds" of texts between Woytowicz and Doe, but she wasn't allowed to see or be read these texts directly during the meeting. Later, Muhammad would email a list of "phrases, paraphrases, and purported quotations assertedly from text messages" between Woytowicz and Doe, which were said to corroborate "frequency of communication, late hours of communication, meetings, multiple requests to see [the student complainant] or talk to [him], restaurants and drinks," talking about "emotional feelings," and "some texts [that] could be interpreted as sexual innuendo."

Of the 18 purported quotations, "at least some" are "false," asserts Woytowicz's suit. While it was not uncommon for her to communicate with students, including Doe, via text, the list provided included "fragments of communications to which [Muhammad] invented context that would make them seem improper," "cherry-picked words or phrases to suggest something was meant sexually, and ignored the context showing they either had no such meaning or were ambiguous," it says.

Mentoring or Harassment?

As part of her lawsuit against against GWU—filed in D.C. Superior Court but moved by the school to federal court—Woytowicz provided copies of dozens of emails sent by former students from 2014 to 2016. They suggest a professor who was willing to put in extra effort to help young people succeed: meeting them one on one to discuss med-school applications or internship opportunities, organizing women's networking events for female chemistry students, taking her classes out for pizza at the end of each semester. Contact with some former students extended years beyond their time in her classroom.

The messages also show Woytowicz engaging in the same sorts of conduct that GWU deemed suspicious in the context of Doe: arranging meetings with current and former students in non-office locales, such as coffee shops; meeting with students during weekend or evening hours (a necessity because of her full-time non-academic work, Woytowicz says); inviting students to cultural or artistic events; inviting students to networking and end-of-semester parties where alcohol was present; offering to meet with current and former students one on one to help with studies or scholarship applications.

After her initial contact with GWU's Title IX office, Woytowicz attempted to provide context for her communications with Doe in a 74-page response, submitted through her lawyer in May 2016. The response, and Woytowicz's lawsuit, maintain that it was ordinary professorial behavior which GWU read sinister motives into after a malicious student slung unfounded accusations at her. (The suit also mentions—but never further elaborates on—another component of this response: "Evidence of the student complainant's motive for bringing a false complaint, to wit, his admitted interest in 'mindfucking' her the same way Iago did to Othello and his showing her a sophomoric book on that subject titled 'Mindfucking.'")

Woytowicz suggests that school authorities inferred improprieties where there were none, that they took the complaint at face value immediately and then went fishing for evidence to support it, that they never gave Woytowicz a chance to properly defend herself, that they made too much of ribald humor, that they were motivated by "Victorian" or "fundamentalist" views of women, and that they imposed a sexist standard on Woytowicz that was not applied to male professors.

This last bit is a stretch. Anyone who has followed Title IX inquiries at GWU or elsewhere knows that they can be hopelessly flawed and biased against their targets regardless of gender. If anything, wrongly accused men seem to have it worse.

But Woytowicz is absolutely correct that those accused of sexual misconduct in Title IX territory are often presumed guilty by administrators from the get go, that they're rarely afforded anything like the due process required in courts of law, and that the result can be biased against the accused. And she's right that the cautious propriety required under Title IX proceedings does cast suspicion on all sorts of once-typical student/professor camaraderie.

Redefining 'Sexual Relationship'

The root of the injustice here may lie in how Title IX compliance has perverted the normal process for resolving situations like these. The decision to bar Woytowicz from further teaching may have come directly from the heads of the departments she taught in, but Woytowicz was never able to mount a proper defense to them directly—to offer witnesses on her behalf, to offer her own textual record. Even the 74-page response she had submitted rebutting the Title IX Office's presumptions about her texts was ignored, as it had been emailed by her lawyer and not by her directly. The department heads received the same "nebulous fog" of accusations against Woytowicz as she did, filtered through the topsy-turvy lens of Title IX culture.

In September 2016, Muhammad emailed Woytowicz to say that his review was complete and that he hadn't found sufficient evidence to support the student's complaint of sexual harassment. There was evidence, he claimed, that violated the school's consensual relationship policy by having a sexual relationship with Doe.

Muhammad had not found evidence that Woytowicz and Doe had actually engaged in sex or other physical activity of an erotic or romantic nature. The "sexual relationship" he had discovered consisted of sexually tinged jokes and discussions of sexual themes.

Rather than pursue that investigation further, Muhammad was willing to agree to an "informal resolution" proposed by the chemistry department: Woytowicz would accept a written reprimand for the relationship and undergo anti-sexual-harassment training. Woytowicz rejected this proposal, her lawyer explained, because it "would require her to submit to a written reprimand for conduct of which she knows she is innocent."

Woytowicz offered to provide additional witnesses and to take a polygraph test. In February 2017, she submitted an affidavit from Doe's former roommate stating that he regularly saw Doe interact with Woytowicz during this period but "never [saw] anything indicating to me that there was a sexual relationship" between them, and that from what he "could see of their relationship, it seemed inconsistent with there having been a sexual relationship between them."

In March 2017, Christopher Alan Bracey, a vice provost and law professor at GWU, informed Woytowicz that his review of her case was complete and he had "decided not to initiate a formal hearing" against her.

Meanwhile, new instructors were appointed to Woytowicz's usual courses for the upcoming semester.

The School Responds

In its motion to dismiss Woytowicz's complaint, the school maintains that many of the things Woytowicz characterized as ordinary professorial interactions are in fact problematic. It also introduces a range of other alleged activity that Woytowicz did not mention in her complaint. If these things are true, it's more understandable why the university may have wanted to sever ties with Woytowicz.

GWU accuses Woytowicz of exchanging "salacious and suggestive" text messages with Doe, in which she "seemed to delight in writing double entendres to her student about the size and shape of the male organ and about oral and anal sex." (No quotes from or copies of these exchanges are provided.) The university claims that Woytowicz "provided [Doe] with alcoholic beverages even though she would have known he was not old enough to consume them legally" and that "on at least one occasion, she bit Doe on the neck."

Woytowicz is also accused of having "a sexual encounter at Doe's apartment with Doe's friend" (who was not a GWU student) and "allow[ing] herself to be photographed [with the friend] in a warm embrace."

"The University could not allow a professor to conduct herself with undergraduate students in this way," states the GWU motion. "Something had to be done."

But because Title IX inquiries operate in some nebulous land between the U.S. legal system and corporate HR departments, it's hard to know how much weight to give the above statements. It's unclear on what, if any, evidence the university has for these allegations, or how Woytowicz might counter them if she were given a chance to defend herself against them. The school also fails to state when the alleged activity occurred—a crucial detail, considering that Doe's contact with Woytowicz extended after he was in her class.

Or maybe not: The university's motion says that "the consensual sexual relationship provision" of GWU policy is actually "irrelevant for purposes of this motion." It doesn't matter, the school says, if Woytowicz never strictly violated its policies on sexual harassment, consensual relationships, or anything else. GWU is a private employer, Woytowicz was an adjunct professor, and the heads of the chemistry and international relations departments can stop assigning courses to her as they see fit, no particular violation required.

The Constitution "simply [does] not apply to private actors such as the University and its employees," GWU added. That's certainly true. But to the extent that federal policy is responsible for the school's behavior, Woytowicz has a strong case that her constitutional rights have been crushed, even if George Washington isn't the entity that trampled them.