• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Guilty If Charged

This fall on the campus of the University of New Hampshire there suddenly appeared a set of five dramatically large posters that spelled out the sins against which war would be officially waged. “Sexism has no place at UNH,” one poster said. “We seek not only to be a diverse community but a caring one.” Below that, in boldface print the poster said: “Tell someone. File a complaint,” and it listed telephone numbers by which students and faculty could inform against malefactors in their midst. Other posters of exactly the same format urged students to complain about racism, homophobia, discrimination, and religious persecution.

These evils, of course, have no place at any university, but questions have been raised whether the campaign to combat them fosters a tolerant community at the University of New Hampshire. Last spring at UNH, a clash of opinions took place over a proposal to expand the university’s official policy on harassment to include not only sexual behavior but any remarks that created “a degrading, intimidating or hostile environment.” I spoke to Chris Burns-DiBiasio, the director of the Affirmative Action Office and the policy’s principal author, who argued that the code would result in no overzealous prosecutions. Harassment, she assured me, “must involve a pattern of repetition such that a reasonable student would be offended.” “Reasonable student” seems the key term. One case at UNH that has now reached the courts in the form of a lawsuit charging the university with wrongful dismissal shows that aroused students and an administration that encourages people to become informers cannot always be counted on to be reasonable.

The case involves J. Donald Silva, a tenured professor of English who has taught at UNH for thirty years and, as it happens, is also the pastor of the Congregationalist Church on Great Island, a couple of miles from Portsmouth. Silva is fifty-eight years old, the grandfather of four; he has an MA in English from UNH and has published just two articles, both of them about the Portuguese island of Madeira. Until his recent troubles, he was a full-time teacher in the Thompson School of Life Science, a two-year college attached to UNH, most of whose students are preparing for careers in such subjects as animal science, forestry, and horticulture. Silva was part of a tiny humanities faculty at the Thompson School. Every other semester he taught three or four sections of a mandatory course on technical writing, with about twenty-six students in each section.

The sexual harassment charges against him began in one technical writing class early in the spring of 1992 when Silva was trying to explain the concept of “focus” to his students. “Focus is like sex,” he said, trying, he told me later, to capture what he perceived to be the students’ flagging attention. “You zero in on your subject. You seek a target. You move from side to side. You close in on the subject. You bracket the subject and center on it. Focus connects experience and language. You and the subject become one.”

A couple of days later, Silva was giving an example of a simile to the same class, and he chose an expression that seems a bit odd coming from the longest-serving pastor in the threehundred-year history of the Great Island Congregational Church. More than twenty years ago, Silva says, he gave his wife a phonograph record called “How to Belly Dance For Your Husband,” a record accompanied by a brochure with the same title, authored by a certain Little Egypt. The brochure contained a line that inspired an example Silva has used in class from time to time, including on February 26, 1992, as an example of a simile: “Belly dancing is like jello on a plate with a vibrator under the plate,” he told his students.

Some women students took offense at these two remarks saying such sexual references made them extremely uncomfortable. A few of them went to a class taught by a faculty colleague of Silva’s, Jerilee Zezula, the head of the animal science program at the Thompson School, and told her what Silva had said. Zezula, according to her own notes of her meeting with the students, which were later turned over to Silva and his advisers, told them that they had a “legitimate complaint” and asked them “how far they wished to go with this.” Within days eight women had filed “To Whom It May Concern” letters describing what they felt was Silva’s offensive behavior, sending them to Neil B. Lubow, the university’s associate vice-president for academic affairs.

The matter was quickly reported to the university’s Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program (SHARPP), a very active and prominent campus advocacy group created in 1988 by the administration whose several duties include receiving complaints of mistreatment from women on campus. On March 3, five days after Silva’s second classroom comment, an informal hearing was held in Lubow’s office at which Silva was confronted with the evidence of what now was being called sexual harassment, all of which was provided in the letters submitted by the eight female undergraduate students.

I telephoned several of these women, none of whom agreed to talk to me. I spoke to a secretary at the Thompson School, who said that Zezula would not speak to me either. Silva and one of his faculty advisers told me that, in hearings later held on the case, students testified that Zezula encouraged the women’s recourse to judicial action against him and that she also solicited complaints about Silva from other students in her own classes, and I wanted to ask her about this. I was also unable to ask the women what actual harm they felt Silva had done them with his classroom comments. I did obtain copies of the women’s written complaints, however, which served as the basis for the long prosecution of Silva that was to follow.

One woman, Holly Alverson Woodhouse, who submitted three letters altogether over a period of ten months, said that she felt “degraded” by Silva’s “vocabulary and insinuations” in class. “If he wants to make a point that we’ll remember, certainly a Proffessor [sic] of English can find enough vocabulary to draw from without needing to use the visualizations he chooses,” she wrote. Another of the women, Rachel Powers, said, “There is a border of what is tasteful and what is unacceptable and offensive Don since has greatly crossed this border.”

Another student, Robyn Ferreira, recounts an argument she had with Silva immediately after his remarks in class, which she termed “very unappropriated [sic] and also very affending [sic].”

Well then he went back to the bowl of jello and the vibrator and that he knew allot [sic] of people who used it to massage there [sic] muscles and that he was one of them. I told him that he was wacked because there are allot [sic] of other little massages their [sic] that do the same thing.

Some of the women wrote complaints accusing Silva of harassment outside class as well, most of it occurring on what appears to be a single day in the library. Woodhouse, for example, recounts how she was there with Silva and several other students. One of them, Nicole Libbey, talked about getting started on an assignment and said, “I guess I’ll jump on a computer before someone else does.” Woodhouse reports: “Don Silva smiled and said, ‘I’d like to see that!’ We all laughed a bit uneasily & wandered off.”

Woodhouse goes on to say that later, still in the library, “I was on the floor in the card indexes looking up books. Don Silva stopped, saw me on my hands and knees pulling out a floor level card index. Kate & Nikki heard him say to me, ‘You look like you’ve had a lot of experience on your knees.”’ Silva, who does not deny having spoken to Woodhouse, remembers his words as: “You look like you’ve had a lot of experience doing that.”

Two other students, Jamalyn Brown and Denise Kohler, wrote a joint complaint, accusing Silva, apparently, of implying that the two of them had a sexual relationship. According to the students, Silva asked them, “How long have you two been together?” Silva remembers saying, “How long have you two known each other.” Yet another letter is from Kimberly Austin. She and a male student overheard Silva administering a spelling test to a third student. “Myself and the male student went into his office and there heard him using sentences with Sexual Slants,” Austin writes. “I don’t remember the exact words. One out of every three sentences had a sexual slant.”

Those were the reported actions of Silva, perhaps tasteless or inappropriate ones, in some cases showing a middle-aged man doing nothing more offensive than trying, clumsily, to banter with his students. He seems to have foolishly wanted to appear to be “hip.” But from the beginning, the UNH administration chose to see Silva’s remarks in exactly the same way that the women students saw them, as unmistakably sexual in content and as instances of harassment. In March, Brian A. Giles, the dean of the Thompson School, while he did not talk to Silva as part of any investigation he may have made, wrote a letter informing him that his “pattern of sexual remarks in and out of the classroom has created an intimidating, hostile, and offensive academic environment that has substantially interfered with [the students’] educational experience.” The proposed punishment involved several requirements, the most important being that Silva undergo a year of “weekly counseling sessions” with a “professional psychotherapist approved by the university.” Silva was also required to reimburse the university for $2,000 to cover the cost of setting up an alternative section of his course to accommodate the students who could no longer study with him. Finally, Silva was required to apologize, in writing, “for creating a hostile and offensive academic environment.”

Silva says that he was willing to apologize to the women for any offense he had given them, but he denied having sexually harassed them. Others at UNH reasoned that even if Silva had suffered a lapse of judgment in his remarks in class, those lapses had not created an “offensive learning environment” and should have been protected by Silva’s right to academic freedom.

What you have here,” said Chris Balling, a professor of physics who served as an adviser to Silva during his ordeal, “is a professor who probably exercised poor judgment in searching for a way to grab students’ attention. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think it was a mistake, but I don’t see how one can construe it as sexual harassment. The classroom remarks were not directed specifically to the individuals who complained. He said them each once. He was not warned that these particular students took offense. He was just immediately hit by a formal harassment charge. Yet to harass somebody you have to go at someone more than once, it has to be individually, and you have to know it is offensive and yet keep on doing it.” Certainly, several important details in the sexual harassment charges suggest a spirit of overzealousness was in the air. For example, the student who was going to jump on the computer, Nicole Libbey, was not the one who filed a complaint against Silva and in fact she testified in his behalf at the formal hearing. But Holly Woodhouse, who overheard Silva’s comment to Libbey, reported it as an instance of harassment. As for Woodhouse’s complaint regarding Silva’s remark to her when she was on her knees at the card file, she acknowledges that she was informed of it by two other women. She did not hear it herself.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print