N-G Exclusive | UI report: Ex-administrator engaged in 'predatory behavior'

N-G Exclusive | UI report: Ex-administrator engaged in 'predatory behavior'

CHAMPAIGN — An administrator in charge of undergraduate student services in the School of Architecture resigned from the University of Illinois in August 2017 just before investigators concluded that he had sexually harassed eight female students, documents show.

In that case, unlike the one involving UI law Professor Jay Kesan, the university's investigator said Lee Waldrep had violated the campus policy on sexual misconduct and should be permanently barred from returning to the UI, according to documents released to The News-Gazette under the Freedom of Information Act.

Many of the complaints against Waldrep involved unwanted physical contact with students, according to the four-page report from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access.

"Dr. Waldrep abused his power as an administrator at the school by engaging in inappropriate interactions with and touching female students when he saw them in the school or they came to his office for academic advice," ODEA investigator Claire Sharples Brooks wrote.

The UI School of Architecture's then-director, Peter Mortensen, said he would have recommended "adverse employment action" once the findings were made, but Waldrep had already left the university, according to Mortensen's Sept. 15, 2017, response letter to Brooks.

Reached by phone, Waldrep declined to comment on the investigation or the allegations. He is listed as an academic adviser at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville's College of Architecture and Design and maintains a website with advice on careers in architecture.

The case contrasts with that of Kesan, a tenured law professor who was accused of sexual harassment in 2015 by a student and two colleagues but received relatively minor sanctions — and continued to teach — until students demanded the college take more action after the case became public in October. Kesan didn't agree to take unpaid leave until November, after The News-Gazette requested a 2002 law-school document recounting allegations against him 16 years ago.

The three women had accused Kesan of talking with them during professional interactions about his sex life and views on adultery and touching one student's thigh, among other behavior.

Investigators found Kesan had not met the UI's legal standard for sexual misconduct — "severe or pervasive" offensive behavior that "unreasonably interferes with" a person's work or educational opportunities. But the outcry over the case prompted a campus review of sexual-harassment policies and investigation procedures.

"While both cases involved unwanted advances, the application of the facts to the policy in the two situations led to different decisions. The Kesan case predominantly involved isolated comments, while the preponderance of evidence in the Waldrep case showed a pattern of touching and predatory behavior," campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Friday.

A 'pervasive' pattern

Waldrep's job at the School of Architecture brought him into frequent contact with students. He helped recruit prospective undergraduates, provided academic advising, helped set up course schedules, served as a liaison with undergraduate student organizations and helped undergraduates prepare the next phase of their architecture careers after graduation, Mortensen said.

Eight students filed individual complaints against Waldrep in March and April of 2017, saying he tended to "single out female students for unwanted attention, touching and other conduct that they deemed to cross professional boundaries."

After learning of the allegations, the School of Architecture removed all meetings with female students from Waldrep's calendar, and on March 14, ODEA directed him to avoid any one-on-one contact with female students during the investigation, the report said.

But he was placed on paid leave a short time later, on April 5, because ODEA received reports that he was "continuing to touch female students," the report said.

The students' complaints were consistent: Each recounted times when he touched them or "invaded their personal space in ways that made them feel uncomfortable," the report said.

They said he frequented the architecture studio to interact with female students during their studio time and engaged them outside the school through texting, phone, email and Facebook.

Some said they couldn't pass Waldrep in the hall without being stopped and "forced into a conversation and being subjected to some type of physical touching by him." The female students reported feeling "trapped" by Waldrep on occasion, describing incidents where he "blocked their path on a stairwell, backed them into a railing or a wall, pinned their legs between his while sitting across from them or stood uncomfortably close to them," the report said.

The students said he would give "unsolicited and unwanted hugs," grab their hands, touch or massage their legs or thighs, rub or pat their backs and shoulders and touch their buttocks, the report said.

"This pattern of behavior was so pervasive and well known within the school that on more than one occasion male members of the community felt the need to intervene on behalf of the female students," the report said.

Waldrep: Hugs 'always appropriate'

Waldrep acknowledged to investigators that he interacted with students through social media, texts and calls to their cellphones, as well as visiting them during their studio time and photographing them at school functions.

But he said he did so for legitimate reasons related to his job, and he said he didn't act differently with male and female students, the report said.

When confronted with specific examples of unwanted touching or students feeling trapped, Waldrep either couldn't recall the incident or denied ever engaging in that type of conduct, the report said.

"While he recognized that he possibly has held the hands of female students and has hugged students," he said he sought permission in advance and that "his hugs were always appropriate," the report said. He denied ever touching students' legs or buttocks.

Waldrep also denied receiving any cues from students that his actions were "unwelcome," the report said.

'Objectively offensive'

Brooks, in her Aug. 28 investigative report, cited the "totality of the circumstances in this case" to support her findings.

"The conduct attributed to Dr. Waldrep did not consist of minor, isolated incidents. Instead, the evidence uncovered during the investigation revealed a pattern of behavior by Dr. Waldrep consisting of giving female students unwelcome attention and physically touching them, causing them emotional stress," the report said.

Despite his denials, she said evidence showed he sought out the interactions with students. While the touching wasn't severe, she said, it was pervasive given that eight students reported it over a short period of time. Much of it was "objectively offensive," and the pattern was corroborated by six of seven witnesses, Brooks said.

The conduct also undermined the students' educational experience, she wrote. Students felt embarrassed, uncomfortable and nervous, and two said Waldrep's action affected their concentration and coursework, the report said. One student sought out counseling.

The students were reluctant to report Waldrep's conduct because he was perceived to have influence and control over scholarship and employment opportunities with architectural firms after college, the report said. They felt they were "risking their future opportunities by filing complaints."

"The disparity in power between the impacted college-aged female students and Dr. Waldrep, a middle-aged, seasoned administrator who potentially could impact their ability to obtain employment in their field following graduation, trapped the complainants into accepting his unwanted attention and physical touching," the report said.

Brooks said she would have suggested "adverse action" against Waldrep if he hadn't left. She also recommended more training for architecture faculty and staff "about when and where they are to report sexual harassment."

Resignation before report

Emails show Waldrep told human-resources officials in late July that he'd decided to leave the UI after eight years. His voluntary separation agreement took effect Aug. 15. He was earning $92,687 and was eligible for an unused vacation payout of $15,151, documents show.

A signed copy of the agreement was forwarded to Waldrep by Academic Human Resources on Aug. 28, the same day the ODEA report came out.

"We think he probably resigned because he recognized that an unfavorable report was coming," Kaler said. It's not uncommon for an employee "who has any sort of trouble to decide to part with the university."

Mortensen wouldn't say what disciplinary action he might have taken against Waldrep and declined to discuss the case, citing employee confidentiality.

But he said ODEA subsequently met with architecture faculty and staff members to clarify their responsibility to promptly report any sexual harassment, so it can be investigated. Having that "crystal clarity" is what's most important to protect student safety, he said.

Mortensen, who'd been recruited from the provost's office in 2014 to oversee the school until a national search for a new director was conducted, said he first became aware of the allegations against Waldrep in March 2017 from someone who then immediately reported the conduct to the university. He said he had not been aware of any complaints before then, though he isn't sure what others may have known.

Waldrep's online profile says he has more than 20 years of experience in higher education, specializing in academic affairs and career development for architecture students. He earned a Ph.D. in counseling and development from American University, a master of architecture from Arizona State and a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan.

Besides the UI, he has worked at the University of Maryland and Illinois Institute of Technology. His LinkedIn profile reads "Dr. Architecture dedicated to assist aspiring architects."

Editor's note: The headline on an earlier version of this story misstated Waldrep's position at the UI. He was an academic professional employee.

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