• PAULA PHOUNSAVATH

How ODU's Poor Response of the Blake Bailey Allegations Raises Questions of Reforming Work Ethic

Updated: Jul 1


Photo Courtesy of Old Dominion University


Both women were tormented by Bailey--now, their stories are being disregarded by the University.


It's their time to fight back.


"I worked hard to get where I am, and I expected the University to ensure that our workplace is safe for women." -- Dr. Bridget Anderson

Though Dr. Bridget Anderson feels safe teaching in the classroom, she says she does not feel safe in her workplace. Anderson, an associate professor of Applied Linguistics, specializes in sociolinguistics that revolves around power and coercion. Indeed, she is a distinguished professor within the English department, but she was a victim of an abuse of power by Blake Bailey, a "visiting" professor and the disgraced author of the autobiography, "Philip Roth: The Biography" for over two years.


When Bailey was teaching at ODU from 2010 to 2016, Anderson was assaulted and harassed by him on multiple occasions. While these encounters did not happen every day, they were very unpredictable and would escalate over time.


"He definitely targeted me," Anderson recalls. "He did not want to take 'no' for an answer."


She brought her complaints to the University many times, but nothing was done to prevent further action.


"Nobody seemed to want to deal with him or his terrible behavior or confront him, so it made me feel like I was not safe in my workplace," Anderson says. "And that is not a good feeling."


The turning point was when Anderson and Bailey were in a faculty meeting. He tried to put his hand on her leg when they were sitting next to each other. When she left the room, he then cornered her to a mailroom. Anderson pulled out a knife in self-defense.


"Once I had come to realize that nobody was going to do anything about his harassment, that was a really disconcerting feeling that [...] he was going to keep bothering me unless I found a way," She says. "I was scared, but I was determined."


The aftermath of the traumas gave Anderson a lot of anxiety, often staying hypervigilant of her surroundings. Now, it's a trigger for her to see other women going through the same scenario as her and authorities not implementing any action towards the perpetrator. Anderson was advised to go to ODU counseling after that turning point. It wasn't long until the University started to investigate Bailey in the summer of 2012, with Anderson also participating.


"At that point, counseling refrained as 'trauma counseling,' but that's not the way it seemed to me." Anderson points out. "It seemed more like anger management. It was annoying. It was annoying that the focus seems to be on my response to abuse and harassment, rather than the behavior of the abuser and harasser."


"Somebody's fame shouldn't be put above everybody else." -- Elizabeth Argento

When Elizabeth Argento was a graduate student in the Creative Writing department in 2012, she also faced Bailey's harassment. Argento struggled with alcoholism and bipolar disorder, in which Bailey preyed on her emotional vulnerability.


"It was all really scary to me when this all came out." She says. "I knew he was inappropriate. He crossed the line several times, he was flirty, he was touchy."


While she had a different experience from Anderson, it was still the same predatory pattern that Bailey had done to other women. Since the graduate program in the department was small and male--dominated, Argento was taught by Bailey for a creative non--fiction course. Initially, nothing seems to be intimidating about the now--disgraced autobiographer when he admired her work.


It was only until he asked her to write about her sexual experiences during her manic episodes, things started to escalate. Because Argento was taught by the now--disgraced author, she did what she was told since he was a brilliant writer with great connections.


She remembered Bailey's comment along the lines of, "This guy was lucky to be at the right place and the right time to be with you."


That comment stuck in Argento's head for years.


Another incident was where Argento was at Bailey's office, he put his one of his leg up on his desk in a suggestive manner, showing his erection imprint to her. After that ordeal, Argento hurried up to go to class. It was the last time she was ever alone with Bailey.


All she wanted was to simply get out of the program. She then began to drink more to numb the pain.


"He wasn't on campus that much [after], so I was able to only communicate with him via email." She says. "I was very much doubting myself, but I felt awful that [...] I kept thinking that I wanted to keep this connection with this famous guy, but he's so inappropriate with me. It's so uncomfortable and I should not have to avoid my thesis professor, so I was angry about that."


La Wanza Lett--Brewington, Director of ODU Women's Center and victim advocate, explains the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder happens almost always after every sexual coercion occurs to the victim.


"It's similar to any major trauma. It's like getting into a car accident, or being robbed." Lett--Brewington says. "You're impacted in a sense that you're gonna be thinking differently from that point on. I tell folks all the time that it's a 'new normal' that's going to be set forward. When it happens, you're not going to be able to remember the incident in a linear fashion."



The 'He-said-she-said' Response and ODU's Policy on Sexual Misconduct


odu-full-statement
.pdf
Download PDF • 78KB

The Mace & Crown has been permitted to obtain the document from the Virginian-Pilot, which was initially addressed to Mr. Gary Harki, the investigative reporter of the article. Names have already been redacted out of privacy.


The University's response to the allegations last week pointed out they were, "flatly false" and claimed that because these incidents happened almost a decade ago, no 'formal' complaint was made. They were made aware of the rumors floating within the English department---especially among the faculty---about Bailey on him being a, "creep." On the contrary, its statements and their own claims from their own "sources" don't match up to the number of accusations Anderson and Argento stated to the Pilot and the Mace and Crown, in addition to many other women speaking out against Bailey in the NYTimes article.


Their attorney firm, Kaufman & Canoles, P.C., a third-party counsel, spoke on behalf of the University and in accordance to their policies, "Allegations that he was a “creep,” yes. Allegations that he was a rapist or serial sexual harasser, no."


"For the school to attack us like that via a lawyer, we're just telling our stories," Argento argues. "We're not in a court of law, so why are you viciously attacking me via a lawyer?"


This third-party law firm is highly unusual of the University to speak on their behalf. According to Lett---Brewington, the University is supposed to have its own counsel to look over the situation and isn't supposed to have such a demeaning stance. It is still uncertain of which part of the administration's decision to have a third--party victim-blame both Anderson and Argento.


"It seems so far-fetched from what I had expected the University would say in this kind of situation," Lett--Brewington explains. "It's [usually] in the best interests of the University to not comment at all and for the paper [the Pilot]."


"It is not good enough for me that the president would apologize and appoint a task force," Anderson says. "I'm glad there is a task force, I'm happy there is a task force, but that is not the same thing as accountability for this vicious attack on survivors. Somebody needs to be held responsible for this vicious attack on survivors."


Lett--Brewington also went into detail about the ODU's policy of sexual misconduct. She explains that there are two tracks within that policy, one for faculty, staff and administrators and one for students. Students can see the ODU's Women Center for advocacy and the disciplinary actions are handled usually by the Office of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity. For faculty members, the process of investigation should be handled by the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity and ODU's human resources.


"What was supposed to happen was that when Dr. Anderson shared the information to her supervisor, the supervisor should have brought it to the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity." She explains the extensive process. "That's what should have happened, not 'it stops right there.'"


President Broderick issued an apology for the two women and also created a "co-task force" to implement more policies in the workspace. The president's executive office has also reached out to Argento to personally apologize because of the impact of the faculty's response to the University's statement.


UPDATE: The president issued another statement in response to the ODU community on Thursday night saying that the University is creating an "independent inquiry," to investigate the allegations against Bailey.


"It is clear the University’s initial response caused pain to members of our community. I care deeply about all members of the Monarch community." He said in an email. "It is essential to me that we obtain a truly independent report on the matter and that we be able to assure our campus community that sexual harassment and other misconduct will not be tolerated."


The creative writing department---which Bailey had worked specifically under---has not made any response to the allegations.


Separating the "Art" from the "Artist"


It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that the English department has a highly accomplished writer on campus to teach students. Having such a person foreshadows success and even creating a pathway for students to network. It is known to bring a lot of prestige, honor and recognition to the University.


However, there seems to be a blurred line of separating the "art" from the "artist" that the University is not aware of, but needs to strongly consider and understand. Though difficult to answer, the discussion is hardly even said in the light of these accusations. Bailey is no different from other perpetrators who prey on women. From musicians such as R. Kelly, to film producers such as Harvey Weinstein and actors like Bill Cosby, all are considered to be one of the greatest creative geniuses within their respective fields.


We often overlook the "artist" and the people that they can be to others. In which, these "artists" are the ones who can be considered the "predators" or "monsters" themselves. It is the same cycle of women coming out against these perpetrators. They are disregarded because of a certain 'time limit' to tell their stories and are scrutinized by the rape culture. As a result, justice is rarely served.


This was brought up with both Anderson and Argento and they both strongly agreed that the University should discuss reforming its ethics and separating the boundaries.


"I think that's a great angle to think about it from," Anderson tells us. "The impression that I got when I complained about it is 'well, look at what a literary star he is, look at what he brings to the creative writing program, look at how prestigious it is for the creative writing program to have. Over and over I kept getting the impression that his success as a writer was being used to minimize and try to ignore his abuse of women."


"I think that we really have to screen people and pay attention to the warning signs and address these things before they get dangerous," Argento says. "We can't put having a talent or prominent person above the health and safety of students.


She continues, "Learning to me has always been a sacred thing, learning is so important. School is so important, it's really where you explore who you are, especially in an art program. You're exploring your art and that can be very vulnerable. And to have a predator in that space is a really dangerous thing."


Lett--Brewington also raised the question of extensive background checks and a certain vetting process that the University needs to have, "Particularly if he [on Bailey grooming his 8th graders for sex] specifically done something like that, there should be a record of that. And if you'd done a background check, that would come up. Things that were done at schools---particularly [grade] schools---that's on your record, that doesn't go anywhere. Why wasn't there a background check done before he started? We wouldn't have this problem."



What's Next?


Anderson says she doesn't regret her decision to come out with her story to the Pilot and she also knows she did the right thing. Despite the trauma, she loves teaching and is grateful to have dedicated herself to academia. She says she will continue to share her story and advocate for other survivors.


Both women say that the faculty statement in retaliation to the University's poor response has been heartening.

"That's helped me through this really hard time," Anderson says.


With no plans to file a lawsuit, Argento says that she's still in the process of healing by connecting herself to her personal creative writing work. She has always loved writing since she was six years old.


"My art is what's healing me." She says.


Argento's last words to survivors, "You are not alone, and that it wasn't your fault and that I'm sorry that you didn't get the apology you deserved. That doesn't mean you can't heal."


To view/sign the Statement, click the link here: Statement in Support of ODU Survivors of Sexual Misconduct, Assault, and Harassment

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