MSU professor investigated for sexual misconduct, resigns from journal
Valerie Sulfaro, currently a professor of political science at James Madison University, was considering switching out of her international relations subfield when she was 23 years old and in her first year of graduate school at the University of South Carolina in 1989. This was when she met William Jacoby, then a faculty member at USC, who convinced her to study public opinion and voting behavior, his subfield.
Jacoby is now a political science professor at Michigan State University and a former director of the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research Summer Program at the University of Michigan. Both MSU and the University are investigating him for sexual misconduct.
University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald told The Daily that Jacoby will not be teaching this summer with ICPSR, though Jacoby can still be found on MCommunity.
According to Sulfaro, she served as a teaching assistant for a course Jacoby taught from 1990-1991. In the winter of 1990, he came to her office and closed the door.
“I remember very clearly what he said,” Sulfaro said. “He said he was laying his cards on the table, and then proposed an intimate relationship with me. I was stunned. I did not say yes. I did not say no. I said maybe, because I could not figure out what to say.”
Sulfaro also said Jacoby told her she was sending clear signals of her interest in him. According to Sulfaro, his misinterpretation of her feelings crushed her confidence.
She then said Jacoby kissed her with his arm around her and ground his pelvis into her.
“It was not an innocent kiss,” Sulfaro said. “He had not waited for me to say yes or to think about what I wanted. And at that moment I felt like I had cheated on my boyfriend without ever intending to.”
This was not the only time Sulfaro had such an encounter with Jacoby. In an email to The Daily, Sulfaro wrote Jacoby sexually harassed her while she was presenting a paper at the Midwest Political Science Association in 1996 and kissed her again without consent. At the MPSA conference, Jacoby allegedly offered Sulfaro a computer disc with nude photos of himself on it.
The University’s sexual harassment policy labels unwanted sexual statements, personal attention and physical and sexual advances as sexual harassment. The policy also states the University will be unsympathetic to any consensual relationships when there is a clear power differential between the parties. Sulfaro said she considered the relationship consensual because Jacoby did not rape her and she did not run away, even though the relationship was not her choice.
Sulfaro has since filed complaints with the University, MSU, MPSA and two other professional organizations. After filing the complaint with the University, Sulfaro said Elizabeth Seney, U-M deputy Title IX coordinator, contacted her but never followed up with her or her witnesses. University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald stated the University does not confirm nor deny the existence of the investigation against Jacoby by the Office of Institutional Equity.
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Rebecca Gill, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was also propositioned by Jacoby for a relationship. Following a presentation of her paper at a 2001 conference, Jacoby approached Gill and gave positive remarks on her work. Jacoby encouraged her to take an ICPSR course he taught in the summer of 2002 at Michigan, and she did.
After the last day of Jacoby’s course, Gill, Jacoby and others went to a pub to celebrate the end of the session. Jacoby told Gill about “how mysterious and good-looking she was” and that they would both be working together at MSU.
Jacoby then asked Gill to consider having an affair with him, implying the relationship would be a way to advance her career at MSU.
Gill spoke to Jacoby once after this incident, soon before her graduation from MSU. According to Gill, at the time Jacoby’s wife was the graduate director of Gill’s doctoral program. The program's policy required that Ph.D. students with specializing in American politics had to have Jacoby on their doctoral committee. Gill requested not to have Jacoby on her committee because of her discomfort with him, and when meeting with Jacoby, was told she was mistaken about the pub incident.
“I expected him to say, ‘Oh I never meant to make you feel that way,’” Gill said. “But, he just said, ‘That didn’t happen. You must be mistaken.’”
Gill told The Daily she graduated late from the program, finishing after Jacoby’s wife's role as the Graduate Director ended in 2007.
Gill has not yet pursued legal action against Jacoby, but instead shared her story via Twitter and at a meeting panel discussing mentorship across genders. She wanted to share her story to show how this incident impacted her life and as an effort make political science more inclusive.
“I sat back and thought about what was it that my mentors had a hard time seeing about what I needed and this was the example that I told a couple of people in my department about what happened and it was really difficult for them to see the kind of impact that that would have on me,” Gill said.
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Jacoby also served as editor in chief for the American Journal of Political Science until his resignation in April. Jacoby originally announced he would resign at the end of this year but was pressured to resign earlier when he used the journal's website to deny the allegations without proper authorization from MPSA and the journal.
In a statement written to The Daily, Melissa Heeke, the communications and membership director for MPSA, said the organization accepted Jacoby’s resignation.
“The MPSA Council voted unanimously to accept Professor Jacoby's resignation, effective immediately, at an emergency meeting held April 19, 2018,” Heeke wrote.
After Jacoby’s statement from the journal, Sulfaro filed a retaliation complaint against the institutions to which she had complained earlier. According to Sulfaro, she was told by Seney that the rules against sexual harassment did not apply to her because they were not in place at the time Jacoby harassed her.
“My impression is that U of M does not want to investigate for some reason, even though it appears to me that they're legally obligated to do so,” Sulfaro said. “I have no idea why they would want a serial predator associated with their institution.”
According to its website, the AJPS is taking a temporary hiatus as it transitions to a new editorial team following Jacoby’s resignation. The journal will not be accepting or revising manuscripts until the new team is established.
MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant stated MSU is handling the situation regarding Jacoby and wants people to come forward when incidents of sexual misconduct occur.
“Michigan State University is taking the situation very seriously,” Guerrant said. “We are looking into the complaints and the investigation is on-going. No student, graduate student, faculty or staff member should have to work in an environment where they feel threatened or harassed, and we want people to feel comfortable coming forward when they feel such a situation is happening.”
Jacoby did not respond to The Daily's request for comment.