Daily investigation finds allegations of harassment, retaliation and intimidation against English professor

Monday, January 11, 2021 - 4:56pm

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Tenured English professor Douglas Trevor, former director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program and the Hopwood Awards Program, is not allowed to conduct office hours with his door closed or meet with students in off-campus spaces for the next two years. These sanctions were instituted in an April 30, 2020 letter from LSA Dean Anne Curzan. 

According to the confidential letter, addressed to Trevor and obtained by The Michigan Daily, Trevor is also barred from holding formal leadership positions at the University of Michigan for the next two years, though Curzan wrote that his professional conduct would be re-evaluated at the end of this period. Trevor will also not be eligible for a merit increase in his base salary in the next faculty salary program.

As Trevor continues to teach at the University — with two undergraduate classes scheduled for Winter 2021 — a Daily investigation into Trevor has unearthed two previously undisclosed allegations of harassment, retaliation and intimidation against Trevor. The Daily has also learned of one previously undisclosed allegation that when a Helen Zell student came to him with concerns about another faculty member’s behavior, Trevor warned the student against threatening the educational environment.

These allegations, made by three female students and staff at the University between 2016 and 2019, date back to January 2017 and extend to April 2019. These accounts have been corroborated by friends, fellow students and colleagues of the women who were present at the time. The Daily has also reviewed correspondence between Trevor and the women who shared their accounts as well as between administrators.

Trevor was the director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program — the University’s prestigious creative writing graduate program — from 2016 until December 2018, when he stepped down, citing family-related reasons in an email to program participants. In Fall 2018, he also directed the Hopwood Program, which hosts creative writing awards for University students and partners frequently with Helen Zell, stepping down from that directorship at the end of the year as well. 

In response to an email from The Daily, Curzan declined to comment on this letter. University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald noted in an interview with The Daily that the University does not comment on personnel matters to respect the privacy of employees. Fitzgerald added that this letter from Curzan “speaks for itself.”

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Curzan’s April 2020 letter followed an OIE investigation into Trevor, which concluded in February 2020. The OIE investigation did not find Trevor’s conduct to be “sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive to create a sexually hostile environment,” but Curzan wrote that Trevor had “created an intimidating, hostile, and offensive climate” in the Helen Zell Writers’ Program.

In an email to The Daily, Trevor denied that he had ever engaged in sexual misconduct. In addressing other allegations, he referenced the findings of the OIE investigation, writing that OIE found the allegations to not be “valid.”

“After this investigation, the OIE correctly determined that I did not violate any University policies related to sexual harassment,” Trevor wrote. “I am saddened by the amount of misinformation that has circulated about me in recent times. I want students to know that sexual misconduct should not be tolerated and that I fully support university policies that regulate behavior by faculty and staff.”

The OIE investigation into Trevor was initiated in April 2018 by then-LSA junior Emma Richter. The Daily spoke to Richter, whose allegations make up one of the three reported in this article, about her claims of sexual misconduct against Trevor while she worked for the Hopwood Program.

(Richter formerly worked for The Daily as a staff photographer from September 2016 to December 2018. The Daily spoke with two individuals familiar with Richter’s situation and reviewed email and iMessage correspondence from Trevor, corroborating the consistency of her allegations.)

Apart from the three allegations reported in this article, two anonymous allegations of sexual misconduct against Trevor were also posted in June 2020 on the Twitter account Assaulters at UMich, an anonymous account that posted a series of tweets calling out multiple alleged assaulters on campus. One of the two posts also claimed that the writer’s allegations against Trevor had been “severely mishandled.”

Amid the numerous allegations that were posted on the account against members of the University community, Trevor was the only University professor to appear on the account. Like many allegations on the account, those against Trevor are unverified by The Daily. The Assaulters at UMich account did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The allegations against Trevor follow a larger pattern of alleged abuse from tenured faculty and deterrents to reporting at the University and in higher education more broadly. In 2020, three women came forward alleging decades’ worth of sexual harassment from Martin Philbert, the University’s former provost who held the office from 2017 through January 2020, when he was placed on leave

Also in 2020, other allegations of sexual misconduct were brought against the late University doctor Robert E. Anderson and Jason Mars, assistant professor of computer science. The latter has recently faced controversy for his continued teaching appointment at the University. The Daily also uncovered previously undisclosed allegations against former School of Music, Theatre & Dance professors Stephen Shipps and David Daniels in 2018. 

In a follow-up email to The Daily regarding the allegations against Trevor, Fitzgerald said the English Department is working to resolve inequities.

“We also can tell you that the leadership team in the English Department and LSA are addressing these matters,” Fitzgerald wrote. “Knowing there is always more to do to improve equity and inclusivity, the department is engaged in a number of ongoing initiatives to ensure that all voices are heard and all members of the community feel included.”

“It got worse over time”

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Richter was an LSA junior in April 2018 when she received an email from Trevor, who she had met the previous month through her work-study job for the Hopwood Program. In the email, Trevor wrote that he had reported Richter to OIE for having an inappropriate romantic relationship with another faculty member — an allegation both the faculty member and Richter deny. The Daily was provided a copy of this email.

Richter said Trevor’s email caught her off guard. Earlier that same day, she had gone to OIE to consider reporting two professors she alleged were sexually harassing her. One was the faculty member Trevor alleged she was in a relationship with. 

The other was Trevor. 

“It was funny — in a dark way — to me,” Richter said. “That Doug would do that just seems ridiculous.”

Richter alleged that before and after receiving this email, from March 2018 to October 2018, Trevor sexually harassed her while she worked in the Hopwood Room, which houses offices for Hopwood Program leadership and often functions as a venue for Helen Zell-affiliated events. According to Richter, Trevor made inappropriate advances toward her outside the workplace as well, inviting her to get drinks after University-affiliated events and taking her out for coffee in a manner that made her uncomfortable.

Richter said she first met Trevor a month before receiving his email, when he was the Helen Zell director but had not yet become the Hopwood director. She said they met at a Helen Zell welcome event, where she had been asked to take photos. 

The event had an open bar, and Richter said Trevor had clearly drank before he struck up a conversation with her and invited her to join him and another faculty member for drinks after the event. One of the individuals contacted by The Daily confirmed they had witnessed the invitation.

Richter remembered declining the invitation and stating that she was underaged. But Trevor allegedly insisted she accompany them, arguing she shouldn’t walk home from the event alone. According to Richter, after repeated urging from Trevor, Richter accepted the invitation.

Richter, Trevor and the other professor went to the Raven’s Club, where Richter said that she witnessed Trevor gossip about Helen Zell students’ sex lives.

“It was … like making fun in a mean way,” Richter said. “The other piece of it that was uncomfortable was … in contrast … (Trevor) saying and, directed towards me, being like, ‘You’re so mature, Emma, you know. You completely get it.’”

That evening was only the beginning of several encounters with Trevor that Richter said made her uncomfortable. The site of these subsequent encounters was frequently Richter’s workplace, especially with Trevor set to take over as Hopwood Director in Fall 2018.

Richter also alleged that Trevor would regularly hug her and touch her inappropriately on the shoulders, hand and small of her back outside of that encounter.

“It got worse over time,” Richter said. “You know, the small of your back becomes your butt.”

In one specific encounter, Richter alleges that Trevor saw her in the Hopwood Room, where he walked up to her and began rubbing her arm while pointing out she hadn’t responded to an invitation to coffee with him. Richter said this interaction made her feel like agreeing to coffee was “something I have to do.” The Daily reviewed iMessages between Trevor and Richter after their coffee meeting.

“Yes, that was fun,” Trevor texted Richter after they went to coffee. “Let’s do it again sometime soon. Good luck with all your responsibilities!! Remember to make time to feed the soul.”

Richter decided to formally report Trevor and went to OIE on April 23, 2018. Richter shared that this process presented frustrations of its own, particularly after Richter learned that her case had been transferred from one investigator to another in May 2018. 

When this investigator first contacted her, Richter alleged that one of the first things he told her was that he was surprised she was reporting Trevor. The investigator allegedly said he had worked with Trevor after Trevor reported Richter and the other faculty member to OIE and — according to Richter — the investigator said Trevor was a “great guy.” One of the individuals contacted by The Daily confirmed that Richter shared this story with them at the time.

“After he said that, I just checked out,” Richter said.

As a result of these frustrations, Richter said she decided to take a step back from the investigation in late May 2018. Over the summer, she heard little from Trevor. 

However, with Trevor poised to take over as Hopwood Director in Fall 2018 and to move into an office adjoined to the Hopwood Room, one of Richter’s supervisors contacted Trevor around this time to request that he wait to move into the office until the end of summer, according to an April 25, 2018 email obtained by The Daily. The supervisor advised him to delay his move to create a “more comfortable working environment” for Richter, who was still working in the Hopwood Room. 

Trevor wrote back that he took issue with the suggestion.

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“(Y)our email is obviously unsettling to me as it implies that my presence in the Hopwood Director’s office would make Emma Richter uncomfortable,” Trevor wrote in response.

Ultimately, Richter said that Trevor moved into the office at the beginning of the Fall 2018 semester, but problems continued. With Trevor officially stationed in the director’s office and without any enforceable measures preventing her from having to see Trevor, Richter said the situation worsened. 

To avoid further encounters with Trevor in the Hopwood Room, Richter said she took three weeks off of paid time off in October 2018. She also took a week off of her classes, due to mounting stress of being unable to avoid Trevor in the workplace. The Daily was provided documentation of this time off in both cases. At the end of the month, she also reached out to OIE to continue with the investigation process. 

Richter alleged that she also continued to encounter Trevor outside of the Hopwood Room. In the Spring 2019 semester, she was working a part-time job at Literati Bookstore, which frequently partners with Helen Zell for events and readings. Richter alleged that Trevor continued to try to interact with her in the store. 

“(Trevor) would insert himself into places that I was, or conversations (I was having),” Richter said.

After one Helen Zell-affiliated event in April 2019 where Trevor was in attendance and allegedly tried to interact with her — which a former Literati employee was able to independently corroborate — Richter said she approached the owners of Literati with her concerns. The owners contacted Trevor and asked him to no longer visit the store, according to Richter.

Two employees of Literati in April 2019 confirmed that Trevor was asked not to enter the store and was added to an internal list of banned customers around this time as a result of complaints from Literati staff. The owners of Literati did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Richter graduated from the University at the end of the Spring 2019 semester. The OIE investigation of Trevor’s conduct did not conclude until almost a year after her graduation in the Spring 2020 semester. According to Richter, the experience and ensuing reporting process consumed more than a third of her three-year undergraduate career.

“It was really like a full year of my life, dealing with so much pressure, dealing with school, dealing with needing to keep multiple jobs and doing a thesis and also trying to have friends, while also being pressured by these professors who harassed me,” Richter said. “It became my whole life, in a really awful way, and took away so much from that time in my life.”

“It’s changed my life forever”

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Over the course of 2018, a Helen Zell alum and former staff member of the program alleged that her close, occasionally boundary-pushing friendship with Trevor quickly devolved into months of retaliation and attempts to get her fired. Trevor stepped down as the director of Helen Zell at the end of the same year. 

The former staff member spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing privacy and safety concerns. In this article, she will be referred to as Kate.

In interviews with The Daily, Kate alleged that this retaliation began after she sent Trevor an angry email in January 2018 calling him out for what she considered “obnoxious” behavior. 

The Daily spoke with three individuals familiar with her experiences who corroborated the consistency of her allegations.

“It’s changed my life forever,” Kate said. “I’m, like, kind of hyper-vigilant now, probably forever.”

Kate said she and Trevor started as friends. She was hired for a staff position in 2016 after completing her third year with Helen Zell and worked closely with Trevor, who had become director the same year. The two had inside jokes, would casually text and observed “low levels of professionalism.” 

Kate also said Trevor was flirtatious with her. She said he sent her suggestive messages, on multiple occasions sending her songs with romantic lyrics and calling them “our song.” (The Daily reviewed some of these messages through screenshots provided by Kate.)

Given that they were closer in age — Kate said she came to the program later than many of her peers — and close as friends, she said his actions didn’t strike her as inappropriate at the time, so she didn’t call him out then. 

“I can look back now and be like, ‘That wasn’t appropriate,’” Kate said. “‘He shouldn’t have been flirty.’”

Trevor and Kate allegedly maintained this close working relationship and friendship until January 2018, when Kate sent Trevor the angry email, frustrated at the fluctuating boundaries in their professional relationship. While their working relationship survived for a few months after that, Kate said this marked the end of their friendship. 

According to Kate, three months later, in April 2018 — the same month Richter reported Trevor to OIE — Trevor reported Kate to staff Human Resources, also contacting her supervisor as well as David Porter, then-chair of the English Department.  He told all three that Kate had been unprofessional in the January 2018 email, according to Kate. 

This marked the beginning of Trevor’s attempts to “ruin my life,” Kate said.

In one instance, Trevor accused Kate of encouraging Richter to report him to OIE because of Kate’s “resentment” toward him, an allegation Richter and Kate denied to The Daily. When Richter’s supervisor  — who was also Kate’s supervisor — asked Trevor to delay his move-in to the Hopwood Room director’s office to help Richter feel more comfortable in the April 2018 email shown earlier and printed again below, Trevor responded by doubling down on his allegation that Kate was behind Richter’s OIE report.

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“I have reasons to believe that my own comportment is being misrepresented and that this could be tied to the situations I endured with (Kate) this past semester,” Trevor wrote. “ ... I fear that I might be in the process (of) being slandered due to the resentment of a staff member and that staff member’s relationship with others.”

Kate said Trevor’s accusations against her continued to escalate from there. Trevor also allegedly called the police on Kate in the Fall 2018 semester after her phone had “butt-dialed” him multiple times. Kate said she received a call from the police, telling her they had received a complaint from Trevor that she was harassing him.

Kate’s friend, who corroborated the consistency of this account to The Daily, later accompanied Kate to the Apple Store. They learned the calls Kate claimed were unintentional stemmed from him having been listed as her emergency contact earlier in their working relationship, the friend and Kate said. Kate said she got a new phone because of how alarming Trevor’s reaction was.

At the time, OIE’s investigation into Trevor’s conduct, initiated by Richter’s April 2018 complaint, was still underway. In October and after the phone incident, to evade further escalation, Porter and the LSA Dean’s office offered Kate a “temporary reassignment” until Trevor was no longer director of Helen Zell.

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By the time Trevor stepped down from the directorship in December 2018, however, the experience had been traumatizing to the extent that Kate said she chose not to return.

“It’s stressful to have someone throw grenade after grenade at you, even if they don’t go off, you know?” Kate said. “Because he thinks they’re going to go off. Like, he wants them to go off.”

A “very clear double standard”

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With Trevor as director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program from 2016 through 2018, students would have to go to him to report their alleged conflicts. Molly Dickinson, a former Helen Zell student, alleged that Trevor repeatedly sided with her professor when Dickinson went to Trevor with her concerns, resulting in Dickinson feeling alienated from the program.

Dickinson was a student in the Helen Zell Writers’ Program from 2015 to 2017. At the beginning of her last semester in the program, Dickinson alleged that Trevor ignored her concerns when she brought him troubling communication she had received from an instructor and instead warned her against threatening the educational environment. 

(The Daily contacted Dickinson’s professor, who cited Dickinson’s privacy in declining to comment.)

Two colleagues of Dickinson’s and one friend confirmed to The Daily that she shared this story with them at the time, as did another colleague who accompanied Dickinson to one of her meetings with Trevor.

In January 2017, Dickinson contacted a professor over email, informing them that she would be absent from class one day due to ethical concerns with a course assignment. Trevor became involved when Dickinson’s instructor replied that she had reported Dickinson to Trevor for the email. The professor initially encouraged Dickinson to make arrangements with Trevor to drop the class. The Daily was provided a copy of their email exchange, an excerpt of which is printed below.

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Alarmed by what she considered an “abrasive” response from her instructor — as well as the obstacle it could pose in her ability to graduate on time that semester — Dickinson had a one-on-one meeting with Trevor the next day, hopeful her concerns about how her instructor responded would be heard. 

Dickinson remembered printing her email exchange with the professor to show Trevor. She also brought a message her professor had sent to the rest of the class responding to the concerns Dickinson had identified without naming her, a copy of which was provided to The Daily. In the meeting, however, Dickinson said Trevor refused to look at the materials she’d brought.

“Pretty quickly in our conversation, I realized that he was not really a receptive person and not someone who was going to be advocating for my experience at all,” Dickinson said.

Instead, Dickinson claimed that Trevor lectured her about how her words had made her instructor feel unsafe.

“He magnified it into this very large and bizarre argument about the quality of open discussion in the classroom … without actually engaging in any specific conversation with me about the truly abrasive words that were written to me,” Dickinson said. 

The issue over one assignment spawned into additional meetings between her and Trevor, Dickinson said. Dickinson also alleged that over the course of their discussions over this conflict, Trevor would offer lucrative professional and academic opportunities in what felt like efforts to appease her, then expressed surprise or denied he had made the offer when she followed up. 

In one instance, Dickinson said that Trevor offered to arrange a workshop between her and one of the program’s high-profile visiting writers from the popular Zell Visiting Writer Series. Dickinson said this offer was especially appealing, given the complications she experienced in her coursework that semester due to the unresolved issue with the professor. However, when she followed up, Dickinson said Trevor did not follow through on that offer.

“When I actually turned around and asked for that, he just thought it was mind-boggling that I would think to make such a request,” Dickinson said.

Kate, who was in her administrative position at the time, corroborated the consistency of this allegation.

Dickinson said the alleged lack of support from Trevor and the ensuing complications in her path to graduation took a toll on her mental health. She also said that it resulted in feelings of social alienation from the program as a whole.

“I very much retreated from the MFA community,” Dickinson said. “From everything, really.”

Because Dickinson said her concerns were repeatedly dismissed in subsequent meetings with Trevor, she said the experience illustrated for her the ways in which Trevor’s rules of professionalism applied differently to students than they did to faculty.

“There seems to be this very, very clear double standard of: ‘We can be personal and fun and intimate when I say it’s okay,’” Dickinson said. “‘But when you unknowingly do something that I don’t agree with, then we pull down the jail.’”

“Their hands are often tied”

The women who shared their accounts said it wasn’t just Trevor’s alleged behavior that was at the crux of their negative experiences. Rather, they contended that the University’s reporting mechanisms were not prepared to handle their cases in a way that protects vulnerable parties from the actions of tenured faculty.

OIE has consistently been criticized for its time-consuming investigation processes. In both Richter’s and Kate’s experiences, they said Trevor continued and escalated his behavior while the OIE investigation was in progress.

“The way time works at the University is different from how it works for individual people,” Kate said. “It’s really easy for the University to just outwait (complainants). … Things take a month, two months, three months, you know — people get tired. People get distracted. They move on.”

For Richter and Kate, as they waited for the OIE investigation to close, their best option to avoid Trevor was temporarily leaving their jobs altogether.

Former students, including Dickinson, who experienced conflict related to Trevor’s Helen Zell directorship told The Daily their negative experiences with him also drove them away from the program. 

Richter, Kate and Dickinson each shared that they did, on the other hand, feel supported by individual English Department administrators in the process. They stressed that the English Department took the allegations seriously, but that departmental administrators’ ability to intervene on students’ and staff member’s behalf was limited.

“A thing that I really was struck by in my experience there was how intensely their hands are often tied,” Kate said. “It’s not the kind of thing where, you know, a few people can be like, ‘This is messed up. Get rid of this person.’ That’s just not how the University works. Maybe it should be. But that’s not how it’s structured.”

When asked what options are at a student’s disposal if they do not feel comfortable reporting to a program director or administrator, Fitzgerald responded with other routes a student may take depending on the nature of the complaint in a follow-up email to The Daily. Options include reporting to a department chair, the dean’s office of a particular college or OIE. Fitzgerald emphasized that OIE investigates issues “beyond sexual misconduct,” such as discrimination based on race, national origin, disability and religion.

In an email to The Daily, Porter, the former English Department Chair during the time of the three allegations reported in this article, provided the English Department’s specific mediation protocols, specifying the roles that departmental officers are and are not advised to play. He also commented on the distinction between OIE’s and specific department’s responsibilities when a complaint is under investigation. 

“Once a formal complaint has been lodged with OIE, the expectation is that OIE takes on full responsibility for investigating the complaint,” Porter wrote. “While department leadership is expected to establish and reinforce expectations for respectful workplace behavior and to offer support to department members who report problematic experiences, decisions concerning consequences for violations are entirely in the hands of the college deans.”

In Curzan’s own letter of reprimand for Trevor, she alluded to OIE’s findings before writing that she nonetheless found his behavior “troubling.” She added that his alleged retaliation posed concerns for the departmental climate.

“Research shows that workplaces where retaliation occurs can foster sexual harassment because fear of reprisal limits reporting,” Curzan wrote. “This is not a culture or climate that any of us want to have in LSA.”

Richter emphasized that, ultimately, this becomes an issue of not only individual student’s experiences, but also of diversity, equity and inclusion at the University.

“If I hadn’t been a young woman in that employment environment … I wouldn’t have experienced what I did,” Richter said. “It’s not just like: Bring those people to the room. It’s like: How do you treat them when they’re there? And if they’re treated like that, they’re not going to  want to be there.”

This story has been updated so that the anonymous Helen Zell staff member quoted in the article will now be referred to as Kate. She was previously referred to as Theresa, a name that was chosen randomly by The Daily.

Started in January 2021, Focal Point is The Michigan Daily’s dedicated investigative reporting team and main outlet for investigative longform content. Focal Point reporters spend months interviewing multiple sources and gathering documents to produce complex, nuanced content. In many cases, Focal Point uncovers stories that those in power have sought to repress.

Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at jucomora@michigandaily.com.


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