A tenured social work professor was fired and had his tenure status revoked by the Board of Trustees Thursday for violating the university’s sexual misconduct policy.
Three students filed sexual misconduct complaints against René Olate, an associate professor in the College of Social Work, leading to two investigations through the Office of Institutional Equity.
The reports concluded that Olate violated the university’s sexual misconduct policy “by engaging in unwelcome gender-based verbal and physical conduct that was sufficiently severe, persistent, and pervasive and created a hostile educational environment,” and had conduct which “constitutes quid pro quo harassment.”
According to an Office of Institutional Equity report, a dean filed an incident report Oct. 28, 2019, after a student complained of sexual harassment that involved Olate telling a student she was “beautiful,” and invited her to travel to an out-of-state conference before concluding the meeting with a hug.
The student submitted an incident report Nov. 1, 2019, describing an additional encounter with Olate that included a comment on her appearance, the report stated.
Carla Sutton, a graduate student in social work, submitted a letter to OIE Nov. 15, 2019, detailing Olate’s sexual remarks and sexually graphic class lectures, and stating he touched her without consent.
Sutton wrote in the letter that following a disagreement with Olate in a class discussion, he “came up from behind me, put both of his hands on my shoulders, near my neck, and said ‘You are my antagonizer [sic]. But it’s all love.’” The letter further states Olate laughed and massaged his hands into the student’s shoulders.
“I don’t feel that we were protected the way that his tenureship was protected,” Sutton said.
In an interview with the OIE, one of the students who filed a complaint said, “a tenured professor with a strong resume and experience, has ‘a lot of power.’” The student also mentioned concerns about Olate’s influence in the department and “what he could say to other faculty members about her.”
The second student said she believed that submission to Olate’s conduct and wishes “were a condition of her success in her future academic career.” Olate offered the student guidance with the graduate admissions process, introduced her to faculty members and wrote letters of recommendation. He also requested she “meet with him socially, babysit his children, travel with him, allow him to touch her, or to agree to an intimate relationship with him,” according to the report.Ohio State's Sexual Misconduct Policy (click to view)
Ohio State’s Sexual Misconduct Policy defines sexual harassment in the education context as “unwelcome, sex- or gender-based verbal or physical conduct that interferes with, denies, or limits an individual’s ability to partipate in or benefit from the unviersity’s educational programs and activities.”
Sexual harassment is furthered divided into two forms by the policy: hostile environment or power differentials (quid pro quo).
Hostile environment is severe or pervasive harassing conduct that “unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or abusive work environment,” according to the policy.
Quid pro quo sexual harassment exists when there is “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” “submission to such conduct made either explicilty or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment or academic status” and “submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment or academic decisions adversely affecting such individual."
Another student said the situation ruined her master’s program experience.
“I didn’t feel that what was being promoted, like the rhetoric in social work, matched the actions and behaviors of the faculty there, not just him but other people who would apologize for him and go easy on him,” the student said. “And so that was really disheartening to learn as a social worker that they weren’t practicing what they preach. That their actions did not align with what social work is all about.”
Olate was previously investigated in 2013 for similar behavior and instructed on the appropriate behavior between faculty members and students as a result of the investigation. He was also required to complete the university’s sexual misconduct training.
Olate stated in a letter to the Board of Trustees he felt the case reports and investigation were biased and the facts presented established that there was no harassment or grave misconduct. He added that he felt neither complaints rose “to the level of sexual harassment under OSU’s policies or applicable law because of the nature of the alleged misconduct and the fact the alleged misconduct did not interfere with these complainant’s ability to enjoy the benefits of their education.”
In an email to The Lantern, Olate said he respected students’ rights to file complaints but called the investigations against him “extremely unfair and disrespectful.” In a letter to the Board of Trustees, he stated touching is part of his culture, but it was not sexual touching or harassment.
“ Culture should not be punished by a university who claims diversity as an important value,” Olate said, and referred The Lantern to his letter to the Board of Trustees for further comment.
In a letter to the Board of Trustees, University President Kristina M. Johnson expressed support for Olate’s termination and urged the board to as well.
“The totality of Professor Olate’s conduct unquestionably demonstrates a complete disregard for university policies and directives surrounding appropriate behavior of faculty,” Johnson said. “Our students put their trust in our faculty and he flagrantly, egregiously, and willfully exploited that trust for his own selfish ends.”
The student who has graduated from the program said while she and the others came forward, there have been many others that have not, possibly due to fear. She said in order to create systemic change in the university system, people must have awareness and shed light on issues of sexual misconduct.
“They need to be out as public knowledge when we can talk about and figure out how to not have this happen again. And until that happens, change isn’t going to occur,” she said.