By Yelena Dzhanova and Angel Torres
Multiple students expressed to The Ticker that a Baruch College philosophy professor kissed female students on the cheek in class and made suggestive and inappropriate compliments toward women in his classes.
Three students in separate interviews said they either witnessed or experienced professor James Frederick William Rowe kissing students on the cheek at the end of finals week in fall 2017. Two of the students were female and the third was male. The male student, sophomore Syed Rahman, said that while he was not kissed, he witnessed the professor kissing female students on the cheek. One of the two female students, sophomore Ewa Zaniewski, said Rowe definitely kissed her, and the other female student, sophomore Emily Larcher, said that the professor gave her what she called an “air kiss.”
The Ticker began this investigation when some of its staff members who have either had Rowe or currently have him brought up these instances in conversation within the organization.
From the Students’ Perspectives
In an in-person interview with The Ticker, Rowe said he didn’t remember specific instances of inappropriate behavior. In an emailed follow-up, Rowe elaborated, saying, “Several former students of mine, male and female, have greeted me with friendly hugs and I hugged them back and sometimes gave and/or received a kiss on the cheek. My rule of thumb to navigate the landscape of these interactions is to respond in the way people approach me. I’ve only ever once had a student tell me that I made them upset, and I did what any decent person would do: offered an apology and an explanation. Now we’re on good terms.”
“I was creeped out,” Zaniewski told The Ticker. “But it was the last day of finals, and I left immediately afterward and I was like, ‘I won’t ever have to see him again.’”
Larcher said Rowe offered to shake her hand, but she was sick that day and declined. Then Rowe proposed that they air kiss instead, “the way women do it sometimes,” Larcher said.
Sophomore Anthony Zhang, who had Rowe for philosophy last year, said that Rowe would make comments about a female student’s legs in the classroom, calling them “nice” or staring at them. Zaniewski said that she recalled that he complimented her friend’s legs.
Rahman, as well as Larcher, Zaniewski and another one of Rowe’s students, Saad Siddique, spoke about a gender divide in the classroom. Rahman said he noticed the discrepancy particularly with class participation.
“There would be girls that would come in to class late sometimes and he would act a lot more lenient with them in relation to guys,” he said. “He would definitely give girls more rights in the class. If I were to put my hand up and I was sitting next to a girl, like Ewa … he would listen to her answer and he would actually listen to her, but for me, he’d just be like, ‘Okay.’ He was more focused on all the girls.”
Larcher similarly said that Rowe would call on female students and praise them more in class. “You could tell that there was a discrepancy in attention,” she said.
Out of the more than two dozen people The Ticker interviewed, six described some of his actions as “creepy” or “inappropriate.”
Rahman, along with other students, also said that Rowe during one of their classes with him suggested that he likes “girls in cat costumes.”
Zhang said in an interview with The Ticker that Rowe mentioned his affinity toward girls in cat costumes during an off-campus lunch he held with some students. “I find this girl in a cat costume is really fucking sexy,” Zhang recalled hearing Rowe say about an unidentified woman who was not his student.
Rowe was known to give extra credit to students who dressed up for Halloween, several students said. Rahman recalled that a friend of his said her costume would be inappropriate for class, and Rowe responded by saying that “nothing’s really too inappropriate for this class.”
Another Side: The Professor’s Response
Rowe said that although he did compliment students on physical appearance and clothing, he had “no recollection whatsoever of commenting that cat costumes are very sexy.”
In Rowe’s account of his teaching practices, his compliments to his students were unbiased and meant to be friendly.
“I will never ever treat anyone differently based on their sex, gender, race or anything,” Rowe said, adding that at the end of the semester he revealed in emails who did the best in the class. “There’s men, there’s women, there’s whites, blacks, everywhere in between, all races, all religions. What you are, who you are, doesn’t matter. What it is, is the quality of your work. I don’t favor girls over boys or boys over girls.”
When asked for his thoughts on the expectations and behavior of a professor in class, Thomas Teufel, chair of the philosophy department, said that the classroom is a professional environment where professors have leverage over the students through their grading power.
“As we know in this era of #MeToo and current social issues,” he continued, “power dynamics can be exploited in inappropriate ways and if that happens, that’s not okay.”
Teufel also touched on physical affection between professors and students like kissing in a classroom setting. “First off,” he said, “kissing, consensual or not — [it] doesn’t matter. That’s not okay. Full stop. Right there, we have a Title IX issue.” At the time of the interview, Teufel did not know that Rowe was the specific professor in question; Teufel only knew that The Ticker was investigating a professor in his department and was responding to general questions about professor-student interaction.
The same day, Rowe disclosed to Teufel that The Ticker had interviewed him about his teaching etiquette and the complaints some students put forward about him.
What Is Title IX?
Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits sexual harassment and misconduct in educational institutions. CUNY mandates that every student deserves to learn without fear of sexual harassment, gender-based harassment or sexual violence, according to CUNY’s Policy on Sexual Misconduct.
Every CUNY college has a Title IX officer with special training in helping students who are facing issues related to sexual harassment. Baruch’s Title IX officer is Mona Jha. After the interview, Teufel contacted Jha since some of allegations asked about by The Ticker dipped into Title IX territory, even though he did not know who the professor in question was at the time.
Some current and former students support Rowe, saying there didn’t appear to be any favoritism in the classroom. These students complimented Rowe and his teaching ability, saying that he was good at explaining core philosophical concepts and making the content interesting and engaging.
“I think he’s very knowledgeable, he knows exactly what he’s saying, he’s very interesting, he gets a lot of examples and a lot of real-life situations,” one student who chose to remain anonymous due to fear of repercussions said. Another called him “one of [his] favorite” professors.
These positive comments were also substantiated by Rowe’s student reviews, which Teufel said were strong in an email to The Ticker. “The professor is well-liked by our students and has consistently high (and higher than average) student evaluations especially on the issue of ‘treating students with respect,’” he said. “It seems like the professor in question is highly aware and gets consistently recognized for it.”
Other students expanded on what they referred to as “creepy” or “inappropriate” behavior, citing frequent off-color jokes that Rowe allegedly would tell his class. Larcher said that Rowe joked about how much he loved the class, saying, “I love you guys like Harvey Weinstein loves his little starlets” or “…like Kevin Spacey loves his little boys.”
When asked about off-color jokes or jokes that were not politically correct that he may have made in class, Rowe said, “I never said a joke to a student that I can remember where I think that it was so off-color or inappropriate that I would be ashamed of saying it.”
Rowe also added that the one time he remembers making a joke that offended someone was when he used the word “retarded” in class. He found out that it made a student uncomfortable through an anonymous student review.
“I only meant it as a colloquial phrase,” Rowe said. “Kind of like when I’m with my friends or people I know, I’ll say, ‘That’s so retarded that you did that.’ … Occasionally I’ve ruffled some feathers, but I’ve had very few students come up to me and tell me that I’ve done something that hurt them. And that’s something that I take pride in because I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable or think ill of me or them.”
Others also said that they heard Rowe sporadically say homophobic, transphobic and inappropriate comments in class, to which they all “laughed awkwardly,” Larcher explained.
Siddique, who had Rowe in fall 2017, said that in one instance when Rowe allegedly used the word “kinky” in class in a conversation with a student while teaching, he immediately apologized, saying, “Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to say that.” In a separate interview, Zhang also said that Rowe used the word “kinky” in class once.
Rowe’s perception of himself in the classroom differs from the accounts of some of his former students. He sees himself as a passionate professor who levels with his students and brings the material down to a relatable level. He said that he takes his job very seriously, as a moral duty in a sense.
“My view of teaching is that it’s a fundamentally noble profession because I’m doing something good for the world. I’m doing something good for my students,” Rowe said. “I try to communicate in a way that’s accessible. I try to bring it down to a level that people can understand by using examples from pop culture.”
Baruch Addresses the Allegations
Vice President for Communications, External Relations & Economic Development Christina Latouf emailed The Ticker following Teufel’s report to Jha, saying that The Ticker failed “to properly engage with the Baruch administration” on the article and requesting that The Ticker provide all the information to Jha.
The Ticker requested an interview with Jha three times throughout the months of September and October. Suzanne Bronski, Baruch’s director of public relations, responded to the inquiry and provided the 2016 CUNY Sexual Violence Campus Climate Survey. When reaching out again to request another interview with Jha, Bronski declined the request, citing adherence to FERPA rules and writing that because information about sexual violence is highly sensitive, administration could not respond to questions.
“As you know, under federal regulations, The Ticker has avenues to submit a request for information if what is included in the Climate Survey does not cover your questions,” she wrote.
When The Ticker made the case that FERPA — the federal law that protects students’ private information from disclosure and the regulation that Bronski references in the email — does not provide a basis for declining an interview, Bronski copied and pasted that same email in response. This exchange between The Ticker and Bronski repeated three times.
Latouf’s multiple emails also did not address the prospect of an interview with Jha, but rather requested multiple times that The Ticker disclose the information in an email to her.
However, Jha responded with an official statement in a private email with The Ticker, writing that Baruch adheres to policies regarding investigations of complaints or reporting of inappropriate behavior or sexual harassment set by CUNY and complies with New York state and federal law.
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