Judge Faults U. of New Mexico's Handling of Phone-Sex Scandal

February 02, 2011

A state-court judge has rebuked the University of New Mexico over its handling of a professor who participated with current and former students in a sadomasochistic phone-sex operation. The judge ruled that administrators there effectively drove one faculty member who voiced concerns about her colleague's extracurricular activities to leave her job.

In a decision issued last week, Judge Ted C. Baca of the state's second judicial district, in Albuquerque, upheld a state labor board's decision to force the university to award unemployment benefits to Joy Harjo, a professor of creative writing. In accepting Ms. Harjo's claims that she was due unemployment benefits because she left her job involuntarily, the judge said university administrators had responded to her demands that they discipline the moonlighting professor by making her own working conditions so difficult "she had no choice but to resign."

The case before Judge Baca, involving a university appeal of the state labor board's decision, is one of several legal disputes stemming from the university's treatment of complaints against Lisa D. Chávez, a tenured associate professor of English, after she was discovered in 2007 moonlighting as the phone-sex dominatrix "Mistress Jade." The faculty members who complained about Ms. Chávez said they were especially concerned that she had posed in promotional pictures for the phone-sex company sexually dominating one of her own graduate students.

The university has been named in separate lawsuits filed by two other professors in its English Department—Sharon Oard Warner and Diane M. Thiel—both of whom argue that they were subject to administrative retaliation for demanding that the university do more to punish Ms. Chávez than simply faulting her for poor judgment and requiring that she quit the phone-sex job. In a third lawsuit, Ms. Warner's husband, Teddy D. Warner, a psychologist at the university's medical school, argues that he suffered a pay cut and was denied a promised private office in retaliation for his wife's actions.

Ms. Harjo, a prominent American Indian poet, on Wednesday cheered Judge Baca's decision, saying "this victory gives me encouragement that justice will be served" for the others whose cases against the university are pending. A spokeswoman for the university, which was closed Wednesday for inclement weather, said that officials there were unprepared to comment and that she did not know whether they planned an appeal.

Judge Baca's ruling said his review of the record in the dispute over Ms. Harjo's unemployment benefits "support a reasonable inference that Harjo legitimately felt humiliated, degraded, and concerned for her job." In explaining his conclusion, the judge cited testimony that Ms. Harjo had been ridiculed and screamed at in public by the department's chairman; that Ms. Chávez had threatened lawsuits against her accusers on the faculty and influenced students not to work with them; and that the attention drawn to the department by the scandal hurt the reputation of Ms. Harjo and other faculty members.

In addition, the judge held, it is clear that Ms. Harjo "felt great concern for her students but felt unable to protect them." By the time she resigned, Ms. Harjo "was no longer able to do her job effectively because of her own mental state and the realities of the program," the ruling says.

The practical effect of Judge Baca's decision is to thwart the university's effort to force Ms. Harjo to repay about $11,000 in unemployment benefits based on its claim that she had quit her job voluntarily.