• September 4, 2015

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

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.


1. tptrekker - February 03, 2011 at 06:50 am

Administrative heads should roll on this one. And to top it all, seeking to force Prof. Harjo to repay $11,000 in unemployment benefits. University of New Mexico, have you no shame??

2. gharbisonne - February 03, 2011 at 07:17 am

I hear they just uncovered a secret email from the department chair to Chavez, aka Mistress Jade...

"I know I gave you that advice on how to run your research group, but dammit, you're an English professor. You're supposed to recognize metaphor!"

3. tappat - February 03, 2011 at 08:43 am

There must be more to the complaints against the phone-sex moonlighter. Was she acting like a dominatrix on campus and with everyone? Of course, this all involves sex and we're very puerile about all things to do with sex and we love sex panic, but that can't be all that's going on. Or is it? Does a DOE really suffer if one of its professors becomes known as a phone-sex moonlighter? If so, it is only because what becomes known is that a university professor needs to moonlight. It's quite shameful to be known to have no trust fund or supporting spouse or the like.

4. greeneyeshade - February 03, 2011 at 10:03 am

Ah, poor New Mexico. So far from heaven and, well, so far from heaven...

5. cw4ca - February 03, 2011 at 10:32 am

Tappat - There is a well documented article about the situation that answers most of your questions.

6. billted - February 03, 2011 at 10:58 am

I agree with the court's decision forcing the university to admit that they forced out those who demanded more punishment for Ms. Chavez, and pay them unemployment. But really, I think those people were being ridiculous and a little vindictive. I think the university's response to the controversy was right on the button. But as ridiculous as those people were being, they shouldn't have been pressured out of their jobs for it.

7. ruritania - February 03, 2011 at 11:39 am

Ridiculous and a little vindictive?! A professor who poses fpor sexually explicit pictures (kinky or not) WITH ONE OF HER OWN STUDENTS has crossed the line. Ms. Chavez should have been fired.

8. jgpeters - February 03, 2011 at 12:04 pm

@ruritania unfortunately, it's a little more complicated than that. First, a university would have to have clear policies on what kinds of consensual behavior are not allowed between faculty and students. Second, posing in pictures that promote a business probably doesn't constitute a sexual relationship and would not necessarily constitute sexual harassment (by definition, sexual harassment exists in the mind of the harassed, so if the student voluntarily posed, it is perfectly legal). Third, the professor and some of her students were engaged in a business on their personal time, and as long as the business was legal, the university would be on shaky ground to take action.

So, IF none of the other faculty had complained then the university would have been foolish to take any action and would have likely been sued if they had. However, once this behavior began to impact the work place it was a different story. Sexual harassment also includes what is called a "hostel work environment." Once, her actions spilled into behaviors AT WORK, then the university was obligated to take action. Ms, Harjo should have pursued it from that perspective (sexual harassment claim) and she might have had better success.

Now, personally I think the whole thing makes me sick. I would not exploit my students like that or subject my coworkers to something that offends most people. However, law, policy and justice make these situations very difficult to navigate and apparently UNM didn't do so effectively, but it was much more complicated than they should have canned her for running a legal sex-oriented business with her students.

9. jgpeters - February 03, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Correction, should read "hostile work environment." Not the work conditions at a hotel ;-)

10. linguist2012 - February 03, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Who cares about the fact that S&M was involved? Seems sensationalistic to me, though I guess it's not surprising since this whole situation is predicated on sex negativity. I feel for Ms. Harjo.

11. 11185500 - February 03, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Mr/Ms jgpeters:

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Freudian slip or intentional malaprop, it doesn't matter. You nailed the academic setting precisely with "hostel environment." Indeed we are, and sometimes hostile also.

12. dank48 - February 03, 2011 at 12:41 pm

I wonder whether the UNM will, ah, submit to the court's judgment.

13. duprat - February 03, 2011 at 01:46 pm

Sorry, jgpeters, but what Ms. Chavez clearly had was a conflict of interest in taking an external job that involved her students. By not reporting that conflict of interest in the beginning, she could be punished by firing (at least, she could at my state university).

14. hariseldon - February 03, 2011 at 02:55 pm

I agree with duprat. It sounds like the real issue is not the sex, but the exploitation of students for commercial gain.

15. agentplaid - February 03, 2011 at 05:12 pm

@greeneyeshade - I think what you're looking for is "... so close to Texas."

16. commenter_16 - February 03, 2011 at 05:33 pm

@duprat and hariseldon: FWIW, there was no commercial exploitation of students. The professor and student were both employees with the same company, and the professor wasn't in any position of power over the student (I'm pretty sure they were both at the same "rank"). Both chose independently to work for the same company. In fact, because it was a phone-sex position, it's not like they had to work together on any regular basis. They simply both took part in the photo shoot (and probably thought it was funny for the prof and student to pose together).

17. g33kycarrie - February 03, 2011 at 05:36 pm

I'd like to point out, as someone at UNM, that they likely spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorney fees to recover that eleven thousand. We've got a hiring freeze, and we're hemorraging staff, but by god they were going to get that eleven thousand back.

Efficiency, not a model of. However, they've got that cruelty thing down pat.

18. g33kycarrie - February 03, 2011 at 05:46 pm

commenter_16: If you pose as owning someone or being dominant to them (have you seen those pictures and inserts? I have), the callers are liable to interpret you that way, which means you actually could profit from that percieved relationship.

19. panacea - February 03, 2011 at 06:08 pm

The real issue here is the power relationship between professor and student. The professor has the power in the classroom over the grade; makes it hard for the student seeking the professor's approval/support/grade to say no.

Add on top of that that dom/sub relationships are all about power, then you have a very dicey ethical situation.

20. gwenny - February 03, 2011 at 06:53 pm

I think she works for this company: www.anythingalt.com It sure looks like her!

21. gwenny - February 03, 2011 at 06:56 pm

I think she works for this company: http://www.anythingalt.com

22. g33kycarrie - February 03, 2011 at 07:08 pm

@19 panacea: Absolutely. Grad school is specially bad for that because you really don't have the option of just 'taking another class'. The class professor Chavez was teaching with the student she posed with was REQUIRED for teaching creative writing, and was rarely offered. There was extraordinary potential for leverage in that situation, and Chavez used it.

23. unm_mfa_grad - February 03, 2011 at 08:27 pm

I just wanted to thank Peter Schmidt for writing about this important decision.

24. coolstar - February 04, 2011 at 09:06 am

This entire thing is so damn funny on so many levels: a grad student and prof posing as being in a dominant/submissive relationship, what could be more ironic than that? Had she been in an actual sexual relationship with the student (there's no evidence she was) that would have been perfectly legal (I know literally dozens of profs who have married their students, of all possible gender combinations). Ms. Chavez did use bad judgement, but that's all but her judgement was not nearly so bad as that of her "colleagues" who really wanted to end her career over her moonlighting. That being said, UNM was incredibly stupid to harass its faculty members who, essentially, have no sense of humor. Then again, when have university administrators ever been known for their brilliance in such matters? Ms. Chavez actually comes off as being the most sensible person involved in the entire teacup tempest.

25. g33kycarrie - February 04, 2011 at 01:06 pm

@ 24 coolstar: Consent requires that the people involved be able to say no without suffering significant damage to their careers, reputations or lives. If your friends married their students or slept with them while those students were under their care, they violated consent. Period. As did Chavez. Period. To violate consent in that way is coercive and unethical.

Also, argumentum ad populum (all my friends are doing it) is a generally weak argument, let alone your troubling misunderstanding of consent.

There is no situation in which reporting coercive sexual behavior used against persons in positions of less authority is a bad thing. Reporting that kind of behavior is professional ethics, as is not trying to coerce or threaten your students into compliance.

Did you read the previous article?

26. nuttyprof1 - February 04, 2011 at 02:14 pm

Well, the thing that I thought was most damning was that it was not a case where the teacher and the students *independently* found out that they worked at the same phone-sex operation. She encouraged them to do so and she pressured in at least one case (read longer articles on the case). At this point, it is immaterial whether she was their supervisor at the phone-sex company: there was a clear conflict of interest and an expectation that by joining the group the students would be "in favor" and not ostracized.
I also believe that almost any university has clauses against certain types of relationships between faculty and students. mine is:
"Faculty may not participate in a consensual personal relationship with a student or staff member of the University for whom the faculty member provides or may (by virtue of University assigned position or functions) reasonably be expected in the future to provide teaching, mentoring or supervision."
But again, read the article. If anyone thinks a university should just stand by in a situation like that and let the professor do anything, s/he lives in Cuckooland....

27. alan_kors - February 04, 2011 at 05:16 pm

I find everything about this case absolutely astonishing, in all aspects, and from all perspectives.

28. sexwork101 - February 04, 2011 at 07:56 pm

As a sex worker, I've followed this case closely. Although I could take issue with numerous points made here (largely in the comments), I want to focus on one issue that continues to show up in media and commentary: did Chavez coerce students or strongly urge them to work for the phone sex service?

There is absolutely no proof that Chavez encouraged anyone to work for the phone service. In fact, the students photographed with Chavez all reported they chose to work there of their own accord. This is a ridiculous and just plain nasty accusation. It needs to die.

29. mason62 - February 04, 2011 at 08:14 pm

There are also the students who chose not to do the sex work, despite all the prompting. Their voice count too, in the realm of sexual harassment.

30. grdfisher - February 04, 2011 at 08:28 pm

Regardless of how "sensible" Chavez thinks she is (as per an above comment), a wokplace has policies which were obviously violated.

31. grdfisher - February 04, 2011 at 08:33 pm

If you read Peter Schmidt's earlier article (the link is above) you understand that this is the furthest thing from funny. The article names a number of other parts to the story. And it was Chavez who tried to end the career of her colleagues, by filing charges of racism when people complained about Chavez doing the sex work with students, among other behavior. Faculty are actually required by policy to report issues when stuents bring things to them. But as the first comment states, as well as most of the others, the administration is really at fault--for allowing all this to happen, scene by awful scene.

32. robkov - February 05, 2011 at 12:46 pm

One word Univ of New Mexico...

33. g33kycarrie - February 05, 2011 at 01:59 pm

robkov: Absolutely. They can keep wasting my money and keep drawing larger and larger spotlights to some of the illegal and unethical stuff the university did to suppress these cases. I'm not happy about the money waste, but the further up the court system this goes, the more evidence which will go into the record, and this case will pass out of the convoluted local politics and into somewhere where the judge is not going to care about the prestige of the university.

34. bobc562 - February 06, 2011 at 02:35 pm

I've represented colleges and universities for about 18 years now and yet am still amazed about these kinds of squabbles. The infighting and foolish claims over territory are often so petty, the ferocity of the disputea are so intense, and the spoils so meager, that it boggles the mind why people pursue them.

35. bobc562 - February 06, 2011 at 02:41 pm

and yes. I should have run the comment through spellcheck.

36. mason62 - February 06, 2011 at 04:17 pm

This sure seems like a lot more than a squabble. The articles online make it clear that Chavez's behavior was way over the line (posting photos of herself posing sexual violence on a student, so she could make some extra cash). And then she filed against her colleagues, calling it an issue of her race and bisexuality, and then accused the student she thought reported it of being mentally unstable and making death threats.
The administration, by trying to cover this thing up, issued Chavez a license to do just about anything. In the process, it has retaliated and treated complaining students and faculty abominably. In such an absurdly twisted environment, people are forced to file complaints and lawsuits to protect themselves. This is no small matter and clearly not about spoils, except the way Chavez and her administrative chums (or chumps) "spoiled" the program (and far more) at UNM.

37. cosmos1138 - February 08, 2011 at 08:07 pm

Aren't we faculty suppose to be roll models? I worked in Thailand for 6 yrs at government universities (Disneyland of Sex) and even this would not have flown - Chavez is a roll model and that means respecting her position, if she felt her position was not paying enough then ...hit the road jack or work as an adjunct, write another grant etc - now I am in Taiwan and boy this place is Miss Manners for sure but the roll model is still the same. We give up certain rights as teachers, professors for the benefit of our students, why is everything at home (States) about me me me - remember folks "equal" rights are not special rights. We need to stop being selfish and start being "professionals" - its still a free country (I think) so if you don't like the game find another. The GOOD of the MANY outweigh the GOOD of the ONE - or do I get my own nuclear weapon because I have the RIGHT to bare arms?

38. sexwork101 - February 09, 2011 at 09:24 am

@cosmos1138: I find it hard to believe that you are an educator, due to errors in your writing.

Let's remember that Chavez teaches graduat students primarily, and occasionally teaches undergraduates. All of her students are adults. The media likes to paint this story as if she was teaching kids 12-15 years old.

39. grdfisher - February 09, 2011 at 10:46 am

Frankly, there are typos in both these previous posts--most others as well.

Pretty much all media reports make it a point to mention that the students were adults and consenting. So saying "the media likes to paint this story as if she was teaching kids 12-15" is a misrepresentation. I have never seen it presented as an underage question. If the students were not of consenting age the matter would have been out of the hands of the employer and Chavez would be in jail.
There is no question that a professor is in a position of authority and, therefore, power over her students. Where there is a power differential there is always a question of coercion, whether direct or indirect. The issues here are sexual harassment, breaking many workplace policies, professional ethics, etc. and these are still all very serious issues. What bothers me the most is that faculty and, aparently other students, were denied a voice and were retaliated against (by Chavez and the administration). This is unacceptable.

40. sexwork101 - February 09, 2011 at 11:01 pm

From what I understand, the CW faculty wanted an investigation, and the Univ conducted one using an outside company. The faculty didn't like the results of the investigation. Since then, Sharon Oard Warner, Diane Thiel, and Joy Harjo have been pushing for media stories, creating an uncomfortable environment on campus, and suing UNM. If I were a student at UNM, I would avoid these three--but luckily Harjo's gone, so I'd only have to avoid two of them.

41. g33kycarrie - February 10, 2011 at 01:43 pm

sexwork101: You have been misinformed. Really, really misinformed. The investigation was not thorough, and not on harassment of students. It was on whether Chavez was harassed, based on her complaints. The university just wants the public to think it was on the students.

It is not 'creating an uncomfortable environment' to demand that an actual investigation happen, or that students who were discriminated against get some sort of ability to have their complaints considered. These professors went within the system to the best of their ability (filed complaints, went to meetings at which they were screamed at, tried to use the internal complaint system), and found that the system refused to treat those complaints seriously. That much is in the article which these comments are on.

There were nine student complaints that I know about and four filed faculty complaints, all of which were dismissed. That's not a minor problem, nor a minor complaint.

To continue to huff about how filing complaints about being harassed somehow makes the environment toxic says quite a bit about your understanding of harassment, and the understanding of harassment which your sources are using to tell you about it.

42. sexwork101 - February 10, 2011 at 07:07 pm

@g22kycarrie: I don't see where I've "huffed" about complaint filing. In fact, I've mentioned it once out of three comments.

I get the impression that everyone who disagrees with your stance doesn't "understand" and is "huffing" or the like.

Where is there proof that the investigation was on Chavez' complaints? The investigation, as I understand it, was specifically about the letter that outed Chavez as a sex worker.

43. sexwork101 - February 10, 2011 at 07:22 pm

My apologies, @g33kycarrie, for mis-typing your handle. The perils of typing in the dark ;).

44. grdfisher - February 10, 2011 at 09:49 pm

I don't know where anybody else is getting their information from, but the Chronicle in its previous article on this says that the investigation which originally was about the letter, from UNM's Office of Equal Opportunity, was changed: "the university's president, David J. Schmidly, had decided to call off that investigation, and to hire an outside lawyer to conduct a different one altogether. The subject was not Ms. Chavez's treatment of graduate students, but the conduct of people in the English department as a whole." This information is sourced to the English Dept. Chair, and I trust the Chronicle in that they do get their facts right.

45. grdfisher - February 10, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Even if it was not made plain as day what the second investigation was about, removing the matter from the OEO, which is, at every university, an independent office charged with investigating this kind of issue is highly suspicious.
The investigation was given to UNM President's private lawyer (who knows that if they don't do what their client wants can count on not getting any more business from that client).
Even if we give the lawyer the benefit of the doubt, lawyers investigate whether laws are broken. They are not equipped (to say the least) to investigate unethical behavior--and there is a difference between illegal and unethical.
I don't blame Warner and Thiel, and Harjo and others for complaining. They are not the cause of the problem. To make it sound like they are is absurd! And to top the absurdity, the university retaliated against them for speaking out (read the previous Chronicle article!).

46. g33kycarrie - February 11, 2011 at 02:51 pm

grdfisher: To answer your question, interviewed for the original investigation.

Perhaps the lawyers were investigating the general situation, but it did not seem that way from the questions I was asked and the questions some of the other people who were interviewed have mentioned to me. The majority of the questions we were asked were about Chavez and how she was treated or very narrow scope questions about things she said.

But thank you for reminding readers, again, of the contents of the first article. It's worth repeating. The Chronicle has a reputation for professionalism; they could be sued if they do not source and substantiate the material they publish.

sexwork101: I'm pretty annoyed about that characterization of the situation. If you don't know about the internal workings of academic situations (not that I would know for you, but not everyone reading these articles is aware, even if they work in academia, of how the complaint procedure works and how policies are upheld, sometimes because they've never had to use them), I'm sure this might look silly.

Unfortunately, the situation has been anything but amusing. For those of us who are stuck here (grad school is a significant investment), the fact that the complaint procedure is so broken creates a highly hostile situation. In fact, I'd characterize the situation as both not a safe space for students to be in, and a situation which lends itself to great anxiety and misunderstanding. That is why the Warners and Harjo complained.

Complaints do not cause harassment--the harassment existed before the complaints, and has only intensified since then, in retaliation.

Otherwise, the judge in the case this article covers would not have decided for Harjo--yelling at people? Humiliating them in public? Those are not the actions of responsible administrators in a functional department.

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