People walk around on the University of Maine campus in Orono. Credit: Gabor Degre

Following semester-long investigations, a prominent University of Maine English professor has been cleared of sexual harassment and discrimination complaints brought by two female graduate students.

Tony Brinkley was granted access to campus last month and was told he will be teaching his normal course load in the fall, a university official confirmed. He had been barred from campus and placed on paid administrative leave in January, after both women claim they were discriminated against by Brinkley and subjected to sexual harassment, which triggered separate internal university-led investigations into his conduct.

Brinkley was one of two professors placed on paid leave last semester. The other, theater professor Tom Mikotowicz, also was reinstated, after an investigation into complaints against him was resolved in May.

Throughout this process, university officials — citing state and university confidentiality laws — have declined to confirm the total number of past complaints brought against Brinkley, if any, or provide details of the most recent two.

The latest grievances are just two of hundreds that have been fielded by Maine’s largest university system in the past decade. Since 2007, the number has steadily risen — 2017 brought an unprecedented 71 complaints — but findings that fault the university have remained level, accounting for nearly 10 percent of case outcomes, according to aggregated university data.

Chief human resources officer for the UMaine system Mark Schmelz said the increase in complaints, potentially enhanced in part by the national #MeToo movement, is important, even if the investigations ultimately don’t fault the university.

“As the workforce becomes more comfortable … people feel more comfortable to cite concerns because they find more legitimacy in the process,” Schmelz said. “It’s a good thing. You want people bringing things to your attention … It doesn’t always mean we find something, but it’s an opportunity to look into what someone is seeing and experiencing.”

‘Red-flag behavior’

The university closed its investigation of Paige Melin’s case May 3, after determining Brinkley did not violate UMaine’s policy standards. Melin graduated from UMaine with a master’s degree and a 4.0 grade point average in 2016. She allowed the Bangor Daily News access to the complaint and the university’s findings.

The second investigation, brought by a current graduate student who also shared her complaint with the BDN but asked to remain anonymous, was closed June 19 after she appealed the university’s findings. A university official concluded the work environment experienced by both women did not qualify as hostile, nor did Brinkley’s alleged behavior constitute as sexual harassment.

The university did determine Brinkley potentially violated employment policies when he failed to report an incident confided to him by the anonymous complainant. That action has been referred to the human resources department and is now being investigated as a personnel issue.

“This concludes this matter,” Office of Equal Opportunity Director Sarah Harebo wrote in her final report. Five days before the investigation was officially closed, UMaine’s Senior Director of Public Relations and Operations Margaret Nagle confirmed Brinkley was no longer on paid leave.

Brinkley has taught at UMaine since 1983 and served as chair of the English department from 1999 to 2004. He teaches courses in English, romantic poetry, Renaissance poetry, critical theory, Fascist studies, and translation studies and film. He has repeatedly declined to speak on the record for this story.

‘What is reasonable interference?’

For the university to consider a circumstance hostile and for a person’s experience of sexual harassment to meet the threshold of a violation, it must be “severe, pervasive, or persistent” enough, or must “unreasonably interfere” with a person’s ability to participate in university programs, Investigations Coordinator Angela Tizon wrote in her final report of Melin’s case, quoting Equal Opportunity policy.

After the university cleared Brinkley, Melin felt the university was suggesting “the environment for me was not hostile enough because it did not limit my ability to participate,” a point she contends.

“It’s like they’re saying it wasn’t actually as bad of an experience as I’m telling them it was,” she said.

After filing her complaint and appeal only to have Brinkley return to teaching, the second complainant is considering not returning for the fall semester.

“I struggle to identify myself with a university that allows him to go back to work,” she said.

Pinning down the university’s definition of unreasonable interference since has been difficult, both women have said. That’s partially because the university has no explicit definition. It’s something that’s decided on a “case-by-case analysis that we do based on specific facts of every investigation,” Schmelz said.

In any investigation, he added, even if there is “no technical [Equal Opportunity] finding, that doesn’t mean that, from an HR perspective, there aren’t behaviors in the report that we don’t want to address. Technically it might not have violated EO policy, but we’re going to deal with [the] inappropriate conduct.”

But without a technical finding, how the university addresses those inappropriate behaviors becomes a personnel issue and is therefore confidential, he said.

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