The University of Maine used the rising tide of outrage and frustration from the #MeToo movement in 2019 to dismiss a professor it simply didn’t like but had no cause to fire, an independent fact-finder determined.
The university placed Tony Brinkley, a tenured English professor, on administrative leave twice as it examined students’ claims that the longtime professor sexually harassed them and other allegations of wrongdoing before firing him in May 2019.
But UMaine made an “extremely flawed” case for Brinkley’s dismissal and “essentially gamed the system” to get rid of someone fellow English professors and administrators “disliked for a variety of unknown, but ever so present reasons,” the fact-finder said in a report.
While some of Brinkley’s behavior was “bizarre and even unseemly for a tenured faculty member,” it didn’t “amount to egregious conduct or just cause to oust” a professor of more than three decades.
The finding from the outside arbitrator, issued in late 2020, resulted in Brinkley’s brief reinstatement shortly before he retired from the university where he had taught since 1983. He reached an agreement with UMaine under which he agreed not to sue the university.
The arbitrator’s finding sheds new light on how a series of UMaine investigations into Brinkley’s conduct played out. Brinkley’s case was a high-profile one in the Bangor area that unfolded as women across the country went public to call out men for sexual harassment and assault.
The arbitrator’s report explains that UMaine placed Brinkley on administrative leave a second time in response to no new allegations, but instead a letter to the English Department from anonymous “concerned students” who objected to the university’s initial finding that cleared Brinkley of sexual harassment. Then, an administrator who had previously recused herself from looking into Brinkley led the second investigation.
Through its investigations into Brinkley, UMaine never conducted a thorough analysis of evidence it gathered, “enhanced” the evidence it had, and selected people to participate in the process with known biases against Brinkley, arbitrator James Cooper found in his 27-page report. The university “manipulated the disciplinary process” to arrive at a “pre-ordained decision” to dismiss Brinkley, Cooper wrote.
Cooper was brought in after the union representing UMaine faculty members filed a grievance about Brinkley’s dismissal.
UMaine has since changed how it approaches personnel investigations as a result of Brinkley’s case, spokesperson Margaret Nagle said.
“At the present time, our process gives additional attention to due process rights in that the parties are given detailed information about the complaint against them, including a copy of the actual complaint,” Nagle said.
Additionally, those involved are allowed to view all relevant information that will be used to decide whether an employee has violated a policy, and the parties are then allowed to rebut the evidence before an investigator writes a report or the university makes a final decision, she said.
First administrative leave
Brinkley was a onetime chair of the English Department who taught courses in English romantic poetry, Renaissance poetry, critical theory, fascist studies, translation studies and film. He was also associated with the university’s Franco-American Centre.
In November 2017, a former UMaine graduate student posted on Facebook that she suffered sexual harassment while at the university and that nothing was done about it.
In response, two UMaine English professors asked the former student for more information, leading her to name Brinkley as the professor who sexually harassed her, according to the arbitrator’s report.
The student alleged that Brinkley stared at her chest during meetings and classes. She described one instance when Brinkley, a member of her thesis defense committee, missed her thesis defense. He found the student afterward, dropped to his knees and kissed her feet to apologize, according to the report.
The former student claimed in a report to UMaine’s Equal Opportunity office that Brinkley’s actions “created a hostile environment for me to learn and study.” UMaine’s Equal Opportunity office handles complaints filed under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination at any school that receives federal funding.
Days later, on Dec. 14, 2017, another female graduate student submitted a similar complaint about Brinkley’s behavior, alleging that Brinkley held private meetings with her during which he avoided course work so he could get “to know her” and that he disparaged the work of other English professors.
When the student complained about a male student’s romantic advances, Brinkley allegedly said, “I would also be in love with you.” And in one instance, the student claimed, she had to drive Brinkley home after dinner because he seemed inebriated. On the ride home he allegedly “purred like a kitten” in the student’s backseat, according to the report.
Brinkley was placed on his first of two paid administrative leaves in January 2018 in response to the two reports. More than three months later, in late April, the UMaine official charged with investigating the claims determined that Brinkley’s conduct didn’t rise “to the level of severe, pervasive or persistent harassment on the basis of sex sufficient to create a hostile environment.” She recommended no discipline.
The former student who filed the first complaint told the Bangor Daily News in 2018 that she felt the university was suggesting “the environment for me was not hostile enough because it did not limit my ability to participate.
“It’s like they’re saying it wasn’t actually as bad of an experience as I’m telling them it was,” she said.
Second administrative leave
Brinkley’s first leave ended June 1, 2018, but a month-and-a-half later, a letter from anonymous “Concerned Students” arrived at UMaine’s English department objecting to Brinkley being cleared of sexual harassment and criticizing the university for not keeping students informed about his case.
The letter raised no new allegations about Brinkley, but he was placed on administrative leave again on July 27, told that he had violated a policy by not reporting a student’s potential past sexual abuse and he “may have engaged in inappropriate behaviors and actions.”
The university named an administrator who had recused herself from the first investigation to lead the second one. The investigation was to reexamine largely the same claims from the two graduate students that the university had already probed.
Following a fact-finding meeting in late February 2019, UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy decided nearly two months later to fire Brinkley, basing the decision largely on allegations from the two graduate students whose claims the university had already investigated.
A faculty review committee then backed up Ferrini-Mundy’s decision.
Bizarre, but not fireable
Cooper, the arbitrator, conceded that Brinkley’s behavior was “bizarre and unseemly,” though not fireable. His decision in the professor’s favor “should not be taken as a complete whitewash of Brinkley’s behavior,” the arbitrator wrote.
“Crawling on the floor, meowing like a cat in the presence of students, dropping to one’s knees before a student, allowing students to consume alcohol at a year-end class party, discussing a student’s personal life even in the context of teaching romantic poetry are not acceptable for a tenured professor, but they are not egregious misconduct arising to just cause for terminating an otherwise accomplished professor,” he wrote.
Brinkley said he agrees. He’s unorthodox and has been for some time as a teacher. At times, he can be difficult to work with, he said.
“We’re all works in progress,” Brinkley said.
While Brinkley was reinstated following Cooper’s December 2020 report, he never returned to teaching. Now retired, Brinkley said he doesn’t harbor ill will toward UMaine.
“But I think in terms of their own spiritual development and growth, they shouldn’t simply get away with this,” Brinkley said.