Members of the University of Missouri Faculty Council were skeptical Thursday that MU’s public reasons for firing two employees of the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center in May are the real reasons they were forced out.
For more than 30 minutes, Donnell Young, assistant vice chancellor for Student Engagement and Success, tried to explain the decisions and how services at the center have been maintained.
“We are committed to every single student across this campus,” Young said. “We are committed to students that utilize the RSVP Center and we’ll continue to show you the efforts that we are putting in place to be great stewards of the resources that we have and to continue the mission going forward.”
The Tribune reported Sunday that advocate Taylor Yeagle and her supervisor, Danica Wolf, were forced out after Yeagle made statements critical of the MU Title IX process in the case of a student who was not informed of an appeal. Yeagle spoke to the Tribune after the student signed a waiver of her privacy rights under federal law.
Yeagle was an advocate for students navigating the Title IX process. In a statement issued Sunday afternoon, MU claimed Yeagle and Wolf were terminated because they violated federal law and university policy for breaching confidentiality of a Title IX complaint and for talking about an active case.
The statement was strange, said Anne Alexander, associate teaching professor in the School of Law. Both Yeagle and Wolf are still employed by the university but in different jobs. She wondered, she said, why anyone who had violated federal privacy laws designed to protect students could continue as an MU employee.
“The reason I am pushing on this is not because I don’t think those people shouldn’t be at the university, because I do. I think they should still be in the RSVP Center,” Alexander said. “The reason I am pushing on it is because this statement doesn’t pass the sniff test.”
Faculty council Chair Clark Peters, associate professor in College of Human Environmental Sciences said he thought it was “mystifying” why the university would accuse the women of violating federal law yet retain them as employees in any capacity.
After Young was finished, Peters said the council will be monitoring how the staff at the RSVP Center is built up again.“I think the next steps are important and there are enough people around the table to make sure those steps are taken,” he said.
Young’s appearance before the council is part of the university’s reaction to the Tribune’s Sunday article, which reported that Yeagle and Wolf were fired after the Tribune sent Yeagle’s quotes from an April interview to her for an accuracy check. The quotes were reviewed by administrators responsible for Title IX enforcement, including Vice Chancellor for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Kevin McDonald.
In the interview, Yeagle spoke about the missteps in the handling of one of her client’s cases. Yeagle’s supervisor, Wolf, was forced out, according to multiple sources, because she allowed the interview to happen.
MU claimed that criticism of the university’s Title IX process was not a factor, according to the statement.
“The personnel actions taken were not related to public criticism of the Title IX process,” read the statement. “They were taken because of violations of university policies and federal laws that are designed to keep students safe and protect their confidentiality.”
The university also says the sexual assault case brought by MU student Kelli Wilson was “active.” Wilson, Yeagle and Wolf all believed the case to be inactive when the interview took place.
Wilson, when contacted by the Tribune on Tuesday, said she was unaware her case was still open. The respondent in her case graduated in May, Wilson said.
“It was my understanding that once the appeals process ... was finalized” and the respondent was reinstated, “it was a done-deal,” she said. “So, it would have been case closed at that point. I was never given official notice of anything wrapping up, so my assumption is the appeals process was the last step.
“My last email from them was when they notified me of the decision of the appeal. I was not in contact with anybody in the Title IX office after that.”
MU spokesman Christian Basi said Thursday the university considers all Title IX cases to be active until the complainant and respondent are no longer enrolled “because we have things that have to be followed through with” such as enforcing sanctions on respondents and accommodations for complainants.
“If the case is ‘over’ or ‘closed,’ it’s still active for us because we’re still interacting with these people on a regular basis,” he said.
The breach of confidentiality that cost Wolf and Yeagle their jobs applies in all situations, Basi said.
“It doesn’t really matter if the case is active or not active, because we can’t discuss those cases regardless,” he said.
Basi said the waiver Wilson signed allowing her advocate, Yeagle, to speak about her situation didn’t go far enough.
“The waiver issue is the fact that there was one person of the situation (Wilson) who signed the waiver,” he said. “Not all parties signed the waiver.”
By “all parties” Basi said, he means everyone involved with the case.
“It’s not just the two people,” he said. “It’s the people on the hearing panel who might have to sign it as well because they are involved in this process and it’s supposed to be a confidential process.”
Wilson said the university communicated with her through Yeagle. From the end of May through September, Yeagle’s advocate role was unfilled. The RSVP Center has been unable to fill two open positions in the office.
Young said Thursday that Amelia Howser, an equity consultant and investigator in the Division of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity will join the center’s staff in March.
The Sunday article was a follow up to Tribune reports on Wilson’s case and others like hers.
A nine-month Title IX investigation found that Wilson’s alleged rapist had violated university policy and the hearing panel recommended he be suspended. Days later, the accused filed an appeal and was allowed to continue taking classes on campus.
Wilson was supposed to be notified when the man was on campus and where, which did not happen, she said.
Yeagle’s interview with the Tribune verified Wilson’s account that the RSVP Center was never notified of the status change. After the quotes were sent for the accuracy check, Yeagle spoke with Tribune Managing Editor Charles Westmoreland and requested her interview be pulled in fear of losing her job.
Yeagle’s concerns were over comments viewed as critical of the university and not about confidentiality violations.
Westmoreland agreed to pull the interview. A few weeks later Yeagle and Wolf were no longer employed by the RSVP Center.
Yeagle’s quotes became public as part of the university’s response to a Tribune Sunshine Law request last fall and are now being included in the Tribune’s reporting.
Yeagle and Wolf both signed separation agreements with MU on May 21 that bar them from criticizing the university or speaking with media about their situation. Their options were to risk being fired and receiving nothing, or sign the paperwork within 24 hours and receive a months’ pay and benefits, along with new titles during the one-month transitional phase.
A Sunshine request turned up no evidence they actually worked during that month.
The agreements prohibit Wolf and Yeagle from speaking to the media, but there’s no such clause concerning MU.
Wolf and Yeagle have since returned to university employment. Wolf taught a social work class last fall and is currently employed as a faculty liaison. Yeagle was hired as a clinical instructor at the Family Access Center of Excellence, according to employment records.
Wolf declined to speak with the Tribune about her employment with the RSVP Center when contacted this week by the Tribune. When asked if she had any trouble finding employment with MU afterward, she said “not at all.”
Tribune Managing Editor Charles L. Westmoreland contributed to this report.