For Rhodes College, the question is definitely not academic.
Here's the toss-up: Two accomplished professors in the department of religious studies at one of the top-rated small liberal arts colleges in the country. Two smiling faces in the campus yearbook. Two glittering resumes studded with academic honors and degrees from the best universities in the world. Both authors of books on sexual and feminist themes and religion. Both teachers of Rhodes' signature course on ideas, truth, and values called "Search." One the chair of the department. One up for tenure review.
Colleagues for six years. But now they are accuser and accused in a federal court lawsuit that reads like a steamy sex novel.
And either one of them is a malicious liar with a wilder imagination than New York Times plagiarist Jayson Blair, bent on revenge against Rhodes and her former colleagues, or the other one is guilty of sexually harassing her subordinate out of a job and to the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Sex, ambition, and revenge. The individual against the institution. Search comes alive. What to believe?
On July 18th, New York attorney Joshua Friedman filed the lawsuit in Memphis against Rhodes on behalf of Carey Ellen Walsh, who taught religion at Rhodes from 1996 to 2002. Identified throughout the 22-page lawsuit as Walsh's alleged tormentor is Ellen Armour, chair of the department of religious studies since 2000.
Walsh, 40, now living in Maine, claims she was denied tenure partly because she rebuffed repeated sexual overtures from Armour. Her lawsuit seeks monetary damages, which are capped at $300,000 in such lawsuits in federal court, and "redress (of) all of her economic and psychological injuries." A jury trial is demanded. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla.
The lawsuit says Rhodes is "vicariously liable" for the alleged acts of sexual harassment and discriminated against Walsh in violation of federal and state laws.
On the advice of their attorneys, Walsh, Rhodes president William Troutt, and other Rhodes officials declined to be interviewed or to respond to written questions. Friedman said he made an "exclusive" agreement with The Commercial Appeal to let them interview Walsh "for strategic reasons" because the daily has more "reach" than the Flyer. Armour is out of the country. The Flyer made contact with her by e-mail.
The Flyer put a story about the lawsuit on its web site July 21st, the night before the storm knocked out our power along with 307,000 other customers. We did not move forward with this story during the first week of the storm recovery or until everyone mentioned in it had been contacted and given a reasonable opportunity to respond.
"To my knowledge, we have not been officially served with the suit, but we believe the allegations have absolutely no merit," said Allen Boone, dean of administrative services at Rhodes.
Beyond that, information has been hard to glean. Rhodes director of communications Daney Kepple sent out a general e-mail last week reminding faculty and staff to forward all media queries to the communications office, adding, "This is in no way intended as a gag order" but a way to ensure that "our message is consistent." Rhodes students and faculty contacted by the Flyer declined interviews or would only agree to talk if their names were not used.
Attorneys familiar with sexual-harassment claims say it is likely that Rhodes will file a motion for summary judgment, which would dispose of the case before it went to trial. If it moves forward, attorneys say Walsh can expect a rough deposition and trial, plus substantial legal costs.
The lawsuit mainly targets Ellen Armour, who was chairman of the department of religious studies during Walsh's last two years as an instructor and had an important vote in her tenure review.
"During her review year," the lawsuit says, "Armour physically molested Professor Walsh frequently, by summoning her for private meetings in which she would touch, kiss, and rub various parts of Professor Walsh's body, such as her neck, lower back, knees, shins, and inner thighs. Armour called Professor Walsh pet names, such as 'deary' and 'missy' and make [sic] lewd comments about fondling breasts, oral sex, and her students."
Walsh, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Allegheny College with graduate degrees from Yale Divinity School, Harvard, and the University of Chicago, was at the end of what is called a renewable long-term contract during her sixth year of teaching in 2002. She is the author of two books, Exquisite Desire: Religion, the Erotic, and the Song of Songs and The Fruit of the Vine: Viticulture in Ancient Israel.
Armour, who became chairman of the department in 2000, earned her undergraduate degree from Stetson and advanced degrees in theology from Vanderbilt. She is the author of Deconstruction, Feminist Theology, and the Problem of Difference.
Her Rhodes online biography says "she is interested in feminist theology, womanist theology, liberation theology, ecological theology and Christianity and the body."
A colleague described her as friendly and outgoing.
"That naturally expresses itself sometimes in hugs or pats or other physical contact that doesn't make you feel sex is involved," said the colleague.
In sharp contrast to lofty academic tomes, many sections of the lawsuit read like a romance novel or movie script.
"Then she [Armour] kissed Professor Walsh on the neck," the lawsuit says. "Her lips were slightly parted and wet."
Armour "outed" Walsh as a lesbian without her consent, the lawsuit says. Other parts allege bullying or boorish faculty behavior more commonly associated with drunken fraternity parties.
"From late October 2001 through August 5, 2002," the suit says, "Professors [Steven] McKenzie and [John] Kaltner began calling Professor Walsh 'C.U.N.T.' This was an acronym they had made up from 'See You Next Time.' They told Professor Walsh what the acronym meant and said it to her each time Professor Walsh left work or a meeting. During that period they said it to her several dozen times."
A similar double entendre was used in 2001 in the popular HBO television series Sex and the City by one of the main female characters.
"Professor Walsh was offended and repeatedly asked them to stop," the lawsuit says. McKenzie and Kaltner did not return calls seeking comment.
A colleague who knows them and has read the lawsuit said the allegations are "totally out of character" for the two religion professors. Another said Kaltner and McKenzie play basketball together and the allegations sound like "locker room talk," but the colleague could not say if such language would be unusual for them or not.
The lawsuit was filed while most students and faculty are on summer break or preoccupied with the devastating wind storm. Board members contacted by the Flyer said they were not aware of it and had not heard any hint of sexual scandal. There is no suggestion in the lawsuit that students were sexually harassed. Rhodes has a strong national reputation buttressed by high rankings in several college surveys, stellar faculty and student credentials, and its signature Gothic architecture and student Honor Code.
The lawsuit itself provides ammunition for both sides.
On the one hand, Walsh had taught tolerably or, some say, exceptionally well at Rhodes for six years and apparently kept notes or a journal after she became wary. Many times she mentions a specific place and date that an event occurred. Her claim does not rest on a single incident but on several of them over a period of nearly a year.
"On May 16, at happy hour at the Blue Monkey Restaurant," the suit says, "two colleagues, Professors Kaltner and McKenzie, remarked to Professor Walsh that Armour's behavior towards her was 'physically strange.' Professor Walsh asked them why, and they said touching her and making such a public example of her were 'things that she'd never do to anyone else in the department.' They debated whether it was sexual harassment. Both suggested Professor Walsh keep a log, just in case it continued."
Some claims appear to be a matter of interpretation -- "She stared at Professor Walsh's breasts the entire time," for instance. But most describe alleged events and inappropriate remarks that either happened -- in which case they violate the college's sexual-harassment policy -- or they didn't -- in which case they are malicious lies.
For example, the suit says: "On October 2nd or 3rd, Chairman Armour asked Professor Walsh to her office and shut the door. Professor Walsh said that given last week she preferred it open, but Chairman Armour said she needed the privacy. They discussed class scheduling. As she spoke, she rolled her chair toward Professor Walsh, squeezed both knees several times, and then later reached over and patted Professor Walsh on the shin. Throughout the meeting she called Professor Walsh 'missy' and 'deary.'"
While it is specific on such details, the lawsuit makes no reference to Walsh taking her concerns to the dean of the college, Robert Llewellyn, until after she was denied tenure. Asked if Walsh came to him with her concerns, Llewellyn told the Flyer, "at this point I can't answer that."
Rhodes' policy on sexual harassment is spelled out in its manual for students, faculty, and staff.
"Sexual harassment in any form is unacceptable behavior and will not be tolerated. It is a form of misconduct that undermines the institutional mission of the college. Sexual harassment may be defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, physical conduct, written, verbal, or electronic communication or printed materials of a sexual nature" when it is a condition of employment, interferes with work, or creates a hostile environment.
Allegations involving faculty "should be reported to either the Dean of the College or the Director of Human Resources."
The manual is also clear about reprisals and false claims:
"Anyone who retaliates against any individual making complaints of sexual harassment, or anyone making a false or malicious charge against a member of the community is in violation of this policy and will be subject to sanctions accordingly."
Asked specifically if the fact that Armour remains on the faculty while Walsh is gone should be construed as an indication that Rhodes concluded Walsh made a "false or malicious charge," Troutt declined to respond.
A tenured faculty member said no policy offers ironclad assurance of fairness or protection in the sometimes cutthroat politics of academia.
"I wouldn't put my trust in any formal statement of policy if my career was on the line in the way Carey Walsh's was," the professor said.
"God, alas, an ancient delusion."
Walsh's lawsuit is her second shot in a double-barreled assault against Rhodes. In an unpublished article sent to the Flyer, former colleagues, and others, she blasts the religion department and other faculty members in a critique reminiscent of William Buckley's 1951 conservative classic, God and Man at Yale. Walsh says the religion department at Rhodes, which has historic ties to the Presbyterian church and by resolution of the board of trustees requires students to have "two years of sound and comprehensive study of the Bible," is a hotbed of liberalism, atheism, cynicism, and feminism with a dash of lesbianism.
"In this religion department, Jesus, I was informed by the New Testament scholar no less, was a wimp, Paul an idiot, the Resurrection, a no-brainer (no), God, alas, an ancient delusion, irrelevant yet curiously worthy of contempt," Walsh writes.
In June, Walsh wrote an e-mail to colleagues, which was obtained by the Flyer. "Look, I'm no saint or fundamentalist," she wrote, "just an average, lazy Catholic, tolerant of differences, but I was deceived and axed when I didn't share cynicism about faith."
Gail Streete, a faculty member in the religion department whom Walsh identifies as being hostile to her views, declined to comment.
Walsh is not the first faculty member or student to express such sentiments, albeit in less extreme fashion. At the same time, Rhodes has Jews, ministers, evangelicals, and members of Bellevue Baptist Church on its staff who feel comfortable.
The theme of scholarship and the Bible has been addressed head-on by numerous Rhodes faculty members, including Armour, who wrote an essay in Celebrating the Humanities: A Half-Century of the Search Course at Rhodes College, published in 1996.
"Students sometimes find it hard to grasp the difference between academic study of the Bible and church-school study," she wrote. "My approach to getting them to discern and appreciate the difference is to describe the Bible as, among other things, a window into the world that produced it."
Armour and Walsh have both taught the Search course. The lawsuit says Walsh was a popular and effective teacher who got good performance reviews. "She generated excitement, and caught many students wanting a mentor," the suit says.
A group of Rhodes students organized unsuccessfully to keep Walsh at Rhodes after it was learned she had not made tenure. Walsh puts the number at "one-third" of the student body of approximately 1,500 students.
"Such a student demonstration hadn't happened at Rhodes since [the] Civil Rights Era," the lawsuit says. That claim, at least, is a rather glaring exaggeration. There have been several student demonstrations, from the Vietnam War in the Seventies to an antiracism day only last year, that made local news and attracted broader and more sustained student interest.
But a female senior-to-be at Rhodes who asked that her name not be used said in her three-year experience "it was very unusual" for students to rally around a departing professor so enthusiastically. The student, who signed the petition, said "it ended up getting signed by about 500 people, I think, which is pretty incredible."
The student, who took more than one course from Walsh, said Walsh never said anything about sexual harassment. She was unaware of the complaint until two weeks ago. She said critics of Walsh felt she "tried too hard to be her students' friend, and that's not true at all. She was friends with students but she didn't do that at the cost of academic rigor."
Rhodes faculty members, most speaking anonymously, gave differing opinions of Walsh's credibility.
"A 22-page lawsuit filed by someone 'under the care of a psychiatrist' certainly suggests that the author might have some difficulties constructing reality," wrote associate professor of history Gail Murray in response to this newspaper's earlier electronic version of the story. "You have maligned the entire religious studies department whose national reputation as scholars, teachers, mentors, and colleagues is exemplary."
Walsh's lawsuit said she has been seeing a psychoanalyst twice weekly since October 2002 and is suffering from "psychosexual post-traumatic stress and a lasting major depression." Murray declined to be interviewed.
Another former colleague said Walsh was "a little scatterbrained" and "could give as good as she got" in bantering with her colleagues. "Carey was no prude," the former colleague said. The former colleague added that Walsh "might not have read the signals" if her tenure was in jeopardy before the alleged sexual harassment began.
Another former colleague said Walsh was "a brilliant scholar but the kind of person who I wouldn't be surprised if she forgot to put on her glasses."
Walsh took her complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) last September.
"In order to file a lawsuit, you have to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC within 300 days of the last discriminatory act," said EEOC attorney Kathy Kores. "The EEOC keeps it at least 180 days. Then you can request the right to sue."
The EEOC talks to the complainant and may follow up with an investigation. It can find, Kores said, no cause, no jurisdiction, or make a "cause finding" if discrimination occurred. In that case, most complaints are settled through mediation before they go to court. Kores said that in the Walsh case there was an investigation, but she would not say what it concluded. However, the complaint was obviously not resolved through mediation and the EEOC is not a party to the Walsh lawsuit.
Kores did not know exactly how many sexual-harassment complaints are filed each year with the local EEOC office, but she said many of them that go to federal court wind up being settled with a confidentiality provision that hides the terms from the public.
Walsh can expect rough handling from opposing counsel if her case goes to the deposition stage or to trial, says an attorney experienced in sexual-harassment suits.
"People coming in having lost their job are already deprived of a sense of self," said Noopy Dykes, who filed one of the first sexual-harassment cases in Shelby County. "What the defense has to do is show that she was a lousy employee, that she had an ulterior motive in bringing the charge, that she's a liar and the reason they got rid of her is that she was worthless and incompetent. And what you have at the end is somebody who's twice as destroyed as they were at the time they came in for the original filing."
For some at Rhodes, Walsh has raised issues that go beyond the courtroom. A staff member who was not close to either Walsh or Armour said the college must "deal with the content of her charges" whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, adding, "Rhodes can't use the cover of defending itself in a lawsuit to avoid dealing with its pathologies."