“I just wanted to say you looked simply delectable yesterday, like a piece of candy (which I wanted to swallow whole! Be still, my beating heart…) If we are to be alone together every Wednesday night, I am not sure if I can prevent myself from pouncing, once the torrents of spring have been unleashed… but alas, I must prevent myself (and therefore you needn’t worry), for just the mere thought of the steel doors clanging shut with us in flagrante delicto, or, alternately, our being surprised by a discomfited cleaning lady, is enough to dampen-down my passion to a dull flame indeed (unless, of course, you take to wearing your shorter skirt, in which case I will simply toss my keys through a crack in the door, rather than risk succumbing to an over-whelming temptation)!”
These would-be poetic words were sent in the spring of 2016 to a student at the Anglo-American University in Prague, Olga Knežević, by her professor of literature and social theory. Such openly sexual messages were the result of several months’ worth of out of bounds conduct on the part of the professor. They were also the culmination of manipulative behaviour through which he slowly but patiently influenced his student so that she would be unwaveringly loyal to him. “It took me years to understand what was going on. When I finally realized it, it was already very explicit. Before that, his relationship towards me had been rather that of a mentor, father figure, and teacher who takes care of his students,” says Olga with open disgust in her face. “I was terribly naïve,” she concludes disappointedly. Her friend Tyler was also subject to inappropriate behaviour. Several months ago, both students decided to act. They gathered their courage, wrote down their experiences, and handed them over to university management. But since then, they have been involved in a poorly conducted investigation, full of mysterious delays, lack of transparency, and a procedure that seems to have been made up on the spot. That is why they decided to speak to Alarm about their case and provided us with their stories, as well as statements and email correspondence.
Looking for a father figure
Olga came to Prague in 2010, after completing her BA in Toronto. The war in former Yugoslavia had brought her family to Canada and returning to Europe was a way for her to think through her own identity. Olga chose Anglo-American University because she liked the wide offer of courses in areas that interested her – especially in Film Studies. She was quickly accepted without an interview. When she moved to Prague, she found out that the course offer was much smaller than she had thought and she had to consult her selection of courses personally with the Associate Dean, Tony Ozuna. “I was surprised, in Toronto everything worked differently. We registered for courses online, and as long as they were within the curriculum there were no discussions.”
It was at this time that the young student first met the professor who would go on to deeply influence her time at the university. “He paid special attention to me and I felt part of some kind of elite. First, he privately suggested I address him by his first name and then he began to encourage me with long, intimate emails. He knew what he was doing, how to pry into me.” According to Olga, most of the classes he taught were somehow connected to questions of sexuality – he covered polyamory, various non-standard relationships, sexual deviance, and family problems. “If there was even a tiny possibility, he would force these topics into areas that had nothing to do with it. I think I know more about the sex lives of all the thinkers and writers we studied than about their intellectual work. It was surprising how much he concentrated on juicy details, which were completely irrelevant to the field of study,” Olga describes. “But of course it was a way of getting our attention- as an average 20-something is mostly preoccupied with sexual and romantic concerns.”
Their “relationship” developed over several years. Olga says that any flirtatious behaviour always came from the professor and she as a student was not tough enough to cut off communication with him completely. Already in 2015, the professor admitted at their first private meeting that he had a sexual relationship with one of his female students, claiming that Olga is the only person he can tell this to. “He basically made me into a confidante of his inappropriate relationship, even though I hadn’t asked for it in any way.” At around this time, the character of their email exchanges changed and the lecturer began to adopt a much more flirtatious tone. “He praised my tan and said he longs to hear me speaking Bosnian. He also found subtle ways of undermining my relationship with my boyfriend and suggesting how superior he was as a partner, how much more sophisticated. I had almost finished my studies at this point and started working as a full-time librarian at the university, right next to the classroom where he taught. At that time, I tried to deflect his advances without angering him,” says Olga. She also admits that back then, she was unable to stand up against this type of behaviour and often wanted to gratify the professor. “We met alone only twice. At the second meeting, he asked me to tell him in detail about my sex life. I finally did. I wanted to please him,” she says somewhat nervously and it’s clear that today she is unsure why she agreed back then.
Although the professor is not a psychologist, “I believe that he employs a very complex method of psychologically ‘grooming’ students of his interest by first finding out as much as possible about our family histories, sexual lives, and psychological predispositions, and then developing relationships over the course of years, in which he plays whatever role he senses is required in order to gain a deep sense of trust and loyalty (often a combination of parental figure and therapist), as well simultaneously instructing us in an ethos which would not allow for detecting or reporting his behaviour as being out of bounds, an abuse of power, or morally and ethically suspect,” says Olga.
Today, Olga has a child and has attempted to meet with the professor in question only once since then. The confrontation was, however, not a success. “He knows exactly how to hurt people. It was shortly after I had given birth and I nervously tried to explain to him which of his behaviours I found to be out of bounds. But he still managed to humiliate me one last time and create an impression in me that it was all my own fault. That I should have protected my own boundaries, that we are ‘all adults’, that it’s my fault I projected a father-figure onto him, that I had misled him. He hurt me deeply with these claims and many others. When I suggested his teaching style was harmful, he was infuriated and said nobody in 20 years of teaching had ever said something like that to him. He said I shouldn’t have been let into the programme if I was so sensitive. He said great books and great thinkers don’t need to give ‘trigger warnings’. He compared himself to Marx and Jesus. I’m not kidding, and neither was he”. Only after this unfortunate last meeting did Olga decide to report everything.
You’re not alone
It wasn’t only Olga who was the victim of the non-standard behaviour of this professor; Tyler has her own experiences to share. The two students met by chance in the university library, as Tyler’s girlfriend works there as a librarian and is also Olga’s close friend. “Once I was complaining about the university, I mentioned ‘his’ name and Olga gave me a look of total disgust. We started talking and I realized her experience is similar to mine, only that it went much further.”
Tyler first came to the Czech Republic in 2014. She came to Anglo-American University on a study exchange in 2014 and met the professor when she was 19. The professor took an immediate liking to the intelligent student and praised her work in front of the whole class in a way that Tyler found unusual. “I quickly understood that the way he approached my short stay at the university was nothing uncommon. A part of his pedagogical approach really is to select his favourite students and create a feeling of importance in them, based on a special, intimate relationship.” Tyler adds that for some time, she thought that informal relationships between professors and students were normal in Europe and was in a way grateful for the attention she was getting. “Then I left. I stayed in touch with the university and the professor; our email exchanges were often on the border of the private and the professional. We met again in 2016 in a café, which he talked about as his office. Our conversation took us to questions about my personal life and mental health, which I didn’t want to talk about at all. I didn’t consider them important.”
The professor’s classes, which Tyler took as a student at AAU, became very uncomfortable for her over time. “He kept on talking in a sexually motivated way. His lectures always ended up being about his intimate life, he publicly praised polyamory and longingly talked about wanting to have several partners. I didn’t understand at all why we’re hearing this in class.” During a discussion on T.S. Eliot in one of his classes, the professor mentioned that a lover of Eliot’s had been 38 years younger than him, giving Tyler a meaningful look “Since he constantly talked about his age, I knew it was the same age difference as between him and I”. When he talked about gender differences, he used him and his wife as an example. He said, for instance, that when his wife wants a hug, he wants a blowjob. “That’s what men are like, he would say with a laugh, but we didn’t find it funny at all,” Tyler concludes with disgust.
“The innuendos towards me escalated and even my classmates began to notice. I retreated and those classes were very uncomfortable and stressful for me. Everything culminated at the end of the year when he said mockingly that we have to finish class on time so that we don’t make the librarian angry. He turned in my direction and gave me an ironic look. I felt extremely embarrassed as I had been keeping my relationship with the librarian secret from him, precisely because I was afraid he would ridicule me publicly.” Tyler had also not shared her sexual orientation publically, so this behaviour was “outing” her against her will, in front of all her classmates. Tyler remembers this period as a time of high anxiety and feelings of paranoia, even though her classmates often confirmed that the professor’s behaviour towards her was highly inappropriate. When she met Olga, she found out she wasn’t the only victim and was surprised to learn how far things had gone in her case. They decided to act.
History that repeats itself
The first mention of strange pedagogical practices at Anglo-American University goes back to 2013. Back then, an article titled When flirting goes too far was published, in which two female students confessed their uncomfortable experiences at the university. As in the present case, they mention inappropriate behaviour from members of staff.
Even though several years have passed, Isabel is still able to recall how powerless she felt when a faculty member found her phone number in an application she had handed in and tried to invite her on dates. Intrusive personal questions, long stares at her cleavage, “accidental” physical contact, presents she hadn’t asked for and a feeling that her attitude towards the member of staff will have an effect on her student life. Even though Isabel complained several times, the unwelcome advances continued. Her friend Nada was contacted by another professor in the middle of the night with inappropriate questions. Over time, it became clear that a large number of female students were subject to such inappropriate behaviour, but when the idea came up to describe everything in a statement, several students pulled out. They were afraid.
The incident occurred several years before #metoo broke out and the debate on what we understand as sexual harassment was much less developed. They sent the first version of their text to Associate Dean Tony Ozuna and were subsequently called to the office of the University President, Alan Krautstengel. To their surprise, he knew very well which members of staff their complaints concerned and was well aware of what was going on. Open flirting, sexual relationships or privileging “favourite” students – he didn’t consider them problematic.
After the article was published, the school’s sexual harassment policy changed, but no one evaluated Isabel and Nada’s case and the whole incident simply petered out. Today, when they recall the time after the publication of their statement, they don’t feel very good about it. “Nothing happened. The professor continued treating me in exactly the same way, AAU was more concerned about their image than following up with actions. There is basically no safe space here and any inappropriate behaviour from members of staff is either played down or swept under the carpet. I often wonder how it’s possible the school doesn’t care that its female students cannot feel secure that their choice in clothing is viewed as a more valid form of consent than the words that we say.”
The incident involved different teachers and students, but the university management at the time didn’t take any stand on the inappropriate behaviour of its staff and the cases were not documented. The situation is similar today.
Blaming the victim
Both students wrote their statements and confronted university management in March. The statements describe in detail how the professor behaved towards them and what effects it had on them, and included evidence. Their testimony was supported by the statement of a further student, who confirmed the professor’s toxic behaviour.
The school’s management is allegedly working on the case, but there are no results so far. A committee evaluating the case has been assembled, but from the university’s communications, it is clear that they are not particularly alarmed by their employee’s conduct. In answer to our direct questions about the professor’s manipulative behaviour, Associate Dean Tony Ozuna gave only a very vague answer and pointed us towards the people who are dealing with Olga and Tyler’s case. The people in question were subsequently outraged by the fact the two students had turned to us and flooded them with questions as to what kind of materials they had provided Alarm with and why. The chair of the committee who has been investigating the matter for months appears to consider the whole affair an inconvenience rather than problematic and predatory behaviour on the part of a member of teaching staff. There are also speculations that the reason for covering up the professor’s strange and toxic behaviour is the fact that he is the holder of a prestigious title thanks to which the Humanities programme of the university can hold accreditation in the Czech Republic.
The school’s code of conduct, as well as an internal document called “Sexual harassment policy”, which the two students have a copy of, brings a completely different interpretation of the professor’s behaviour than the committee. It states that problematic behaviour consists not just of explicit allusions, verbal harassment, or unwanted physical contact, but also psychological pressure. The document also clearly states that students have the right to complain when the atmosphere at the institution has become uncomfortable, hostile, and interferes with the individual’s academic performance.
Clearly, Olga and Tyler’s cases fulfill these conditions. As a result of the professor’s predatory and sexually motivated behaviour, both women suspended their studies. Tyler was unable to complete one of the last tasks assigned by the professor, in which he asked his students about very intimate matters. Under the guise of a class assignment was an attempt to elicit details of students’ intimate and sexual lives and Tyler, who wants to protect her privacy, was unwilling to comply with it. The sexual harassment policy also states that students should not feel that they could obtain their degree or pass an exam in exchange for sex. “But that is how I’ve felt in the past few years,” says Tyler, whose mental health and feelings of self-worth and confidence that she is a good student have suffered as a result. At the moment, she is trying to complete her degree, though it isn’t easy.
“I came to Prague in good faith that I would find a good school here. Instead of that, AAU has become the synonym of incredible stress and humiliation, but I can’t leave for a different university now. I don’t have the money and need to finish my degree to keep my visa, and there aren’t many other chances of doing that. Last but not least, I hope that other students don’t have to go through similar things as what happened to me and Olga”, Tyler concludes.
The harm was done
Both women are now searching for further victims of the strange predatory behaviour at AAU. After continuing frustration with the way the school was handling their case, they turned to Alarm; as a consequence, they were subject to another wave of criticism from members of the investigation committee, which included threats of legal proceedings. The university is obviously attempting to sweep the whole incident under the carpet. Our questions were never answered directly by university representatives, we were always pointed back to Olga and Tyler.
This of course only deepens the feelings of guilt both students have, who as a result of the stress experienced often think about their own role in the whole affair. Speaking to Olga today, she has various thoughts on what happened: “I could have behaved differently from the beginning, but there are many things in our story which are typical for the abuse of hierarchical positions, psychological pressure on students, and gradual sexual harassment that cannot be clearly identified immediately. I know I was young, vulnerable and naïve. But in the beginning, I really thought his interest in me was motivated by my good academic results and I wanted to fulfill the demands put on me. For a long time, I couldn’t see where it was going. I was wrong and now I don’t really know if I ever really was a good student at the school I had so enthusiastically chosen.”
If you have become the victim of inappropriate behaviour in an academic setting, get in touch. If you are a student of AAU and have similar experiences which you would like to share, please write to [email protected]. The authors thank Věra Nováková for her legal advice.