KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — An internationally recognized and now disgraced University of Tennessee professor sexually harassed female graduate students on and off campus for years and fostered a culture of resentment and fear through his mercurial, controlling leadership, a yearlong internal investigation found.
The university's Office of Equity & Diversity, or OED, spoke with students, former students, faculty and people off campus during its review of Henri Grissino-Mayer, formerly of the Department of Geography.
"...OED has found multiple frequent and repeated instances of touchings, comments, statements, jokes, stories, descriptions and references to topics of a sexual nature that do not relate to the courses, labs or other academic activities, and that were directed at multiple individuals by the respondent over a period of many years," the report's summary obtained by 10News states.
OED presented the report Aug. 16 to newly appointed Chancellor Donde Plowman, Provost David Manderscheid, Theresa Lee, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and others.
In response, Plowman in a memo Monday directed the university to take several steps including hiring an external "expert" to review how UT handles allegations of sexual misconduct among faculty members.
"I want to first acknowledge current and former students who came forward and bravely shared their experiences," Plowman wrote in the memo to Lee and Department of Geography head Dr. Ronald Kalafsky. "That was not an easy thing to do and if they had not done so, the shocking abuses of power and responsibility by Dr. Grissino-Mayer would likely have continued."
She also wrote that she wanted UT's Title IX Office to create an "active bystander" campaign by Oct. 1 that targets grad students and faculty to further encourage the idea that "Vols Help Vols".
She also has appointed a group of campus experts and advocates to identify ways UT can put a halt to environmental factors that encourage or allow sexual harassment.
Grissino-Mayer, recognized internationally for his expertise in tree-ring research, resigned in August 2018 as allegations emerged against him. He was accused of acting inappropriately with students, including sexually, and abusing his authority to wield power over them, records show.
Manderscheid at the time called his conduct "egregious". The professor was allowed to resign in lieu of being fired.
OED has been investigating complaints and allegations against Grissino-Mayer ever since.
It appears Grissino-Mayer's misconduct went on for years -- a troubling fact in retrospect, OED notes.
As part of its investigation, OED states it met with Grissino-Mayer several times and also communicated with him by phone and email.
According to the 23-page report, the professor "denies that he has ever received any indicators from former students that he engaged in unwanted behavior."
"In hindsight, the respondent states that he 'wishes grad students had been more upfront' with him," the report states.
Besides being recognized for his tree-ring research, Grissino-Mayer also gained attention as an expert who had predicted the potential devastation of wildfires in Sevier County. In November 2016, wildfires destroyed or damaged more than 2,500 buildings and led to the deaths of 14 people.
THE YEARLONG REVIEW
OED's report addresses in a cumulative fashion the allegations of 11 people who submitted written statements as well as information from others. Names of witnesses and alleged victims have been redacted in the report obtained by 10News.
The process began after someone informed UT on Aug. 6, 2018, that Grissino-Mayer, married to a former student, was have sex in 2018 with an unidentified student. OED then got a letter submitted by a collection of people saying the professor had been violating university policies for at least 12 years.
"The complaints described repetitive, persistent, verbal communications, innuendo, flirting and physical behaviors of a sexual nature by (Grissino-Mayer). Through its investigation, OED has concluded that the allegation that the respondent created a hostile sexual environment more likely than not is true," according to OED.
Grissino-Mayer's reputation as a respected authority on tree-ring research drew many grad students to him. It appears he may have used that to manipulate at least some of them, the report found.
He encouraged a competitive culture in the lab that to some became "toxic," playing favorites among women students, the report states. Some of those favored students also became harassment victims, according to OED.
It was well-known that Grissino-Mayer would comment on women's bodies and check them out, according to the investigation.
On campus in Knoxville, he could appear very much as the strait-laced professor, some people told OED. Off-campus, however, a different person might emerge.
Former students recalled an incident in which Grissino-Mayer invited everyone into his hotel room for a party. He asked the women to come in their pajamas, and he asked two of them to stage a pillow fight.
Watching that unfold made others feel "extremely uncomfortable," according to OED.
Another former grad student described an incident in which two women graduate students were sharing a bed in a hotel room while a male grad student occupied another bed in the same room.
"(Grissino-Mayer) came into the room and jumped on one of the females while clothed in his underwear. This was followed by (the professor) engaging in 'minor wrestling' with that female student," the report states.
Another time while at an out-of-town event, he was playing darts with someone when he deliberately reached between the legs of a woman to pick up a dart.
"After the respondent grabbed the dart, he is described as having stood up while keeping his arm between the female's legs until he made contact with her crotch area," according to the report.
The woman was "shocked and embarrassed," according to the report.
He also had a reputation for making alcohol available to students, offering it after a day of field work.
In one instance, in the midst of drinking heavily, Grissino-Mayer turned to a female near him and licked the side of her face from chin to temple, according to the report.
Undergrad and grad students who witnessed it fell silent and the woman herself appeared "in a state of disbelief." The investigation showed someone had taken a photo of the episode, but OED couldn't locate that picture.
Another complainant recalled a conversation she had with Grissino-Mayer during a field trip in which the professor became increasingly intimate in his disclosures about his personal life. He put his arm around her, according to the report.
"The complainant/witness states that he detailed his intimate marital sex life, vividly described his wife's body, and discussed that he was taking Viagra," the report states.
In talking with OED investigators, the report states, Grissino-Mayer said the academic field trips had indeed gained a reputation as an opportunity for hook-ups and all-night parties.
Amid the many allegations of misconduct over the years, the investigation found that some students of Grissino-Mayer feared if they didn't get along with him they'd never be able to succeed in their field. He could retaliate against someone he didn't like, the investigation found, such that some students tried to keep their head down so they could graduate.
"(Grissino-Mayer) claims he does not have a reputation for retaliating by trying to interfere or dissuade others from considering someone's work," the OED report states.
SUSPICIONS AND ACCUSATIONS
Questions had been raised in the past about Grissino-Mayer's conduct, including in 2006 and in 2010-11, records show. The 2018 investigation, according to OED, was its first chance to look into specific accusations by people willing to talk.
According to a Sept. 25, 2018, letter that Provost Manderscheid wrote to campus officials as the investigation grew, Grissino-Mayer ended up making a surprising admission.
"As I understand it, and to your collective surprise, Dr. Grissino-Mayer admitted not only violating the university's policy, but also admitted that he knew he was violating the policy at the time of his misconduct," the letter states.
Grissino-Mayer submitted a resignation letter Aug. 31, 2018, to Kalafsky.
"It is with deep sadness that I write this letter to inform you that I have made the difficult decision to tender my resignation from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and the Department of Geography effective Oct. 1, 2018," his departure letter states.
The professor said "many factors" prompted the decision. He said he'd consulted his family in Knoxville including his wife "and especially my parents and family in my hometown in Athens, Georgia."
In 2006, UT investigated complaints that Grissino-Mayer was having an affair with one of his students. She was a willing participant, however, which limited UT's disciplinary approach.
Authorities issued seven corrective and disciplinary actions for the professor, who ended up marrying the student.
A Geography Department faculty member reported that two other grad students had complained of inappropriate behavior by the professor. It's not clear, however, whether OED personnel communicated then with the young women, and attempts years later to contact them were unsuccessful, according to the new investigation.
In the early 2010s, the husband who had been married to the grad student published stories and distributed them on campus complaining about Grissino-Mayer's conduct. He alleged that UT had failed to follow through on all "corrective action" taken in 2006.
According to OED, UT couldn't document that it had issued a reprimand letter for Grissino-Mayer in 2006.
"A letter explaining the omission was placed in the respondent's permanent personnel file in April 2011," according to the report.