Prof quits after years of complaints
Lincoln Land Community College kept a professor on the payroll for nearly two decades after students first complained about graphic sexual remarks and unwelcome advances.
Former anthropology and psychology teacher Gary Swee retired in March after being accused for the seventh time of sexually harassing and otherwise mistreating students. Female students feared being alone with him, according to disciplinary files that include accounts of Swee frequently making crude remarks in class, winking and inviting a student home. The accounts date to 1999.
“Student commented that this is a classic example of the ‘psychologist needing a psychologist,’” a college official wrote in notes of a February interview taken after Swee was placed on administrative leave following the most recent complaint.
“Anytime someone told me I did something wrong, I changed my behavior,” Swee says. “Over 28 years, I have eight [actually, seven] complaints. Hundreds and hundreds of students said they loved me.”
The college didn’t discipline Swee after receiving complaints in 1999, 2004 and 2008. The college didn’t issue a reprimand, the mildest form of discipline, until 2012, when administrators say Swee invited a student to his home. Swee received another reprimand in response to complaints in 2014 and was suspended in 2016 after being accused of sexually harassing a student, a charge Swee denies.
“I don’t sexually harass my students,” he says.
Swee retired last month after a student complained that he had offered her a ride to a concert in St. Louis after she’d told him, in front of the class, that she wasn’t interested in going because her friends either didn’t like the performers or hadn’t heard of them.
“I fell silent and uncomfortable, and I think the whole class knew it,” the student writes in a complaint made after the semester ended.
The student reported that Swee’s unwelcome remarks began after she showed up early on the first day of class last fall and complimented him on the music festival t-shirt that he was wearing. She says she mentioned the Summer Camp Music Festival in Chillicothe, which she had attended for several years. “He…told me that he goes every year as well,” the student wrote in her complaint. “At that moment, I believe that is what caught his directed attention towards me, that I did not want nor intend.”
Swee, the student wrote, would pull a calendar from his pocket during class and ask her whether she planned on seeing upcoming shows in local bars. Another student warned her, she said, to avoid Swee because he had a history of sexual harassment complaints. “In the back of my mind, I knew he was creepy, but after hearing those comments about him, I felt trapped and vulnerable to the situation because I didn’t know how to get out of it,” the student wrote. “I was afraid to reach out to him for any sort of help. I felt too uncomfortable to visit his office hours and get help directly.”
The student said she felt Swee’s stare during class, particularly during the final exam.
“He usually would look over periodically, but this time, I could see him staring for a period of time,” the student wrote. “It felt like someone was breathing down my neck. To make matters more uncomfortable for me, once I had finished my exam, I turned it in to him, watched him grade it and said I passed with a C. As I am proceeding back to my desk, he tells me in front of the class who are taking their finals after the semester, I should shoot him an email and exchange numbers. He also said ‘See you at Summer Camp.’”
The student says that her grade point average suffered due to stress inflicted by Swee. And she says she now fears the Summer Camp festival, which had been an annual rite.
“(K)nowing that he is there makes me afraid to go anymore,” the student wrote. “I feel sad that it came down to this, but I have to look out for my safety.”
Two students interviewed by college officials backed the student’s account, with one saying that he had seen Swee pay “excessive attention” to the complainant, according to interview notes. “He would sit on the desk in front of hers, talk with her about music and even offered her rides to concerts,” an interviewer wrote.
Swee acknowledges offering the student a ride to St. Louis and talking to her about upcoming concerts. “I wasn’t trying to hit on her or anything else,” Swee says. “In fact, I did pull my calendar out and tell her about local shows she might be interested in. … I was just talking to another music lover about music.”
“I thought I recognized that ass”
The complaint that triggered Swee’s retirement came two years after a different student filed a sexual harassment complaint, prompting the college to suspend Swee and put him on notice that another incident would cost him his job. It was a final warning issued after years of complaints.
The first complaint, according to college files, came nine years after Lincoln Land hired Swee in 1990. The student said that when she asked Swee what she’d missed after not attending class for two weeks, he told her, “Nothing that a little saliva exchange won’t take care of.” He also invited her to his office after class for “extra credit,” according to college files. When she said no, Swee responded “You’re just screwing yourself out of a grade,” according to notes summarizing the student’s 1999 complaint.
The student told administrators that Swee had exhibited suggestive behavior during previous courses and that flirtatiousness increased after his divorce. She said he once asked her how she was doing with her boyfriend, and when she told him that she’d broken up with him, Swee said, “Oh, so we’re both single then.”
The college refunded the student’s tuition but did not discipline Swee, who acknowledges bad behavior.
“I’d been flirting with that woman for a semester and a half,” Swee says. “That was inappropriate. … You kind of make humor and it comes out the wrong way.”
In 2004, five female students together complained to Victor Broderick, dean of social services, that Swee was making crude sexual remarks in class and had publicly called one student a “bitch.” He commented on a student’s sexuality, according to interview notes, and made “implied invitations to engage in sex.” Advances were so frequent, one student said, that she stopped going to Swee’s office and began dressing more modestly in class. “The other students attested that it was obvious to everyone in class which two students Swee was interested in,” an administrator wrote in interview notes.
Swee didn’t deny using salty, even risqué, language.
“Swee acknowledged that his occasional use of profanity and sexual innuendo were consistent with his teaching style, though he claimed no recollection of specific facts,” administrators wrote in a summary of complaints prepared two years ago.
Swee denies saying anything inappropriate, saying that students who complained had grudges.
“They were angry,” Swee says. “They weren’t getting the grades they wanted.”
There was no discipline. Broderick gave Swee a brochure about sexual harassment and told him to refrain from profanity and sexual innuendo.
Four years later, in 2008, a former student complained to the human resources department, saying that Swee had persisted in inappropriate behavior after she told him that he was out of line. In class, the student said, Swee remarked about her being in bed underneath her boyfriend all weekend. When he later apologized, the student said that she told him that his comment had been “incredibly inappropriate.” But inexcusable behavior continued, the student says in her written complaint.
Swee once snuck up behind her as she was posting something on a campus bulletin board, the student reported, and told her “I thought I recognized that ass – I mean, hair.”
“And he chuckled,” the student wrote in her complaint. “I said, ‘You did not just say that.’ And he said, ‘Oh yes I did.’”
A few months later, when she told Swee that she was feeling “loopy” on graduation day because she had been taking medicine, Swee leaned toward her, stuck out his hand and said, “Well, then, hi, I’m Gary,” the woman wrote.
The woman says that Swee told her more than once that men from other cultures would consider her attractive and think that all she would want to do is have sex. “I just felt uncomfortable by the way he would tell me this, using unnecessary language, standing very close to me,” the woman wrote. “Whenever I would back up, he would always take a step closer.”
The woman filed a complaint after again encountering Swee while she was removing items from campus bulletin boards after graduation. She suspected he was approaching when she heard whistling in a stairwell, then she heard someone whisper her name. “When I turned around, sure enough, it was him,” the woman wrote. “I felt it was him in the stairwell and I wanted to get away before I had to run into him because he makes me feel uncomfortable by his comments. He continued to walk up to me, then got very close to me, in my personal space, and started circling around me quickly, saying, ‘Maybe I’m stalking you. Maybe I’m your stalker.’ I then told him he was being creepy, and told him several more times that he was being creepy.”
The woman wrote that she began walking away, but Swee followed her “very closely” until two people came around a corner and looked at them oddly. Once the people were out of sight, Swee defended his behavior. “‘It’s OK because you aren’t a student anymore,’” the woman recalled Swee telling her. “And I said, ‘No, it’s not OK.’”
The woman told the human resources department that she wanted something done. “I would like for Gary Swee to stop making the inappropriate remarks and comments to me and to stop standing so close and not backing away,” the woman wrote. “I feel that this issue is growing, especially now that he has indicated that ‘it is OK’ because I am no longer a student. I feel that his intentions have been very clearly made, that they were inappropriate and are unacceptable in a work environment and that it is time for someone else to intervene.”
Swee denies telling the woman that she was attractive and that men would think that she only wanted to have sex. He says the woman never indicated to him that he was invading personal space. “I did mention the term ‘stalking’ one time,” Swee says. “It was a joking thing.”
Swee told the college’s equal employment opportunity compliance officer that he had treated the woman “in a friendly, joking manner that may have been misconstrued by the student,” according to a summary of complaints prepared in 2016. Swee was counseled. “He indicated that he would refrain from having any further inappropriate interactions and apologized for behavior that may have been perceived as harassing in nature,” administrators say in the complaint summary.
Why no discipline?
“I had that same question and asked that same question,” says Charlotte Warren, Lincoln Land president, who points out that she wasn’t hired until 2006, after the first two complaints.
Warren said that she was not informed of the 2008 complaint, which came after she became college president. Students who came forward in 1999, 2004 and 2008 did not file formal complaints, Warren said, and some students who were in the same classes as complainants praised Swee and reported nothing inappropriate. Attitudes were different years ago, she added.
“We are challenged in what we can do if a student doesn’t want to give further testimony,” she says. “This is not an excuse, but as you know and I know, in terms of the reality of our world, how things have changed as to what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”
In 2012, a student complained that Swee had engaged in “inappropriate verbal conduct” and had invited her to his home for help with coursework, according to college files. The student received a tuition refund and transferred to a different school.
After four complaints in the space of a dozen years, Swee was reprimanded, the first disciplinary action taken against him. The college says that he was entitled to progressive discipline under terms of a collective bargaining agreement with the faculty union. Under discipline procedures in the union contract, Swee had to receive two reprimands for separate incidents, then get suspended for a third incident before he could be terminated if he got in trouble a fourth time.
Swee says he did nothing wrong and that he saw nothing unusual in meeting with students at his house, in parks or at bars. “She said she wanted to study more,” Swee recalls. “I said ‘You’re welcome to stop by the house, or anyplace. I’ve had students in my house many times.”
The student didn’t file a formal complaint. Indeed, her parents told the college after she transferred that they didn’t wish to pursue the matter or have their daughter speak with investigators. Why, then, did Swee receive a reprimand when he had received no discipline in earlier cases when no formal complaint was made?
“Over time, even if you can’t get formal complaints, you begin looking at the issue and you begin (to see) there’s enough smoke here: We need to take action,” Warren explains.
Swee was reprimanded again in 2014, after two students contacted Broderick and complained that Swee’s conduct had made them uncomfortable.
“This included making a statement in front of the entire class criticizing some unnamed students’ performance on the test, and then staring at them such that the entire class was aware that they were the ones you were characterizing,” Broderick wrote in the reprimand. “In addition, they said that you say inappropriate things multiple times each class period, though they offered just a few examples.”
There had been a similar complaint the previous semester, Broderick wrote, and another the prior year. According to files, one student had accused Swee of using the term “monkey brains” in reference to her.
“You have established a pattern of offending students to the point they drop your course and request a tuition refund,” Broderick wrote. “(T)he systematic recurrence of incidents with essentially the same distinctive gist suggests that you are indeed violating social norms likely to produce offense, humiliation and discomfort.”
Swee denies using the term “monkey brains” or that he did anything wrong. Why did so many students complain? “I’m not sure,” he answers. “I think that I used to, and certainly times have changed, I used to joke around in my class. … I tell students that they’re adults and they can tell me when things bother them.”
Less than two years later, a student filed a formal sexual harassment complaint, writing that Swee had told her “I didn’t think you could get more attractive, but your lip (sic) look delectable.” The student also said that Swee frequently told sexual jokes and had told students that the best part of a recent vacation had been when he’d masturbated. Swee, the student reported, often winked at her and watched her as she arrived for class and when she gathered belongings to leave.
Other students corroborated parts of the complainant’s account, saying that Swee had told his class that he enjoyed masturbating on weekends. Two said that Swee had gotten angry when a student suggested that he couldn’t “get it up.” Another said that Swee had said “nice rack” when she came to class in a sweater with a deer on it.
“She also said that he made a comment to her one day about how nice she looked and to ‘not tell her boyfriend’ that he said that,” an administrator wrote in interview notes. “She said she wouldn’t feel comfortable approaching him and definitely wouldn’t feel comfortable being alone with him in his office. … Student said if she met him off campus she would definitely be afraid/uncomfortable, but she feels safe on campus.”
Swee acknowledges mentioning masturbation to students, but not during class. “That probably was an inappropriate joke at best,” he says. Swee denies telling the student that her lips were “delectable” or that she was attractive. Rather, he says that she had a swollen lip and he was trying to cheer her up by pointing out that large lower lips are considered attractive in some cultures. He says that he winked at both men and women in his class in an effort to be “inclusive.”
In a written response to the 2016 complaint, Swee said that he had toned things down since being reprimanded. “My use of humor is pervasive,” he wrote in a response to the 2016 allegations. “My use of ‘sexual’ humor which was more evident in the past is a very small component of any humor I use and is at the (using movie rating terminology) PG-13 level at worst.”
Administrators gave Swee a 10-day suspension, which was cut in half after the Lincoln Land Faculty Association filed a grievance on his behalf, saying that the sexual harassment allegation wasn’t solid. “The union believes that those allegations are unsubstantiated and that, as a result, the college did not have just cause to issue the 10-day suspension in question,” a union official wrote on a grievance form.
After being warned that any similar incidents would result in termination, Swee continued in the classroom. He didn’t last.
“A cry for help”
Swee says he changed his ways after his 2016 suspension. “I took away all swear words and all sexual humor,” he says. But students interviewed after the latest complaint received in February say that Swee employed unnecessary sexual references, once using the word “ejaculation” when discussing a brain function. When a student approached Swee with a finished exam and asked if he was ready to receive the completed test, the professor said, “No man will ever be ready for you,” according to interview notes. One student who said she’d heard about sexual harassment complaints against Swee told an interviewer that the professor had told students “he found it disgusting that men try to give women an orgasm.” There were comments about male genitalia and female ejaculation, disciplinary files show.
While she found Swee sincere in efforts to help her learn, the student told an interviewer that she thought her professor was “struggling” and that the way he behaved was “a cry for help.”
Swee denies saying anything inappropriate. He also says that he misses his job.
“Teaching is one of the most joyous and fulfilling things that I’ve ever done,” he says. “Right now, I’m still feeling crappy about the whole situation. I feel like I’ve been maligned and treated poorly.”
While some students said they were uncomfortable, Warren says there is no evidence that anyone was in danger.
“No one was ever in any kind of physical danger,” Warren said. “We care a great deal about our students. I certainly would not condone this behavior in any way.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.