10 women accuse Northwestern journalism professor of sexual harassment, bullying

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The mother of a player on the Northwestern University women’s basketball team who died in 2017 has sued a sorority claiming hazing by its members led to her daughter’s suicide. | Sun-Times file photo

Ten women released an open letter on Wednesday accusing Northwestern University Professor Alec Klein of persistent sexual harassment and bullying since he has been at the helm of the school’s “crown jewel” investigative journalism program.

Calling it the storied journalism school’s “#MeToo Moment,” the eight former students and two former staffers of the Medill Justice Project wrote that Klein’s “controlling, discriminatory, emotionally and verbally abusive behavior has to end.”

Professor Alec Klein | Northwestern faculty photo

Professor Alec Klein | Northwestern faculty photo

“Testimony of Alec Klein’s awful behavior continues to spread through a whisper network of female students and alumni at Medill,” they wrote in the letter addressed to Medill Dean Bradley Hamm and Northwestern Provost Jonathan Holloway. “Some of us, years later, can’t shake the hurtful and demeaning things he said to us.”

The letter, first published in the Chicago Reader, outlines 12 instances of sexual misconduct allegedly committed by Klein, including giving “unwanted neck massages,” trying to kiss a prospective employee before asking to smoke marijuana with her, and sending a student text messages he later claimed were “intended for his wife.”

The women also described being “belittled, insulted and berated” by Klein, saying he would press students in “unnecessary closed-door meetings” to give up information about their personal lives, only to later use it against them “as a tool of manipulation.”

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In a lengthy statement, Klein categorically denied the allegations, claiming many “involved a disgruntled former employee who had been on a corrective-action plan for poor work performance several years ago.” He wrote that one previous complaint was deemed unfounded after a university investigation, and said that school officials found no violations in the “bulk of the other allegations.”

“The university determined the complainant was not credible and documented, through records and her own words, several falsehoods in her charges. The university took the additional step to require that she never apply for a job at Northwestern again,” Klein wrote. “And the university reached out to every person interviewed as part of its investigation to notify them that I had not done anything wrong and the case had been dismissed.”

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Alison Flowers, a former Justice Project employee who signed the letter, rejected Klein’s statement.

“The math doesn’t add up —10 signatures is more than one disgruntled employee,” Flowers wrote in an email. “And many more women were too afraid to put their names on the letter. We are now hearing from more women describing the same kind of sexual harassment allegations, almost identical to the employee that Klein references.”

Saying federal privacy laws limited what he could say about the students who signed the letter, Klein pointed to positive student feedback he has received on the program, which probes potentially wrongful murder convictions.

“In their anonymous evaluations, my students have overwhelmingly said the class was among the best they have ever taken, and they have specifically noted how much I care for them,” Klein wrote.

The university released a brief statement confirming that a previous complaint against Klein was ruled to be “unsubstantiated,” saying they “will now review the allegations received today.”

“The University takes seriously all complaints that are brought to its attention,” officials wrote. “We encourage anyone who has been the victim of alleged harassment or misconduct at the University to contact the Office of Equity.”

But the women who signed the letter slammed the school for failing to act.

“He is still leading the Medill Justice Project, a crown jewel of the institution. Many of us have spoken to Title IX officers. We’ve spoken to other university officials and still, nothing happens,” they wrote. “He is a liability and a predator among your faculty. Yet his actions have gone unchecked for years, further traumatizing more and more women. Medill has not only let us down — it has also failed to protect us.”

Klein started working at Northwestern in 2008 and took over the Medill Innocence Project in 2011, rebranding it as the Medill Justice Project following the controversial tenure of project founder David Protess, who came under fire for having students misrepresent themselves in the field while closely coordinating with defense lawyers.

In May 2016, Klein was accused of sexist behavior for telling a Huffington Post editor during a phone call that her high-pitched voice indicated she “probably had issues” as a writer.

At the time, Klein apologized and called it a “misunderstanding.”

The women who signed Wednesday’s open letter urged others to come forward with their stories at medillmetoo@gmail.com.

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