Melinda Henneberger

Was Mizzou grad student who was kicked out for harassment a stalker — or just persistent?

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What used to be thought of as persistence is stalking now — sometimes. There is a difference, of course, and well-adjusted people don’t need to be told twice that “You’re making me uncomfortable” does not mean “By all means, keep asking.”

Yet much of romantic literature and virtually every rom-com tells us otherwise. In works from Shakespeare to Nora Ephron, both men and women deceive, trick, gradually wear down or domesticate the object of their affection, and with happy results. How many of our parents’ marriages, if not our own, began with the kind of single-minded pursuit that today might be seen as creating a hostile environment?

That’s not to say that what worked in “The Taming of the Shrew,” or even “His Girl Friday” or “You’ve Got Mail” would be seen as funny, witty or charming today. If you doubt that real harassment is nothing to laugh off, read the regular news accounts of women — and mostly, they are women — who wind up murdered by men who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

But with so many mixed cultural messages — “No means no,” yet we also elected a man president of the United States right after hearing him brag about grabbing women’s genitals at will — it’s little wonder that not everyone has caught up.

And here’s the most glaring failure of the recent case involving the University of Missouri grad student who was suspended for two years after continuing to pursue a classmate who had made clear she wasn’t interested: The school’s punishment was harsh — his suspension, originally for four years, effectively ended his academic career. Yet it did little to protect the woman from potential harm, and nothing to help the man keep from making other women uncomfortable in the future.

Instead, the penalty really only protected Mizzou itself, from potential liability. In the event that something horrible did happen, officials couldn’t be accused of having failed to act.

This isn’t a one-sided story, though, if there is such a thing. In 2016, university officials ruled that 40-year-old Jeremy Rowles, an African-American grad student pursuing a PhD in cultural anthropology, had stalked and harassed a fellow student, Annalise Breaux, in violation of Title IX protections against sexual harassment and discrimination.

The next year, in a countersuit, Rowles accused the school of racial discrimination. He alleged that the only two other students, both white, who violated Title IX during the same time period got off far easier. One was ordered to receive counseling, and the other, who was found to have committed non-consensual sex — or as we humans call it, rape — got counseling and a six-month suspension.

That inconsistency does seem suspect, since Rowles was not accused of ever touching or threatening Breaux, but of asking her out, showering her with unwanted compliments and staring at her in the dance class she taught. On one occasion, she fled to the bathroom after class to avoid him. She filed a formal complaint after he wrote her a love letter.

“The University of Missouri stands by its decision — a decision that was made to protect the welfare of our students,” a spokesman has said, noting that “complaints and concerns were expressed by at least four female students” — two others Rowles asked out and a student in a class he was teaching whom he invited to his office at night and offered a better grade than she had earned.

The complaint from the student who felt she was being offered a better grade in exchange for sex, though that was never stated, is particularly concerning. Rowles was cleared of harassment after an investigation, but there is no innocent explanation for his behavior.

Now his attorney, J. Andrew Hirth, has filed a motion asking that he be allowed to return to school. In that motion and in an interview, he laid out the events that got his client kicked out: Rowles and Breaux met in 2015 at the coffeehouse where she worked. After getting his order wrong, she gave him a token for a free coffee drink.

A few months later, Rowles signed up for a dance class she taught. He asked her out, and she said no. She felt “extremely uncomfortable,” according to the motion, but told him she was busy. Apparently thinking she really was just busy, he started sending her Facebook messages. “Jeremy, I really appreciate your feedback about my class and choreography,” she answered, “but these messages are getting excessive. I think our friendship needs to remain in the professional setting ... I wouldn’t be comfortable hanging out outside of my places of work. I still want you to come to Tiger Tease and enjoy your time there, but I need my space outside of class and I think a line has been crossed here.”

Rowles, whose attorney described him as “ebullient,” apologized profusely, but still seemed to think they really were friends. Five months later, he messaged her again, asking whether she might give him private dance lessons. No way, she said. After one class, she “dashed off to the bathroom to avoid” him, so he left a note for her — and enclosed the free-coffee coupon she’d given him. In a movie, that might be cute, but in life, it came off as obsessed.

A week later, in the letter that sent her to the Title IX office, he said he’d leave her alone if that’s what she wanted.

Of course she’d already made clear that she did want that. But at the same time, he’d never followed her or shown up anywhere outside the dance class that she taught and that he was signed up for. We have not, as some have used this case to argue, “gone too far the other way” in trying to address harassment and worse. But there does have to be a penalty somewhere in between ignoring what Rowles did and ending his academic career over it. It isn’t so much that the punishment didn’t fit the crime as that there was no crime.

He’s doing data analysis as a demographer for the state now, his lawyer said, and does have a number of female friends, even if “I could see someone thinking of him as annoying.”

Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and member of The Star’s editorial board. She has covered crime, local and state government, hospitals, social services, prisons and national politics and worked in Texas, New York and Washington, D.C. For 10 years, she was a reporter for The New York Times based in New York, Washington and Rome. In 2018, she received the Scripps Howard’s Walker Stone Award for opinion writing.