Report: Former University of Tennessee professor who was accused of sexual misconduct created ‘toxic’ environment

Report: Former University of Tennessee professor who was accused of sexual misconduct created ‘toxic’ environment
Henri Grissino-Mayer is accused of cultivating a toxic culture through inappropriate conduct on UT campus. (Source: WVLT/Gray News)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT/Gray News) - University of Tennessee investigators said they learned that Henri Grissino-Mayer, a former professor in the geography department, created a "toxic" culture in his lab, according to students and witnesses.

Details of allegations against the disgraced former professor have been revealed in a report from the Office of Equity and Diversity.

The report identifies several incidents in which the professor allegedly behaved inappropriately, including one in which he “licked a female student’s face from chin to forehead,” engaged in wrestling with a female student while wearing underwear and dozens of others.

Students testified that there was “sexual tension” in his classroom as he chose favorites to single out. Others said their work often suffered because of the favoritism being shown by Grissino-Mayer’s to certain students.

At the time, some students said they resented the favorites but later realized those “favorites” were victims of sexual harassment.

Students reported that Grissino-Mayer's position of power and influence in the field made them feel afraid to speak up against him.

Male students reported that they were treated differently and expected to "cover" for Grissino-Mayer's treatment of their female classmates.

The report describes another incident in which one witness who reported inappropriate behavior received a very negative review from Grissino-Mayer.

He allegedly told the student that he wrote he poor reference because the student refused to cover up for his inappropriate behavior.

One student described a sincerely held belief that harm caused by Grissino-Mayer's behavior extends far beyond the lab, saying, "You can leave the lab, but you can't leave the lab."

Another student told investigators, "So many women have had to endure his harassment and the stigma that comes with working for a man that has a reputation of sleeping with his students. Whether you did or did not [sleep with Grissino-Mayer], people in the community will assume that you slept with your adviser to make it through your degree."

Several male students reported putting intentional distance between themselves and Grissino-Mayer to make sure their reputation would not be soiled by his.

Several bystanders expressed regret for not speaking out and reporting a culture of "be quiet so you can graduate."

"For too long I remained quiet on these issues," said one student. "Now I know that my silence has in part allowed students to be more directly and negatively impacted than I was."

Others reported that they remained quiet out of fear of what could happen to her and others if she spoke up.

According to the report, one person referred to Grissino-Mayer's behavior as "the worst kept secret of Geography."

"These things, these events, I can't say they didn't happen. I think they're embellished," Grissino-Mayer told investigators. He claimed that he does not have a reputation for retaliation or trying to dissuade anyone from considering anyone's work.

Grissino-Mayer acknowledged to investigators that there were tense moments in the lab, but says that some students butted heads and that cliques formed that caused the tension. He denied that his relationships with any student led to the discomfort.

In light of the report, University of Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman said they plan to take measures to prevent this from happening on campus.

A letter from the Chancellor’s Office said there will be an internal review of the investigative process. The university also said it will work to expand the culture of Vols helping Vols, and provide resources to address issues that put graduate students at risk of sexual harassment.

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