Shortly after returning from a networking trip to China gone south, Texas A&M University—Commerce business professor Dr. Jennifer Oyler thought the best thing to do was to report the attempted sexual assault she managed to escape after a Beijing professor followed her to her room. But instead, reporting the assault ended up derailing her career, Oyler claims.
She has since filed a retaliation lawsuit against the university, and now claims university administrators destroyed emails and even a computer that would have contained key evidence in her case.
Oyler had traveled to Beijing to meet with faculty at a university that was interested in partnering up for an international exchange program. But she ended up coming home early. At dinner one night in the lobby of her hotel, a Beijing professor not only got handsy with her underneath the dinner table after a few drinks, but then followed her up to her room, forged his way in, and pinned Oyler to the bed, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in 2013. After a struggle, Oyler was finally able to escape his grasp and run into the hallway, where she waited for him to leave her room.
But when she scheduled a visit with the former business college dean, Harold Langford, to talk to him about the trip, according to the lawsuit the first thing he asked her when she walked into the room was, “What the hell happened in China? …You pissed off a bunch of people in China.” When she explained what had happened and why she had to leave, Langford apparently played blame-the-victim: According to the lawsuit, he told Oyler, “It had to be the way you were dressed,” and “You had to be drinking,” and “What did you do to cause the situation with [him]?”
Oyler decided to take more formal action, reporting the attempted sexual assault to the both the university and the TAMU system’s Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity office. Nevertheless, Oyler claims that instead of following up on her report, administrators ended up demoting her, denying her tenure, and ultimately terminating her after they offered her a one-year, non-renewable contract less than two years following her initial complaint. All of this, she argues, because she decided to report the attempted sexual assault.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the university, claims that those decisions had nothing to do with her complaints. Oyler also filed Title IX and Title VII complaints, which deal with sexual harassment and workplace hostility respectively. But the university's attorneys argue that the administrators who decided to deny Oyler tenure and offer the one-year contract probably didn’t even know about the complaints since they are kept confidential. And even if all of Oyler’s allegations are taken as fact, the attorneys say, the comments Langford and his colleagues made to Oyler that made her uncomfortable simply weren’t bad enough to really constitute harassment or creating a hostile workplace environment for Oyler.
For example, the attorneys cite past court cases in which slapping a woman’s ass with a newspaper, grabbing her breasts and trying to kiss her also weren’t bad enough to win the case. Saying things like, “you have big thighs” while looking up a woman’s dress, standing on top of her desk to look down her shirt, and patting his lap and telling the woman “here’s your seat” because she arrived late to a meeting all weren’t severe enough either, in the past.
“Nothing in Oyler’s complaint pertaining to any of her interactions with any employees is remotely severe as the facts in” these cases, the attorneys write. Then, they cite another off-hand comment Dean Langford made when Oyler joined a women's group, which he allegedly said was full of "old dykes," and say this was the "most" Oyler alleges happened. And besides, they argue, the professor who attempted to sexually assault her does not even go to TAMU-C, and so it's not clear what the university could have done about what happened to her.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
In other words, Oyler just needs to get over it.
As the case inches toward trial, Oyler is now fighting to prove that university employees intentionally destroyed electronic evidence, like, for example, an entire computer and also important email exchanges between Dean Langford and the university provost, which may have shown that they did know about her sexual harassment and workplace hostility complaints, Oyler argues. Oyler claims she did in fact inform the university that she was filing complaints and says its IT department should have known to preserve the evidence. But a judge disagreed and ruled that, essentially, it was a good-faith mistake, a ruling Oyler and her attorneys are now fighting.
Oyler's attorney, Jim Sanford, said she is no longer working in academia, but declined to say what she is doing now. Either way, he said, it's a direct result of the discrimination she faced at work.
The AG's office did not return a request for comment, and a TAMU–C spokeswoman would not answer our questions.