Colby Study Abroad Professor Resigns After Alleged Inappropriate Behavior

Tenured Professor of Economics at Colby College (USA), Philip H. Brown, resigned in late January 2011 after evidence surfaced that he had taken semi-nude photos of at least one female study abroad student. He allegedly took the photos via a hidden bathroom camera while on a “Jan Plan” winter session course in China.  The study abroad students had been blogging from a shared lap top during the trip and accidentally discovered the photos after losing a blog posting and searching for it in the computer’s “garbage bin.”

Brown hid the camera in a black medical kit that he insisted stay in the women’s bathroom so that all students would know where to find it if needed.  The students found the camera hidden in the black kit after discovering the photos on the shared lap top. The students notified the university and Brown was placed on academic leave, by phone, WHILE the group was still in China.

Media reports indicate that Brown admitted to a similar act of violating students’ privacy while abroad the previous year.  He is now under investigation in Maine, but has not been charged at this time.  Evidence is apparently still being sought from China.

Colby’s President, William Adams, wrote a letter to the campus community addressing the issue the day after the trip ended.  One must credit him for squashing rumors and addressing the situation head on.  Sadly, this is not always the case.

This again raises the several issues for faculty study abroad programs:

1) Selection of faculty: Most universities do not have a formal policy in place about HOW to choose faculty for such trips. Additionally, most faculty who do go abroad are not trained specifically in expectations for leading a group. Obviously, we shouldn’t have to state that you should not film your students in the bathroom, but it raises the age old question of how many faculty and staff should be sent abroad with a group in case of an emergency.  Funding, or lack thereof, is what usually drives this decision.

2) Emergency planning: Who is in charge when something like this happens abroad?  How do you handle an employee who is being accused of such a heinous act from thousands of miles away?  This all goes back to emergency planning – as the source of the emergency, albeit rare, can be your own employee and how you handle the situation can and will impact the well being of your students for years to come.  In addition, how you handle the situation will impact the legal case that will follow an experience like this.

3) Pre-departure training: I have yet to see a training that includes a discussion of what to do if something doesn’t seem “right” with your professor.  Many schools do talk about what to do if the professor is injured, gets sick or even dies – but what do we tell students about how to handle a faculty member who drinks “too much,” is late for activities or worse yet – is caught leering at students?  Are we bold enough to have this conversation? Do we need to talk with our legal department about how to handle this sensitive matter?  This is especially difficult when the professor may be incredibly popular at home – as apparently was the case with Brown.

4) “Local” laws: How do local laws impact your ability to investigate and perhaps prosecute in a case like this?  Media reports state that evidence is still being gathered in China and that evidence has been collected in Maine (USA). However, what if the students had gone to the local authorities in China? (Perhaps they did?) Could Brown have been arrested by Chinese authorities?  How carefully do we need to train both the faculty AND the students about the local laws, especially in unique circumstances like this?

5) Human Resource Training: How many of our campus HR trainings about faculty and staff expectations, sexual harassment, etc actually cite study abroad programs?  Do we need to loop back with our HR teams to ensure that our language is clear so that no faculty or staff member ever thinks that he/she can get away with something inappropriate simply due to distance?

Note: I am waiting for Colby College to return my call. I will write about this case once I have more information from them.  Meanwhile, I’d be curious what your thoughts are about this situation. Obviously, this type of behavior is more of an indication of the individual than the institution. This post is not meant to blame Colby or any college who has dealt with this issue. I’m interested in knowing how much these types of issues concern you in your work?  As a faculty member, how do you feel about these questions being posed? Please comment on the blog posting so that a conversation can take place across the globe and not just on one listserv. (You do not need to register to comment.)

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  • Anon

    This is really unprofessional journalism.

    • Anonymous: While I appreciate you taking the time to read the piece and write in, I have to strongly disagree with you. The behavior of the professor was unprofessional. Reporting it is my obligation as it has to do with study abroad. This story has been reported from local news sources in Maine (where Colby College is) to the Huffington Post (NY) to Australia and the UK. None of the other papers raised any question about what to do about issues like this in our field. I’m puzzled why you think it is unprofessional of me to report on this story? You are offering no explanation for your statement. Is it because Melibee addresses issues in our field that aren’t comfortable for you to talk about? What is your bias here? I have received other emails, directly, that offer true dialogue about the reality that this CAN happen in our programs and probably HAS without us knowing it. I really would like to understand your position. This blog is supposed to be about dialogue. Others, would you like to chime in?

  • Tom

    I take issue with Anon’s statement. I have read Melibee Global for quite some time and I have been very impressed with the material presented to the public. The writer has made it very clear that this blog centers on material related to international education. In this case, the totally unprofessional and inappropriate behavior by a professor leading a group to China is a topic that we in our field must address and come to terms with.

    Anon, you say that this is unprofessional journalism, yet you never identify the source that leads you to your deduction. In a way, this is a cheap shot as you do not allow the author to defend herself. The paranoid side of me almost makes me think that you are in fact, Mr. Brown, but we won’t go there.

    This blog is about dialog and the author encourages it. You are free to disagree certainly, but be respectful.

    Ah, another thing….signing your post with your real name would be a good start.

    Tom

    • Thank you for taking the time to write Tom. I appreciate your feedback and support. This blog is a labor of love – I don’t know that people who don’t write realize how time consuming it is to research issues, write, edit and facilitate the posts. I do it bc I believe it is important to discuss issues in our field and while I”m happy to have people disagree with me, I’d simply like a dialogue about the issues, not stone throwing. Thanks again for taking the time AND for signing your name!

  • Liz

    I think that the Melibee article raises some very important questions, the answers to which all of our students abroad can only benefit with the implementation of better training, safety, security and screening procedures. In the end, I think that’s what matters most.

    As a study abroad professional with more than 17 years of experience in the field, I did not take the Melibee article as an indictment against Colby College. It is widely known that Colby College is one of the most highly respected institutions of higher education in the USA, especially when it comes to international education. I recently read that 70% of Colby students spend at least one semester abroad. And though there may be a handful of schools in the US who send more abroad percentage-wise, I am willing to bet that the vast majority of those schools’ students are studying abroad on short-term programs, not for a semester or longer. In addition, Colby is ranked by the Institute for International Education (IIE.org) as one of the top institutions in the USA when it comes to internationalization. When one considers the thousands upon thousands of students Colby has sent abroad, and the fact that this may very well be the first negative press they have received regarding any of their programs abroad, well, I think that is phenomenal. So, I don’t think that this incident is going to bear any long term negative effects on the reputation of Colby College. This is a situation that could have happened on any US institution’s program abroad despite all of our best efforts at selecting the most highly qualified program directors and preparing them, as well as the students, for their experience abroad.

    If difficult situations are not brought to light and discussed openly, how can we identify the causes and avoid them in the future? To me, the most important lesson we can all learn from this sad situation is this: How can we keep this from happening again?

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

    Liz McCartney

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Liz. At the end of the day, this is about safety for our students and providing the best experiences possible. Other reputable schools have had issues with staff/faculty getting caught in inappropriate situations – I agree that this will not impact their reputation in the long run. We know better than to blame a school on one bad apple’s (alleged) actions. I did a video blog posting about other feedback about this topic – will be loading it shortly to the site (Feb 16, 2011 for those searching.) I appreciate the quote that you shared also – thank you for that!

  • I received several emails about this post and responded with a video comment (vlog) sharing the feedback: http://www.melibeeglobal.com/2011/02/vlog-video-blog-1-feedback-on-colby-college-in-china/

  • Mollypcasto

    great summary. Thanks for the updates. What a horrible mess….