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.)