Professor resigns amidst sexual misconduct allegations

Laura Geggel
Courtesy of Tom Evans

Earth and Planetary Sciences Assistant Professor Joshua Smith resigned abruptly in August after allegations of two sexually inappropriate relationships came to the attention of the administration. This information was confirmed by a professor close to the situation, who was granted anonymity to ensure job security.

The same professor confirmed additional allegations that Smith continued having inappropriate relations with two female students as recently as this past summer.

Both Smith and Washington University have remained largely silent on the matter, with Smith declining multiple requests for comment and the University issuing a vague acknowledgment of his departure. Smith’s wife also declined comment.

During his four years at Washington University, Smith allegedly groped students under his authority on more than one occasion.

When asked for comment, the University issued a statement acknowledging that it “received information this summer that was discussed with Professor Smith. Shortly after that discussion, Smith resigned and is no longer affiliated with the University.”

The statement further conveyed that the University follows procedures for receiving and investigating complaints. The statement can be read in its entirety on page 5.

Details concerning resignations are confidential, and the University and the Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS) department, including Ray Arvidson, the department head, have declined further comment concerning Smith’s behavior. Undergraduates were not notified about the resignation and the majority of the EPS faculty are unclear about the full reasons behind Smith’s departure.

Smith, 36, is nationally-known for his 2000 discovery of a new dinosaur species, called Paralititan stromeri. Smith uncovered the fossil, the second most massive dinosaur ever found, while working alongside colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater. An A&E documentary, “The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt,” featured Smith and aired in 2002. That same year Smith and his fellow paleontologists wrote a book with an identical title. Washington University subsequently hired Smith that fall. He has become widely-known on campus for his “Dinosaurs: ‘Facts’ & Fictions” class. Professor Emeritus Harold Levin is teaching Smith’s dinosaur class this semester.

Upon being hired, all faculty members receive a booklet on policies such as how to achieve tenure, what constitutes a legal, consensual faculty-student relationship and how to recognize sexual harassment. According to the handbook, “Sexual harassment is defined as any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favor or other unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, whether committed on or off campus.”

The University’s policy on consensual faculty-student relationships prohibits sexual relationships between students and faculty members who exercise authority over them.

Alleged assault in summer 2003

The first alleged assault occurred just before the 2003 school year.

Smith met Julia Heathcote, a British student aiming for a doctorate in earth and planetary sciences, in Norman, Okla. at a 2002 conference in vertebrate paleontology.

Smith, Heathcote said, encouraged her to apply to the University’s graduate EPS program.

“I chose Washington University entirely because of Josh Smith,” she said. “He seemed really keen to get his program started, so I felt happy joining a fledgling research group rather than an established one with all the inflated egos.”

Heathcote alleges that she was sexually assaulted by Joshua Smith the following summer when she, Smith and another female graduate student accompanied Smith for a weeklong trip to New England. The trio needed to map out an October fieldtrip for Smith’s Sedimentary Geology class.

Students enrolled in the Sedimentary Geology class have “mandatory field trips,” according to the class description. Once funding for the field trip is approved, the sleeping arrangements are left entirely to the discretion of the professor.

“What they see and how they go about seeing it, that’s up to the individual faculty person,” said Rich Heuermann, an administrative officer in EPS, who added that the TA and sometimes the lab administrator will accompany the class on the fieldtrip.

Smith, Heathcote and the other graduate student shared a hotel room with two beds for the entire week in New England. “It was awkward,” Heathcote, 26, said.

On the last night of their trip, Joshua Smith took the two female graduate students out drinking. Heathcote said that Smith pressured her to imbibe multiple alcoholic drinks in a way she felt she could not refuse.

The alleged assault occurred after they retired for the night, Heathcote said. The other student passed out on Smith’s bed and Heathcote lay down on the other bed. But then, Heathcote said, “he jumped on top of me and started just groping and clawing at me. I was too drunk to know really what could happen at that point, but I was sober enough to know I had to get him off me.

“He had unfortunately pinned down both my arms and legs. He was good. He knew how to stop me from fighting back. I did eventually manage to get a hand free.and he climbed off me.”

The other graduate student refused to comment on the matter.

Upon their return to St. Louis, Heathcote said, “He completely ignored me. And that was how it turned out being for most of the year.”

Alleged inappropriate behavior continues

Another former graduate student of Smith’s witnessed further inappropriate behavior between Smith and his students. This student was granted anonymity because he is wary of estrangement from the relatively small paleontology community.

During the October 2003 field trip that Smith had planned with Heathcote and the other graduate student, the anonymous student witnessed Smith behaving inappropriately and groping undergraduate women.

“He wound up having a tickle fight in bed with three or four undergraduate girls who were all wearing pajamas,” the student said. During the day “they were wrestling each other and throwing each other down on the dirt when they were supposed to be looking at rocks and measuring things.”

In addition to these accusations, Heathcote and the anonymous student said that Smith emotionally abused and belittled them and other students.

He said, “we didn’t deserve to be at Washington University. He had fought hard to get us in, had to argue our cases with each of the other members of the faculty, so we owed him. And if he caught wind of any of us complaining, there would be trouble. And if we went to any other of the faculty members and complained about anything he did, they would gang up against us,” recounted Heathcote.

Both Heathcote and the anonymous student reported Smith telling them that other faculty members disliked them.

“He told us our grades hadn’t been good enough and our GRE hadn’t been good and he’d had to fight for us. It really made us feel like we couldn’t talk to or trust anyone else. He was the one who advised us so we didn’t really have a faculty person to go to because Josh would have been that person,” said the anonymous student.

A different viewpoint

Tom Evans, another first-year graduate student of Smith’s during the 2003-2004 school year, said that he did not notice any inappropriate behavior from his advisor. Evans described Smith as, “one of the few faculty members who actually talked to the grad students,” and added that Smith was a very amicable younger assistant professor.

“He has an aggressive way of running a lab where, if he disagrees with you, he’s going to take the offensive. He’s got the sort of mentality that if you tear apart something and it stands up to the pressure, then it’s going to be a good product,” said Evans.

Evans also noted that Smith frequently had his own room or tent on EPS field trips.

The Investigation

Heathcote reported the alleged sexual assault to the University in spring 2004. She first met with Hugh Macdonald, the Avis H. Blewett professor of music, a meeting which he confirmed to Student Life in an e-mail. Heathcote said she felt more comfortable with Macdonald because he, like her, is British. Macdonald encouraged her to report Smith to Robert Thach, dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. She soon e-mailed Macdonald back saying that she had spoken both with Thach and Nancy Pope, associate dean of the Arts & Sciences Graduate School.

Heathcote testified against Joshua Smith in the investigation that followed. Several graduate students, including the anonymous student, gave testimony and provided e-mail interactions they had collected from Smith.

Heathcote stayed under Smith’s academic authority as the University investigated his conduct. Although Smith allegedly knew about Heathcote’s complaint, the other testifying students were meant to remain unnamed until Smith had turned in their grades. But Smith discovered their identities before grade completion at an EPS meeting.

Throughout the inquiry into Smith’s behavior, “we were still taking a class from Josh and getting a research credit from Josh,” said the anonymous student.

Heathcote couldn’t believe that EPS allowed Smith to grade her paper after the department had learned of the alleged assault. When Ray Arvidson, EPS department head, e-mailed Heathcote her final grade after the investigation ended, he wrote that he had helped Smith grade her paper to make sure it, “was examined fairly and thoroughly,” and forwarded her an analysis Smith had sent him on her paper. But Heathcote continued to worry despite Arvidson’s reassurance as Arvidson’s expertise does not lie in her area of research.

Heathcote sent an e-mail to Dean Thach, a copy of which she saved and sent to Student Life, stating: “I am therefore deeply disturbed to discover that, contrary to Ray’s assurances, Josh marked my paper. Had any other member of the department marked this paper, and indeed graded it higher or lower than Josh has, I would have accepted the grade. However, because of what has occurred, I simply cannot trust any grade assigned to my work by Josh.”

Thach responded on Aug. 10, 2004 and wrote, “With regard to current matters here, all I can legally do is to assure you that appropriate actions have been taken under the circumstances, and that the situation continues to be monitored. As to your paper, I have talked to Ray Arvidson and concluded that he acted in good faith.”

By that time there was little Heathcote could do regarding her paper’s grade. The University had concluded the investigation and allowed Smith to keep his job.

“What we were told was that they took the case to the lawyers and the lawyers said they didn’t have enough evidence; it was basically ‘he said, she said.’ They didn’t have enough evidence to withstand a legal challenge,” the anonymous student explained.

The anonymous student soon transferred to another university. Heathcote dropped out in May 2004 and the University paid for her plane ticket back to England.

“Julia wanted to leave. We offered her a number of ways to stay; we were delighted to have her as a student in the University,” said Dean Nancy Pope. But, “because she wanted to go, we helped her go.” Pope added that paying for Heathcote’s ticket does not set a precedent for how to handle similar cases. “The University does different things for different students in different circumstances,” said Pope.

Meanwhile, Smith’s inappropriate conduct reportedly continued with other students, as confirmed by the anonymous professor. It is unknown if the University carried out a similar investigation into Smith’s more recent behavior.

The University would not comment on any measures it took to monitor Smith after the 2004 investigation and Student Life is unaware of the specifics of Smith’s latest alleged behavior regarding the two additional inappropriate relationships with female students. The professor who confirmed the latter two relationships also verified the occurrence of the 2004 investigation into Smith’s assault on Heathcote.

“This wasn’t out of the blue,” the professor said of Smith’s two more recent relationships.

Smith’s whereabouts are currently unknown.

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