No Discipline for Professor Who Admitted Crossing the Line

San Jose State University did not discipline an instructor who admitted to crossing the line with a female student in his office

Nine months after a San Jose State University professor admitted to crossing the line with a female student in his office, the student says the university system has failed her. The student—who wants to remain anonymous because she still attends the university—contacted the Investigative Unit to tell her story. She said she’s frustrated and angry that there has been no resolution in her case, and still no penalty or discipline handed out to the professor.

Last August the student scheduled a meeting with adjunct professor Jeffry Mathis, a kinesiology lecturer who has also taught classes in childhood development, to understand why he gave her a D+ the prior semester. She learned he discovered that she plagiarized a significant amount of her final paper. The student said she did not cite the paper properly, but believes she did not plagiarize.

“He looked at me and touched me and said, ‘How do you want to better your grade?’” the student said while fighting back tears. “He kept coming closer to me and my body completely shut down. He continued to touch me and try to talk about the ways that I could better my grade.”

She said she told him to stop—that she is not that kind of person.

“Then he straddled me and sat on me,” she said, “and put his hands up my shirt and under my sweater and was rubbing me.”

The two-hour meeting happened in a secluded upstairs office of the Spartan Complex at around 8 p.m.

“He blocked the stairs and said the only way I will let you leave is if I can grab your butt,” she said. “But it has to be the way I want to grab it.”

She said as he tried to reach for another body part, she ran down the stairs and out of the building. Within hours of the interaction she called the university police department and filed an incident report. Authorities investigated Mathis for false imprisonment and sexual battery. He denied any criminal wrongdoing, and at the conclusion of the investigation no charges were filed.

“Everything that professor said [in that report] was a lie,” the student said. “He said I wanted to kiss him, that I wanted him. Everything was just a lie. He made it sound like I was the bad guy, and that wasn’t the case at all.”

The Investigative Unit contacted Mathis to hear his side of what happened in his office after hours. When he did not return calls and emails, Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski met him on campus after class in March.

“Well, unfortunately, because of what I was told by both HR and the [police department] here, I’m actually not allowed to talk about it,” Mathis said when confronted by Kovaleski. “So, I follow directions.”

Mathis did not acknowledge making a mistake in front of NBC Bay Area’s camera, but he did in an email he wrote to the student the day after the meeting.

“I’ve been thinking about last night and I have come to the conclusion that I made a terrible mistake in how I handled that situation,” he wrote. The email continued, “I will change your grade to a B- for free, because it is the right way to handle this.”

The student said she believes Mathis offered to change her grade because he knew what he did was wrong. But, Mathis said he could not comment on whether he was disciplined, saying that he was “told specifically not to talk about it.”

SJSU declined requests for an interview but a university spokeswoman confirmed Mathis did not go through a formal disciplinary hearing and that the university did not discipline Mathis for what happened in his office.

“I find that surprising, simply because we have acknowledgment by the instructor,” said human resources expert Beth De Lima, who is not connected to the university. “There is not a question he acknowledged the behavior.”

De Lima, an HR expert-witness who has testified numerous times in court, said she believes SJSU is essentially tolerating what happened.

“I would say that when you have a policy you recognized as violated by an investigator and there is no response to that particular violation,” De Lima said, “in essence you are condoning the behavior.”

NBC Bay Area obtained a copy of the confidential investigation report written by SJSU, which concluded that “there is insufficient evidence against [Mathis] to substantiate the claim of sexual harassment and sexual assault against the [student].” It also states that Mathis admitted to “kissing and touching the [student] sexually although stating it was consensual.”

The report continues, “Whether or not their actions were consensual in this instance, his position is one of power over the students in his classroom” and he has a “duty not to allow situations to develop where a student could feel compelled to ‘consent’ to activities they would not otherwise agree to in order to be successful in his class.”

It goes on to conclude that Mathis “did violate his professional responsibility not to exploit the situation he found himself in and become intimate” with the student. It does not explain why no action was taken.

De Lima said she believes Mathis “absolutely crossed the line” and pointed to the SJSU’s professional code of conduct policy, which states that faculty members should “assure that their evaluations of students reflect only matters relevant to the students’ academic performance” and “insure that their professional contacts with students are free from exploitation, harassment, or discrimination.”

De Lima also pointed to the policy’s section on conflict of interest.  It states, “A conflict of interest is an agreement, relationship, or other arrangement, be it personal or professional, formal or informal, that undermines the faculty’s disinterested performance of its professional duties and responsibilities.”

De Lima said that because Mathis had power over his student’s grade he was in a position of having influence over the student’s academic standards.

Nine months after the incident in her professor’s office the student says she doesn’t feel any better.

“This is something I have to go through that I never thought I would have to go through,” she said. “Especially in my college career.”

The university overruled Mathis on the grade change, and the student’s grade remains at a D+. Mathis has continued to decline opportunities to defend his reputation to the Investigative Unit.

Though the university declined to comment about this incident, it did provide this statement:

SJSU cares about and is firmly committed to providing a safe environment for everyone in the campus community. We strive to implement timely and appropriate actions to protect our community members, including promptly, carefully and thoroughly investigating all complaints, followed by appropriate responses and actions. If there is any reason to believe a crime has occurred or safety is at risk, the University Police Department is contacted and, as appropriate, the matter is referred to the Santa Clara County District Attorney.

If you have a tip for the Investigative Unit email or call 888-996-TIPS.

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