Editor’s note: The opening to this story was modified from the print version. NBN regrets the error.
The author has previously applied for internships with the Medill Justice Project. Aside from emailing her application to Professor Klein, she never interacted with him over the course of the application process.
On February 7, an open letter made its way into campus, local and national media. Ten women accused The Medill Justice Project Director Alec Klein of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct, alleging incidents of inappropriate behavior that stretched back nearly a decade. Upon its release, students began sharing the news in Slack channels, in GroupMe messages and on social media. A tweet from Maya Dukmasova, a reporter for the Chicago Reader, highlighting the breaking news garnered 118 retweets. The University released a statement that said it was reviewing the allegations. In the following days, both current and former Northwestern students called for action – on Facebook, one alumnus circulated a sample email to send to Medill administration. Another student created a petition calling for Klein to be removed as the head of the MJP program. Some wrote they were not surprised. Klein “categorically” denied the allegations to campus news outlets. It was soon reported that this was not the first time the school had received allegations about Klein.
Alec Klein’s tenure at Northwestern began in the summer of 2008, when he scaled back his work as a newspaper reporter and became a professor at Medill. Before moving to Evanston, he spent years as an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, taught journalism at Georgetown and American University and published several award-winning books. On Medill’s renowned faculty roster, he stood out as a star, and his prominence only increased when he took over the school’s investigative program, then known as the Innocence Project, in 2011. He had taught the corresponding class before, when longtime director David Protess took a quarter off, and was later installed permanently. Accused of making false and misleading statements to the University as it addressed a subpoena for class records from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, Protess went on leave and later retired from Medill after around three decades of teaching. That’s when Klein stepped in.
“The goal is to restore trust in the class and the project and rebuild it so that it becomes again a point of pride for students, faculty, alumni, Medill and Northwestern,” Klein told the Daily Northwestern during his first quarter at the helm. “It’s a crown jewel for Northwestern, and we need to fix it.”
For a while, it seemed as if he had. Reintroducing the program under a new name – the Medill Justice Project, he received glowing reviewsfrom students.
“Alec Klein is one of the most caring, compassionate and sincere professors in Medill. I’ve learned more in this class than I ever expected, and I’m sad it’s coming to an end,” one student wrote in the comments of a Course and Teacher Evaluation from Winter 2013, one of many positive comments listed for Klein’s courses. “I’ll never forget what I’ve learned in this class. MJP for life!”
With new ethics policies and an increased focus on multimedia, Klein’s team went on to win several national awards, and Medill’s investigative program re-established its prestigious reputation. This April, when a classroom full of journalism students were asked whether they knew anything about the old Innocence Project, only one or two raised their hands.
However, in the February letter, some of his earliest students wrote that “Klein is no hero.” They accused Medill of failing to protect its students and staff, claiming “It’s time you heard us. It’s time you listened.” The 10 women who signed the letter wrote that each of them had “experienced harassment or bullying at the hands of Alec Klein,” and collectively called for Klein’s removal from Northwestern, claiming “journalism, especially the emerging journalists who come to Medill to learn in a safe space, will be better served without him.” After the letter came out in February, NBN spoke to three cosigners who spoke about some of the allegations detailed within it. Others contacted did not respond to request for comment.
In a statement to NBN, Klein denied the allegations. “I am shocked and horrified, and my life has been destroyed by these allegations, which are untrue. I have always sought to be kind and gentle with my students. In the past decade as a professor at Northwestern University, I have taught nearly 500 students in scores of classes,” he wrote. “For each of those classes, students submit anonymous evaluations. In those evaluations, my students have overwhelmingly indicated they had a wonderful experience with me. I was never accused of mistreating any students.”
But through conversations with classmates, Lorraine Ma, who signed the letter and took Klein’s class, says she realized she was not the only one who had negative experiences with Klein. She says she felt that their concerns about what they saw as unprofessional behavior weren’t taken seriously, or felt they were pegged to be an issue related to grading when informally raised with Medill administration. However, no official complaints were filed.
Fenit Nirappil, who took Klein’s class, also says Medill informally became aware of some of his concerns about Klein in 2012. In an email, he says he had hoped the environment would improve. Klein declined to comment on whether or not he was aware of students raising concerns about his behavior with others in Medill.
In April 2015, former MJP staffer Olivia Pera quit her job and filed a complaint against her former boss with the Northwestern Department of Human Resources, accusing Klein of inappropriate sexual behavior. Title IX investigators determined there was not a preponderance of evidence that a policy violation occurred. In emails reviewed by NBN, an investigator mentioned concerns about her credibility. She later filed a claim with the Illinois Department of Human Rights. According to reporting from the Chicago Tribune, the University reached a settlement with Pera for $8,000 that did not include any admission of wrongdoing and stipulated she would not apply for any future jobs at the school. Klein declined to comment on the Pera allegations and investigation.
A year after Pera lodged her complaint, campus media covered a different alleged incident. On May 18, 2016, Amanda Terkel, at the time a senior political reporter and managing editor for the Huffington Post, published a series of tweets detailing a conversation she had with a Medill professor during a routine reference check for a Northwestern student who had applied for an internship. According to Terkel, when she asked the professor about the student’s writing ability, he said that undergraduates tend to be poor writers and suggested that she likely had issues as well since she sounded young. She accused his comments of being sexist, and she decided to tweet about it. She did not name Klein in her tweets, but he later acknowledged to NBN and the Daily Northwestern he had spoken with her, not admitting to any sexist conduct. At the time, Klein told NBN in an email that the incident was a “misunderstanding.” “It was never my intention to leave the impression that the Huffington Post editor’s voice had anything to do with her writing ability,” Klein wrote in an emailed statement to NBN at the time. “I wanted to make sure the misunderstanding didn’t hurt the student’s chances and I was assuredit wouldn’t.”
“I was really surprised, honestly, by the amount of attention it got from other journalists, from other women, professional women in other fields who have faced similar things, and also just from people at Northwestern,” Terkel says, reflecting on the her tweets two years later. “I received calls from faculty and staff at Northwestern, from alumni, students – you know, a lot of people were obviously interested in finding out who the professor was.”
When the Medill #MeToo letter was published on Feb. 7, it created a “medillmetoo” email account to collect other potential stories. In a February statement to NBN, Klein said that many of the allegations involved a “disgruntled former employee who had been on a corrective-action plan for poor work performance several years ago.” The statement did not identify the former employee.
“The University takes seriously all complaints that are brought to its attention,” Vice President for University Relations Alan Cubbage said in a University statement on Feb. 7. “Many of the allegations were contained in a complaint brought several years ago by a former employee. At that time, the University conducted a thorough investigation and the complaint was not substantiated.”
Then, in March, the writers of the original Medill #MeToo letter announced that 19 more women had come forward with stories alleging improper behavior by Klein. “Lost in the public attacks against me is that accusations don’t constitute the truth,” Klein said in another statement to NBN. “But the pendulum has swung so far in one direction that it’s accepted as fact when some use the media to level false allegations, creating a toxic environment without due process.”
In the immediate aftermath of the letter’s publication, some Medill faculty members decided to respond during an unrelated meeting for tenured professors. According to Jack Doppelt, who teaches Medill’s media law and ethics course, they didn’t want to ignore “the elephant in the room,” so they began to discuss the allegations against Klein and quickly called Dean Bradley Hamm to loop him into the conversation. Doppelt says he knew at least half of the women who had signed the open letter and felt uncomfortable with remaining silent, imagining that many were wondering why no one was saying anything. The group carefully drafted a letter intended to indicate that faculty members were listening and to demonstrate their commitment to creating an environment where no one experiences abusive treatment, sexual misconduct or discriminatory behavior. Klein declined to comment on the faculty letter.
“It may not be visible to you yet, but the allegations you made shook many of us to the core,” the faculty letter reads. “In hallways, in classrooms, in meetings among faculty, we have begun a period of profound reflection on the issues you’ve raised.”
University policy dictates that all employees are “obligated to promptly report sexual misconduct of which they become aware in the scope of their work” at Northwestern, including sexual harassment and sexual violence – but knowing what should be reported can sometimes be confusing.
“If you think you might need to report, you should probably report it if you’re asking that question,” says Kate Harrington-Rosen, the Equity Outreach and Education Specialist for the Title IX office. She says she advises members of the Northwestern community to reach out if they are unsure about what qualifies as sexual misconduct or about the circumstances under which they heard about potential wrongdoing, adding that she is available to discuss situations as hypotheticals in order to make the proper decision.
Once someone reports potential misconduct, Harrington-Rosen says, someone from her office reaches out to individuals named in the complaint to discuss how they would like to proceed. If they do decide to pursue an investigation, representatives meet with them to gather information about the incident or incidents, review evidence in the form of texts or emails and interview potential witnesses to the alleged behavior. The purpose of this initial inquiry phase is to determine whether or not, if taken at face value, the behavior in question could rise to the level of a policy violation – it is not about whether or not investigators believe those who report misconduct. If they find that a policy violation may have occurred, the inquiry becomes a full investigation.
The day the letter was released, Cubbage released a statement that said the University was reviewing the allegations of inappropriate conduct by Klein. The following day, he released an additional statement that said Klein had requested a leave of absence from Northwestern until the investigation was complete, and that the University had granted it.
In a late April email reviewed by NBN, a representative from the Office of Equity told one of the women that investigators were still gathering information by contacting witnesses and asking follow-up questions, but hoped to soon move on to analyzing what they had collected.
This is Klein’s second full investigation by the Title IX office. In 2015, with Pera, the Title IX investigation found that a preponderance of the evidence did not support her claims. The current, open investigation has yet to conclude. “Because this matter remains under investigation, I am limited in what I can say as I honor the university process,” Klein wrote in a statement to NBN. He declined to comment on his role in the investigation.
According to Harrington-Rosen, the standard of evidence for finding if a policy violation has occurred is just over 50 percent – investigators must determine that it is more likely than not that behavior took place.
When asked about Medill administration’s response to the allegations, Hamm and Assistant Dean Beth Bennett did not respond to request for comment. Hamm, Bennett and Senior Associate Dean Tim Franklin did not respond to request for comment about previous complaints related to Klein. Associate Dean Charles Whitaker said in an email that he could not discuss the case. He wrote he may be called upon to adjudicate the allegations against Klein due to his position at the school. In May, the University announced that Whitaker will serve as interim dean starting July 1, following an April 11 announcement that Hamm will step down as dean at the end of this school year. In the statement, Hamm said he wanted to spend more time doing research on Asian media and be more involved in his son’s education in Japan. He will take a one-year sabbatical before returning to Northwestern as a tenured professor.
In a separate email, Whitaker wrote that it would be inappropriate for any member of the administration to comment on the investigation at this time. If the Office of Equity determines that it is more likely than not a policy violation involving a faculty member occurred, Harrington-Rosen says, the findings are then passed along to the faculty member’s Dean or Associate Dean for Faculty and the Associate Provost for Faculty. Any resulting sanctions or actions are decided based upon procedures outlined in the Faculty Handbook. Individual schools are not involved in the investigation process, and the Medill administration has refrained from discussing the allegations against Klein as the investigation wraps up.
For some faculty members, however, the Medill #MeToo letter pushed them to continue the conversation surrounding gender and sexism in their classrooms. In Douglas Foster’s feature writing course, for example, he replaced part of the curriculum with a study of reporting on the allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein. “We focused on the steps taken by the New York Times and the New Yorker to finally break through and publish a story about the common knowledge of the regular abuse of women by one of the most powerful people in our culture and how he got away with it,” he says. “Inevitably, a part of the conversation focused on what young women felt about the environment at Medill.” He noted that he and a few other professors also attended an event at the Women’s Center to hear about the role of sexism in newsrooms.
When asked about potential tools the school could use, Ed Malthouse, a tenured professor in integrated marketing communications, suggested possibly enacting a system similar to the Institutional Review Board, which certifies those seeking to do research on human subjects. An online training course is required and certification typically lasts three years, meaning people are frequently refreshed on ethical and professional standards. “There need to be a set of guidelines and faculty probably need to be reminded of those periodically,” he says. According to Sara Lynn Brazeal, Medill’s Director of Marketing and Communications, Northwestern’s current requirement is that all faculty, staff, graduate students and professional students must complete an online course on preventing and reporting sexual misconduct and sex discrimination within 30 days of starting at the University.
With Klein still on leave, Brazeal says in an email that MJP’s work continues today and in the future. Others have filled Klein’s role in the classroom for now, but the school not announced any permanent leadership changes. Current MJP employees Rachel Fobar and Allisha Azlan did not respond to request for comment about the controversy’s impact on the program. Foster says it’s important that MJP moves forward in a way that supports student journalists who have dedicated themselves to learning the craft of investigative reporting. “We want to protect the values of the project, stand up for the values of the project,” Foster says – “no matter what accusations are made about the faculty member who led it.”
Justin Curto contributed reporting.