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Professor's Behavior Divides UNM Staff

By Martin Salazar
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    Did Mistress Jade cross the line?
    Six months after University of New Mexico President David Schmidly learned that a member of his faculty was posing on a sadomasochism Web site, the question remains.
    And an even bigger one has emerged: What is appropriate in faculty-student relationships?
    Lisa Chávez— known as Mistress Jade in Web postings— posed in the photos with one of her graduate students, colleagues say. One photo depicts a scantily clad Chávez helping to hold down her gagged student.
    An ad characterizes Mistress Jade as "a stern teacher ready to punish unruly students."
    The episode has plunged UNM's creative writing department into turmoil.
    Deputy Provost Richard Holder, while saying Chávez used poor judgment, said last month her actions did not rise to the level of "unfitness for duty."
    Several of her English Department colleagues, however, remain resolute that Chávez crossed the line.
    Professor Sharon Warner resigned as the creative writing program's director in protest of the university's handling of the matter.
    "In late July, when I learned that my colleague ... was moonlighting as a phone sex worker on multiple ... Web sites, I was certain the university would take swift action to protect the UNM learning environment and the reputation of the Creative Writing Program," Warner wrote in her resignation letter. She said UNM instead caved in to threats of litigation.
    Chávez is on a paid sabbatical, and the Journal was unable to reach her for comment.
    Hannah Best, Chávez's attorney, said it's a First Amendment issue and she doesn't understand why it keeps coming up.
    "The administration has already dealt with this and dealt with it fairly," she said. "What more does the administration have to do? They have taken care of it, and they have investigated it, and they have said there has been no violation."
    Holder said despite the attention the Chávez situation has drawn, he doesn't see inappropriate faculty-student relationships as a common problem at UNM.
    "We see a couple, three, every once in a while, every year or so where there is some concern, and usually a little bit of just discussion and counseling will get us through that period," Holder said. "So I don't think of it as a very common sort of problem, at least from my perspective."
    Holder said rules on faculty-student relationships vary widely among UNM colleges and in the world of academia.
    The one constant principle, Holder said, is that faculty shouldn't be romantically involved with students enrolled in their classes.
    "And if such a relationship begins, we try to get the student out of the class and into another class if we know about it," he said.
    He said the power inequity between faculty and their students creates too great a potential problem.
    "If things are going well in the relationship, you could say that the faculty member is more likely to give a very good grade," Holder said. "But the opposite occurs as often when people are breaking up. They might get an F in the class and not deserve it. It works both ways, and it's just better not to have that sort of relationship."
    Holder said in Chávez's case, there was not a romantic relationship with the student.
    "Those pictures were posed ... The faculty member and the student were both adults ... I think the student was 27, and the faculty member was quite a bit older than that. It didn't seem to impinge on the classroom. At least that's what our investigation showed."
    Chávez had been moonlighting for People Exchanging Power, a group based in Albuquerque that advertises conversation for cash. According to the UNM investigation, the three students who posed reported that their activities were consensual.
    Chávez's loudest critics say they wouldn't spend time on the issue had Chávez not posed with her students.
    "Take the students out of there and there's just no issue," said Greg Martin, associate professor in the creative writing department.
    "For me, it has always been the fact that this was a student who she was directly working with, even enrolled in her class," associate professor Diane Thiel said.
    Warner said faculty members must maintain their objectivity, whatever it takes.
    That doesn't mean faculty shouldn't interact with students outside the classroom, distinguished professor Gary Scharnhorst said. He said he and several of his colleagues invite graduate students to their homes for end-of-semester parties and other gatherings. But he said faculty members should respect appropriate boundaries.
    Thiel said one of the issues that disturbed her most was that the student who posed with Chávez was enrolled in her pedagogy class at the time.
    "The point of the class is to cover such things as teaching ethics," she said