Fordham University is the subject of two separate lawsuits stemming from a bizarre incident in a Zoom class. Professor Howard Robinson, 69, was accused by a student of masturbating during a virtual class in an academic version of the Jeffrey Toobin controversy. Robinson, however, insists that he not only did not commit the act but could not have done so physically. In the meantime, the student who recorded the incident, Andrea Morin, is suing after flunking the class under a substitute professor. She alleged retaliation.
In her complaint, Morin states:
22. During the class, everyone except Plaintiff went into a breakout room on Zoom as directed by Defendant Robinson.
23. After Defendant Robinson sent all the other students to a breakout room. Plaintiff remained in the main zoom session.
24. During that period, Plaintiff turned away from the screen but then heard noises of a sexual nature in the voice of Defendant Robinson. When Plaintiff turned back to the screen, she then saw Defendant Robinson masturbating on the video. Plaintiff observed Defendant Robinson from above his waist, and observed him for a period of 1.5 minutes, during which time he was shaking, breathing hard, and saying “oh fuck yeah.”
25. Plaintiff recorded the events described in the paragraph above on her cellphone.
26. During the video but after the events described above, Defendant Robinson walked away, then came back calling Plaintiff by her name, asking “Andrea, are you still there?”
27. At that point, Defendant Robinson removed Plaintiff from the Zoom video conference.
Robinson insists that it would have been impossible for him to engage in the act due to erectile dysfunction: “No, I was not masturbating. The thought of masturbating was the furthest thing from my mind. I was totally focused on teaching…It might be hard for other people to get it. For a 69-year-old with a medical issue, I have to deal with it.”
Robinson sued the school over the failure to afford him due process in adjudicating the dispute, including being barred from attending the hearing. In his Sept. 16 petition in Bronx Superior Court, Robinson insisted that his erectile dysfunction and low testosterone levels make it “virtually impossible for him to get an erection or masturbate.” The Petition represents that what Morin actually saw was Robinson “grimacing and shifting his weight in his seat as he rushed to complete the message to his class before relieving himself.” He said that he was trying to quickly post something for the students as he rushed to the bathroom.
What is interesting is that Fordham maintained that a professor who allegedly masturbated during a class was not a Title IX violation, the law governing sexual harassment and abuse. Instead the university treated this as a single incident falling outside of the statute. As such, it was not required to afford Robinson a live hearing with both parties. However, Robinson was fired Jan. 26 by a letter from the university provost who told him “more likely than not you engaged in conduct in violation of the Fordham Sexual and Related Misconduct Policy.”
Given that finding, Robinson has, in my view, a legitimate objection to the lack of due process afforded to him by the university before he was fired. It is not clear how they resolved these two strikingly different accounts. If Robinson had an urgent medical need, the incident may have been negligence but hardly worthy of termination. Indeed, even Supreme Court justices have been known to capture calls of nature in virtual settings. Termination on such serious allegations warrants a full hearing to establish the truth of the matter.
Robinson was replaced by another full-time, tenured professor, who Morin claims failed her in retaliation for her complaint against Robinson. Such allegations are very difficult to prove. Grading is generally viewed as a discretionary academic function,. She would need to show concrete retaliatory intent on behalf of the substitute teacher.
Here is the Morin complaint: Morin v. Fordham