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Eckerd marine professor fondled himself in front of assistant, lawsuit says

David Hastings “readily admits” the practice, according to the suit. The legal action follows the dismissal of a federal complaint in the case.
David Hastings, left, speaks at a climate change solutions summit in St. Petersburg during October 2014. Hastings has been named in a sexual exploitation lawsuit filed against Eckerd College, his former employer.
David Hastings, left, speaks at a climate change solutions summit in St. Petersburg during October 2014. Hastings has been named in a sexual exploitation lawsuit filed against Eckerd College, his former employer. [ Times ]
Published Jan. 3, 2020
Updated Jan. 3, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — A former student alleges in a lawsuit against Eckerd College that a professor fondled himself in front of her and subjected her to other sexual exploitation while she worked as his assistant.

In addition, the lawsuit says, a top Eckerd official warned her against pursuing a formal complaint and she was forced to withdraw from the the private liberal arts college.

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 16 in Pinellas Circuit Court, says David Hastings, a professor of marine science and chemistry known for his talks on the danger of plastics, hired the student in May 2018 to work as a research assistant in the geochemistry lab. She received a $3,000 stipend and free housing.

At a 2014 meeting in Tallahassee, David Hastings, left, an Eckerd College marine science professor at the time, speaks to Gov. Scott, right, and his aide, Noah Valenstein. Hastings and other scientists reached out to Scott about the human impact on climate change.
At a 2014 meeting in Tallahassee, David Hastings, left, an Eckerd College marine science professor at the time, speaks to Gov. Scott, right, and his aide, Noah Valenstein. Hastings and other scientists reached out to Scott about the human impact on climate change. [ MARY ELLEN KLAS | Times/Herald ]

The lawsuit details several instances of sexual harassment the following summer, alleging that Hastings told an acquaintance the student was his girlfriend, prevailed on her to drive him to and from the airport, insisted she enter his home to discuss private matters, and masturbated in front of her in his office during the work day.

The lawsuit details one incident in particular, the afternoon of July 5, 2018, but also alleges, “Hastings readily admits that he masturbates in his office during the day, while Eckerd is open and in session."

Hastings, who retired from Eckerd and now is a professor at the University of South Florida, was principal investigator on a USF study published in September that found about 4 billion particles of microplastics in Tampa Bay. He was also among a group of scientists who met with Gov. Rick Scott in 2014 to explain the human impact on climate change and its potential consequences.

Hastings did not immediately return a phone call or email requesting comment.

Related: 4 billion particles of tiny plastics pollute Tampa Bay, study finds

The student brought her allegations to Eckerd’s dean of faculty Suzan Harrison during a meeting July 23, 2018, the lawsuit says. But Harrison “actively discouraged” her from moving forward and told her if she did, she could “lose her major, her job and certain academic rights and opportunities,” the lawsuit says.

The Tampa Bay Times is not naming the student because of the nature of the allegations. According to the lawsuit, she enrolled at Eckerd in 2016 and was accomplished academically.

“It took tremendous courage for our client to come forward,” attorney Bradley Rothman said in an email to the Times. “We stand by the allegations. If anyone has information related to this case, we encourage you to contact us.”

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The woman was discharged from her position as research assistant in 2018 and was forced to withdraw from Eckerd, losing a semester of education, the lawsuit says. “No reasonable person would continue under the circumstances,” the lawsuit says.

The college hired an investigator, who confirmed that Hastings sexually exploited the woman, according to the lawsuit. Still, Eckerd allowed Hastings to retire with honor while continuing to advertise that he keeps an office with the school and promoting his work on its website.

The student filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Oct. 18, 2018, and 11 months later, a commission investigator ruled against her, according to the lawsuit. The case was dismissed Sept. 16.

“We take these issues very seriously, and it’s the College’s practice to maintain confidentiality in employment matters,” Eckerd officials said in a statement Friday. “Our legal team will respond in the course of the proceedings.”

Dean Harrison did not return a call for comment.

Eckerd, with an enrollment of 2,000 at its waterfront St. Petersburg campus, was founded as Florida Presbyterian College in 1958 and still maintains a “covenant relationship with the Presbyterian Church (USA),” according to its mission statement.

In a statement to the Times, USF said Hastings was hired in June for an unpaid courtesy appointment in the school’s College of Marine Science.

“USF was recently made aware of a pending legal matter involving Mr. Hastings,” the statement says, “and we are reviewing the situation to determine an appropriate course of action.”