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Lecherous professors are a bad look for Florida State University | Editorial
Three separate investigations reveal that professors committed sexual misconduct involving students.
Florida State University's "Unconquered" statue by Fritz White outside the south entrance to Doak S. Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee.
Florida State University's "Unconquered" statue by Fritz White outside the south entrance to Doak S. Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee. [ MARK WALLHEISER | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Nov. 18, 2021

No one needs a Ph.D. to appreciate that professors shouldn’t sleep with undergraduate students. They shouldn’t make romantic passes at their current students, and they shouldn’t send anyone unwanted sexually explicit notes. Unfortunately, those lessons obviously need relearning, given three recently unearthed investigations out of Florida State University.

The university fired one professor, suspended another who later resigned, and allowed a third to remain on the job after determining they committed sexual misconduct in separate incidents with students, according to an article from the news service Fresh Take Florida.

Ross May, the professor who was fired, pressured a student to get drunk and hugged her “in a forceful way” in a photograph, the investigation found. He then bet another student $50 he could have sex with her by the end of the semester. May then gave what sounded like an “I’m not really sorry” apology. “I apologize to anyone that might have felt slighted during the investigation, and I wish them well…,” he said. That sounds like an allegedly well-educated guy who just doesn’t get it. Victims generally don’t so much feel slighted as they do harassed and targeted by a person in power.

In a separate case, professor David Gilbert wrote an email to a student that described an erotic dream he had, which included the student — and then added that he hoped something like his dream would come true. Oh, boy. He mentioned that he named his sailboat Blow me, and invited her to travel to Japan. The 62-year-old wrote, “Us ‘mature’ guys like to work slowly — take our time and savor every minute.” News flash: Mature people don’t send creepy emails to students. Gilbert, the university’s J. Herbert Taylor distinguished professor of molecular biology, was suspended for this most undistinguished behavior, and then he resigned.

Finally, music professor John “Read” Gainsford had sex with three students, the investigation found. He did not instruct or supervise them, but investigators concluded he violated the university’s policy because he held “considerable institutional authority and influence within the college and subsequently over all College of Music students.”

Gainsford, who still works at the university, acknowledged to investigators that engaging in sexual relationships with students was unwise. “Students gossip among themselves and no good can come of that,” he said, according to the Fresh Take Florida article. So the resulting gossip is the bigger concern? How about not leveraging your authority and influence to sleep with students? To quote the professor, no good can come of that.

FSU made no public announcements about the three investigations, which took place in 2020 and 2021, nor did the university reveal the outcomes or the discipline, Fresh Take Florida reported. The details came out as a result of a public records request.

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None of the professors were charged criminally, but the behavior doesn’t need to be criminal to be wrong. And, yes, love can bloom in complicated circumstances. Students sometimes end up marrying one of their professors and living happily ever after. (Gainsford said he had a relationship with a student whom he later married.) But romantic and sexual relationships between students and faculty are fraught on so many levels.

FSU permits such relationships as long as the professor has no supervision or authority over the student, including awarding grades. The university would be wise to tighten those rules. The University of Florida, for instance, bans romantic and sexual relationships between faculty and undergraduate students. Lecherous professors who target students are a cliché that FSU would do well to avoid.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.