Note: This post was originally published on my Substack newsletter, "Words for the Wise"
Sexual harassment in wildlife ecology: The case of Max Allen, University of Illinois
Allen, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has been the subject of at least two Title IX complaints filed by students and faculty. So far the university has done little about his behavior.
One of my least pleasant tasks as a journalist begins when survivors of sexual harassment, bullying, or other kinds of abuse contact me and ask for help exposing an abuser. I’ve been doing this #MeToo reporting for eight years now, beginning when I was still a correspondent for Science; continuing for The Verge and Scientific American; and now as an independent journalist. Over that time I have investigated dozens of cases, some of which have resulted in the termination or forced resignation of the perpetrators. Many others have been highly publicized.
This year, I have reported already on two such investigations: Ecologist Walter Jetz at Yale, whose toxic lab has become notorious among researchers in his field; and Adrien Finzi, a biologist at Boston University, whom BU finally forced to resign after nearly two decades of abuses, including physically threatening other faculty and bullying students.
A few months ago, a source at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign contacted me to ask if I could look into allegations of sexual harassment, stalking, and bullying by Max Allen, a carnivore ecologist at the university. Allen is affiliated with UI’s Nature Resources & Environmental Sciences department and also with the Illinois Natural History Survey. The source had been talking with other students and faculty about Allen’s behavior. But despite the filing of at least two Title IX complaints against him, the university had taken no serious action.
The source referred me to survivors of the abuses, who in turn put me in contact with other witnesses. I was eventually able to talk to a number of victims of the alleged misconduct, along with others who had either witnessed the incidents or been told about them contemporaneously by the victims. In the meantime, I filed Illinois Freedom of Information Act requests with the university, which eventually provided me with documentation of two of the Title IX complaints. These documents were entirely consistent with the accounts I had been given by the sources.
Two of the survivors of the abuse gave me permission to relate details of their experiences as long as their names were not used. This request for anonymity is intended to safeguard their privacy and to protect them from immediate retaliation, as well as possible future negative consequences on their careers. Nevertheless I have confirmed their identities and the details of the stories they told me.
Some other witnesses, who felt more vulnerable if identifying details were provided, asked that I be more circumspect in describing what happened to them.
To help with the narrative flow, I will call the first two witnesses by the pseudonyms Alice and Jill.
Alice’s story: “Let’s go for a walk.”
Alice grew up in the midwest, where she developed a passion for wildlife, especially small mammals. After working at a job in her home state that allowed to pursue these interests, she came to the University of Illinois in fall 2021 to do a masters degree. Like many other students in her department, she would attend speaker events and then go out for food or drinks with the speaker and other colleagues. She met Allen when he happened to be sitting at the table next to her after one of these events.
At first everything seemed very professional. Allen offered to help Alice with various aspects of her studies and research. But the next day she began getting emails from Allen, who wanted her to come along with him on various field trips. He asked, “When can we meet?” He even came to Alice’s office in the department to find her. Alice consulted with faculty in the department and friends, who told her to be cautious.
But the emails from Allen kept coming, along with a request for her telephone number. Alice began feeling increasingly uncomfortable, and declined his offers to get together, including one suggestion that they go for a walk in the woods. Finally he sent her an email that said, “I really want to see you again.” For Alice that was a “huge red flag.”
“It was so personal. I was really caught off guard. It was extremely inappropriate,” she told me. She began to share more about what was happening with other students, although she did not trust the university reporting systems nor the faculty to help her. Meanwhile, she told Allen outright that she did not appreciate his mixing professional and personal matters. She was still hoping that the situation could be resolved without alienating a faculty member who was key in her field.
Alice says that Allen apologized. “I’m so sorry,” he wrote. “I’m so embarrassed.” But he still suggested that they go for a walk.
“It really shook me up,” Alice said. “It colored my view of academia.”
Max then backed off and did not bother Alice any more. But in February of 2022, Allen, Alice, and other students from the university attended the annual meeting of the Midwest Fish & Wildlife Conference, which was held in Des Moines, Iowa.
Alice soon found out that Allen had signed up to be a mentor at the conference, and ended up being assigned to a student, also from the midwest, who turned out to be Jill. Alice “completely avoided” Allen at this meeting, but on the way to the meeting she got a message from him asking if she wanted to have dinner. She ignored the invitation.
Nevertheless, during the meeting Jill began hanging out with the Illinois students. At one point she came up to Alice and said, “I know about you and Max.” It turned out that Allen had told Jill that he and Alice had had some kind of relationship.
“It was very disturbing,” Alice told me. These events were also witnessed by two other students who have spoken with me for this report.
At this point, let’s let Jill tell her own story.
Jill’s story: A “mentor” who talked only about women and not science.
Jill was a student at a small university in the midwest, specializing in conservation biology. She was finishing up a graduate degree and ready to begin looking for jobs, but needed advice about where to go next in her career. The organizers of the Des Moines meeting accepted her abstract to give a presentation, the first time she had presented at a conference. It was a big deal, but somewhat stressful, as she was hoping to meet other scientists and do the usual networking that young researchers need to do.
So she signed up for the mentor program offered by the meeting, and was assigned to Max Allen. The second day of the meeting she was getting ready to give her presentation, and was having a beer to “calm my nerves.” Allen came over and she told him she was nervous. Instead of responding, Jill says, Allen looked at a woman leaning over a balcony just above and asked, “Does she have a wedding ring?”
Jill would meet with Allen each day, hoping for career advice. But he mostly talked about the dating app he was using and what kinds of results he was getting. Allen told Jill that the women in Iowa were not as “hot” as those in Illinois.
“I tried to be polite,” Jill told me. But even when they were not meeting, “he was following me everywhere.” At one point Allen saw Alice and told Jill that he had tried to date her. “I think she hates me,” Allen said.
Jill was extremely upset. She called a wildlife enthusiast she knew back home, explaining in tears what was happening. The friend launched a series of Tweets alerting people at the meeting about the situation, which got a lot of attention from conference goers. Here are two of them; I have cropped out the name of this brave ally to protect her privacy, although at the time she made no bones about openly trying to protect Jill.
At this point the Illinois students formed an informal protection committee and began accompanying Jill wherever she went—even to the restroom—so she could avoid Allen when she needed to. But she still felt she had to meet with him, and was worried about professional repercussions if she rebuffed him before the meeting was over. Allen continued his constant patter about other women. He told Jill he wanted to move “out west” where he had a lake house, so he could meet women there.
“I never got a single piece of advice from him,” Jill told me. “But I didn’t tell anyone” other than her friends at the meeting. “I was ashamed. It was traumatizing. I did not feel I could go to the meeting organizers,” fearing that they would not believe her or they would take Allen’s side.
After the meeting was over and she had returned home, Allen texted her three or four times to try to get in touch, but she ignored him. Finally it was over.
“He is not well,” Jill says. “He has lost touch with reality, about what is okay and what’s not okay. He has no respect for women. No woman should be around this man.”
Title IX’s filed against Max Allen, but university fails to take serious action.
In the course of this investigation, I spoke with other students both at Illinois and who had attended the Des Moines meeting, who either witnessed the events directly or were told about it at the time by the victims. Eventually some of the faculty were informed about what was happening. They included the chairs of the two departments Allen was affiliated with, Eric Schauber, director of the Illinois Natural History Survey, and Robert Schooley, head of the department of Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences; and T.J. Benson, Joy O’Keefe, and Michael Ward, all faculty members in the NRES department. (I am told that Schauber is Allen’s most direct supervisor.)
Also, according to sources, some of the above faculty members had become aware that Allen had also harassed at least one and possibly more undergraduate women he came into contact with in the university’s undergrad wildlife society, and also some cases of bullying students, including one graduate student whose career was badly affected by the abuse (to protect the identity of this student I am not telling her story in any detail.)
On March 12, 2022, Schauber and Schooley, in their capacity as Title IX mandatory reporters, filed a complaint against Allen with the university concerning the alleged harassment of Alice, and also the events concerning Jill at the Iowa meeting. On March 14, a second Title IX was filed, this time by Schauber, Schooley, and Benson.
The university, after a somewhat cursory investigation, decided to conduct an “Educational Conversation” with Allen, which took place on June 23, according to the Title IX records. The case was then closed. However, on July 15, 2022, the case was reopened to include new information, including testimony from a student who had been a witness to the events in Iowa and in Illinois. The university did not release any further records to me under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, and I have not yet appealed that decision. However, all indications are that the university never informed any of the students about any actions it did take.
Schauber and Schooley declined to comment on events, both saying in nearly identical words that they could not “comment on personnel matters.” Benson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
As I have written many times in the past, these are not really “personnel matters,” a term that implies they only concern the often powerful and usually male perpetrators of abuse. Rather, they affect, much more of course, the victims and survivors, current students who might have to work with the abusers, and future students, who—unawares of the conduct of professors they may choose to work with, because of the full secrecy the institution attempts to maintain—are likely to become future victims.
The primary concern of universities and other institutions appears to be, routinely, to protect their own institutional reputations, and NOT to protect students and other vulnerable colleagues. This has been true of nearly every case I have worked on, with only a few exceptions—and those usually happen only when the institution in question realizes that all their attempts have failed to prevent a case from becoming public.
In the end, the institutions involved lose their credibility, their reputations, and the trust of students who thought they would be protected as they try to advance their academic careers.
When will they learn?