That Time an Academic Mentor Allegedly Sexually Harassed a Student While She Dangled From a Cliff


Stephanie Jenkins was just trying to finish her Ph.D. research on peregrine falcons at the University of Minnesota when she says her academic mentor started talking about kissing her.

Jenkins, 29, was hanging from an Alaskan cliff just over the Colville River when Ted Swem, a 56-year-old falcon expert, allegedly waxed poetic about what it’d be like to put his mouth on hers, according to the Star Tribune.

“I couldn’t go anywhere,” Jenkins said. “It frightened me.”

That was in 2011 but Jenkins says it wasn’t the first time. Part of Jenkins’ job then was to assist Swem, endangered-species branch chief at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Fairbanks, Alaska, in creating a database on the peregrine falcon population. But she says during that time she was sexually harassed, which ultimately made her leave her Ph.D program and the University of Minnesota because her advisors didn’t help her. Now Jenkins is suing the school for sexual harassment. The trial is slated to begin on November 2.

Swem says he didn’t sexually harass Jenkins and the University says Swem isn’t their employee. U.S. District Judge John Tunheim dismissed a motion to toss out Jenkins’ suit entirely, and he also rejected a claim against Jenkins’ University of Minnesota adviser, who was accused of not protecting Jenkins after she shared Swem’s alleged harassment.

Jenkins’ suit is one of a few the University of Minnesota is fighting. The school’s athletic director Norwood Teague resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal and three female coaches filed a lawsuit claiming discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation against the University of Minnesota Duluth.

In Jenkins’ case, during two field trips to Alaska, she said Swem made “pervasive sex jokes,” told sexually explicit stories and snapped shots of her “clothed buttocks.”

“He asked me numerous times to be in a relationship with me,” she said.
In court documents, Swem acknowledged making numerous remarks, including the comments about kissing her, but said he continued because of “ambiguous signals he had received from her statements and conduct.”

Swem claimed that Jenkins laughed at his sex jokes and she says she did so in an attempt not to offend a man who could have her fired and derail her Phd program. Swem added that he continued his unwanted advances because he thought Jenkins was into after she said if he was “25 years younger, she would have been all over him.”

Jenkins, through her lawyer, said she said that statement as “an attempt at humor” to politely get Swem off her back. She regrets she ever uttered those words.

Swem also admitted to photographing Jenkins’ butt but said it was accidental and he deleted the photo.

In 2012, Jenkins quit the University’s Ph.D program just one month before the university’s equal opportunity office “concluded that she was sexually harassed.” In her resignation letter, Jenkins claimed “unresolved workplace and ethical issues relating to [her] research project,” but omitted Swem’s behavior or any harassment.

“I resigned because I finally had the courage to tell my adviser what was happening. I was so afraid I would lose my job. I resigned because my advisers would not do anything,” she says.
The university denied Swem had any say over her Ph.D. research.

Still, Jenkins says the University took its sweet time to help her. After leaving the Ph.D. program, Jenkins says she’s had to completely change her career path. Now she’s a senior watershed analyst for the state of Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality in Boise.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image via Shutterstock.

Image via AP.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin