Chain of Grief for a Flagship University
IOWA CITY — Famous as a literary powerhouse, with its Writers’ Workshop and award-winning newspaper, the University of Iowa has been the gloomy setting of more trouble and tragedy lately than could fit in a single book.
In the latest chapter of grief, Mark Weiger, a renowned music professor named recently in a sexual harassment suit, was found dead in his garage on Nov. 12, apparently a suicide. It was the second suicide this semester of a university professor accused of sexual misconduct. In August, Arthur Miller, a highly regarded political science professor, shot himself after being criminally charged with trading grades for sexual favors.
The university has also been embroiled in recriminations over the handling of a reported sexual assault of a woman last year by two football players in a dormitory, a case that led to the dismissal of two top university administrators.
All the while, the university, with an enrollment of 30,000, is struggling to recover from this summer’s devastating floods, which caused $230 million in damage and left some buildings in ruin. Art students, for example, are taking classes in an old Menards store. Some houses near the campus sit unoccupied, and some parks are a muddy mess.
“It’s just eerie,” said Vanessa Veiock, 22, the managing editor of the student magazine. “Your heart kind of plummets. It’s never-ending.”
The death of Professor Weiger, who taught chamber music and oboe, came a week after a former graduate student filed a federal suit against him and the university, accusing him of sexually harassing her on a daily basis in 2006-7. In the suit, she said he had made crude sexual comments and also inappropriately touched another female student in class. The suit also claims that the university did nothing to stop the harassment. The former student, who was a teaching assistant, said the harassment caused her to withdraw from school.
Steve Parrott, a university spokesman, said officials had met with Professor Weiger after the accusations were first made and had reached a “resolution.” But Mr. Parrott declined to specify the terms of any agreement.
He said the university was writing new policies to set out what kinds of behavior were considered harmful, as well as to “make it easier for complainants to know where they can go” to register claims of misconduct.
Austin Langel, a freshman walking to class past the gold-domed Old Capitol building on campus, simply shook his head in dismay.
“When I came for a visit a year ago, everything seemed nice,” said Mr. Langel, 18, from Le Mars, a small town in the western part of the state. “It’s still a great university, but you worry about how all this is going to affect its reputation.”
In August, Professor Miller’s body was found in Hickory Park, where the police say he shot himself with a rifle. Days earlier, he was charged in state court with four counts of accepting a bribe. The police said he had offered to give higher grades to female students who would show him their breasts or let him fondle them.
In the sexual assault case against the two football players, both of whom have since left the team, some members of the Board of Regents complained that the university had not properly investigated the accusation. An internal inquiry led to the dismissal of the university’s chief legal counsel, Marcus Mills, and the vice president for student services, Phillip Jones. The case is awaiting trial.
Some Iowa alumni voiced outrage four years ago when Steve Alford, then the Hawkeyes’ basketball coach, stood behind a player charged with sexual assault. The player, Pierre Pierce, was later convicted in another sexual assault case and sent to prison.
After the death of Professor Weiger, the university provided grief counselors for faculty and staff members and students. Hours after his body was found, about 100 students gathered at a vigil at Trinity Episcopal Church.
“This is a sad day, and obviously a very hard time,” Sam Cochran, the director of university counseling, told the gathering. “Allow yourselves to grieve. Take it one step at a time.”
Professor Weiger was on sabbatical this semester. According to his university biography, he held degrees from the New England Conservatory of Music and the Juilliard School and had performed at Carnegie Hall. A review in The New York Times praised his “mellifluous, haunting oboe playing.”
Arthur Rowe, a friend and former colleague, told a reporter at The Daily Iowan, the college paper, that accusations of sexual harassment can turn out to be false and that publicizing them can “be devastating to people.”
“He had no family,” Mr. Rowe said of Professor Weiger, who was single and had no children. “I don’t know how much support he had.”
The harassment accusations, though, provoked anger among some students. The Daily Iowan’s Web site removed reader comments from the article about the professor’s suicide after some readers made postings containing profanity and making “personal attacks” aimed at him, said Bill Casey, the newspaper’s publisher.
Despite the university’s troubles, students are quick to note its many achievements. A few weeks ago, The Daily Iowan won a National Pacemaker Award, the highest honor for a college newspaper, and the university is acclaimed for its Writers’ Workshop, with alumni that include the writers Jane Smiley and John Irving, the actor Gene Wilder and the jazz vocalist Al Jarreau.
As prospective students and their parents toured the campus last Friday morning, a few people spoke in hushed tones about the pall that seems to be hanging over the university. But Ed Smith, a hospital administrator whose daughter is considering attending, said the problems besetting Iowa were not that unusual these days.
“The sad fact,” Mr. Smith said, “is we can find examples of sexual harassment all throughout our society.”