Catholic University of America, Statement on Dismissal of Professor Stephen J. McKenna:
The Board of Trustees of The Catholic University of America has dismissed Stephen J. McKenna, a tenured associate professor in the Department of Media and Communication Studies, for engaging in a sexual relationship with an employee under his supervision in violation of University policy.
The Board of Trustees has the sole authority to dismiss for cause a tenured faculty member. Its decision marked the end of a lengthy review process by the University that began in 2017.
The Faculty Handbook defines the grounds for dismissal of tenured faculty to include “demonstrable incompetence or dishonesty in teaching or research, . . . manifest neglect of duty, or . . . other adequate cause” (Sec. II-G-7.188).
Since 2008, the University has consistently prohibited all dating and sexual relationships between faculty and employees they supervise, regardless of consent, and provided for sanctions including dismissal. The version of the policy in effect in 2013 can be found here.
Stephen McKenna received his Ph.D. in English from Catholic University in 1996 and served for two years as a visiting assistant professor. He then advanced through successive appointments as assistant and associate professor of English. He moved to the newly formed Department of Media and Communication Studies in 2006. He served as chair of the department on an interim basis in 2007-08. In 2010 he became the regular chair, a post he held until August 2018.
As department chair in 2013, McKenna had the responsibility of filling the vacant position of assistant to the chair. McKenna personally selected the woman with whom he later began the improper relationship. The employee, who was also a graduate student in another department, began work in Media Studies in February 2013. She was 24 years old. Within two months, she and McKenna had become sexually involved. In October 2013 she resigned to take another job.
The University first received an allegation from an anonymous source in April 2017 that McKenna had had a relationship with an employee who worked for him. The University attempted to investigate the allegation but was unable to get any additional information from the informant.
The employee herself contacted the University in July 2017 and provided information about the relationship.
The University then conducted an investigation under the procedures specified in the University’s Sexual Offenses Policy. During that time, the employee provided the University thousands of text messages exchanged between herself and McKenna during the period of her employment. When approached, McKenna admitted the relationship.
Upon completion of the investigation in December 2017, the University advised McKenna that it would begin proceedings for his dismissal.
President John Garvey formally notified McKenna and the Chair of the Academic Senate in January that he had initiated proceedings according to the University’s Faculty Handbook for dismissal from his tenured position. President Garvey advised McKenna that his relationship with his assistant “violated the standards expected of any faculty member, and also violated the University’s express prohibition of all dating and sexual relationships between faculty and employees they supervise, even if the parties believe them to be consensual.”
The Academic Senate appointed a five-member Ad Hoc Hearing Committee of tenured senior faculty.
McKenna provided the Committee his response to the President’s letter in May. He admitted the prohibited relationship but argued that dismissal was inappropriate.
In June, members of the Committee reviewed voluminous exhibits, listened to the testimony of witnesses and arguments of counsel, and asked their own questions. At the hearing McKenna again admitted to having had a sexual relationship with his assistant.
The Committee issued its decision in July. It unanimously held “that a relationship in violation of University policy took place, extending over a period of seven months, between McKenna and someone under his supervision.” The Committee concluded that dismissal would be an appropriate sanction for McKenna, and it encouraged the University to publicize the matter widely, in the interests of accountability and deterrence.
Pursuant to Faculty Handbook procedures, in September the Board of Trustees considered the Committee’s recommendation and the hearing record and returned the case to the Committee to consider several questions.
The Committee replied to the Board’s questions in November and stated its belief that dismissal was an appropriate sanction.
This week, the Board of Trustees, which makes the final decision with regard to dismissal of tenured faculty, considered the Ad Hoc Committee’s response to the Board’s questions and voted to dismiss McKenna.
Inside Higher Ed, Catholic University Fires Tenured Professor Over Sexual Relationship With Graduate Student
Via email on Friday morning, McKenna offered this statement: "Although respect for the confidentiality appropriate to the disciplinary process limits what I can say, I think people would look differently at the dismissal if they knew that it was public knowledge that this relationship lasted for four years after we were co-workers, that I sought and was granted an annulment of my marriage from the church, and that we had planned to marry in the church. Furthermore, the person in question repeatedly told the university that the relationship was fully mutual and consensual, and she wanted none of this -- neither for me to be fired, nor any harm to come to me and my family. Most people at the university believe a different sanction would have been far more appropriate. Those who know and respect me here know a person quite different from the one portrayed in the university's communications. People tell me they are shocked by the nature and tone of the announcement."
Washington Post, Catholic U. Fires Professor For Relationship With Subordinate