Details emerge on classroom confrontation

Mark Feuerborn

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was edited on Jan. 12 for the purpose of adding a statement from Washburn University and clarifying details that point to a larger situation. The article was edited again on Jan. 18, following the providing of additional details by a third student who was in the classroom. This is a developing story that will be accounted for in a series of articles.

Eyewitnesses came forward with accounts regarding a confrontation that occurred Nov. 30, 2016 between John Paul, professor of sociology, and Sharla Blank, associate professor of anthropology, at the end of one of Paul’s classes. The incident occurred in front of a Sociology of Art class with 16 students enrolled according to class records.

To provide further background context for the situation, it is worth noting at the time of this article’s publication, Paul has been removed from Washburn University’s faculty listing for the Sociology Department, as well as the school’s online directory. It is also worth noting that this is a singular incident on both Paul and Blank’s part, as neither have been associated with any other public confrontation on campus.

Three students in the classroom during the confrontation have given accounts of the incident and have been kept anonymous for their safety from public backlash. The first witness said that shortly before the class ended, Blank entered the room and sat in the back. Once class ended, while students were still in the room, she approached Paul. The third witness gave an account of the beginning of this interaction.

“I was only present in the room for a part of it, but I heard Dr. Blank adamantly request in a low tone of voice that he withdraw to his office to discuss something important,” the third witness said. “Dr. Paul responded ‘I’m not doing this now,’ which was surprisingly rude and unprofessional in front of the students. At this point I left the room.”

There is currently no way to determine the time elapsed between what the third witness heard and the beginning of what the first witness heard. The third witness said from what she saw and heard that it was evident the matter between Paul and Blank was urgent.

“When I was in the room she was speaking in low tones and it was clear that she was trying to keep it private,” the third witness said. “The most I could understand is that she was trying to get him to go back to his office, or to her office and discuss something really important. From my perspective I figured that whatever it was, it was something that was so important to Dr. Blank, that she was willing to go to this extent to get him to talk to her.”

Based on the beginning of the first witness’s account, after the third witness had left the room, the discussion between Paul and Blank escalated.

“She started yelling at him, calling him a predator and a terrible person, and everyone [in the classroom] was just really confused,” the first witness said.

The second witness confirmed this.

“She went to the front of the classroom where Paul was standing and started to raise her voice,” the second witness said. “Paul kept calm, [even though] he was presumably confronted unexpectedly. Blank then went to the front row and began shouting derogatory language.”

According to the first witness Blank reportedly “grabbed [a student’s] shoulder, telling her that she was in danger,” while in the front row.

The second witness said that Blank was not attacking the student, but confirmed that she went about talking to the student in an aggressive manner.

“She began to elicit support, claiming that Paul was not to be trusted,” the second witness said.

Reasons behind the confrontation are still unknown. Patrick Early, of University Relations, gave a statement on behalf of Washburn regarding the incident.

“The University is aware of the incident occurring in the classroom however it is a personnel matter and we are unable to comment,” Early said. “We assure you the university is committed to providing the best learning environment possible for our students.”

Though Early could not comment specifics on the incident, Paul’s employment status with Washburn is unknown. Class records for the Spring 2017 semester indicate Paul is not teaching classes.

“Blank didn’t say anything specific, or at least coherent,” the second witness said. “Just a bunch of jumbled angry sentences, and severe accusations. Blank was shouting derogatory language, which I could tell got to him, [but] Paul did a good job keeping his cool and trying to defuse the situation.”

The first witness heard a few quotes from Paul as Blank was confronting him.

“He just kind of took it,” the first witness said. “He was just like ‘Yes, this is fine. Get it all out.’”

Paul did not return requests for comment and Blank declined to comment on the incident. After her remarks in the front row of the classroom, Blank left.

The point where Blank began exiting the classroom is where the third witness’s account picks back up, as they had been lingering in the hallway outside.

“In the hallway, I could hear Dr. Paul call out a sarcastic response as Dr. Blank stormed angrily out the door on the opposite end of the lecture hall,” the third witness said. “He said, ‘That’s right, I’m an [expletive].’ He said it in a sarcastic way and he called it across the room. There were still plenty of people in the room.”

Once Blank had left, the second witness said they also immediately left and did not ask for any explanation.

“Paul apologized for the incident and the remaining students packed their bags and left,” the second witness said. “I don’t know what it was about and I do not care. To bring drama like this in the classroom is not what I would consider to be academic behavior.”

The third witness said that based on the additional portion they heard of the two professors’ initial discussion, they believe Paul was more unprofessional than the other students thought.

“I think Dr. Blank has been painted in an ill light that she does not deserve,” the third witness said. “Clearly [Paul] had not only refused to address the urgent matter, but also did his best to embarrass Dr. Blank, and drag his students into a matter that should have been settled privately. It shows a disregard for professional boundaries.”

The third witness also added that this was her first encounter with Dr. Blank, and she did not perceive Blank negatively following the incident.

“I enrolled in one of Dr. Blank’s classes this semester, it hasn’t affected my opinion of her,” the third witness said.

At this point following Blank’s departure, the second and third witnesses had left the classroom without an explanation of the confrontation. However, Paul did give an explanation to the first witness before they left.

“I was just trying to leave,” the first witness said. “I felt like I had been made a part of something that I never needed to be a part of. He stopped me. He was like ‘Do not leave, I need to talk to you.’ He told us ‘I just want to be open about this, there have been allegations made against me [for] being sexually inappropriate with a female student and I just want everyone to know that it’s not true. If I have ever made anyone feel uncomfortable in any way, I’m sorry.’”

At this time, the Review cannot confirm or deny Paul’s above statement to the first witness regarding sexual misconduct. The third witness did comment on Paul’s statement to the first witness, however.

“If I see there’s allegations against a professor of sexual exploitation and then later he is no longer on the website, then I’m going to assume that they found out it was either correct and/or he resigned or was fired in light of it,” the third witness said.

The Review is committed to finding out the cause of this confrontation and investigating further leads. Subsequent articles will report further details.