Investigation reveals former UW-La Crosse professor sexually harassed student, behaved inappropriately with others
Former UW-La Crosse professor Joel Elgin sexually harassed a student in 2015, and he behaved similarly with other current and former students, according to a UW System investigation.Image By: Madeline Heim
A UW System investigation found former UW-La Crosse Art Department Chair Joel Elgin sexually harassed a student and engaged in “unacceptable behavior” with other current and former students.
UW-La Crosse released a pair of reports from the November investigation Wednesday, the second of which concluded Elgin sexually harassed student Caycee Bean in 2015, who previously made her allegations public in a September Facebook post. The harassment took place during a private drawing lesson, and the investigation reported similar incidents involving other students over the course of Elgin’s career.
Elgin announced his retirement in December rather than risk his benefits, Wisconsin Public Radio reported. He has denied wrongdoing and questioned the integrity of the investigation in a letter from his attorney.
Bean shared her experience with Elgin online after she received what she considered a disappointing response from the university to her initial complaint. Soon after, UW-La Crosse reopened the investigation into Elgin.
The investigation described how Elgin allowed Bean into an advanced art class he taught, waiving the prerequisite. When Bean expressed to Elgin her drawing skills were not as advanced as others, he offered her drawing tutorials, which Bean said she didn’t realize would be private.
During the private drawing lesson, Elgin sketched while Bean modeled in a small room. He asked her to remove the sweater she wore over a tank top, made comments on her body and tried to lift her shirt twice, according to the report.
Elgin said he does not recall meeting with Bean in the small room she said the harassment occurred, the report said.
However, investigators also interviewed one current and three former students of Elgin’s with comparable stories.
A student who began her time at the university in 2013 cited a private drawing lesson with Elgin, which ended when he “put his hands around her waist (caressing her) and told her how beautiful her body is,” the report said.
Similarly, another student who started at UW-La Crosse in 2005 detailed separate incidents in which Elgin asked her to remove her underwear, her robe or her shirt, the final incident including his explanation of “the need to know where nipples are when trying to understand the relationship of the different parts of the body,” the investigation said. Like Bean, she mentioned private drawing tutorials and said Elgin allowed her to enroll in an advanced art class as a freshman.
Statements from several UW-La Crosse art professors included in the investigation said waiving class prerequisites happens often. The report found Elgin recommended 314 waivers between fall 2015 and fall 2019, including female and male students.
The investigation also detailed two students’ experience “auditioning” to be paid models for the art department in 2016. The two students’ modeling “practice session” involved Elgin convincing the women to expose their breasts, and he took photos of them, according to investigators.
One of the students decided not to model for art classes, but the other did. She described classroom modeling and the “practice session” as vastly different.
“In the classroom setting, everything about nude modeling was highly professional ... The students are not allowed to film, take photos, or make any sorts of comments about the models or their bodies,” the student told investigators. “I feel incredibly humiliated and violated by the first encounter that I had with Joel [Elgin]. The ‘practice session’ that he created for us clearly was not what we thought it was.”
The five-page letter from Elgin’s attorney responding to the investigation called it “not an impartial document” and accused investigators of selectively including information. The letter defended Elgin’s character, citing teaching accolades, his Rate My Professor numbers and the fact that his personal file “contains no complaints.”
The letter provided explanations for some of Elgin’s behavior described in the report and denied the rest.
His background as a figure artist explained how “a discussion of the body is a requirement of the method and not a sexual comment,” according to the letter.
The letter questioned the accounts by the other students, calling them “obviously spawned by the Facebook frenzy.” It objected to many details about the room where the alleged incidents took place — its size, whether it has a lock — in Bean and the other students’ testimonies and called one part of the 2005 student’s account “a coached statement.”
In an interview with WPR, Bean pushed back against this characterization of the other students' accounts as part of a larger campaign to “cancel” Elgin.
“These girls aren’t my minions, like, I do not know these women,” Bean told WPR. “These are complete strangers who have just heard the word of this guy finally being caught and have a story to share.”
At the time of the Dec. 12 interview, Bean said she had no plans to press charges against Elgin. Her attorney has not returned a request for comment for this story.
According to Elgin’s attorney’s letter, Bean posting about her experience on Facebook created “a firestorm of hate and bias on campus.”
However, not everyone learned about her story through social media.
UW-La Crosse senior Kendra Whelan began protesting daily on campus after Bean made her allegations public, holding a sign that read “UWL protects predatory professors.” Whelan said she believes she helped spread awareness, as students would approach her and ask about the sign.
When she began protesting, Whelan petitioned for UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow to hold an open forum about sexual misconduct on campus, and now that has become a reality. Gow and the university’s Title IX team announced an open forum on the Elgin case and “any other issues related to UWL” on Feb. 12.
“[T]he release of this report is not the end of this important conversation as a campus community,” Gow said in a campus-wide email Wednesday. “[The forum] will only be the first step towards healing and making the lasting change to ensure that this never happens again.”
Whelan agreed the open forum is only the start, saying the university also needs more funding for survivor services and prevention trainings throughout the academic year, not just at the beginning.
She is hopefully that administration is moving in the right direction though, saying “Chancellor Gow seems ready to put money where his mouth is,” and she will continue to urge the university in this direction.
“I am going to use my last semester here to try to push the administration, faculty and staff, and the student body to do more to combat sexual violence and abuse of power. We can all be doing more,” Whelan said in an email. “The silence has been shattered, and it is our duty to continue this conversation, even after I'm gone.”
Whelan also emphasized the bravery of everyone who stepped forward with allegations, and she said she hopes students continue to demand more from their institutions.
“I've been saying this whole time that it's more than just this one professor, than this one instance of violence and injustice,” she said.Subscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter