UW Milwaukee Calls Lecturer's Comments on Vanessa Guillen 'Repugnant'

July 6, 2020

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee said comments made by a senior lecturer about Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen’s killing were “repugnant and terribly at odds with UWM’s values,” but the university resisted calls to terminate the lecturer, saying that under the First Amendment the university “cannot regulate the private speech of its employees.”

The lecturer says her comments were misinterpreted.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the lecturer, Betsy Schoeller, posted in a private Facebook group in response to an article about Guillen’s killing: “You guys are kidding, right? Sexual harassment is the price of admission for women into the good ole boy club. If you're gonna cry like a snowflake about it, you're gonna pay the price."

Family believe Guillen’s death was linked to sexual harassment she was experiencing on her Army base, as National Public Radio reported. Prosecutors say Guillen was killed by a fellow soldier.

As of late Sunday afternoon, more than 118,000 people had signed a petition on Change.org calling for the termination of Schoeller, who teaches in UW-Milwaukee's School of Information Studies and was formerly a colonel in the Wisconsin Air National Guard. The student who started the petition, Emily Cruz, wrote, "As a woman, and a student at UWM I feel unsafe knowing that we have professors who think the sexual assault of women serving in the military is justified."

In an email to Inside Higher Ed -- and in a statement posted on UWM's website -- Schoeller offered her condolences to Guillen's family and loved ones and said her Facebook post was "interpreted out of context."

Schoeller said in writing the offending post she was attempting to explain to another Facebook user how and why Guillen's death could have happened. "I did not mean to imply that this is how I feel," Schoeller said. "I was giving voice to the messaging that women hear in the culture of sexual harassment: The message we receive from the culture is not only will you suffer from sexual harassment, if you squawk about it, you will suffer even more."

Schoeller added, "I do not believe in or support sexual harassment. Quite the opposite. I’ve seen the toll it takes on individuals and entire units. But I know it’s still here. Because SPC Guillen is not here."

Cruz, the student who organized the petition, said that as a professor Schoeller should have been chosen her words more carefully. “We are asking that she does hold herself accountable because there’s a certain way to say things and there’s a way not to say it, and she chose to say it the way not to say it. How we are all interpreting what she said is, 'if you’re going to go into the military you are going to have to face this and you’ll have to take it,'" Cruz said in an interview. 

Cruz added that while Schoeller has a First Amendment right to say what she said, she believes the lecturer violated the university's code of conduct and Title IX policy. "We feel she violated what the university stands for and so because of that she should be terminated or choose to resign, whichever comes first “

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