Adjunct professor resigns amid university’s response to dispute

photo by Dominique Hildebrand 
Students rush past Associate Professor of Criminal Justice Trudy Avery’s plant in the hallway leading into the Academic Hall photography labs and Thayer Hall fifth floor dorms.

A Point Park University adjunct photography professor resigned last week after a disagreement with the university’s handling of an alleged incident with a criminal justice professor.

Matthew Conboy was teaching his black and white photography class Feb. 2 on the fifth floor of Academic Hall when he and multiple students in the class said Associate Professor of Criminal Justice Trudy Avery interrupted the class to bring freshman photography student Tyler Calpin into her office.

Calpin said the class was critiquing his work outside the darkroom, which sits across the hallway from Avery’s office. Avery said she heard a crunching sound and looked outside her office and saw Calpin near her plant in the hallway.

According to Avery, Calpin stepped on a plastic tray under the two-foot tall plant. Senior journalism major Madison Taylor was in the class and said during a March 31 interview in the University Center that Calpin was trying to make room for other students in the hallway.

Conboy and Calpin said Avery exited her office, grabbed Calpin by the wrist, took him into her office and closed the door.

“I didn’t know what to do,”Calpin said in a March 30 interview in Lawrence Hall. “I’m not used to being grabbed by a professor against my will and dragged into their office for some ridiculous reason. That’s what gets me is like, it wasn’t even a legitimate reason. She thinks it is, but I don’t think it is.”

Avery said she did motion for Calpin to come into her office to explain the plant’s significance, but denied grabbing him and closing the door during an April 6 interview in her office.

“There’s no way under the sun that I would pull anybody in here and close the door,” Avery said. “I’m not going to pull anybody anywhere. I’m just not going to do that.”

When Conboy realized his student was no longer with the rest of the class, he said he opened her door and asked for his student back. Avery said she introduced herself to Conboy, who she thought was another student, as Conboy repeatedly asked to have Calpin back.

Avery said she did not realize the students gathered outside her office were part of a class. A PointWeb course search lists 15 students in the three-hour Tuesday class.

According to Conboy, Avery asked him to wait outside until she was done describing the plant’s significance to Calpin.

“After she told me again to leave, I got very close to her face,” Conboy said in a March 24 interview in Lawrence Hall. “I spent 12 years in the army, and I talked in a very quiet but authoritative manner, letting her know there would be serious issues, just through the tone of my voice. I did tell her to get her [expletive] hands off my student. I was able to say that in such a way. I just wanted to convey that she needed to let him leave.”

Conboy, Calpin and Avery each said Conboy then grabbed Calpin by the arm to escort him out of Avery’s office.

Calpin said he didn’t have much to say during the dispute and said he trusted Conboy’s judgment.

“I think Matt was trying to take control of the situation,” Calpin said. “I didn’t know what to do. I was kind of in shock. This woman grabbed me from my classroom and pulled me into her office. I would think I was just in shock. I don’t think I knew what was going on.”

Taylor said the situation was odd and that some of the class thought Avery was joking.

“It almost reminded me of a little kid being punished,” Taylor said. “I think Matthew was really trying to protect his class.”

Avery said Conboy began shouting, “You kidnapped my student,” loud enough that it could be heard at the other end of the hallway.

“That is the kind of accusation that you never live down,” Avery said.

She said the situation seemed like a “bad joke” as she said she saw Conboy smiling during the confrontation.

Freshman photography student David Williford was in the class and said in an April 9 interview in Lawrence Hall that Conboy spoke in an “authoritative” tone, but never yelled.

“He didn’t get loud, but you could tell his tone shifted,” Williford said. “It wasn’t shifting in a disrespectful manner; it was shifting in a frustrated manner. There was no shouting.”

Williford said he did not see Avery physically grab Calpin, but looked up and noticed Calpin was no longer with the rest of the class.

Freshman cinema production major Tim Tobias was also in the class and said during an April 7 phone interview Avery did not grab Calpin. Tobias also said the situation seemed under control throughout.

“All she did was like say, ‘Come here,’” Tobias said. “She was telling him it was dangerous to be around that plant. The student was confused; he was trying to go back to class, and she wouldn’t stop.”

Williford and Taylor said Avery then left her office and made her way through the students in the hallway to the Photography Department’s wet lab in room 503.

Avery said she was looking for other photography professors to discuss the events with, but instead encountered senior photography major Liz Berie, a face Avery said she sees frequently on the floor. Berie is the Globe’s sports photo editor.

Avery said she thought Berie was a teacher because of the amount of time Berie spends in the labs.

“She never said a word,” Avery said. “She was concerned, and I could see the concern. I don’t know how much of the shouting she heard.”

Berie said in an April 9 interview in Lawrence Hall that she did not hear yelling or shouting in the hallway and felt uncomfortable that Avery kept her for around ten minutes in the lab.

“She was telling me her life story,” Berie said. “Trudy never comes into the wet lab. When she came in, I knew there was something up.”

Conboy dismissed his class and left to teach his 1 p.m. History of Photography II class. He said he emailed his department chair, Thom Baggerman, that night and detailed the events of the afternoon.

According to the interoffice emails, Baggerman responded that night saying he would make Associate Provost James Thomas aware of the situation.

Six days after not receiving an update, Conboy reached out to Baggerman once again and a meeting was scheduled the next morning for the upcoming Thursday between both department chairs and professors involved in the dispute. 

Avery said the two never met, and Conboy said the meeting was cancelled.

Conboy said he then reached out to the Human Resources Department to see if he needed legal representation or an advocate present at their group meeting.

According to the interoffice emails, Conboy was made aware that his decision to go to Human Resources “resulted in an escalation” of the issue, requiring them to schedule Thomas into their group meeting. The meeting was not rescheduled.

Conboy was not sure if Thomas was involved before he went to Human Resources or not.

In an attempt to interview Thomas, the university said it could not comment on employment-related matters. Baggerman also said he could not comment in a separate request.

Conboy said he did eventually meet with Thomas in his office Feb. 24. Avery also said she had meetings with her superiors about the alleged incident.

Last Monday, April 4, more than two months after the initial alleged incident, Thomas and Conboy met again to discuss his decision.

Thomas gave Conboy a letter detailing his decision, which Conboy provided a copy of to the Globe.

The letter said the university conducted a “complete investigation into the matter” and took “appropriate remedial action to avoid similar issues in the future.”

“In the course of our investigation, it was noticed that your response may have escalated the situation,” the letter to Conboy said. “In the future you are advised to contact the Point Park Police immediately should you feel that any person is in danger.

“It is important for you know that confronting another faculty in front of students is not appropriate behavior in our collegial setting,” the letter continued. “While this is not a formal reprimand, I feel it is necessary to outline the University’s expectations of all faculty members to ensure an understanding of the requirements at Point Park. I do not expect you to confront this type of situation again. However, I would expect that your future actions will be free from any sort of physical contact or profanity.

Upon reading the letter, Conboy told Thomas he was resigning. He said in an April 5 interview in Lawrence Hall he was surprised with some inconsistencies in the letter and disappointed with the outcome of the investigation.

He canceled his Tuesday classes and met briefly with his History of Photography II class Thursday to inform them of his decision. He emailed his Black and White Photography I class later that day to inform them. 

Conboy said he has not heard from the university since his meeting with Thomas and said he planned on notifying the adjunct faculty union about his resignation.

“At the beginning of all this, I would have been very happy if there had been a personal one-on-one apology between Avery and my students,” Conboy said. “That would have just wrapped up everything. But now I just have this sense that nothing’s going to happen. All I know is that if I had done this to a student, I would have been on the street immediately. I would not have had time to clear out my belongings.”

Students in his History of Photography II class were disappointed when Conboy delivered the news and read the letter from Thomas that he passed around during class last Thursday.

“Everyone was very upset and shocked,” said junior photography major Hannah Altman in an April 7 phone interview. “We didn’t see this coming. He just flat out said it. He was very respectful. He respects the students as much as we should respect him. There are only a couple of professors that care and make an active effort beyond the classroom that he does. We just can’t believe that we’re losing him.”

The plant, which Calpin allegedly stepped on, is still in the hallway on the fifth floor of Academic Hall outside Avery’s office. She also has multiple plants in her office.

Avery said she has had heart and lung problems since she was young. Plants, she said, improve the environment around her. Her office is in the vicinity of the photography labs, which do contain various chemicals.

Avery said there is also a superstition behind the plants, similar to the canaries coal miners carried down into the mine tunnels that warned them of dangerous gases. She said her father first told her to always have plants near her.

“When they start to droop, get concerned,” he told her. “If I’m in an area where there are fumes and things like that, and I have some plants that will do what? Slump before I will, droop before I will and that was the purpose of that plant.”

Avery said she was surprised to hear Conboy, who has taught as an adjunct at Point Park since 2014, resigned.

“I started out as an adjunct, maybe 2002 or something like that, and when you work part-time like that, you have to have a lot of heart,” Avery said. “Talking could have gotten through it. So few things are irreversible, in that you can’t keep something from happening that has already happened. You can avoid similar incidents by having a discussion with or about, either with that person for whom it happened, or about that, and we didn’t do that.”

Junior photography major Sean Eaton was in Conboy’s History of Photography II class Thursday when he announced his resignation. He said the general consensus of the class was “pure shock.”

“I’m trying to find words to describe it,” Eaton said in an April 7 phone interview. “His goal is to make us better photographers. He does so much more than what’s done in the classrooms.”

Avery said she regrets the way things happened the way they did, but said more communication and talking could have worked things out.

“What is done is done,” Avery said. “It takes a lot of love, a lot of planning to do a decent job of what teaching expects. And sometimes, regrettable things happen that can’t be called back, but possibly could be talked about. There comes to be a place where minds meet.”

Calpin said he has moved on from the Feb. 2 class, but said working on the floor is uncomfortable at times.

“You walk out of that dark room and you feel like if [her office] door is open, and you stand too close to [the plant], you don’t know what could happen,” Calpin said. “It definitely is uncomfortable, especially if you’re trying to talk out there. You shouldn’t get close to her door or you shouldn’t be loud.”

Conboy told his students that Assistant Professor of Photography April Friges would help students finish the remaining work in the semester.

Along with talking with the associate provost, Berie and Conboy also said they filed official statements with the campus police. University police could not release the official reports due to their confidentiality.