Professor Arrested; Open Forums Being Organized to Address Grievances
by Frankie James Albin | published Oct. 27th, 2017
On April 13, 2017, a professor by the name of Peter Kiwitt in RIT’s School of Film and Animation (SOFA) within the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences (CIAS) was convicted of possession of child pornography. The police report noted the crime as “possessing sexual performance by a child less than 16 years old” with the report also citing that the offense occurred more than once and that the victim was a stranger. The police report can be found on the Greece Police’s sex offender registry under “Level 1 - Sex Offenders.”
This conviction resulted from a crime committed on June 5, 2015 which led to Kiwitt’s arrest on Dec. 21, 2016 in Greece, N.Y., not far away from RIT.
Kiwitt had been a film professor in SOFA before his arrest, having previous experience in Hollywood in a variety of positions before coming to RIT.
After not returning to his position as a professor the semester after his arrest, he reportedly sent out emails to alumni closest to him and past advisees claiming he had left RIT to pursue filmmaking full-time.
Kiwitt’s time as a professor came with a lot of talk among students about his alleged inappropriate verbal and physical behavior. In fact, two Title IXs were filed against him while at RIT.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. Title IX also covers sexual harassment and other sexual violence. Under Title IX, schools are legally obligated to respond to and take actions to fix these issues in their educational environments.
The university outlines many steps which must be taken in review of filed Title IXs, including that it will consider the severity and pervasiveness of the violation when assessing the action to be taken. More information on Title IX can be found in RIT’s policy manual.
Additionally, many students reported submitting teacher evaluations including comments and accusations about Kiwitt’s inappropriate behavior in and outside of the classroom.
Kiwitt had previously received tenure despite these Title IXs. Many negative teacher evaluations were submitted against him.
Kiwitt did not teach last Spring semester after his arrest, and his sudden absence was left unexplained to students and faculty alike. Students were the ones who found out first, when an alumni found Kiwitt’s police report and posted it on social media only a couple of months ago. Before then, students and faculty were unaware of the situation.
However, SOFA was either still allowing Kiwitt to do other work for the school or he continued with official work on his own.
Some alumni received emails from Kiwitt’s RIT email address concerning the SOFA student trip to Los Angeles, which Kiwitt had helped organize weeks after his arrest in December 2016. “If they were still allowing him to do things still involving students, even if it’s alumni, it bothers me a lot, not only with him but with the school itself,” said James Nevada, a SOFA alumni who graduated in 2014 and had received one of these emails about the trip last January.
When Reporter reached out to Malcolm Spaull, administrative chair of Film and Animation, he declined to comment.
All film professors within the college also declined to comment.
Bob Finnerty, chief communications officer of RIT University News, declined to comment in person.
He did however, email the following statement: "R
However, multiple students and alumni did comment on Kiwitt’s time at RIT. These comments ranged from claims that he was just a very strange person to reports of him acting inappropriately towards students, both verbally and physically.
Nevada noted Kiwitt as generally just a very creepy person, both in and out of the classroom. “Everybody just kind of had this feeling about him ... In some situations there was somebody that was asked what they would do after school and like if they wanted to go on an off-campus lunch or dinner or something like that.”
Savanah Bayse, another SOFA alumni who graduated in May 2017, had more specific examples of Kiwitt’s inappropriate behavior. “He would often comment on the looks of the girls in class, especially if they were not white. He would single out women specifically but he would make racist-ish jokes, ‘where you’re from’ jokes, and would make comments about women and say, ‘Isn’t that right so-and so,’ using a girl in the class as an example,” she said.
Reports of his behavior weren’t only verbal. “He would do anything from patting you on the back; I know he rubbed some people’s shoulders, and to a degree that made people uncomfortable,” Bayse stated.
“He walked by one of my friends who was at her locker bending over her stuff and ... he says, ‘Oh I was going to slap you on the ass but I can’t do that!’ and he kind of laughed and walked away,” she added.
Across RIT, teacher evaluations submitted by students are used in evaluating professors’ performance during the semester, at least in part. Some departments and colleges do extensive comparisons with a professor’s colleagues and other professors teaching the same or similar courses; other kinds of analyses include professor self-reports and improvement plans based on student feedback. However, this isn’t completely consistent across all departments and colleges within RIT and it can vary quite a bit, with the department heads and deans having the larger authority over this.
Considering the situation with Kiwitt, that inconsistency is a problem and what some departments and colleges do with teacher evaluations is definitely not enough.
Many students and alumni reported submitting teacher evaluations explaining the incidents they had with Kiwitt as well as the ones they had heard about involving other students. “Basically all of the women that I know that I talked about it to as well as other students were very direct and open [in their teacher evaluations] about how uncomfortable Peter made us and that we didn’t think he fostered a good teaching environment, as well as him discriminating against women of color,” Bayse said.
“I didn’t know my rights as a student and my rights to a learning environment that’s not sexist,” stated Bayse. “We weren’t surprised, and I think that is the most disappointing part. We had put up red flags, there had been the Title IXs, there had been the student evals ... as a student you trust the institution to do their part.”
“It makes me question how much weight the students actually have in talking about the teachers they have,” she concluded.
“I hope that in the future people pay more attention to what the students say in teacher evaluations, because we’ve been saying this in our evaluations for years,” said Camille Howard, a third year Film and Animation major.
While the situation so far hasn’t amounted to much of a response, there is something being done going forward. Howard is helping to organize an open forum for students in the college.
“Really we want help processing this person’s effect on our lives,” she said.
Howard has been working with Debbie Kingsbury, assistant dean of CIAS, to make this happen. Essentially, they want one session for female students specifically, and another for anyone else who feels effected “[to be able to] talk with someone from the counseling services ... and as a community air our grievances, and work towards a system of emotional reconstruction,” Howard said.
“I think what people want is an official response from RIT where we’re offered like concrete methods of 'now that this has happened to you, this is what we’re gonna do together’ so that it’s not just ... a bunch of kids who are dealing with it on their own instead of with an official person,” she continued.
The forums are meant to help students process how they are going to carry this, but it won’t really focus on what can be done to prevent these kinds of issues in the future.
However, the faculty is having a retreat based on gender discrimination in the program and industry this November, for the first time. Every SOFA faculty member is required to attend.
Last semester, a SOFA gender equality task force was created in partnership between students and faculty, with the goal of creating a better gender environment in SOFA. While there is no official structure yet because it is so new, there is progress being made.
While actual dates and plans for these open forums aren’t final yet, they are in the works and once they are complete, people in the SOFA community and those impacted will be reached out to. Camille Howard can be contacted at email@example.com for questions concerning these open forums.
As a student, awareness of your rights to a safe learning environment is crucial. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, sexual violence, gender discrimination, retaliation for reporting acts of discrimination or other related issues, you have the ability and right to report.
Stacey Derooy, RIT’s Title IX coordinator, can be contacted at 585-475-7158 or firstname.lastname@example.org and the Ombuds Office can be reached at email@example.com, 585.475.7200 or 585.475.2876.
Also, RIT Public Safety can be reached at 585-475-3333 or 585-205-8333 (Text).
A full list of resources can be found towards the end of RIT’s Title IX webpage.
Edited Oct. 27, 2017 at 5:25 p.m.: The article originally stated that Bob Finnerty declined to comment. He did, however, provide a statement via email explaining that RIT followed all current policies and procedures in this situation and that Kiwitt is no longer employed by the university.