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Ohio University prof's nude, topless photos trigger suit

Sunday, May 11, 2003

By Jane Elizabeth, Post-Gazette Education Writer

ATHENS, Ohio -- Eight years ago, Ohio University hired renowned photojournalist Larry Nighswander to direct its visual communications school, figuring his talent and industry contacts would add prestige to OU's acclaimed communications program.

Larry Nighswander.

On Monday, Nighswander was fired as director in the aftermath of a $3 million lawsuit filed by a student who says Nighswander used his position to coerce her into posing topless for him while they were alone in a locked campus studio.

And in a locked safe in his law office near campus, OU special counsel James Sillery has stowed numerous photos of other students -- completely nude or topless -- that were confiscated from Nighswander.

For now, no one will reveal how many students appear in those digital photos, which were obtained from Nighswander's Palm Pilot and copied onto a disk.

But because of Nighswander's international stature, the publicity surrounding the allegations not only has resulted in a flood of calls to OU officials from worried parents, but it also has schools nationwide rethinking their policies -- if they ever had any -- and the wisdom of using their own students as nude models.

Top administrators at Ohio University say they never knew the 55-year-old professor was privately asking students to undress for his camera, though many on campus say that other professors were aware of it.

"I did not know nor would I have tolerated it," College of Communication Dean Kathy Krendl said.

Administrators say they learned of Nighswander's habit of photographing nude students only after Nighswander asked Rebecca Humes, a senior from Youngstown, Ohio, to be his model late one Monday night last fall.

Humes is demanding $3 million to compensate her for "humiliation, mental and emotional anguish, anxiety and distress" caused by the former National Geographic picture editor and the school that hired him.

While Nighswander has lost his job as director of the School of Visual Communication, commonly known as VisCom, he will finish teaching his courses this quarter. He loses his director's stipend but keeps his salary of more than $80,000 a year.

He won't be back in the fall. In January, during an initially quiet campus investigation of Humes' complaint, Nighswander asked for a leave of absence for the 2003-04 school year.

Nighswander was alone Wednesday in his quiet, brightly lit office in Siegfried Hall. The story of his demotion had hit the front page of the campus newspaper that morning. He politely declined to speak with a reporter or be photographed.

Ohio University legal affairs director John Burns, left, and associate director Nicolette Dioguardi, discuss the lawsuit against Professor Larry Nighswander. Dioguardi described a "tense" meeting at OU between student Rebecca Humes, her father and Nighswander. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

During the university investigation, local newspapers quoted Nighswander's denials that he had touched Humes or behaved unprofessionally during the seminude photo session. He was quoted as saying he took photos of students unclothed or partly clothed to show them how to light a subject, and that professional nude models were hard to find around rural Athens.

William Smith, an OU attorney in charge of the investigation, said he dismissed the sexual harassment complaint after interviewing Nighswander and students who were present during at least 10 of Nighswander's nude photo shoots.

In a written statement, Nighswander's lawyer, Adele O'Connor, said:

"Please be advised that [Nighswander] cooperated fully in the investigation conducted by the university, provided a detailed written response, provided names of witnesses, and, after a review of all of the facts, the university dismissed the complaint. He has no additional comment."

Lawsuit statement

Becky Humes also will not comment, nor will her parents or her attorney, Ira J. Mirkin of Youngstown. But the details from her lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Columbus, Ohio, are lengthy and excruciatingly precise.

Humes, 22, a fine arts and visual communication major who's scheduled to graduate in June, provided a diary-like statement for the court.

On Tuesday, Sept. 17, she stated, "Larry" had asked her to model for him. She agreed, assuming he meant standard portrait photography.

On Tuesday, Sept. 24, when she showed up in the Putnam Hall studio for the session, Nighswander showed her photos on his Palm Pilot, including nude and seminude shots of fellow students she knew or recognized.

After shooting a few photos, Nighswander asked her to remove her sweater. She did so hesitantly, and then Nighswander "began unhooking my bra and he pushed it off my shoulders. I immediately covered myself with my arm. At this point, I was shocked and I began to get a little bit scared. ... He told me that I was gorgeous and that I had nothing to be ashamed of. I put my arm down and he shot a few pictures. As he was shooting, he continued with the grunting and moaning noises that he was making before he unhooked my bra."

Nighswander also touched her chest and her face, and mocked her when she refused to remove her pants. "You're the first girl I've had who hasn't wanted to take her pants off,' " Humes quoted Nighswander as saying.

Upset by the incident, Humes wrote an e-mail to the dean Sept. 25, "but I erased it instead of sending it because I wasn't sure if I wanted anyone else to know about this," Humes stated.

A friend later found her crying and encouraged her to seek counseling and report the incident.

Other complaints

Humes did make a report to a university ombudsman's office Oct. 4, according to the lawsuit, and was told, "OU had received several complaints similar to hers concerning Larry Nighswander."

Jeremy Boren, left, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the Nighswander and Humes investigation files for the OU Post. The senior from Cranberry is the special projects editor of the student-run daily newspaper. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

But university officials now deny that. During their investigation, they asked Nighswander to provide names of students he'd photographed. Those students did not complain about any inappropriate behavior.

There were no witnesses to Humes' reported incident, and the university closed its investigation in mid-March.

Days later, Humes' father visited the university's legal office with his daughter and asked to meet personally with Nighswander.

"It was tense," said Nicolette Dioguardi, an OU staff attorney and professor who set up the meeting in Nighswander's office.

On April 16, the student newspaper published a story about Humes' allegations after reporter Jeremy Boren, a senior from Cranberry, Butler County, was alerted to the investigation.

He filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the investigation files, and detailed the incident in subsequent stories. In her lawsuit, Humes charges that the university violated the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act by releasing the information.

But Boren, also a student in the communication school, maintains the article brought attention to a topic that needed it. "This is such a big issue," he said. "Is this something that should be going on on campus?"

Nude students?

Sexual comments and touching aside, should professors be allowed to shoot nude photos of their students?

That question has divided photographers, journalists, artists and professors, many of whom are friends or admirers of Nighswander's.

For decades, art schools have taught nude drawing as an essential part of the craft. Nude models are commonplace.

But not student models, said University of Pittsburgh studio arts department Chairman Michael Morrill.

"We call them life models," Morrill said, "and we do not hire University of Pittsburgh students."

At the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, "We have an unwritten policy of not using students as models ever, except when the model doesn't show up," said Shirley Yee, graphic design director. "Then we might use a student, but clothed only, never nude."

Naked students would be even more out of place in a photojournalism department, according to professors at the nation's top communications schools.

"In my department, this is absolutely not done," said Michael Sherer, president of the National Press Photographers Association and a communications professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

"There is no journalistic context for nude photography," Sherer said, and students modeling for professors "crosses the line," he said.

But some photographers criticized any such ban as an unreasonable and puritanical aversion to nudity and art.

Photojournalism can have an art element that can include nudity, said Getty Images photographer Chris Hondros, a Pittsburgh resident who works internationally and is a Nighswander fan and former student.

But faculty members shooting photos of nude students "could probably be construed as politically unwise in today's environment," he said.

"Do I think personally that teachers should be permitted to photograph students nude? Absolutely," said Pittsburgh freelance photographer Jeff Swensen, a former student in Nighswander's program at Ohio University. "But I'd have a problem if he were harassing her."

On Ohio University's campus, however, communications students are hesitant to publicly comment on Nighswander.

The field is tight and competitive, Swensen acknowledged, and Nighswander has called the shots in student careers for years.

Deana Dacone, a senior art major from the suburbs of Cleveland, works in a university photo lab and knows both Nighswander and Humes. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

Ohio University art major Deana Dacone, a senior from the Cleveland suburbs, knows both Nighswander and Humes. She sees nothing wrong with nude student models -- she'd pose for certain professors, if asked -- and finds it difficult to accept that Nighswander would behave inappropriately.

"You do not touch the models," Dacone said. "Everyone knows that."

Still, Dacone said, she doesn't know why Humes would invent the allegations. "I think she's putting a lot on the line," said Dacone, who was in the Student Photographic Illustrators club with Humes. "To have a lawsuit against a former National Geographic editor .... That's a big risk. This is her future."

On Friday, Dean Krendl released a draft of a new policy that would ban nude photo shoots involving VisCom professors and their students.

OU attorneys must respond to the Nighswander lawsuit by May 23 or request an extension.

Krendl, said the university would continue to study its policies.

Many academics worried that the allegations against such a highly regarded industry leader would hurt university programs and the profession in general.

"There are no winners here," said Sherer, who knows Nighswander. "It's an embarrassment, really."

Jane Elizabeth can be reached at jelizabeth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.

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