A Plymouth State University Professor was not rehired after she testified as an expert witness for a rape defendant.
The Rape Case
In July 2018, 39-year-old Kristie Torbick of Lee, New Hampshire pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student while she was employed as a guidance counselor at Exeter High School. She was sentenced to serve 2.5 to 5 years in prison.
For Torbick’s sentencing hearing, her therapist Dr. Nancy Strapko testified and wrote a letter in support of Torbick. Dr. Strapko is a registered New Hampshire sexual offender treatment provider who had been seeing Torbick for over a year. Strapko was an associate professor emeritus and former graduate school health education coordinator at PSU.
Strapko attributed Torbick’s decision to engage in sexual acts with a minor to her upbringing by an abusive and alcoholic mother and being molested by one of her mother’s partners. Strapko insisted that Torbick was not a predator and wrote, “Kristie takes full responsibility for her actions with her ‘victim.’ I put this in (quotes) because I am aware that her ‘victim’ was truly the pursuer in this case.” Two other Plymouth State professors, Michael Fischler and Garry Goodnough, also wrote letters in support of Torbick.
Plymouth State University Reaction
Following the sentencing, Plymouth State University president Donald Birx and provost Robin Dorff released a statement saying that Strapko’s portrayal of the victim was “legally wrong and morally reprehensible.”
Birx stated, “I want to make the position of the University clear: Plymouth State University condemns in the strongest terms the actions of Ms. Torbick and supports the victim in this case. We take seriously the sacred trust between educators, students and families and, in the case of Ms. Torbick, that trust was broken. . . . What Ms. Torbick did as a former member of this community and a graduate of PSU is a violation of what Plymouth State University as an institution and as a community stands for and the values we teach to students every day. We all must work together to support this victim and anyone who suffers abuse in any form.”
Plymouth State University spokesperson Marlin Collingwood also stated that the writers did not represent PSU.
Plymouth State University decided not to rehire Strapko. Professors Fischler and Goodnough agreed to complete sexual assault training before returning to teach at the university.
Reaction to University’s Actions
Following Plymouth State University’s announcement that it would not rehire Strapko, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has spoken out against the decision. Zachary Greenberg, program officer in FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, has called the university’s actions as unconstitutional.
Greenberg wrote, “By imposing penalties on these professors, PSU runs afoul of the First Amendment and its own academic freedom policies. Although adjunct professors are without the benefits of tenure, public universities may not refuse to rehire them over protected expression, as such an act is retaliatory in nature and violates their First Amendment rights.” Critics could also note that requiring professors to engage in Soviet-style reeducation programs is an affront to academic freedom.
He continued, “Furthermore, state university professors generally may not be punished for their speech as private citizens, so long as the expression consists of matters of public concern and does not disrupt the educational environment. Both Fischler and Strapko were speaking as private citizens because they were not employed by PSU for purposes of providing analysis to the trial court judge, and a reasonable recipient of their communications would not believe they were made on behalf the university, especially one that explicitly disavowed the opinions of these professors in this matter.”
The University’s shameful breach of academic freedom may have a chilling effect on expert witnesses. That can only hurt the court system, which depends on experts to offer honest opinions, even if academic employers do not regard those opinions to be consistent with their political values.