By: Duane Paul Murphy
Tenured associate professor and former chairman in the Department of Media and Communication Studies at the Catholic University of America, Stephen McKenna, was dismissed on Thursday, December 13. The university’s Board of Trustees terminated McKenna’s employment for having a consensual sexual relationship with a female graduate student under his supervision. According to the university’s policy, this relationship between university faculty and the employees that they supervise is forbidden, regardless of consent.
According to a university statement published on the university’s main website, McKenna, who originally taught in the English department before transfering to the newly created Media Studies department over ten years ago in 2006, was looking to fill a vacant position of assistant to the department chair in 2013. This was three years after he was appointed chairman of the department in 2010.
McKenna personally chose a 24 year-old female graduate student from an undisclosed department to work for him in February, 2013. Two months after she was hired in April, the female graduate student and McKenna began dating and were starting to have a sexual relationship. In October, 2013 she resigned from her job as department chair assistant to take another job elsewhere on campus.
In April 2017, an anonymous source told the university about the allegations of a relationship. In July 2017, the employee herself contacted the university and provided information about her relationship with McKenna. After an internal investigation was conducted in December 2017, the University told McKenna that it would begin proceedings for his employment termination.
Two courses that were supposed to be taught by McKenna during the 2019 spring and winter semester, entitled “Lincoln’s Eloquence” and “The Rhetoric of Advertising,” were subsequently cancelled according to an email that was sent to all media studies students, faculty, and staff on Thursday, December 13 by the department’s new chairwoman, Niki Akhavan.
In another department-wide email sent out on Thursday, McKenna told students in a message forwarded by his former colleague, Alexander Russo, that he apologized for the situation.
“What I most regret is that I will no longer be teaching Catholic University students,” McKenna said. “Teaching has been the very center of my life for over two decades. I take it very seriously as a vocation, and have devoted everything to helping students grow in knowledge, virtue, and even faith.”
In an exclusive interview, McKenna said that the Me Too movement may have contributed to this particular situation even though there was no illegal activity ever involved.
“I think the #metoo atmosphere may have made it easier to justify the severity of the sanction, and may make it easier for those who don’t know me to read the university’s statements and believe I am a terrible person,” McKenna said. “But #Metoo is about criminal behavior. There was no crime here, nor was there even a complaint.”
Media studies students on campus expressed support for the university’s handling of the situation and Dr. McKenna’s time at the university.
“I think that the school handled it the way that they say they handle all other similar cases, which may or may not be completely true,” said senior media studies major Jake Walsh. “Regardless of this however, Dr. McKenna impacted my college experience in nothing but positive ways, and I have nothing but respect and appreciation for him.”
A meeting regarding this situation will be held again for students in January 2019.