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‘It cannot be full consent’: OU drama alumna reports sexual relationship with professor who resigns amid Title IX inquiry

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"I thought they knew..."

Trigger warning: This story describes a sexual relationship between a professor and a student, and describes in detail an instance of sexual assault.

It had been more than six years when the actress posted “Me too” as her Facebook status.

October 2017 was a time of reckoning for the theater, film and media industries as the Harvey Weinstein scandal spurred the #MeToo movement across the globe. Actresses around the world were asked to post “Me too” as their status if they had experienced sexual misconduct or harassment in the industry.

In Chicago, an OU alumna was one of them.

Ellis message

Soon, the professor, whose office was on the third floor of OU’s Fine Arts building, saw the public status and sent the actress his first and only apology.

“For what it’s worth. I’m truly sorry,” he wrote. “#ididit I did it, and I’m ashamed. I hope you are well, and I’ve never blamed you. You’re right. You’ve always been right. All my best.”

That professor was Matthew Ellis, former associate professor of movement and acting. Nearly two years later, Ellis was investigated this September by OU’s Title IX office after that actress, Taylor Schackmann, a 2013 School of Drama graduate, filed a report alleging an inappropriate relationship with Ellis along with a sexual assault allegation.

Schackmann said she was prompted to file the report by School of Drama professor Alissa Mortimer, who told her that she “wasn’t the only one, and that this has been building for some time.”

Mortimer declined to speak with The Daily.

During the spring and early summer of 2011, Ellis and Schackmann exchanged sexual text messages and had sex three times before Schackmann ended things. At the time, Ellis was Schackmann’s professor, play director and academic adviser.

When Ellis was contacted by Title IX investigators late this September, Schackmann said investigators told her he admitted to the inappropriate relationship. 

Ellis was subsequently notified that he had violated OU's consensual sexual relationships policy and the university would pursue abrogation of his tenure, and he tendered his resignation Sept. 28, according to the Notice of Outcome letter sent to Schackmann by Title IX investigators confirming the violation of OU policy and Ellis’ resignation.

However, Schackmann said Title IX investigators told her his resignation is not effective until Dec. 31 but that he was immediately taken out of the classroom and not allowed back on campus. The office is still pursuing a sexual assault/harassment investigation against Ellis, but the Title IX office has no authority over non-employees. 

Experts say sexual relationships between professors and students can never be truly consensual because of the stark power dynamic. This is why OU’s policy is in place, which prohibits professors from having sexual relationships with a student they have an evaluative or supervisorial position over, and why many universities are leaning toward stricter policies in this area.

In the #MeToo era, sexual assault prevention campaigns have reframed more clearly the meaning of consent: The absence of a no is not a yes, and when a student’s grades are at stake it can become even more difficult to give a verbal no.

“When the power differential is that great, it cannot be full consent,” said Billie Dziech, a University of Cincinnati English professor who has researched and studied sexual relationships between students and professors as well as authored books on the subject. 

The Daily sent a Facebook message to Ellis and attempted to reach him by phone six times between Nov. 22 and Dec. 7, outlining the story it was pursuing. He never responded.

Schackmann said the course of her life was dramatically altered by Ellis’ abuse of power, and only in the past year has she been able to come to terms with what happened and begin to move on. 

“I thought they knew,” Schackmann said of various people during her time at OU. “I thought they didn’t care.”

'I'm just one of the special ones now'

Schackmann was raised in the Houston suburb of Spring, Texas, in a conservative, middle-class family. A ballet dancer for years, Schackmann always loved the arts and being creative.

It wasn’t until her sophomore year of high school when she discovered her love for drama and acting, as she participated in her school’s drama program. In a class of around 800, Schackmann found the place she could be herself.

Taylor Schackmann with high school friends

Taylor Schackmann, right, dances with high school friends in Spring, Texas, in the summer of 2009.

“I am from the South, from a town where football is everything,” Schackmann said. “And arts were not cool. It was just nice to feel like there was a community of people that I felt similar around.”

Schackmann acted in around eight plays and musicals in high school, and those successes fueled her choice to study to become a professional actor. She applied to a few schools and was offered a spot in OU’s conservatory-style drama program by then-director Tom Orr just days after her audition.

When Schackmann arrived at OU in August 2009, her family had been “devastated” by the economic recession of 2008. She would have to pay for her schooling on her own, so she soon began working in the Union food court and later worked for the School of Music office for the majority of her time at OU.

Schackmann said she always had one, but sometimes two to three jobs during college.

As she juggled her responsibilities, Schackmann said it was especially hard to meet the expectations of the school while also ensuring she had a place to live and food to eat. School of Drama students needed to be available outside of class for responsibilities like rehearsals, auditions and networking. Most students, she said, could do that.

Schackmann also said there was a culture of favoritism in the school, with professors and students often texting and having very friendly relationships that resulted in being invited to their houses and cast in their productions. Schackmann wasn’t a favorite, and she felt no one cared how hard she was working to be there.

Schackmann said that isolation and feeling of being misunderstood led to the situation with Ellis, who cast her as the lead female role of Athena in “The Odyssey” in November of her sophomore year. 

The next spring, Ellis was not just her director but also her professor and academic adviser. Rehearsals began, and Ellis gave his phone number to the cast. That’s how their encounters started.

“(He said,) ‘I think a text message is like little gifts,’ and gives us all his phone number,” Schackmann said. “So we start texting, and ... I was like, ‘I'm just one of the special ones now. This could be a really great thing for me.’”

‘You thought he was on your side’

Ellis graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a master’s in theater pedagogy with an emphasis in movement and fight directing in 2004, where he met his now ex-wife, Tonia Sina Campanella.

Ellis began his OU career in 2005, and for the past 14 years, he taught classes on movement for the stage, clowning and fighting. According to his LinkedIn, he was approved for tenure in 2011. 

Throughout his career, Ellis has acted and directed across the country, including at Dallas Theater Center, Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre and the Richmond Shakespeare Festival, according to his biography on the Society of American Fight Directors website. He has also served as the vice president of the society. 

Schackmann said Ellis was well-liked in the School of Drama, especially by students like her, who were not Orr’s favorites. 

“(Ellis) and Tonia presented themselves as a safe space for students,” Schackmann said. “He seemed nice, he seemed approachable ... You thought he was on your side.”

I truly just felt like I couldn't leave or say no’

At first, Schackmann and Ellis would text about day-to-day things, and he would help her with “The Odyssey” script. Then, it moved to her venting to him about her issues with school, money and family. He became someone she trusted and treated as a friend.

Eventually, Schackmann found out Ellis and Campanella, who was an adjunct in the School of Drama, had an open marriage, though being involved with students was against their “rules.” However, a line was crossed, and things became sexual between Ellis and Schackmann.

“I was 19. I was dealing with problems that were much older than me ... and I felt like I wasn't being listened to or taken seriously,” Schackmann said. “And so I found someone who would listen to me and would validate my issues ... and I think that's why I trusted Matthew Ellis and let him into my life in that way.”

Schackmann and Ellis’ relationship progressed that spring. They exchanged sexual texts and met for coffee at Cafe Plaid on Campus Corner about once a week, Schackmann said.

Schackmann said Ellis told her he would try to talk his wife into being open to him and Schackmann having a sexual relationship. He said he would explain that Schackmann was “different than other 19-year-olds,” she said.

“Because I was lonely and desperate and looking for validation, so I was absolutely willing to not tell anyone,” Schackmann said. “I didn't feel like I had a lot of really good friends. I didn't feel like anyone really cared about my well-being. So I was like, I might as well do this. Like maybe something will come out of it.”

Campanella, who is the founder of Intimacy Directors International and now lives in Chicago, told The Daily she had no knowledge of the relationship. 

“I was unaware at the time of a physical relationship with any student that occurred during our marriage, and cannot comment on the actions of my ex-husband,” Campanella said in an email.

Taylor Schackmann The Odyssey poster

Taylor Schackmann, 2013 OU School of Drama graduate, is featured on the poster for the spring 2011 production of "The Odyssey."

Dianne Armstrong, Schackmann’s classmate and roommate at the time, said she remembers noticing a change in Schackmann’s behavior that semester.

“Taylor was really looking forward to auditioning for ‘The Odyssey’ in particular, and ... when she was cast she was just super excited,” Armstrong said. “And then, once the show actually started happening, she started to kind of withdraw a little bit.”

Near the end of the semester, Schackmann said she went in for her sophomore evaluation with Ellis, Orr and a few other faculty members. 

When the meeting ended, Schackmann said she met Ellis at his office, where he told her he was trying to look up her skirt throughout the evaluation.

Ellis then “pushed” her onto the couch and performed oral sex on her. This came out of nowhere, Schackmann said, and was the first time they had any physical sexual interaction.

"Most of my sexual experiences with Matthew were very rushed, which in retrospect, I think was intentional,” Schackmann said.

When finals week came around, Campanella was going to be out of town, so Ellis invited Schackmann to his home.

Packing an overnight bag, Schackmann said she went to his house, where he offered her alcohol, though Schackmann was still underage, and things soon escalated. The two had sex, during which Schackmann said Ellis choked her, something she hadn’t consented to and didn’t want. He was 35 at the time, and she was 19.

“He didn't ask me if he could choke me,” Schackmann said. “And at that time, again, I didn't know that you could say no, I didn't know that that was a thing. I just didn't know how to advocate for myself and be like, ‘Hey, don't do that.’ And so it just happened.”

Afterward, Ellis told Schackmann to leave so he could get a good night’s sleep.

“So I drive to my apartment, I go to my room, I lie down in my bed, and I just think, ‘No one knows where I was. And no one knows what's been going on, and I am just alone in the universe with all of this,’” Schackmann said. “And that was very isolating.”

They had sex again the next night.

Schackmann stayed in Norman that summer because she was cast in a Sooner Stock play. As classes and “The Odyssey” were over and she wasn’t seeing him frequently, she was beginning to feel like she wanted to end things with Ellis. However, she said she was afraid of the consequences, considering he was a well-liked, tenured professor.

“At this point, he's almost like a mentor,” Schackmann said. “And he's still a professor, and he's still my adviser. (I thought,) ‘If I sever this relationship, what is going to happen to me for the rest of my career? And what will I lose?’”

That June, Ellis asked Schackmann to come to his office to have sex before he went on a three-week trip to Italy with Campanella. Schackmann told The Daily she hadn’t wanted to, but she went anyway, fearing the consequences of not doing so.

“He's like, ‘Hey, want to meet up for sex?’ And I'm like, ‘Well, not really. Like I kind of feel very used at this point,’ but I didn't know what else to say,” Schackmann said. “I felt a ton of pressure at that time to be there and sexually available. I truly just felt like I couldn't leave or say no.”

Schackmann went to Ellis’ office in the Fine Arts building during her lunch break. She recalls not many people were in the building, and thinks Ellis came to campus that day only to have sex with her.

While Schackmann said she did not verbally say no, she tried to make clear with her body language and her facial expressions that she did not want to continue. 

Schackmann said she has recently realized all of her sexual encounters with Ellis were nonconsensual due to the power dynamic, but she first realized their last encounter was rape around six months ago.

“I don't remember all of it, but I do remember that it was rape,” Schackmann said. “I am bent over his desk, I turn around, look at him over my shoulder, and I'm just like, glaring at him in the face. Pretty much everything in my body is saying ‘Get the fuck off of me.’ ... And he looked me in the face, closed his eyes and kept going.”

Schackmann said her body began to shut down, and they were not physically able to continue. She said Ellis asked her to “finish” him orally, and after she did, she left.

‘I didn't really want to believe that it could happen’

After that encounter and before leaving for Europe, Ellis sent her a naked photo via Facebook. She deleted the photo immediately and tried to move on.

Between then and August, Schackmann started a relationship with her now-partner of eight years Mitchell Reid, and she said she finally realized how toxic her encounters with Ellis had been.

In one final coffee meet-up in August at Michelangelo’s, Schackmann said Ellis discouraged her from dating Reid. After that, Schackmann switched academic advisers, further limiting their contact. 

Slowly, she began opening up to those close to her about what had happened, although she never went to an authority in the School of Drama or a university authority.

After having a leading role in a three-hour play her sophomore year, Schackmann thought it was only the beginning of her success in the school. However, she never got cast after that except in one student-produced show. 

Taylor Schackmann and classmates

Taylor Schackmann, right, with classmates at a party in fall 2011.

Several of Schackmann’s former classmates told The Daily that while they’re unsure if faculty members knew, the dynamic with Ellis was an open secret among students. 

Joey Hines, who graduated in 2013 with Schackmann, said even before she told him about her and Ellis, he had heard rumors they were involved during “The Odyssey.”

“I remember ... people questioning the nature of their relationship, and I guess I was a little naive,” Hines said. “I guess I didn't really want to believe that it could happen ... especially because Matthew was a teacher I personally had a good relationship with and actually kind of looked up to.”

“We all still took his class, and people still wanted him to like them because their grade was at stake,” Hines said. “Whereas with Taylor, she became someone I think people were inclined to be less associated with.”

‘When someone has the power to destroy your life ... you can't consent’

Many different things make a student more vulnerable to sexual encounters with professors, said Dziech, the Cincinnati professor who has written books on the subject. One factor is what department the student is in.

“If you're a (drama) professor, you have more ability to touch than you would if you were in an English class,” Dziech said. “You also have more ability to get inside kids’ heads than you were if you were in a math class. There's a kind of chaotic environment in most institutions that allow people access in different ways.”

Dziech also said freshmen and sophomores are often more easily victimized. In Schackmann’s case, Dziech said Ellis had much more power over her, which would further frighten and deter her from coming forward.

And it did. Only this year has Schackmann felt ready. Schackmann said she and Mortimer spoke on Sept. 20, and Mortimer filed a mandatory report with Title IX Sept. 22. On Sept. 25, Title IX investigators called Ellis, Schackmann said.

When asked about Ellis, the university said in a statement sent to The Daily via email from Public Affairs that a “faculty member” was placed on administrative leave pending abrogation of tenure proceedings on Sept. 27, five days after the Title IX report was filed. The statement said the university could not comment on specifics of the case, therefore it did not name Ellis in the statement.

Before the proceedings could take place, Ellis resigned on Sept. 28. 

Dziech said policies like the one Ellis violated, OU’s consensual sexual relationships policy, are necessary because of the stark power dynamic between a student and a professor.

“When someone has the power to destroy your life or seriously hurt you, you can't consent to be involved with them,” Dziech said. “It's as simple as that.”

According to OU’s policy, if Ellis hadn’t been in a supervisory or authoritative role over Schackmann, the relationship could have been allowed if his supervisor was aware.

However, some universities — including Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown and Penn — have started implementing stricter policies by banning sexual relationships between undergraduates and faculty/staff altogether, even if the employee has no power over the student.

The only Big 12 school with a complete ban on sexual relationships between students and faculty or staff members is the University of Texas, whose consensual relationships policy was revised in 2017.

When asked if the university has considered moving to a complete ban on these relationships, OU Public Affairs responded that the university is continually examining the Title IX office and what changes may be needed to “ensure compliance with federal regulations and adherence to best practices for personnel hiring, services, investigations, and victim advocacy.”

Dziech said she thinks the broader policy is the right direction for universities.

“I think there are three ways to look at this,” Dziech said. “Relationships between professors and students are dangerous to students, who have to live with it for the rest of their lives. They're dangerous to professors who do it because they can be terminated, no matter how tenured, (and) they can be sued, no matter how they declare their innocence. And they are dangerous to the institutions where they work.”

‘What happened to me wasn’t normal’

Reid and Schackmann have been together for more than eight years. As one of the people closest to Schackmann, Reid has seen firsthand the impact those six months have had on her life.

Taylor Schackmann and Mitchell Reid

Taylor Schackmann, 2013 School of Drama graduate, at a college party with her partner Mitchell Reid, 2012 School of Drama graduate.

Many of Schackmann’s greatest struggles were exacerbated by the relationship, including anorexia and other mental health issues, Reid said. “(It affected her) immensely, and in all aspects of her well-being.”

Dziech said it is not uncommon for it to take years for someone to move on from encounters like Schackmann had with Ellis.

“It's like PTSD,” said Dziech, speaking in general about cases like Schackmann’s. “You can go along and then all of a sudden you wake up and say, ‘Oh, my God ... What happened here?’ She might blame herself, she might feel terrible about herself, she might be haunted by things that happened. A lot of the time ... it can take years for someone to say, ‘This is what happened to me.’”

Both of Reid’s parents are professors, and he said it immediately struck him that the encounters were wrong, even if Schackmann thought she was consenting at first.

“I don't believe that it's possible for a student and a teacher to have a consensual relationship,” Reid said. “It's a false consent because (the students) don't understand the implications, and the professor does ... I hesitate to even call it a relationship. It's manipulation, it's gaslighting, it's abuse.”

As the years passed, Schackmann said she came to understand that what happened to her was not her fault. However, she stopped acting for three years after graduation because she so closely associated acting with Ellis and with feeling ostracized by the department.

She started acting again at 25, but when news about sexual harassment within the School of Drama surfaced in 2018, the trauma came up again. She considered coming forward, but she didn’t feel she was ready yet.

In the summer of 2018, scandal surrounded the School of Drama as harassment allegations emerged against John Scamehorn, a former donor to the school and professor emeritus. His emeritus status was revoked, and more information began to surface.

Orr was accused of enabling Scamehorn and of sexual harassment himself. He was investigated by Title IX, and while not found to have violated any policies, he stepped down as director, though he continues to be a professor.

When The Daily reported on allegations against Orr, an estimated 500 copies of the paper were stolen from buildings in the fine arts area of campus, and then-interim director Judith Pender sent an email to drama faculty calling the story a “horrible smear campaign” that contained “inaccuracies and outright lies.”

Last winter, things worsened for Schackmann. She stopped eating and started having suicidal ideation. This April, Schackmann was admitted to the Chicago Behavioral Mental Health Hospital.

Though Schackmann did not want to go, she said six days spent in the all-women’s ward was “the best thing” she ever did. 

“The biggest thing I got out of it was, ‘If you don’t deal with this stuff, you’re going to die,’” Schackmann said. “It really forced me to be honest about the fact that I wasn’t over it, and I had almost a decade of trauma stored in my brain that I hadn’t processed, and that was really affecting my everyday life.”

Today, she is regularly seeing a therapist and taking medication.

Schackmann said one of her biggest issues with the way sexual harassment and sexual assault are talked about is that people focus on the perpetrator and largely ignore the system that enabled them to prey on someone.

“There's a reason these relationships developed or were allowed to develop, were allowed to flourish and keep going, is because ... people didn't care enough to stop them,” Schackmann said. “So while I'm glad that Matthew has now been removed ... until we really talk about the core issues of this, it's never going to get resolved.”

Both Schackmann and Reid hope that by making her story public, today’s students, both in OU’s School of Drama and beyond, gain a better perspective of those in charge and make sure things like this don’t happen again.

“Eventually, I realized through talking to other actors (in Chicago), that what happened to me wasn't normal,” Schackmann said. “And that the School of Drama wasn't normal.”

“It was abusive. And maybe I didn't hate acting — maybe I just hated that I had been raped and abused, and no one cared.”

Emma Davis contributed to this report. 

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, below is a list of available resources. More resources are also available at projects.oudaily.com/finding-help

OU Advocates: 405-615-0013 *Confidential Resource*

Norman Rape Crisis Center Hotline: 405-701-5660 *Confidential Resource*

OU-Norman Student Counseling Services: 405-325-2911 *Confidential Resource*

Tips can be sent to The Daily at the following email address: Dailynews@ou.edu

Jana Hayes is a senior reporter on The Daily's news desk. She is a journalism senior and has worked at The Daily since her freshman year, having held several reporter and editor positions on both the news and enterprise desks.

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