Editor’s note: This story contains a comment from an unnamed professor in OU’s School of Drama who worried for their job if their identity were known. The identity of the individual is known to The Daily.
Tom Orr, former director of OU’s Helmerich School of Drama and current performance professor, has been accused by multiple former students of sexual harassment while OU administrators continue to support his position as a faculty member despite numerous Title IX investigations into the allegations against him.
An OU Daily investigation found at least two School of Drama alumni filed sexual harassment complaints against Orr with the university’s Title IX office that resulted in no actions taken against him. Multiple other alumni who did not file Title IX complaints spoke with The Daily about personal experiences with Orr inside and outside the classroom, saying his behavior was sexually charged and emotionally harmful.
Orr resigned from his position as director Aug. 16 after a Title IX investigation into the School of Drama administration’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against former professor emeritus and donor John Scamehorn. Orr’s resignation was “in support of necessary changes within the School,” but he remains a “valued member of the faculty,” according to a statement released after Orr’s resignation by Mary Margaret Holt, dean of the Weitzenhoffer College of Fine Arts.
“As someone who's been Tom's student ... I don't have a lot of faith that significant change will happen,” said Brynne Frauenhoffer, a 2014 School of Drama graduate who filed a Title IX complaint against Orr in June. “He didn't harass me as head of the department. I was harassed in the classroom setting, and I witnessed his harassment of other students in the classroom setting.”
A professor within OU’s School of Drama, who asked to remain unnamed, told The Daily they had more than a dozen students come to them over the years with complaints of verbal sexual harassment from Orr.
‘That felt like crossing a line’
Zak Houara, a 2017 School of Drama graduate, participated in a fall 2017 Title IX administrative review of the College of Fine Arts when he filed a sexual harassment claim against Orr in December 2017. Houara shared with The Daily an email response from the Title IX office March 21 saying there was not “a preponderance of evidence” that Orr had violated the university’s sexual harassment policy.
One incident Houara reported to Title IX office was Orr asking him questions regarding his sex life while the two were sitting on a bench outside Old Science Hall on the North Oval, the building that houses the drama department. Houara said this occurred in spring 2016.
Houara said Orr asked him how often he had sexual interactions, what positions he preferred and told him other students said Houara “got around a lot.” Houara said Orr told him he was asking as his friend, not his professor or director. However, Houara said he made it clear he was very uncomfortable with Orr’s comments and felt it was a completely inappropriate conversation.
“I mean, I was very uncomfortable that the director of my school is asking me these detailed questions that I don't even talk to my friends about,” Houara said.
Frauenhoffer filed her complaint in the wake of the Scamehorn allegations coming to light this summer, but her complaint consisted of her experiences in a class she took with Orr in the fall of 2013 called professional preparations. She said she perceived Orr’s teaching of the class was based on the students’ appearances.
Frauenhoffer said Orr told her she would never be seen as attractive in the film or theater industries, but said to her directly in front of her classmates, “I am so attracted to you, you have no idea.”
“I thought, well, it has to be coming from a helpful place, but even in the moment I knew that that was inappropriate for a professor to say to a student ... that you are attracted to her,” Frauenhoffer said. “That felt like crossing a line.”
Orr also told Frauenhoffer in front of classmates she needed to buy a more expensive strapless bra after watching her audition for a role, and told her she needed to weigh 135 pounds but say she weighed 125 pounds, Frauenhoffer said.
“There was this excess focus on sex appeal and appearance, far more than passion or talent or enthusiasm,” Frauenhoffer said. “And those are my memories of (Orr’s) class. I don't remember anything about making art. I remember how appearance-focused it was.”
Frauenhoffer, who reported Orr’s comments about her body, said she received an Aug. 22 email, which she shared with The Daily, from Title IX telling her the recent investigation looking into Orr and the school’s administration was closed, but with no information about Orr resigning or telling her how her report impacted the investigation.
“I felt like it was a very impersonal way to conclude something so personal and vulnerable,” Frauenhoffer said. “I spoke with one of the Title IX office members and we had a very personal conversation about things that have really hurt me ... and to conclude that process with a form email I thought was so disappointing.”
Kelsey Ray, a 2012 School of Drama graduate, also said she experienced and witnessed Orr’s sexual harassment in the classroom, though she did not file an official report. Ray also took Orr’s professional preparations class in the spring of 2012.
Ray said one day, not many students showed up to class, so Orr took them to the campus Starbucks and bought them all coffee. They then sat down in the courtyard of the Oklahoma Memorial Union for class, and during this time Orr said his favorite students were always the ones “he’d like to fuck,” Ray said.
“At the time you think, ‘Well, this is part of acting, you are the product and your body is the product as well,’” Ray said. “And I think a lot of acting schools fall into that pit of this fallacy idea of, ‘If the students can't handle it at school, they won't be able to handle it in the real world.’ I would say that Tom very much subscribed to that idea.”
Gabrielle Reyes, a 2016 School of Drama graduate, said during her time at the school, she felt Orr took advantage of the power he had as director and she witnessed Orr make sexual comments and belittle students, especially women, about their bodies.
“I'm paying for someone to teach me something,” Reyes said. “Not to belittle me, not to make me feel uncomfortable multiple times, not to feel like I can't talk to the person who is really shaping who I am going to become as an adult ... We were at the most pivotal moment of our lives. We were at the most vulnerable we've ever been. That was taken advantage of.”
OU Title IX Coordinator Bobby Mason told The Daily in an email statement that the summer inquiry the office conducted into allegations surrounding the College of Fine Arts did not substantiate a policy violation, but said he could not go into the specifics involving Orr. He also said the university’s sexual misconduct, discrimination and harassment policy is “not intended to serve as a general civility code or standards for appropriate professional conduct.”
Mason said there are several reasons Title IX would conclude an individual has not violated the sexual misconduct, discrimination and harassment policy.
“It can mean that there was not enough information to substantiate the allegations, or it could determine that conduct, even if it occurred, could not be so severe, pervasive or persistent, objectively and subjectively offensive that it alters the conditions of education or employment or institutional benefits,” Mason said in the statement.
According to OU’s sexual misconduct, discrimination and harassment policy, sexual harassment is “unwelcome and discriminatory speech or conduct undertaken because of an individual’s gender or is sexual in nature and is so severe, pervasive, or persistent, objectively and subjectively offensive that it has the systematic effect of unreasonably interfering with or depriving someone of educational, institutional, or employment access, benefits, activities, or opportunities.”
The policy also lists examples of sexual harassment, including: “A professor engages students in discussions in class about their past sexual experiences, yet the conversation is not in any way relevant to the subject matter of the class.”
Alan Berkowitz, an independent consultant in sexual harassment and assault prevention, said in general, it is unacceptable for a faculty member to ever discuss personal sexual matters with a student. He also said in a case where there are multiple similar accusations, the university must have a very strong case if it decides that the accused party is not guilty.
Berkowitz, whose specialty includes training colleges and universities in sexual harassment and assault prevention, said multiple claims are more believable than one, make a stronger case and show a pattern of abuse.
“So if the university is saying that despite the fact that there are multiple current and past charges, they do not believe he's guilty, they have to make a stronger case because they're not only reviewing one incident, they're reviewing a pattern of incidents,” Berkowitz said.
The Daily reached out to Provost Kyle Harper, who was made aware of the allegations against Orr by Title IX, asking whether the allegations against Orr were false or unfounded and what the provost’s office would be doing to support a change in the environment of the School of Drama.
“The health and well-being of our students is our top priority. We take these matters extremely seriously and continue to encourage faculty, staff and students to come forward with concerns,” Harper said in an email statement sent to The Daily.
The Daily attempted on several occasions, once by phone and three times by email over the course of three days, to reach Orr for comment. He did not respond by a given deadline of 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 15.
‘I just want better for the OU School of Drama’
Orr plays a role in students getting the internships and jobs they wanted through his widespread connections in the theater industry, Houara said. He said this made Orr someone students looked up to and wanted to please in order to receive his favor and assistance in landing a job, even when they felt he was inappropriate.
“Tom pinned himself as a powerful man that at the snap of his finger could ruin your career,” Houara said.
Frauenhoffer said Orr told them he was preparing them for the real world of acting, but she is now a playwright in the professional theater world and said it doesn’t have to be how Orr depicted it.
“If (Orr) wanted to teach us that lesson, that the industry can be hard, he could have done it from a more sensitive and appropriate place without remarking so much personally on our physical attributes and his sexual reactions to them,” Frauenhoffer said.
Houara said there was a lack of transparency in the school that made students feel like they wouldn’t be heard if they did come to anyone within the school with complaints.
One example of this was in February 2016, when preliminary investigations into Scamehorn began. Houara said he attended a meeting held by Holt with the entire School of Drama in which she told the student body not to talk to anyone about the allegations, especially not journalists, and to let the administration handle it.
“Which is really not the way to approach it,” Houara said. “If you're wanting to be fully transparent, you need to say, ‘These are the actual steps we're taking to ensure this never happens again, that we will listen to the students whenever they come forth with anything, that we're actually going to try and protect them rather than ... protect a donor.’”
Ray said Orr believed his teaching style was to break students down so they could bounce back. She said this may have worked for a few, but for many, including herself, it didn’t. Ray said she left the world of acting after graduation with self-esteem issues as a result of Orr’s methods and felt better once she was out.
Ray said she believes school is a place where students should be able to find themselves and not be torn down by their professors to “prepare you for the real world.”
“I feel like a professor can lead you to your strength without invalidating you,” Ray said. “When someone in a position of power tells you something, you believe them. And Tom had power.”
Frauenhoffer is speaking out because she wants to make up for not standing up for herself or her classmates while they were students and because she believes that Orr’s behavior emotionally harmed her and other students, she said.
“I really hope things change for the better,” Frauenhoffer said. “Tom, he did get me scholarships, he did attempt to mentor me in some ways and I don't think he's an evil person, but nonetheless, I have concern for the present and future students because of his blind spots as to how he affects them. It doesn't come from a place of revenge or anger, it's just I want better for the OU School of Drama. I learned a lot from that place, but I also took away a lot of baggage and I just want better for Sooners, period.”
When Frauenhoffer found out Orr had resigned from his post as director through friends, she said at first she was hopeful the School of Drama would be changing for the better. However, she said she was disappointed when she realized he was retaining his professor position.
Even though the investigation did not determine there was any policy violation, Holt said she believes the College of Fine Arts requires additional sexual harassment training, which will be conducted by OU’s Title IX and tailored to the world of the arts. Holt said Orr will join her and the entire college’s faculty and staff in these efforts.
Houara said he found it insulting when Holt said Orr would still be “a valued member of the faculty.”
“Her saying he'd still be a valued member of the faculty is a slap in the face to everyone who came forward with allegations against Scamehorn and (Orr),” Houara said. “It's more or less saying, ‘You know what? We hear what you've said, but we don't care that much. We still trust this guy.’”
Though the School of Drama did participate in past investigations, Ray said she didn’t feel the school did as much as they could have in terms of consequences.
“I don't begrudge him a job and I don't wish him ill, but I also feel like it was a half measure that was taken,” Ray said. “It feels like they knew someone needed to take the fall for John (Scamehorn) and so (Orr) took the fall, but not really ... He's not director of the School of Drama, but he's kept on as an esteemed colleague, and he still will be teaching. Will the inappropriate things he says go away, will the favoritism go away? I really don’t know.”
In the wake of allegations against Scamehorn and Orr coming to light in recent months, Reyes said prospective OU School of Drama students have contacted her to ask if it would be safe for them to attend.
“I told them honestly, it's a great program, you'll learn a lot, but Tom Orr is a sickness,” Reyes said. “He is a disease, and he will continue to belittle and sexually harass ... (students) until OU does something about it.”
Correction: this article was corrected to reflect the proper spelling of Zak Houara’s last name and Kelsey Ray's correct graduation year.