Story by Megan Card and Katia Duszenko
The mid-academic year resignation of tenured history professor Robert Hilderbrand Dec. 14 required students at the University of South Dakota to accept late adjustments made to their schedules that included new instructors and the replacement of a cancelled course.
Prior to his resignation, Hilderbrand was served a subpoena Nov. 6 outside of East Hall to testify in a divorce filing between David Cowles, a May 2012 graduate of the Sanford School of Medicine, and his wife Sarah Cowles, a USD undergraduate, according to records obtained through Clay County’s Clerk of Courts.
In his sworn affidavit, David Cowles said he discovered his wife of nearly nine years was having an affair with Hilderbrand. A statement he defends with copies of email exchanges made between the two “which explicitly show the existence of their affair.”
David Cowles’ filed for divorce from his wife, Sarah Cowles, Oct. 22. Hilderbrand’s wife, Janet, a former USD employee, filed for divorce Nov. 26.
David Cowles’ affidavit in the divorce filing said Sarah Cowles was a student of Hilderbrand at the time of their affair.
South Dakota Board of Regents policy 1:23 expressly states that university faculty members are not permitted to have consensual relationships with any student “under their academic supervision.”
When asked if Hilderbrand ever disclosed his relationship to the university, Provost Chuck Staben said because it is a personnel issue, he could not comment.
The BOR policy also states that if a faculty member fails to disclose their relationship or does not abide by assurances made to an institutional chief executive officer, USD President James Abbott, the faculty member’s lack of action will result in termination of employment.
Again, Staben said it is a personnel issue and he said he preferred not to comment. He also said the way a person ends their employment with the university does not affect their eligibility for retirement benefits.
Judith Sebesta, chair of the history department, said she could not comment on whether or not a student-teacher relationship affected Hilderbrand’s decision to resign from his position.
Sebesta also said Hilderbrand did not have to give a reason to retire when he did, and to her knowledge, he was planning to retire at the end of the semester anyway.
Staben said it is unusual for professors to resign half-way through the academic year, but it does occur mainly for personal reasons.
Staben defined a personnel matter as one that is private to the employee and the employer.
All attempts made by The Volante to contact Sarah Cowles or Hilderbrand about his resignation or their relationship were met with no replies from the former professor and USD student.
In an email sent Jan. 16 to a Coyote News reporter in regards to discussing his departure, Hilderbrand responded that his retirement was “an intriguing process, with things about it that are (good) and bad.” He declined the interview, and said he was traveling and would “not be available for an interview any time in the near future.”
Hilderbrand was sanctioned by the university for inappropriate behavior with a female student about 15 years prior to the Cowles’ court case. According to a Feb. 26, 1997, article by The Volante, USD administration stripped him of his position as history department chair, his role as the Truman scholarship adviser and his position as sole honors program coordinator after finding him guilty of sexually harassing a female student.
The student’s identity was protected because investigation records were closed, said the former Affirmative Action Director, Roberta Hakl.
In October of 1996, the student signed a grievance, setting in motion the BOR’s Human Rights Complaint Procedure. The Regents’ policy dictated that the affirmative action office conduct an investigation.
A month later, Hakl’s investigation found Hilderbrand guilty of sexual harassment.
David Cowles’ filed affidavit also said he learned that Hilderbrand has had other affairs with former female students. Cowles, who left Vermillion last July for a one-year medical residency at the University of Kansas – Wichita, could not be reached after numerous attempts were made to contact him by The Volante.
In regards to the 1997 incident, Staben said he was aware of the situation, but this prior incident did not affect Hilderbrand’s decision to resign.
In accordance to the BOR, any alleged violation of the faculty-student consensual relationship policy is subject to investigation and discipline. Staben declined to comment on whether or not the university investigated Hilderbrand and Sarah Cowles’ relationship because it would be considered a personnel issue.
While Hilderbrand was stripped of a number of his positions after being found guilty of sexual harassment in 1997, Staben said he does not know if Hilderbrand will be selected for emeritus status, because that action is conferred through the BOR, and their next meeting is not held until March.
Because of the privilege of the title and position, Staben said the granting of emeritus status means the BOR will also look at all events that have occurred during a professor’s career.
Students are feeling the impact of Hilderbrand’s sudden absence. According to History Professor David Burrow, Hilderbrand was set to teach several classes in the spring. Two of them have been reassigned to other professors, and one has been switched out for a different course.
“Dr. Hilderbrand’s graduate course, a readings seminar, is being taught by Dr. Molly Rozum,” Burrow said. “Dr. Hilderbrand’s U.S. History II course is being taught by Dr. Sam Herley. Dr. Herley is also offering an upper division course, replacing Dr. Hilderbrand’s 400-level course.”
Hilderbrand’s 400-level course, a specialized class focused on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, was cancelled as a result of his resignation. In an email sent to students who were registered for the course, Judith Sebesta directed students toward Dr. Herley’s replacement course, which examines post World War II U.S. presidents.
Sebesta also said all of Hilderbrand’s former graduate advisees were reassigned.