Metro

MassArt professor says school is ousting him after student complaints

Globe Staff/file

Experimental filmmaker and professor Saul Levine said he’s being forced out by administrators at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design following student complaints about an in-class screening of his graphic 1989 film “Notes After Long Silence.”

In an emotional Facebook Live video posted Thursday, Levine, 74, describes a Feb. 8 meeting with administrators as a “complete ambush,” where he said he was accused of harming students by showing the film, which contains images of Levine naked and having sex with his partner.

“The people in that room all agreed that I had committed sexual harassment by showing my class this film,” said Levine, who said he was leaving after 39 years at MassArt. “They couldn’t do anything about it because the complaints were anonymous. To be honest, I don’t get it. I admit I showed it.”

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In a statement to the Globe, MassArt president David Nelson declined to comment on specific questions about Levine “as our employee records are confidential.”

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“As an art and design college, academic freedom and creative expression are essential to MassArt’s mission,” Nelson said in the statement. “We believe that freedom and creativity thrive on a campus where students, faculty, and staff respect the dignity of one another and practice collegiality. When respect and collegiality are stifled, both freedom and creativity suffer.”

Levine could not be reached for comment.

A spokeswoman for the school said he remained employed at MassArt and is expected to continue through the semester, but would not provide further comment.

Levine’s announcement follows the abrupt retirement in early March of photographer Nicholas Nixon, who stepped down amid claims of inappropriate behavior.

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In a March 22 letter to the MassArt community, Nelson did not describe the allegations against Nixon, who he said is being investigated under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender.

“Ensuring a safe and healthy campus climate has been my priority since I became MassArt’s president,” wrote Nelson. “We take reports of any form of sexual harassment or any other discriminatory behavior that violates our Equal Opportunity policies very seriously.”

It is unclear whether there had been previous student complaints against Levine or whether he is the subject of a similar investigation.

Kim Keown, a former MassArt student who said she first saw the film years ago with no warning about its graphic content, said cautionary notice is the critical issue.

“Saul has bullied and abused other faculty and staff at MassArt for years,” said Keown, who now works as a studio manager in the school’s film area. “I have nothing against the film or this kind of artwork being made or shown, but with [no] warning [it] can make one uncomfortable and unsafe. I was his student; and I did not speak out. If I had, back then, I would have been ridiculed.”

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Levine, whose avant garde films were showcased at the Harvard Film Archive in 2015, said he decided to screen “Notes After Long Silence” and his 1973 film “The Big Stick/An Old Reel” to his senior thesis class last semester to illustrate different approaches to post production.

“I thought I would show two of my own films that also deal a lot with editing structures and some of the issues I saw coming up in their films,” said Levine, who did not say whether he’d warned students of the film’s graphic contents. “It’s a complicated film that uses footage drawn from the life around me. “

Levine said he did not know how many students had complained. He said the school had previously defended him against claims he taught “gay pornography,” but administrators berated him during the February meeting “about the safety of students, and why I was harming them.”

Levine, who said he was accompanied at the meeting by a union representative, added that there are “correct concerns about abuse of authority on campus and their relationship to sexual harassment.”

“That’s a good thing,” he said, but added that his ouster amounted to a “policing of the curriculum” where students are being “infantilized…told that only the least objectionable can be talked about or shown.”

“We’re seeing an attack on academic freedom,” said Levine, who said he decided to step down rather than mount a costly legal battle against the school. “My work doesn’t harm anyone.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay