Alumni, current students speak out against Title IX's final reports, claims

After the university fired Gregory Gaston, former geography professor, UNA students and alumni sent The Flor-Ala their thoughts and feelings concerning Title IX’s final report and the womens’ claims against Gaston.

Jessica Coffey, a 2018 UNA graduate, put together the advocate letter for Gaston. She said she felt Payton Gilchrist’s comments in a Flor-Ala article did not provide enough context to the events she described.

Coffey wanted the public to have a chance to learn about other student perspectives on Gaston.

Gilchrist was one of the women that filed a Title IX claim against Gaston.

Coffey said she was aware that there were other women who came forward with claims against Gaston. She said her statements apply to all of those, as well.

Amanda Gallagher, who graduated from UNA in 2013, made a claim against Gaston, as well, according to AL.com

Editor’s note: The letter is fully and exclusively endorsed by Spencer O’Neal, Pam Bishop, Olivia Miller Gist, Josh Grigsby, Austin Mize, Ryley Breeding, Andrew Weis, Stacy Sims, Nathan Flippo, Tora Norheim, Lydia Rodriguez and Jessica Coffey.

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Dear Editor,

In The Flor-Ala article, “Gaston found in violation of Title IX policies, report recommends termination,” it seems to villainize the professor. However, more information can provide a more accurate depiction of Dr. Gaston’s character.

The university labeled him a threat by placing him on trespass notice. However, the following passages will reveal the truly remarkable individual that is Dr. Gaston.

The questionable ethics surrounding the case which transpired against Gaston led to the collaboration of this letter. Writing this document was further encouraged by the overwhelming numbers of people who avidly support this man.

The following passages are students’ accounts describing the positive influences upon their lives by Gaston while he was employed at UNA. Among these students are females who have worked closely with Gaston.

They attest that this situation was handled poorly by both those who accused Gaston and by the university.

Furthermore, these female students express that Gaston is an exceptional professor, person and friend. What follows is my experience with Gaston, as well as that of my peers.

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I am Jessica Coffey and I graduated from the UNA Geography Department in May 2018.

I have known Gaston since taking my first class with him in 2015. Since then, I have had the privilege of taking many more of his classes, traveling with him twice to the western United States during field study courses, attending conferences with him, working closely with him for my independent research and working with him on his remote sensing team.

I also credit this man for originally motivating me to pursue graduate school. I consider him the best type of teacher: one that not only effectively instills a love of learning within the students, but also provides students with valuable life lessons and friendship.

During the 2017-2018 school year, Gaston agreed to mentor my senior capstone. My research shared many parallels with the work of my friend Payton Gilchrist, who also did research with Gaston. As a result, we all worked very closely together.

He was supportive of us and was an invaluable resource. I felt comfortable and fortunate to have him as my mentor.

In November 2018, many people from our department traveled to a conference and, as specified in the previous Flor-Ala article, Gaston indeed fronted the cost of our student hotel room. Upon returning to UNA, we attempted to repay Gaston for his kind gesture.

In response, he told us that we were hard-working students that displayed exactly the academic behavior he wanted to support. Thus, he felt repayment unnecessary.

Gaston never reminded us of this favor or expected anything in return. There was no intention to ‘hold power over us’ as quoted in the Flor-Ala article. This was simply another genuine gesture from a good man.

It should be brought to the reader’s attention that one of the women who made filed a Title IX claim against Gaston voluntarily accompanied the professor on an elective trip outside the country, just following the dates that student claimed the misconduct took place.

This begs to question how serious the impact of the interactions with Gaston really were. At the very least, this is an interesting and noteworthy decision of that student.

Furthermore, I would like to address the morning on which Gaston was sent home due to the Title IX accusation during our field course in June 2018.

The students were required to stay in Utah with a UNA English teacher, while Gaston and the field course assistants, including myself, were sent home. I witnessed the outrage of the nearly 20 students after seeing their professor unfairly being sent home. The students remained out west to finish the rest of their field course, while continuing to contact us for reassurance and to express how much they valued Gaston.

Gaston was taken down for an unjustified cause. For this reason, we feel compelled to write this letter and express this man’s value as a role model, mentor and friend to many students.

This marred ordeal has led to a loss for the university and for the future students who will not have the opportunity to benefit from his lessons in school and in life.

It is fascinating how the man accused of being a ‘threat’ and ‘oppressive’ as quoted in the previous Flor-Ala article, had an extraordinarily positive influence on my life.

This situation has been grossly manipulated at the expense of an honorable man. I have considered myself a friend to those who submitted the Title IX and I am also close with the numerous people who continue to support Gaston.

These people recognize the exaggerated and occasional ludicrous statements against Gaston. Allow these people to express this themselves.

The following are a collection of statements from both students and alumni who felt the responsibility to endorse Gaston as a positive influence on their life, as a professor, supporter, and friend.

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Lydia Rodriguez, geography student

“He was being himself when he was teaching. His personality came through to me as a student in his class. It brought him joy seeing his students take his lessons and develop them in their own ways into the research they were passionate about. This affected me so deeply.

My first time back in school, after a two-year hiatus due to illness, I took one of his classes and that was my turning point. Until then, I did not think I wanted to continue college, but his class and his passion carried through to me. He gave me a reason to get up and get out of bed each day and work.

They are chronic, incurable illnesses, but Dr. G made all the difference in starting this upward spiral of motivation for me to figure out a way to live with my illnesses. My GPA after my first attempt at college while dealing with the challenges of my health issues was 1.67. Now that I am about to graduate, it is a 3.5 and that is solely because of Dr. G’s inspiration and encouragement.

I developed a personal relationship with him and he helped me get through my bad days. He said if you must miss class because of your illness, we are going to work together and get you through this.

He not only motivated me from the beginning but continued to do so throughout college. Even now, I can still go to him and say ‘Hey, remember all my crazy ideas that I wrote off, and everyone else wrote off, but you did not Dr. G? Now those ideas have grown and developed and will be published. He was so glad that his young student was excited enough to learn and contribute to science. That this sick person, who used to be a drain on society, was now able to learn and give back to world.”

Nathan Flippo, geography student

“I have known the Gaston family since elementary school. Dr. Gaston has always been encouraging, insightful and frank whether offering career and academic advice as my professor or personal advice as my friend.

I have traveled with him through 22 states on various field courses spanning months worth of driving and camping together. We have eaten steaks at restaurants and cans of beans around campfires, frozen, burned and waded through mud and snow together.

When I have needed help, he has gone out of his way to provide it and when I have been out of line, he has told me so which I consider the marks of a good mentor and friend who wishes to see his students and compatriots grow and see success.”

Tora Norheim, geography student

“I have known Dr. Gaston professionally and personally, and I have always felt comfortable around him and trusted him. I’ve gone on school trips with him across America and I always felt safe. I have become close with him and his family and all of them are kind and genuine people. I feel fortunate to have known him as a mentor and as a friend.”

Andrew Weis, geography student

“Dr. Gaston is one out of only a handful of professors I’ve had that has legitimately expressed interest in my success and dramatically influenced my work ethic in the Geography Department.”

Pam Bishop, geography department alumni and secretary

“As long as I have been at UNA, he motivated geographers. He was a pioneer in our department giving students the opportunity to have hands-on experience in the field and I am one of them.”

“I attribute every bit of that to him. We have worked together for 16 years. Over his time at UNA he inspired many students to further their education beyond undergrad. His philosophy was that we are there for our students.”

Olivia Miller Gist, geography department alumni

“I’ve known Dr. Gaston for over 13 years. I’ve spent countless hours with him and even ridden as copilot on a two-week field course. This man is not a predator or a threat to anyone. He is a man who loves the science of what he does and ingrains that in his students.

His influence on me will never be forgotten. When things get tough as a college student, professors like Dr. G are there as your friend. He will advise you and guide you as needed. My heart is broken that the man that guided my career path is no longer belly laughing in Wesleyan Hall. It is a tremendous loss to our community.”

Spencer O’Neal, geography student

“Dr. Greg Gaston has always provided me with an excellent learning environment in my time of being taught by him at the University of North Alabama.

He has always not only provided me with the mentorship to always put my best foot forward but has also always reminded me to appreciate the little things at all times.

Though I cannot speak on the legal matters that he and the University of North Alabama are dealing with, I can speak on the day to day character that I have always seen from Dr. Gaston.

I choose to speak my voice on his behalf because I don’t want the hard work and belief, he put in me to go to waste.

I also encourage each person who has been mentored by Dr. Gaston or even just taken one of his classes to not only take into account the allegations that he is under but also remember the good that he has done in each one of our lives.”

Ryley Breeding, UNA student

“Dr. G is my favorite teacher on campus by far and is a big reason I regret switching my major from geography. He is great at engaging his students and making learning fun. He is truly passionate about teaching and will do anything to see his students succeed.”

Austin Mize, geography student

“Dr. G helped shape my love for geography and made me realize that geography has no boundaries. His wittiness and compassion for all things geographical is unmatched, without Dr. G in the geography department it feels as if there is a huge piece missing.”

Stacy Sims, geography department alumni

“I have to speak up for my friend and mentor who has been portrayed to be deviant or predator. I have known Dr. G for about 15 years as a student initially and now as a friend. Close friendships and relationships are formed after many hours spent together in the geography department between both students and faculty.

I have worked closely with Dr. G and have traveled with him on more than a few trips. He is one of the most generous people I have ever met – to everyone. He always lent his time and wisdom to those of us who came to his office in tears when the life, work and school balance seemed to be too much.

He would never try to gain power over anyone. He would never try to manipulate a student to gain power over them. It is not in his nature. He certainly does not have a heart to intentionally hurt or manipulate people for his gain.

I know without a doubt that if confronted by the thought that he had hurt or embarrassed someone that he would humbly apologize, and he would propose to right any offense. Just as he would extend such grace if someone came to him for forgiveness.

He has a wonderful, unmistakable laugh that makes all his students smile when they hear it anywhere. He has a tender heart and wonderful personality. Wesleyan Hall will never have another with such a contagious passion for his discipline.

He was the real deal. Not just an academic. Not a pretender. The university has lost yet another invaluable faculty member, but I weep for he and his family and what they have lost.”

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Final Reflection

Please take a moment to recognize all the lives Dr. Gaston has influenced in marvelous ways. Meet with him in person and it will quickly be made clear that Dr. Gaston is a man of excellent character.

He is a truly exceptional person. The original article unfortunately villainized Dr. Gaston. The damage has already been done to his career and reputation.

However, this punishment was undeserved. His actions have always been honorable, and, for this reason, many people hold him in the highest respect.

The goal of this letter is to remind people to be mindful of their actions. Furthermore, this article hopes to develop a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding this case from which the reader may construct their own interpretation.

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