Students accuse Chapman-commissioned artist of sexual harassment

sexual harassment

Junior art major Alondra Costia, left, senior art major Ji Won, center, and senior business administration major Kia Arwas, right, protested the “Visions of Chapman” mural opening at Moulton Hall Sept. 12 after two students accused the mural’s artist, Emigdio “Higgy” Vasquez, of sexual harassment. Photo by Maura Kate Mitchelson

At least eight protestors gathered at the unveiling of Emigdio “Higgy” Vasquez’s Chapman-commissioned mural Sept. 12 after two Chapman students accused the artist of sexual harassment.

Vasquez was presented with awards for his art and given a certificate of congressional recognition from U.S. Rep. Lou Correa while students and faculty protested Vasquez’s alleged harassment, which the students said took place sometime in the past year, while the mural was being created. The group of protestors wore stickers that said, “This oppresses women.”

“We live in a culture where victims are blamed for what happens to them,” said Izzie Panasci, one of the students who accused Vasquez of sexual harassment. “Everybody is asking me what I should do instead of taking responsibility for what happened … It just reinforces what already happens over and over again in our history, when men are given power and abuse it. Everyone is trying to cover it up and package it nicely with a title like ‘diversity.’”

Panasci, a junior art major, told Chapman art professor Micol Hebron about the alleged harassment, which she said took place over the past year.

In a Sept. 12 Instagram post, Panasci said that Vasquez called her “baby,” made her feel “uncomfortable” and contacted her day and night, including a “creepy phone call” which Panasci said caused her to decide to stop helping Vasquez with the mural.

sexual harassment

One of the students who accused Vasquez of sexual harassment, Izzie Panasci, posted on Instagram about her decision to protest the mural.

Hebron brought the accusation to the university’s attention in May, Panasci said, at which point the university responded to Hebron with “systematic jargon” about issuing a formal versus informal report.

The lack of solutions left Panasci upset with the way the university handled the situation, she said, so she protested to call for clearer rules for third-party employees working on campus property.

“It’s not OK that this celebration is going on. People of higher status know about this, people who could’ve stopped this event from celebrating an abuser,” said Ji Won, a senior art major who attended the event to protest. “They knew about it, but they didn’t want to do anything to stop it, because money and fame is more important to them.”

When Vasquez was asked about the protesters, he responded saying he had “no idea” about the protest, and called the mural’s unveiling “fantastic” and a “gift to the community.”

Besides the congressional recognition certificate, Vasquez was presented with awards from Chapman and Teresa Smith, the mayor of Orange. Chapman received its own congressional recognition certificate at the event for “embracing history and culture” through art projects.

Hebron, who also attended the event to protest, wore a #MeToo shirt while distributing evidence of the alleged harassment, including direct messages Vasquez sent to one of the students who accused him of harassment.

“(Vasquez) engaged in incredibly inappropriate conduct toward two of our students, and the school has considered it not inappropriate,” Hebron said. “(Chapman) proceeded with the celebration despite my attempts to talk to every administrative person I could find since May.”

The Panther reached out to DeAnn Yocum Gaffney, Chapman’s lead Title IX coordinator, for a statement but did not receive an immediate response.

Lindsay Shen, the director of Art Collections at Chapman, said she knew there had been “communication” with Chapman’s Title IX department.

“That is a private matter that was handled by the HR department at Chapman,” Shen said. “I don’t know who the students were or what was said or what was communicated between the two parties.”

Vasquez’s 27-foot mural depicts local and cultural events that have defined Chapman. Provost Glenn Pfeiffer, who spoke at the event, said that he hopes the project’s completion will strengthen the relationship between Chapman and the Orange community.

sexual harassment

Event attendees look on as senior art major Ji Won, left, and senior business administration major Kia Arwas, right, protest at the mural’s unveiling Sept. 12. Photo by Gabriella Anderson

“The mural illustrates the history, values and virtue of the Chapman University legacy,” Vasquez said in his Sept. 12 speech. “My hope is that when you walk into this environment, it will stimulate conversation that when you look at the mural, you will get an idea of the California landscape and of course, be comforted by the smiling faces (of the people on the mural).”

Vasquez was initially asked to restore a mural his late father, Emigdio, also known as the “godfather of Chicano art,” painted in a now Chapman-owned apartment complex. After completing the restoration, Vasquez was commissioned to create a mural on campus. The mural was planned and painted over the span of two years. While some viewed the project as an achievement for diversity and community, other students disagree.

“It’s unfortunate, because everyone sees (Vasquez) as this guy who is trying to preserve what his father did, but those students that were harassed by him … have to have this (mural) as a reminder of what happened,” said Kia Arwas, a senior business administration major, who protested at the event.

Cheryl Martin, an Orange resident, attended the event with a friend who knows Vasquez, she said. Prior to speaking with protesters, Martin had not heard of any harassment allegations.

“I don’t know what happened and what didn’t happen, but still,” Martin said. “It’s a Title IX violation if someone reports (an incident). Every person they reported it to that did not file a Title IX violation is responsible.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Lindsay Shen’s awareness of the allegations against Vasquez prior to the mural’s unveiling. This information has been corrected.