After a former associate professor at Brigham Young University was charged with two second-degree felony charges of forcible sexual abuse earlier this month, students are speaking out about their experiences in the classroom, which forced them to seek help with the Title IX office.
The Utah County Attorney’s Office filed charges against 45-year-old Michael James Clay of Springville in Fourth District Court on June 25. During his time at BYU, Clay served as the head of the Urban and Regional Planning program in the Geography Department at the university.
Emma Frost enrolled at BYU in 2016, transferring to the geography department in 2017 with an interest in the urban and regional planning program. When it came time for Frost to pick her major, she reflected on her time playing the SimCity games and watching “Parks and Recreation.”
“When I was looking for degrees at college, I was looking for something that would get me to working with local cities to plan communities,” she said.
In the introductory course that all geography majors are required to take, the heads of each emphasis give presentations detailing what students might be doing once they graduate from their programs.
That presentation is where Frost first met Clay.
“When Clay came in and talked, he was very charismatic,” she said. “He talked a lot about how students of his were very successful after the program because working with him would give them a working portfolio that you could take into job interviews and be hired on the spot.”
It wasn’t until Frost had finished her general requirements in 2018 that she enrolled in her first course under Clay. Toward the beginning of the semester, Clay spoke about important projects that would be coming down the pipeline and told his students that some people in the class would be chosen as team leaders, Frost said.
Looking to build a portfolio and to prove herself, Frost was striving for those team leader positions but was unsure how to get Clay to notice her. It seemed, she said, that Clay was choosing students at random, students like her.
Many of the students chosen to be team leaders were Frost’s age, she said, and had the same amount of experience in the field that she did.
As Frost moved through the program, she began having the opportunity to work on projects with Clay. She began to open up to him about the possibility that she might have cancer during a meeting she had scheduled to speak to him about an internship for the following year.
“He actually gave me really good advice, talking about how you have to live life to your fullest and you can’t let cancer or chronic illness get in the way of you living your life,” she said. “The next week, I was talking to one of my friends in the program about the negative test telling me I didn’t have cancer, and (Clay) looked at me. He looked betrayed, and then he said, ‘I thought I could trust you.’ ”
Frost said, although she thought it was weird, she didn’t dwell on the matter. With only a year left in the program, she began to distance herself from Clay.
“It wasn’t until fall of last year that it got really bad,” she said.
Frost and a number of other urban and regional planning students were participating in a group project working with Payson City to plan a recreation facility in Payson Canyon. While at a public city meeting, Frost said Clay was allegedly sitting alone with the team leader.
After the public city meeting, the team leader asked the students to meet her at a nearby Culver’s because she needed to speak with them. While there, the team leader shared some uncomfortable experiences she allegedly had with Clay.
The team leader told the students Clay had allegedly asked her intimate questions about her marriage, telling her that if she wasn’t sexually satisfying her husband that he would leave her, and that her husband was only interested in her because of their sexual relationship.
During the conversation, other students came forward to recount their uncomfortable interactions with the associate professor, including allegedly sharing private messages between Clay and other students on Instagram.
Frost said it was that moment that changed everything. Students began to see Clay as potentially dangerous and not just someone who was socially out of touch.
“At the beginning, he was a great professor,” she said. “He was our only professor, and he was our only contact. We had to use him for recommendations.”
Clay allegedly had the final say in a lot of decisions that were detrimental to students’ futures, and because of this, students felt he was holding their futures hostage, she said.
Additionally, urban and regional planning students were allegedly isolated from other students and professors, Frost said, making it almost impossible to get different perspectives or reach out to another adult for help.
“He created this cult of personality,” she said. “We were all forced to rely on him, so it was difficult for other professors to even connect with urban planning students. That should have been a sign, but we weren’t thinking about it.”
Frost contacted the Title IX office asking what resources were available, giving that information to the other woman who had come forward.
The team leader who had started the conversation told Frost she did not want to come forward with her story until she had graduated in April, as not only was her graduation on the line but so was her admission into graduate school.
It wasn’t until she had gotten into her graduate program that the team leader and Frost went to the Title IX office together on March 11. The coronavirus pandemic allegedly pushed back the investigation as students and professors were no longer on campus.
It wasn’t until the week of finals that students learned Clay was no longer teaching courses at the private university.
“Our final was sent out by the head of the department, and then two days later we got another email saying that Clay was no longer responsible for his classes,” she said. “That’s when I knew something had happened.”
While the Title IX officials leading the team leader and Frost through the investigation were helpful and compassionate, Frost said it just wasn’t enough.
There needs to be proactive policies in place to keep professors from becoming as powerful as Clay had reportedly become in the urban and regional planning program but also to keep from hiring potentially harmful or dangerous people, she said.
The only reason, Frost said, she and the team leader would have been safe from potential retaliation from Clay was because they were graduating.
“That night at Culver’s forever changed my life because you don’t want to believe it,” she said. “You don’t want to believe that a school like BYU could let this happen. You would hope that there were policies in place to protect students, and through this process, it became very clear that there just isn’t. Not right now.”
Frost said her advice for students going through similar experiences is to speak up. It wasn’t until that night at Culver’s that the students began to understand that they weren’t alone and that empowered change.
Clay’s attorney said he and his client were “not interested” in speaking at this time. BYU officials did not return requests for comment.