Colorado State University President Joyce McConnell was peppered with questions critical of her handling of alleged racial insensitivity and violations of COVID-19 protocols and the handling of sexual harassment and assault reports by the university’s athletic department during an appearance at a Faculty Council meeting late Tuesday.
Their primary concern, several council members said in the virtual meeting, was about a letter they received earlier in the day from a female athlete at the school who said she and others “do not feel safe or protected” from retaliation when speaking to athletic director Joe Parker, deputy athletic director Steve Cottingham and senior women’s administrator and NCAA compliance director Shalini Shanker about concerns they have.
All three athletic department administrators came under fire by athletes and other staff members for their response to concerns about racial insensitivity and violations of COVID-19 protocols in the CSU football program and their handling of complaints of sexual harassment and assault involving athletes. The letter was also critical of McConnell, saying “her past actions and words have proven who she is interested in protecting in this matter.”
The brief letter, which was emailed to Faculty Council members and shared with the Coloradoan late Tuesday night, was followed by a link to a recent Coloradoan story about the athletic department’s handling of sexual harassment and assault complaints involving athletes.
Jordan Acosta, a CSU softball player and the university’s Mountain West student-athlete representative, shared those concerns with the council during the meeting.
“Us, as student athletes, are living in kind of that realm of fear, of not wanting to step forward,” she said. “Even just me talking right now is very fearful, but I know that more needs to be done, and we have exhausted so many different avenues.”
She went on to say that she has met with McConnell to share her concerns and provided the CSU president with names of 24 other current and former athletes and faculty and staff members willing to share “factual evidence of what people have gone through” regarding “COVID-19 protocols, racial insensitivity and also sexual misconduct.”
The Faculty Council has 80 voting members who represent each of the university’s nine colleges and 52 nonvoting members, including McConnell and other CSU administrators. There were 146 people in the virtual meeting Tuesday.
Faculty Council member Mary Meyer, a statistics professor, read a summary of a Coloradoan story about a civil lawsuit filed by a then-19-year-old student against CSU alleging Title IX violations. The lawsuit alleges improper reporting of three separate reports she made of sexual harassment that included unwanted touching and verbal abuse by a prominent donor during three football games last fall at Canvas Stadium.
The student who filed the lawsuit, Katy Schiller, was working as a server for an outside contractor, Spectra, in the stadium’s loge boxes at the time and was reassigned to a less desirable position in the pantry following her third complaint, she said, while the donor, Michael Best, was moved to a more-expensive luxury box for the remainder of the season. Best is the husband of Denver media personality Susie Wargin.
“My question is this,” Meyer said. “Whether or not you believe the student, there were clear violations of various policies as well as of human decency. The student was sent back to the same person twice after her complaints, the demotion was clearly retaliation, the videos were destroyed in spite of the fact that CSU knew about the complaints, and the reporting of the incidents to the Title IX office and to the police was unconscionably delayed. What are the repercussions?
“It doesn’t seem anything has happened other than suggestions of more training. If CSU administrators can do these things without being held accountable, how can we have any confidence that our students are being protected?”
Title IX is a civil rights law passed in 1972 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex by all schools that receive federal funds. Discrimination, as defined by the U.S. Department of Education, “can include sexual harassment or sexual violence, such as rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual coercion.”
The law requires school administrators to notify the university’s Title IX compliance officer within 24 hours of receiving a report of sexual harassment, abuse or assault and “take immediate action to eliminate the sexual harassment or sexual violence, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.”
The lawsuit alleges that the incidents involving Schiller were not reported to the Title IX office by the athletic department administrators until a month after they were made aware of them and that video surveillance of the loge boxes during those games was destroyed by the university after the reports were made and before the CSU police department was notified and began its investigation.
McConnell and Jannine Mohr, CSU’s deputy general counsel, told the council they couldn’t discuss specifics of the case because of the ongoing litigation. Mohr also pointed out that the student was working for a contractor, not the university itself, at the time of the alleged incidents.
“We were not her employer,” Mohr said in response to follow-up questions from Brad Conner, an associate professor in the psychology department. “Yes, she absolutely is our student, and I can’t say more about it because of the litigation. But it is an erroneous fact that she worked for CSU or that CSU somehow demoted her or had any hand in her being demoted. That’s all I can say about that.”
Ross McConnell, an associate professor in computer science and mathematics and no relation to the CSU president, and Maria Del Mar Lopez-Cabrales, a professor of Spanish and Latin American literature, asked Joyce McConnell and Mohr why no action had been taken against the three athletic department administrators named in the lawsuit.
“It seems to me there are certain facts that are not disputed, that the athletic department sat on the complaints for a long period of time,” Ross McConnell said. “There have been remarks, people quoted, for instance, a deputy prosecutor for Larimer County, that it doesn’t seem like this is in dispute and this is in violation of Title IX.”
Joyce McConnell again said she couldn’t discuss the specific case because it was in litigation.
Several members of the Faculty Council were also critical of how an independent investigation into the allegations of violating Title IX protocols and racial insensitivity in the football program were conducted.
CSU’s Office of General Counsel hired Husch Blackwell, a Kansas City, Missouri-based law firm, to investigate those claims in early August after athletes and athletic staff members shared their concerns with the Coloradoan.
Two investigators from Husch Blackwell’s higher-education division interviewed 49 current and former CSU athletes, 63 current and former CSU employees, and three community members over a two-month period.
Their reports were released Oct. 7 by the university and concluded that “a substantial majority of student-athletes and staff reported no concerns with the established COVID-19 protocols” and that investigators found “most student-athletes who participated in the investigation disputed allegations of pervasive racial inequities or harassment within their athletic team of the athletic department more broadly.”
Antonio Pedros-Gascon, a foreign language professor, questioned the use of the term “investigation” in a report that “is only assessing or collecting opinions instead of aiming to find evidence and solve problems if the extremely important issues that are alleged in there did happen or not.”
Hayley Hanson, a partner at Husch Blackwell and one of the investigators, defended the process in which the reports were prepared.
“I’m an attorney, I’ve been doing this work for 20 years,” Hanson told the council. “I’ve done this for many other institutions, and I’m very comfortable with my word ‘investigation’ and the work produce that I provided to CSU to make sure that you could move forward and take those recommendations and improve the culture and your community.”
McConnell released an “action plan” Nov. 18 to address the concerns raised in the Husch Blackwell reports while also announcing the establishment of a web-based platform for student-athletes to report concerns “to an employee outside the Athletic Department.”
The reporting platform, she wrote, “will be created and monitored by a committee comprised of university representatives external to the Athletics Department.” The committee will refer complaints that signal violations of policy or law to the appropriate university offices, she wrote, and develop a process to review concerns that are submitted and “work to resolve those that do not rise to the level of violations of policy or law.”
Diana Prieto, the vice president in charge of the new office of Equity, Equal Opportunity and Title IX created earlier this year by Joyce McConnell, also was part of the Faculty Council meeting and said the creation of a reporting platform that bypasses the athletic department is “critical” to addressing the concerns of athletes.
McConnell’s action plan also includes additional diversity and inclusion training throughout the university, “with a special focus on the Athletics Department to advance empathy-building, racial sensitivity and cultural understanding,” amplifying the university’s policy statement against retaliation within the athletic department and communications plan to raise awareness of the issues addressed in response to the investigation recommendations.
The question-and-answer session with McConnell and Mohr took up more than 40 minutes of the Faculty Council’s 2½-hour meeting. Many of the participants used the “chat” function in the meeting to echo and expand on the concerns that were raised by speakers and to thank McConnell, Mohr, Prieto and Hanson for their attendance.
“I would just like to thank everybody for this conversation, President McConnell and everyone on the call,” Faculty Council chair Sue Doe, an English professor, said while wrapping up the session and moving on to other items on the agenda. “I did just want to clarify my own feelings that when I saw the letter today from the student athletes, and I saw that they were interested not in being heard but for their actual safety, I felt compelled that we really needed to have a conversation that went a little bit deeper, and I hope this has been useful.
“… We are all committed, I know, to the safety of our students, so when they say that they don’t feel safe, that’s when we really must do something.”
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