Central Connecticut State University President Zulma R. Toro announced Tuesday that she is seeking to fire two longtime theater professors after investigators concluded that each had likely engaged in sexual misconduct with one or more students.
Toro also announced plans to appoint new leadership for the university’s Office of Diversity & Equity and to reorganize the human resources department after evidence showed that administrators for years failed to take proper action on complaints of sexual misconduct.
The two professors are Joshua Perlstein, hired in 1992, who was placed on paid administrative leave in April, and Thomas Delventhal, who was hired in 1998 and was placed on paid leave last week. Both professors continue to draw their salaries, which are in the $100,000 range.
“I am disgusted and disheartened by the new findings indicating two of our professors repeatedly engaged in sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior with their students,” Toro said in statement. “Also disturbing are the apparent failures by administrators who, over the years, did not protect our students. The findings pinpoint vital changes that are needed to ensure past misbehaviors, mistakes and inaction are not repeated at this university.”
Toro hired the Hartford law firm Shipman & Goodwin LLP nine months ago to conduct the investigation after an article appeared in CCSU’s student newspaper, The Recorder, revealing allegations of sexual misconduct by Perlstein. The same article also detailed a lack of administrative action when complaints were made.
The investigation, which entailed reviewing thousands of documents, emails, and texts and interviews with dozens of faculty, staff and current and former students, found significant evidence that Perlstein was likely involved in sexual misconduct with several students, including a lengthy, manipulative relationship with one student that continued after her graduation.
It also found that he had a “history of questionable interactions” with female students, was untruthful to investigators and attempted to conceal his problematic conduct because he believed it would put his job in jeopardy.
Following up on students’ complaints about Delventhal, the investigators said that he admitted, over the years, to kissing five students on the neck and/or forehead, was untruthful during his investigatory interview, and denied attempting to engage in any relationship with current or former students.
Perlstein said Tuesday he had “no comment at this time,” while Delventhal could not be reached for comment.
Toro said she is taking the steps required by collective bargaining to dismiss both professors. She said the process involves “a number of faculty panels” and could take as long as a year, but she doesn’t expect the professors would continue to be paid that entire time.
Besides appointing new leadership for the Office of Diversity & Equity, Toro said she plans to explore a new model for investigating sexual harassment, bullying and misconduct on campus, and to adopt an institution-wide reporting, monitoring and tracking system to collect and disseminate data, as well as taking other steps.
Toro noted that the most recent chief diversity officer, Rosa Rodriguez, left her post on Friday for “personnel reasons” that Toro said she could not discuss. She did say that Rodriguez would be going to a new position at Capital Community College “for some time.”
“To those who bravely shared their stories with out investigators, I am immensely grateful,” Toro said. “This has been a painful process for all of those involved. I am resolved to take the actions necessary to ensure our campus is a safe environment for all and to restore faith and pride in Connecticut’s oldest public institution of higher education.”
Toro said she realized it may be a “sad day for the survivors, but at the same time I think it’s the beginning of a process that will help them heal and I think that will be positive at the end of the day.”
Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, said he applauds Toro “for taking prompt and decisive action to make CCSU – and the theatre department in particular – a better, more welcoming learning environment.”
He said the reports identify important steps needed to ensure that “all sexual misconduct complaints are received with the utmost seriousness, thoroughly investigated, and acted upon accordingly. I am beyond confident in the President’s ability to oversee and implement the necessary cultural and policy changes in a thoughtful and transparent manner.”
A troubled theater department
The investigators paint a picture of a theater department that is rife with tension and conflict among professors, while also quite informal. Those interviewed said that students and some faculty frequently socialize at parties or other gatherings where alcohol is consumed.
In addition, those interviewed raised concerns with investigators about the “propriety” of some theater class exercises, such as massage circles.
“It appears as though the informality of the department has led to a climate in which personal space and boundaries are not respected,” the report said.
Faculty, administrators and students reported that there were ” rumors” about relationships between professors and students for years, which they believe have not been properly addressed, the report said.
The report includes concerns that Rodriguez, the most recent chief diversity officer, as well as her predecessors, are “not welcoming or friendly, and in some cases intimidating and/or lacking follow through.”
The investigators said the office is not fulfilling “the crucial function of receiving, investigating and addressing complaints.”
In addition, the investigators found that Human Resources officials failed to interview complainants or witnesses about alleged misconduct involving theater faculty members.
Rodriguez’s office referred questions about the report to the university’s public relations office.
In at least one case, the report said, a former human resources officer named Anne Alling contacted a relevant potential witness and then later sent the same individual an email indicating that an interview was no longer required, even though the concern still existed and the faculty member remained employed at the university. In two other cases, another former Human Resources officer, Lou Pisano, failed to interview a relevant student witness before making a determination on the matter.
Had the human resource office conducted further inquiry in those cases, the report said, “the outcome may have been substantially different and more significant prior discipline issued up to and including termination of the professor’s employment.”
The report also said that it is troubling that other high level administrators did not take action to prevent a recurrence. The report says that a former dean and provost, Susan Pease, in setting goals for the theater department in 2014, said that faculty needed to “shape up,” adding that “shape up means: 1) they have to stop sleeping with students 2) they have to stop yelling at students and each other,” and several other goals including putting “on shows that people want to see.”
“Despite the fact that she was aware of these complaints, she did not effectively address them,” the report said.
Pease, who retired last February, said in an email Tuesday that the “goals” were sent “in an informal email to the acting chair of Theater I had recommended for appointment and represented my frustration with the department.”
Students described Perlstein as “creepy”
The report says nearly all of the students interviewed used the word “creepy” to describe Perlstein and reported that he routinely conducted warm-up exercises, improvisations and visualizations in class in which he sometimes asked students to imagine themselves naked or act out words representing various sexual activities such as “sex” and “orgasm.”
Several students said they told investigators that at times they caught Perlstein looking at them during these exercises in ways that made them feel uncomfortable.
Current and former students also told investigators that Perlstein would make comments about their weight, body parts and sexuality. He told one student she was not “sexual enough” to play a certain role. He also told that student, “You walk into a room and your tits are like bam.”
Some told investigators that Perlstein seemed to deliberately choose plays that included sexual themes or nudity.
The report tells of two instances in which Perlstein was accused of kissing students. The first was in the 1990s, when the student alleged that Perlstein approached her from behind and tried to kiss her on the lips while she stood outside the Black Box Theater at CCSU.
The student managed to turn her head so the kiss landed on her cheek, according to the report, but Perlstein allegedly whispered to her that she should “not attempt to pull away when [he is] trying to kiss her.”
A few weeks later the student confronted Perlstein and told him that he had made her uncomfortable and he should never attempt to do that again. The student told investigators that Perlstein was most concerned during that exchange about whether she had reported the incident to the university.
The report said that during his interview with the investigators, Perlstein denied engaging in the alleged conduct or said it was the result of a “misunderstanding.” In the case involving the student outside the Black Box theater, the report said Perlstein claimed “he was merely trying to congratulate her after she allegedly told him that she was ‘getting married.’”
The investigators said this is not “credible given the fact that the student was already married when she enrolled in the university a few years earlier.”
Perlstein also disputed the account of a student in which he was found by CCSU to have engaged in “inappropriate behavior/sexual harassment.” The student accused him of kissing her, hugging her and touching her buttocks. Perlstein said he had been having an “emotional” not “sexual” conversation with her and kissed her on the cheek, but he denied touching her buttocks.
According to Perlstein, the CCSU staff member at the time told him that “if we call it sexual harassment, it will go away.” Perlstein claimed that he was told that otherwise, there was a “high likelihood” that the matter would be pursued with authorities by the student’s “crazy father,” the report said. Perlstein therefore accepted the findings of the CCSU report because he thought it would end the inquiry, according to the Shipman & Goodwin report.
Anna Kelly, who was the student in this incident and is now in her mid-30s living in Hartford, said she is encouraged to know the report will be “a catalyst to move the school forward — that it’s going to bring about actual change and actual consequences for these people who have gone unchecked and unpunished for a long time.”
In his interview, the report said, Perlstein admitted that he engaged in a consensual relationship with a student he was teaching and advising in 2013, but claimed it was limited to a one or two weeks while he was advising her.
But the report said that “substantial electronic communications” between the professor and the student demonstrate that their inappropriate relationship lasted for “an extended period of time” from 2013 until the summer of 2014 when the student graduated, with some breaks along the way.
In August 2013, Perlstein was disciplined by the university for having a relationship with a student he was teaching and advising but the report says it is clear that both before and after that, Perlstein continued to advise, assist and direct activities involving the student.
Perlstein said the relationship with the student, whether before or after she graduated, was consensual and not coercive, the report said. But the student told the investigators that she did not believe the relationship was “fully consensual on her part.”
Because Perlstein was her adviser for her honors thesis, the student told investigators she believed she needed his assistance to successfully complete her project and graduate.
“She claims that she felt as though she had no choice but to capitulate to his demands,” the report said.
Evidence of their ongoing relationship can be found in multiple texts included in the report including one from early 2014, the report said, in which Perlstein says, “Sorry about attacking your butt … it was aggressive and wrong …have a swell day. Love yoi [sic] ”
The texts included in the report depict a controlling and manipulative relationship in which Perlstein tried to keep the relationship going while the student tried to break it off, but feared that doing so might harm her academic and theater career.
“The extensive communications demonstrate that he engaged in a long-term sexual relationship significantly beyond what any reasonable person would view as appropriate between a professor and student,” the report said. The report said further that the text messages demonstrate that Perlstein was aware his actions were wrong.
Ashley Malloy, who has identified herself as the young woman who had the long relationship with Perlstein and who is now in a graduate school theater program in San Francisco said the reports offers “some relief that the truth is finally coming out but the fact that it’s this long overdue definitely doesn’t take the sting out of what has happened.”
“To just read in no uncertain terms the extent to which the administration was aware of what was going on,” Malloy said, “is so disheartening and destroyed whatever little bit of faith I had left in the institution.”
But she said she does applaud Toro’s actions.
Delventhal admits to kissing at least five students
During his interview, Delventhal admitted that he probably kissed at least five students on the neck and forehead.
Delventhal told investigator that this was a way of expressing his endearment for a student and explained that this was the manner in which he was kissed by female members of his family. He said he did not see it as inappropriate or sexual in nature.
However, at least one student told investigator that his kisses made her uncomfortable.
The investigators found that Delventhal “knew or should have known” that such contact was inappropriate and not in compliance with university policies.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 4:28 p.m.