CCSU President Toro: transparency is no joke
Since she arrived two-and-a-half years ago, Central Connecticut State University President Zulma Toro has repeatedly said she has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct and bullying.
She apparently meant it.
When the student newspaper, The Recorder, recently sought the last ten years of investigations that turned up findings of sexual misconduct among faculty and staff, along with additional reports about two other professors, Toro not only provided them to the student newspaper but to the entire Central Connecticut State University community.
“I think we are changing the culture,” Toro said Monday in an interview. “I want this institution to be a model in terms of how we handle this type of behavior in such a way that people feel empowered to come forward to share their complaints and concerns, and also for people to understand that we are going to take action when their behavior calls for action.”
“So everyone knows now, if they misbehave, there is a report with findings eventually that will be public,” Toro said. “I am not going to joke around. I am serious about this.”
“So everyone knows now, if they misbehave, there is a report with findings eventually that will be public. I am not going to joke around. I am serious about this.”
CCSU President Zulma Toro
One of the reports released by CCSU includes the investigations of nine faculty members and staff who were all found to have violated university policies. In all but one case, the faculty no longer work for the university, having either resigned, retired, or been fired.
Several of the cases were covered extensively by the media, including one involving two theater professors, Joshua Perlstein and Thomas Delventhal, who were accused of sexual misconduct. Perlstein resigned in May with his termination hearing just days away, while Delventhal was fired later in the same month. A report released earlier this year by the university detailed the failure of the administration to take proper action on complaints of sexual misconduct over many years.
But the materials released earlier this week also include detailed reports on complaints made against two communications department professors — Serafin Mendez-Mendez and Jeffrey Teitler– in which no violations of university policy were found. The reports were specifically sought by the Recorder.
Toro said she felt it was important to release the reports, including those that had “no findings” to meet the terms of the student newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request and to promote transparency at the university.
Natalie Dest, managing editor of The Recorder, said in email, “While we were surprised to see President Zulma Toro address the situation so openly, it was impressive to see the university take such an initiative after being blinded in the past.”
“It was nice to see the university not cut any corners in revealing the truth.”
Managing Editor of The Recorder
The Recorder was the first publication to report the allegations against Perlstein and Delventhal in April, 2018. Dest said the staff had heard “rumblings of Mendez-Mendez and Teitler’s behavior through various student complaints over the past few semesters. The school’s response validated some of those complaints.”
“It was nice to see the university not cut any corners in revealing the truth,” Dest said.
Mark Ojakian, president of the Board of Regents for Higher Education, which oversees CCSU and 16 other institutions, praised Toro’s handling of the issue.
“Since the day she arrived on campus, President Toro has worked tirelessly to make CCSU a safe and welcoming community,” Ojakian said. “In particular, she has ensured that all sexual harassment complaints are handled with the utmost seriousness and that those responsible are held accountable. I applaud her openness and transparency when dealing with this sensitive but critically important issue.”
But Patty O’Neill, president of the Connecticut State University’s state-wide chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said she found it “surprising” that Toro would release reports about cases in which there were no findings.
“I certainly understand that the information could find its way to the public eye on its own because someone FOIA’d it,” O’Neill said, “but it did seem extreme for the president to proactively publicize the information like that.”
Toro said she was compelled by FOIA law to release all of the information — including the reports on Mendez-Mendez and Teitler. She said she sent the reports to the entire CCSU community because she was releasing it to The Recorder and it would soon be in published reports.
“Before they read anything in the paper, I’d rather communicate to them what’s going on,” she said.
“I certainly understand that the information could find its way to the public eye on its own because someone FOIA’d it, but it did seem extreme for the president to proactively publicize the information like that.”
President, Connecticut chapter
American Association of University professors
Toro also noted that CCSU has taken many steps in the past year to improve the handling of complaints of sexual misconduct, including hiring an interim vice president for equity and inclusion; hiring additional investigators to expedite and strengthen the process; and implementing an institution-wide software to track complaints. She is also stepping up training for faculty, staff and students to help identify and prevent sexual harassment and misconduct.
A report commissioned by CCSU and issued in September by Sibson Consulting said a “historic lack of action to address cultural and behavioral issues has contributed to a culture of diminished trust, where significant issues remain unaddressed or ignored.”
It also found that a “lengthy and cumbersome processes and a lack of sufficient resolution of issues and complaints …have contributed to this culture.”
Toro, who has been known to complain about the length of time it takes to dismiss a professor, noted that there is only one professor among the nine — Mihai Bailesteanu, an associate professor of mathematics — for whom violations were substantiated who is still teaching at the university.
In that case, a student accused Bailesteanu of making unwelcome romantic advances and engaging in inappropriate physical contact, including kissing her on the cheek and forehead and hugging her on numerous occasions, according to the June 8, 2018 investigative report.
The student also alleged that Bailesteanu asked her inappropriate questions about her sexual experience, such as whether she was a virgin or used birth control.
The student said the behaviors constituted a hostile working and learning environment. The report includes many examples of interactions that the student said made her feel uncomfortable.
The report concluded that by a “preponderance of the evidence,” it was determined that Bailesteanu, who is a non-tenured associate professor of math, made “comments of a sexual nature and engaged in behaviors that would rise to the level of a violation” of university and Board of Regents policies.
Toro said she hopes not to renew Bailesteanu’s contract when it ends at the close of the academic year, but she said she is waiting for the arbitration hearing to take place — a process that she described as frustrating.
“Findings are findings,” Toro said, “and my position is when there are findings, there should be an easier process to take action.”
“Findings are findings, and my position is when there are findings, there should be an easier process to take action.”
O’Neill, who is also a faculty member at Western Connecticut State University, said the process — while slow — is important.
“I know [Toro’s] frustrated. She’s expressed it in emails to the university, but due process takes time and we can’t just ignore the contractual rights of individuals because the president wants to terminate them. We have to go through the process,” O’Neill said.
Attempts to reach Bailesteanu were unsuccessful.
No findings, but plenty of discomfort
The reports on the professors who were not found to have violated university policy are long and detailed.
Mendez-Mendez was accused by a student of sexual harassment.
“The student felt that you were paying him extraordinary attention in class continually commenting on his personal appearance and frequently using him as an example,” wrote Anna Suski-Lenczewski, CCSU’s chief human resources officer in an Aug. 29 letter to Mendez-Mendez. “The student alleged that you made an assumption about his sexual orientation and shared your own personal experiences on this subject during advising sessions.”
The letter said that the student also reported that Mendez-Mendez had messaged him on both Facebook and Grindr, two social media and social networking platforms.
“The student stated that this attentiveness was unwelcome and caused him discomfort,” the letter said, “and subjected him to ridicule by his classmates.”
Testimony from the student in the report said, “He has made me uncomfortable every time I saw him and now I freeze when I see him… He abused his power and has made me feel very gross and afraid for my college career.”
The investigation of Mendez-Mendez, which was conducted by the law firm Shipman & Goodwin, found no violation of university policy, the letter said, but noted, “your actions toward your students are of concern.”
“As a 29-year teaching faculty member you should be cognizant of your professional responsibilities as an educator and understand the limitations of a proper faculty-student relationship,” the letter said. “Although you stated that you keep appropriate boundaries with your students, constant comments on personal appearance are not advisable nor are discussions about personal sexual orientation.”
The letter also noted that Grindr is an online dating site often used for initiating intimate relationships in the LGBTQ community. “Your sending messages to students on Grindr may reasonably be interpreted as romantic/personal overtures to those students” the letter said and it is “highly inappropriate for you to be messaging students on this app, even to just say ‘Hi…'”
Reached in Puerto Rico where he is on medical leave, Mendez-Mendez said in a statement, “I applaud the university for conducting a thorough investigation of the claims that were made by this individual. I also fully cooperated throughout this process, which in the end determined that the allegations were unfounded.”
He added, “I am proud of my 29-years as a CCSU professor and have educated and mentored thousands of students over the years. My intentions were not as they were presented by this person and the university’s findings confirmed that. If anything good has come from this, I have taken note of the fact that we live in an ultra-sensitive world today.”
Teitler was accused of creating a hostile environment, including allegations of harassing and bullying behaviors. A student also alleged that Teitler continually asked her to include more sexually suggestive and explicit scenes in a film assignment for his course. She had chosen the topic for the film, which centered on a young woman who was unsatisfied with a sexual experience.
She further alleged that Teitler was aware of the impact his suggestions had on her because she cried in his presence.
The report concluded that Teitler’s conduct did not violate CCSU policies. “The investigators found that his behavior may have been, at times, abrasive, but that he treated all students, regardless of gender, in a similar manner.”
Investigators also found insufficient evidence of a violation relating to the complaint from the student who said she was pressured to include more sexually suggestive scenes in her film. The investigators said that “a reasonable person would find that his behavior was risky, however justifiable for the nature of … chosen topic.”
The report said that it appears that both the student and Teitler contributed sexually suggestive ideas for the film and noted that Teitler’s ideas were “within the context of a project initiated by the complainant.”
Teitler said in an email to the CT Mirror, “The complaint released was fully investigated and was closed without findings. That conclusion is supported by the facts and my teaching performance, which has been consistently evaluated to meet and/or exceed all expectations.”
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