A version of this letter was sent to Interim President Anne Holton and the Board of Visitors on February 20, 2020. I want to ensure that the new president, Gregory Washington, has a chance to read it, as my concerns have historically been ignored by Mason administration. Therefore, I have asked to publish an open letter in the Fourth Estate, and have provided documentation to back up my claims.
Dear President Washington and The Board of Visitors,
I am writing to you today because I have serious concerns about the Title IX process at George Mason. In the 2018-2019 academic year, I was the victim in a Title IX complaint that was characterized by such egregious violations of federal law, Mason policy and common-sense safety standards that I have filed an Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and a FERPA complaint with the federal government.
In April of 2019 (six months after the investigation began), Mason sanctioned my assailant with a deferred suspension, for the express purpose of allowing him to defend his dissertation, followed by a 1.5 year delay in degree conferral. I did not appeal this sanction, but in August 2019, I sent letters of complaint to the Title IX Office and University Life, due to serious and justified concerns about the way my case was mismanaged.
Despite the fact that I have documented all of my concerns, which range from serious safety issues (my assailant’s home address, phone number and G-number being shared with me), to simple suggestions (the Title IX website is not in plain, accessible language), university officials have largely refused to take my concerns seriously or uphold promises made to me. It took three emails, a formal letter sent to University Life and four months before the Office of Student Conduct updated their appeals form to no longer request home addresses and phone numbers, something the form never never needed to request in the first place, as all Conduct matters are conducted via email. Furthermore, I was assured that No Contact Procedures and enforcement would be clarified in writing on the Title IX website. They have not been, and confusion still surrounds enforcement of no contact orders. I was assured that the Title IX website would be rewritten, to include more accessible, plain language, with a focus on clarifying what incidents students can report, and clarifying what sort of interim measures they can get without an investigation. This has not happened, and the Title IX website still consists largely of legalese copied and pasted from the Student Code of Conduct.
In September of 2019, I also reached out to Representative Jennifer Wexton, State Senator George Barker, and in November 2019, Delegate Dan Helmer, and shared with them the letters sent to University Life and Title IX. All three of my elected officials agreed that my case demonstrated problems at Mason. Barker and Wexton went as far to say that there were “systemic issues.” To date, the only people who have responded to my concerns in a timely and proactive fashion have been my government representatives.
In response to my call, Senator Barker contacted the Mason Office of Government Relations, who said that they would investigate the Title IX Office at Mason. In a recent response to this letter, President Holton informed me that she had told Senator Barker that Mason had instituted “some” changes as a result of a “couple of concerns” raised by myself (what those changes were was not specified). President Holton went on to tell me that she felt that my situation had been handled “appropriately,” however no one at Mason is authorized to determine that. That is for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to decide, as Mason is currently under investigation.
Delegate Helmer was so horrified by my experience that he contacted experts in Title IX law to craft a bill just in time for the 2020 legislative session. In January, he invited me to testify in Richmond on behalf of HB 913. In my testimony, I stated that my traumatic experience with Mason made apparent why legislative oversight is needed for sexual misconduct cases at universities. In March, Dan Helmer personally called me to tell me that the bill had passed, and that he would continue to look into this issue. My background is in biological science and I have no experience with politics or activism, yet Delegate Helmer invited me to schedule a meeting with him after this legislative session, to further discuss policy ideas around this issue. This is a clear demonstration of the high quality and adaptability of a Mason education.
Before testifying in Richmond, I reached out to Julian Williams, vice president of the Office of Compliance, Diversity, and Ethics (CDE) at Mason, because none of the promises made to me by the Title IX Office had been upheld. I received no response from Williams. I also expressed serious and justified concerns over the unprofessional conduct of Angela Nastase, our current Title IX Coordinator, who violated my privacy in a meeting by quoting out-of-context text messages my assailant sent to me, in an attempt to undercut my credibility and safety concerns in a meeting with other university officials.
When I complained about her conduct, Ms. Nastase reneged on a promise to notify security about my legitimate safety concerns. While in Richmond, my representative and his staff asked if Mason had enacted any of the promised changes or shown any improvements in regard to sexual harassment and assault. Disappointingly, I had to honestly tell them no.
Furthermore, the only tangible consequence my rapist suffered was a 1.5 year suspension, in the form of a delay in degree conferral. Despite this, multiple Mason social media accounts have promoted him and his work while he’s suspended.
When it came to my attention that he was falsely claiming to have completed his doctorate on multiple professional websites and to multiple research organizations, I notified the Office of Student Conduct, as dishonesty is against the Mason code of conduct. I was told that lying about a degree, when he is under a suspension (specified as a “delay in degree” conferral), is not a violation of his Title IX sanctions. I can only assume he was also not sanctioned for dishonesty, as he continued to lie.
Approximately a month after I notified Conduct, it was announced that the individual suspended for assaulting me, who was at the time misrepresenting his educational credentials, would also be a speaker at a professional conference. Mason was one of the sponsors of that conference.
Meanwhile, I have suffered extremely as a result of this process — academically, professionally and personally. I am over a year behind in proposal development. This means I have been unable to apply for research funding or travel grants. I have had to pay, at great personal expense, for months of therapy. My therapists (yes, more than one!) have noted that the Title IX process at Mason was its own separate and distinct trauma, due in no small part to the egregious incompetence and carelessness of multiple Mason employees. My case, which consisted of no more than three hours of interviews and text messages (supplied before the investigation began), took over six months to complete. All the while, I was left in a highly unsafe work and school environment, without sufficient interim measures in place and with security personnel who refused to enforce a no-contact order. For the majority of the 2018-19 academic year, I was burdened with ensuring that Mason policy was followed, as well as ensuring my own safety. I am currently undergoing a type of trauma therapy commonly recommended for war veterans.
Despite my extreme emotional distress, I have, at great professional risk, become outspoken about my experience with Mason, in an effort to protect other, more vulnerable students. Again, I am not involved in politics or activism. Speaking out on these issues does not help further my career and may actively harm future prospects (sending this letter is a great professional risk as well).
It is also worth noting that I have never used Mason’s procedure or my outspokenness for revenge. All I have asked is that Mason protect me and hold my rapist accountable for his unethical conduct. I have never publicly named the man who raped me. When Brent Ericson (Dean of Student Conduct) sent me my rapist’s home address, I tried to file a FERPA complaint on his behalf. When I learned I could not from the Department of Education, I contacted Mason officials (at least four times) and my government representatives. It is wildly inappropriate that I was tasked with protecting the federal privacy rights of the man who raped me. Despite my personal trauma, I have consistently stayed focused on a goal of improving Mason’s policy and procedures, advocating for transparency, and, thanks to my Representatives proactive response, changing Virginia state law.
I feel confident in asserting that between my rapist and I, only one of us has been representative of Mason’s values. And yet, unequivocally, Mason has time and again shown me that my rapist and his future matter more than I do. Despite the fact that I contribute greatly to the Mason community and despite the fact that I love my professors, my colleagues and my work, I am seriously considering dropping out. Even if I could afford to continue my education elsewhere, no other program offers me the innovative and interdisciplinary education that Mason does. Anywhere else would be a downgrade.
I am doing the research I dreamed of as a child, but it is very difficult for me to continue enrollment at an institution that failed to adequately protect me, leaving me in a hostile school and work environment for an entire academic year, in clear violation of federal law and Mason policy. In a further act of betrayal, Mason officials agree that the problems I have identified exist, and yet refuse to make even the most minor of changes, unless it is to protect the university. It has been clearly demonstrated to me that the Mason officials charged with protecting students have instead rallied to protect the reputation of the university, in violation of their ethical and moral duty.
The Title IX process, CDE and the Office of Student Conduct at Mason need to be audited, and through that audit, substantial changes need to be made. Considering that there are two open OCR investigations, and that I have recently filed a third (and I am very confident in the strength of my complaint), it is arbitrary and nonsensical that Mason resists this simple, but clearly needed, process.
I have taken the time to, once again, ask strangers to bear witness to my trauma, in the hopes that my concerns will finally be taken seriously. In response to this letter, I am requesting that when he becomes president, Dr. Gregory Washington will create a substantial and transparent plan of action for improving Title IX at George Mason. I would like Dr. Washington to implement an audit of both the Title IX Office and the Office of Student Conduct, to be conducted by a third-party, unbiased investigator. This audit should consist of direct involvement and oversight of students, who are most impacted by these policies. I would like the results to be made public. Furthemore, I would like the Title IX Office and Office of Student Conduct to begin an annual report of their procedures, releasing publicly the average length of time of their investigations (from initiation to conclusion of appeals). This will incentivize George Mason Officials to complete Title IX investigations in a prompt manner, as required by law. I would also like to see increased transparency in the Title IX policies and procedures. There is no clear understanding of how interim measures are deemed appropriate or how security risks are assessed. I have requested this information in writing and been denied. In the future, I would like to see frequent open and public discussions between students and staff, to allow for increased transparency, the rebuilding of trust and the assurance that the Title IX process is serving the needs of the student body.
I understand that the Mason community is under great stress at this time, but these issues are systemic to George Mason and will not go away when students and faculty return to campus. Now is an ideal time to begin a deep overhaul of policy and procedures. A prompt, serious and substantial response to this letter is how Mason will tell me, and every other survivor on this campus, that we matter and are welcome in the Mason community.
Mason is in crisis. Victims of assault are not being supported or protected. Mason can and will do better. I look forward to seeing how Dr. Washington will implement positive and prompt changes to protect the Mason community.
A Concerned Student