A recent lawsuit alleges that Dr. Thomas Novak, the interim director of the Lehigh University Health and Wellness Center, sexually harassed female staff and students. The Health and Wellness Center is located on the second floor of Johnson Hall. (Kate McCollian/B&W photo)

Health Center sexual misconduct allegations instigate criticism from students

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Following the disclosure of sexual misconduct allegations against Dr. Thomas Novak, the interim director of the Lehigh University Health and Wellness Center, campus community members voiced safety concerns and frustration toward the administration’s handling of such cases.

The university acknowledged the allegations in a May 31 email from Lehigh University Communications that told the campus community that Novak was suspended and restricted from campus. The email was sent one day after the lawsuit was made public.

Sara Boyd, ‘21, said she was surprised that the university offered a statement or any means of communication after the lack of transparency she believed surrounded the allegations against former professor James Peterson.

She said she thinks that the allegations and the lawsuit against Novak represent an issue that goes even deeper than Novak’s alleged abuse of students.

 “I think the most damning (allegation) that is brought forth in the lawsuit is that…the plaintiff reported this to Lehigh Human Resources on two separate occasions, and on two separate occasions Dr. Novak dealt with HR and apologized for his actions, and then was kept on,” Boyd said. “So, suspending isn’t enough.” 

The plaintiff, former Health and Wellness Center medical assistant Christine Feit, alleged she was terminated by Lehigh after she reported on and complained about sexual misconduct by Novak.

Multiple complaints were made to Human Resources and Lehigh employees in both 2012 and 2016, the lawsuit stated. It was noted in the lawsuit that nothing was done to make Feit feel safe or to effectively address Novak’s actions, and the harassment continued until she was terminated.

The lawsuit accuses Novak of making inappropriate comments about Feit’s body and physical contact of “brush[ing]his body against Feit.” Novak also harassed other female workers, commented on students’ bodies and performed breast exams on female students without gloves, the lawsuit stated.

“I think that Lehigh needs to do a better job at educating its students (not only) on what sexual assault is and how to prevent it, but also how to talk about it,” said Kailee Atkinson, ‘21. “I don’t think that it’s a topic that many people like to talk about, but I think that it’s incredibly important that Lehigh⁠— as an institution that supposedly prides itself on protecting its students and encouraging this conversation⁠— does a really good job of setting an example for moving forward.”

Boyd said she had appointments with Novak during her freshman year, and after the allegations came out she had to think back to make sure there weren’t any inappropriate actions against her. She said the reason she stopped going to appointments with Novak was because she “found him creepy.”

Moving forward, Atkinson said she hopes Lehigh strengthens the Title IX office and improves confidence in student safety because she believes the institution currently does not regard students’ well-being or needs appropriately. 

Boyd said she was exasperated and afraid when the allegations against Novak came to light.

“When The Morning Call article came out about Dr. Novak, it was just absolute exasperation of not only was…this doctor serially abusing women under his care,” she said, “but it was yet another example of Lehigh administration and higher authorities seeking to suppress any of that and him being able to continue on in his position without consequence.”

She said Novak should be fired and lose his medical license.

But firing Novak isn’t enough, she said.

Boyd said the root of the issue is the people in higher positions of power consistently allow inappropriate behavior to continue, labeling this an “active safety risk for students.”

“Lehigh (administration) is not going to, I don’t believe, acknowledge any sort of wrongdoing because they’ve specified on multiple occasions that they will be defending themselves in the suit, not Dr. Novak,” she said. “…But this is the second time that a federal lawsuit has been brought forth against the school for allegations of misconduct that were ignored and mistreated by higher administration officials.”

Boyd, who said Lehigh is “rife with scandal,” said the school’s competitive standing is at risk when the Novak situation is combined with the Peterson events, the alleged attempted murder by former Lehigh student Yukai Yang and the Monica Miller lawsuit and protest.

Miller claimed she was sexually harassed by Peterson and the university failed to act on her reports, which allegedly go as far back as 2011, for fear of appearing racially biased at a time in which the school was already under investigation by the Department of Education following other racial incidents on campus. Both Miller and Peterson are black.

A civil lawsuit is also underway regarding a former employee who resigned in 2017 because of how she was treated in her workplace, according to 69 News. Angela Scott Ferencin, who is African American, alleged her supervisor yelled at her, and she was “wrongly accused of retaliating against a younger, white employee.” 

Both Atkinson and Boyd said communication and conversations between students and the administration are necessary in the future. Boyd said students should be able to bring forward complaints or concerns in meetings throughout the school year. 

“I think the best way that Lehigh (administration) can fix its name is to actually admit where they’ve made mistakes, own up to where the problems have happened, reprimand and perhaps fire the people …who are responsible for these consistent mistreatments of serious allegations…and commit themselves in dialogue with current students to fixing it,” Boyd said.

Through protests, walk-outs, social media and other means of communication, students have complained about the administration’s lack of transparency, mishandling of instances of discrimination and sexual assault, and refusal to address and admit serious grievances.

“One of the bigger things going on that contributes to this horrible, negative experience that some of these students have is that so many important decisions are made at the top level without any sort of legitimate student input, when we are in fact the most important stakeholders in the university,” Boyd said.

The administration has assured students with emails that their safety and well-being are top priority. 

“The university’s Equal Opportunity Compliance Coordinator is working with outside investigators to conduct a full and thorough investigation into the allegations,” said Lori Friedman, director of media relations at Lehigh, in an email. 

She said the investigation will be completed by the end of this summer.

The first executive director of the health center was announced to start on July 30, according to an email from Ric Hall, the vice provost for student affairs. 

Hall said in the email that the administration is “certain he will have a significant, positive impact on student health at Lehigh.”

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9 Comments

  1. Why would it surprise anyone that the administration handles such issues poorly or not at all? This is the same blind administration that has refused to take some action, however symbolic, against The Sexual-Predator-in-Chief despite calls from faculty and students. The standards they are holding to are not very high.

    • Amy Charles '89 on

      Yup. Haven’t heard a peep out of trustees. There’s nothing actually stopping them from making statements. They can hide behind personnel privacy, but they’re certainly able to comment generally, and they don’t. But I don’t know what else you’d expect from people who make their livings in things called “vulture capitalism”.

  2. John G. Lewis '90 on

    The incidents involving the Doctor at the Health Center are very serious. The Peterson thing was serious and reprehensible, but was of a type of action and affair that will at times occur at universities. This Novak incident though is different, and considerably more serious, for a number of reasons: 1. It was on-going, over years, even with reports that he was doing it; 2. It involved various officials and attendants at the Health Center as being victims, as well as students, who should be the ones we are above all protecting; and 3) The incident involved the ok and tacit approval of various administrators.

    This does involve someone’s life and career and so one should move carefully and gingerly, true. Yet these alleged actions of the Doctor go way beyond what should be accepted. … I believe the administrators involved in this should be identified and, most probably, fired. Where there is predation of faculty or administration against a student is not stepping over one line, but two. The University should come out with a full apology, admit wrong was done, and say that steps are being taken to insure it will not happen again. One of the latter might be to hire some lady doctors to examine female students and male doctors to examine male students, or at least to provide this option. Whether doctor, lawyer, administrator, or even professor, no one is above wrongdoing.

    • Another Health Center physician filed a Title IX complaint against Novak in 2017 and I filed one as a nurse in the Health Center in February 2019. I was suspended in April 2019 and resigned a few days later because I was certain that I would be the next employee to be fired. Novak was ALLOWED to continue to have FULL ACCESS to female students and employees until Ms. Feit’s lawsuit was filed in May 2019. If any students or other employees are out there who have any information, please contact Attorney Deirdre Kamber Todd at [email protected]. If there have been any individuals, students or Lehigh staff members, who have been silenced about this issue, please contact Attorney Kamber Todd. It is reported that Novak continues to be paid full salary and benefits as he is suspended and barred from campus.

  3. Amy Charles '89 on

    I, uh, also can’t believe that no one’s made anything of the fact that all this is going on in a place called “Johnson Hall”.

  4. It should have never gotten this far. This is completely avoidable. Title IX is a joke, and will only make Lehigh less desirable for higher ed. LU will continue to fall as the least valuable degree on my CV.

  5. Embarrassed to Be Associated on

    Jessica: I feel the same way–I now highlight my high school degree (elite prep school) and grad school (top state system). I don’t think Lehigh reflects who I am as a person–never really did, but even less so with each passing disaster there.

  6. Pingback: Sexual misconduct allegations in the health center – The Brown and White – LV Newser

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