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.”