Over two years ago, James Peterson, a former professor of English and the former director of Lehigh’s Africana studies program, resigned amidst an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.
Yet on the heels of the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by Monica Miller, an associate professor of religion studies, some faculty members are speaking out about the situation on campus during Peterson’s tenure at Lehigh. Some sources argue the university still has not fully healed from the ordeal, blaming the administration for a lack of transparency on the matter.
The Brown and White has reached out to more than 45 sources over the past month and has spoken to more than 20 of them, both on and off the record, to learn more about their roles and perspectives on the Peterson investigation and the university’s handling of the situation. Sources also shared documents with The Brown and White relevant to certain aspects of the story, of which some names and personal information have been redacted for confidentiality purposes to protect victims and mandatory reporters.
Through the reporting process, The Brown and White has become aware of a timeline of the investigation into Peterson that does not match what the university has publicly shared with members of the campus community. Sources and documents also confirm that the nature of the complaints filed against Peterson involved “sexual assault.” Those same sources and documents raised questions regarding the details of certain job responsibilities that were distributed after Peterson was placed on paid leave. Faculty members also discussed the tenuous circumstances surrounding Peterson’s promotion to full professor, and many feel they are still grappling with a perceived lack of transparency.
The university includes sexual violence, sexual assault and rape under the official umbrella term “sexual harassment/sexual misconduct” on its harassment and non-discrimination policy. The university did not use the term “sexual assault” in public communications with campus regarding Peterson.
Dawn Keetley, the chair of the English department, for example, said she only found out about any reports against Peterson once he was suspended from campus.
“To be honest, I was mad,” Keetley said. “I told students to work with him, I nominated him for a service award, I promoted him. I realize he has a right to privacy, but I wish I had known about these reports against him.”
The timeline of the investigation
Peterson resigned in January 2018 following an email from the Provost’s Office on Nov. 7, 2017, announcing an unnamed faculty member was suspended from campus and placed on paid leave following allegations of “sexual and other inappropriate conduct.” The Provost’s Office announced an investigation into the matter at that time, which was the first public communication with the university on this issue. The November email citing the unnamed faculty member and the January email announcing Peterson’s resignation are the only two public communications from the university in connection with the scandal.
But, according to a confidential court document shared with The Brown and White, Peterson was under investigation by the university for eight months prior to a public announcement.
Peterson came under investigation for “allegations of sexual harassment” in March 2017, the court document stated. The investigation concluded at the end of October of that year. Title IX Coordinator Karen Salvemini and George Nation, a professor in the finance department, conducted the investigation. Nation served as the faculty co-investigator on the case, according to a letter written by Salvemini to certain victims in January 2018. The letter was shared with The Brown and White by a victim.
Through the reporting process, The Brown and White has become aware of three reported allegations of sexual assault against Peterson — two that initiated the March investigation and one that was reported in September. When the investigation was initially dismissed at the end of October 2017, no public action was taken against Peterson.
However, in a January 2018 letter from Salvemini sent to certain victims, the Title IX coordinator explained that the Provost’s Office “reopened” the investigation at the direction of Provost Pat Farrell. Salvemini wrote that this came “after the university became aware of additional allegations of sexual and other misconduct,” although it’s not clear how many additional allegations were reported or the nature of those complaints. The Brown and White has only confirmed the existence of the three aforementioned sexual assault allegations that were reported over the course of the March investigation.
The court document states the Lehigh University Police Department initiated the November investigation, which led to Peterson’s suspension on Nov. 7, 2017. That investigation concluded on Nov. 14, 2017, according to the document. Multiple sources have confirmed that LUPD conducted a search of Peterson’s office in Drown Hall in November 2017. After the LUPD investigation closed on Nov. 14, 2017, the court document describes the administration conducting its own investigation “at that time,” until Jan. 4, 2018.
Several faculty members expressed frustration with transparency from the administration’s end in terms of the information provided to faculty and students. When Peterson was suspended, Donald Hall, the then-dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, called in a meeting on Nov. 6, 2017 with Miller and Keetley. Miller was asked by Hall to fill in for Peterson’s Black Poetics class and some independent studies — but Miller and Keetley allege Hall didn’t say why Peterson was being suspended. Miller was thus unable to tell the students why their professor would no longer be teaching their course.
Rob Rozehnal, a professor of religion studies, said he feels the university has aided the spread of rumors by withholding information.
“The time has come for Lehigh leaders to step up, speak out and answer questions about what really happened here,” Rozehnal said. “They need to address the investigations — and explain exactly how, when and why decisions were made. … We need to heal, and the pervasive code of silence isn’t helping. Now is the time for transparency and accountability. I think sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
The nature of the complaints
Three sources, including one former senior administrator in the College of Arts and Sciences and two professors who were debriefed by the mandatory reporter, allege the two complaints filed in February 2017 prompted the March investigation by Salvemini and Nation. The former senior administrator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he was told in a conversation with the mandatory reporter that the two complaints involved allegations of “sexual assault” by Peterson.
Another complaint — this one filed in September 2017 — also alleged “sexual assault” by Peterson and would eventually go beyond the university’s walls.
The former senior administrator and a professor both independently confirmed that the investigation into Peterson was dismissed in October because Salvemini and Nation could not agree on the investigation’s findings and ended up producing two differing reports, and the initial investigation was closed.
At that time, the former CAS senior administrator encouraged the September 2017 victim to go to LUPD with her allegations.
When all internal and LUPD cases were closed, and after Peterson’s resignation, the September 2017 victim filed complaints against the university with both the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission in spring 2018.
In the Office of Civil Rights complaint, the student alleges she filed a complaint with the university in September 2017 of sexual assault and sexual violence. The complaint alleged the sexual violence “resulted in a sexually hostile environment,” and that the university “failed to promptly and equitably respond.”
While the complainant did not mention him by name in her OCR filing, emails shared with The Brown and White by a faculty member confirm the victim was alleging sexual assault by Peterson.
When the Office of Civil Rights requested documents relevant to the case from certain faculty members, Heather Hosfeld of Lehigh’s Office of General Counsel sent a May 10, 2018, email to certain faculty asking that all material regarding the student’s initial complaint against Peterson be preserved.
The Office of Civil Rights closed its case on June 13, 2018, since the same case cannot be investigated by two agencies simultaneously. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission would not comment on the case.
The victim’s report to the police after the initial university investigation closed in late October sparked the fallout of the scandal, leading to Peterson’s resignation.
Once LUPD concluded its investigation, Salvemini and Nation then reopened the March investigation, at the direction of Farrell, which ended on Jan. 4, 2018. Salvemini reported in her letter to victims that the university had determined that Peterson had engaged in “sexual assault” and “sexual exploitation” — charges more specific than the previous public allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct.
Peterson eventually resigned unconditionally on Jan. 16, 2018. The campus was made aware of Peterson’s resignation at that time, and his name was publicly used in the communication for the first time. Salvemini wrote in her letter to victims that Farrell had been reviewing the final report and had found “sufficient cause” to terminate Peterson’s employment but that Peterson had resigned prior to any disciplinary action being taken.
Neither Farrell, nor Salvemini or Lori Friedman, Lehigh’s media relations director, would say what new evidence prompted a reopening of the investigation in November that had concluded just weeks prior in October. They also would not comment on what evidence was found in the search or why charges were not filed against Peterson. LUPD Chief Jason Schiffer did not respond to a request for comment. Former LUPD Chief Ed Shupp, who retired on Jan. 1, 2018, did not return calls seeking comment.
Salvemini would not comment on how many allegations or reports were filed against Peterson during the course of his tenure at Lehigh and when the reports were filed.
Farrell, President John Simon and Salvemini were copied with Friedman on an email with a list of questions from The Brown and White. Each question was either directed to Farrell, Simon or Salvemini or to the most knowledgeable individual on the given question. Neither Farrell, Simon or Salvemini responded with comment regarding when each individual became aware of complaints against Peterson, or when Farrell or Simon became aware of an investigation into Peterson.
Nation also declined a request for comment. Peterson could not be reached for comment.
“Lehigh as an institution, as well as the individuals that comprise it, are committed to providing a campus environment free from harassment and discrimination, where all community members feel safe and supported,” Friedman said in an email. “We are committed to a full and fair process.”
“He was a presence on campus”
Peterson, hired in 2011 after working at Bucknell University, was brought in to reinvigorate Lehigh’s Africana studies program. During Peterson’s tenure, the university found itself in a time of racial turbulence on campus: Lehigh’s Umoja House was vandalized in 2013 with racial slurs, and the university entered into an agreement with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in 2014 after an investigation for “racial hostility.”
The five major areas outlined in the agreement included an anti-discrimination statement, a racial harassment policy, a staff and student training on racial harassment and student-focused remedies for racial harassment.
Peterson was a black faculty member who studied issues like the #MeToo movement, feminism and black culture. He regularly appeared on MSNBC, and multiple sources confirmed he enjoyed the support and backing of board of trustees members.
Peterson soon began climbing higher within the university. On Oct. 18, 2016, Keetley nominated Peterson for a promotion to full professor. She described the process by which a professor receives a promotion as one that lasts the full academic year. She said she would not become aware of the allegations against Peterson until November 2017, when the email from the Provost’s Office was sent to the school.
Peterson’s May 2017 promotion
Keetley said the promotion process begins in the fall within the department and eventually rises to the level of the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who at the time was Hall. After Hall approved the promotion, the process then continues on to the provost and the board of trustees in the spring semester.
Farrell and the board approved Peterson’s nomination for promotion, with Peterson receiving a formal “congratulations” email on May 12, 2017, Keetley said, along with the salary raise that comes with promotion. Peterson was under investigation when he was promoted in May.
Friedman said she can’t comment on specific cases.
But in a separate email, she said the provost has knowledge of investigations involving faculty members.
“As in all investigations related to a faculty member, the provost was informed at the outset of the investigation,” she said.
Peterson continued to be recognized as a top faculty member at Lehigh. In a photo on Simon’s Instagram account dated April 4, 2017 — taken while Peterson was under investigation, though it was unknown to the campus community at the time — Peterson is shown as part of Simon’s “faculty cabinet.” Simon did not respond to a question asking when he became aware of allegations against Peterson or the then-ongoing investigation.
Chaos and confusion surround Peterson’s investigation
Multiple faculty members, including Keetley, Ed Whitley, a professor in English, Miller and Rozehnal, described an information gap between the university administration and faculty members. Keetley and Miller said they were called in to an emergency meeting with Hall to discuss Peterson’s removal from campus. But Keetley said she left the meeting still not knowing why Peterson was leaving, and it was not until the email from the Provost’s Office the following day that she was able to connect the dots.
In the meeting, Miller and Keetley each said Hall instructed the two women not to discuss the situation with others “unless you want to find yourself in court.” This included not informing Peterson’s students why Peterson had left mid-semester — students whom Miller was to teach once Peterson was suspended.
Keetley said she was shocked when she found out why Peterson was placed on leave on Nov. 7, 2017.
Whitley expressed similar feelings toward being given no advanced notice that one of his colleagues had been accused of sexual misconduct. He said he was unaware of the March investigation.
“I had no idea that there were allegations of sexual harassment against any faculty member until the November email announcement that went out to the campus community,” Whitley said. “At that point, I had no idea that it was referring to a faculty in my department… I was completely shocked.”
Hall, who is now the dean of Arts, Sciences and Engineering at the University of Rochester, declined a request for comment.
Miller said many of the duties that could not be completed by Peterson while he was suspended from campus fell to her. Miller, who alleges she experienced sexual harassment herself by Peterson starting in 2013 in her March 2019 lawsuit against Lehigh, claimed her reports of harassment were dismissed by the university and that she was discriminated based on race and gender.
Her lawsuit was dismissed in February, based largely on the timeliness of her filings, after an almost year-long legal process. Miller, however, recently received a letter from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, informing her of a “clerical error” in her case in which the date of her filings was incorrectly recorded.
Miller said she is evaluating her legal options regarding filing an appeal.
Miller said she picked up the management of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which Lehigh’s Africana studies program was awarded in 2015. Peterson was the Principal Investigator, or PI, of the project prior to his suspension from campus.
The university messaged the National Endowment for the Humanities on Nov. 28, 2017, to request a PI switch from Peterson to Miller. This email came after the university announced an unnamed faculty member, who turned out to be Peterson, was placed on paid leave. Miller shared the official university request for a PI switch with The Brown and White.
“Prof. Peterson has been approved for sabbatical to pursue other study and/or travel, and will not be active in this project during his term,” the request said. “Prof. Miller, who has agreed to be Project Director … already has an active role in this project, and her expertise on the topic will make the transition seamless.”
Although Peterson was scheduled to take his sabbatical in the spring 2018 semester as a fellow at the Nasir Jones Hiphop fellowship at Harvard University, Lehigh did not mention to the National Endowment for the Humanities that Peterson was under investigation for sexual assault at the time the request was made.
A request for comment from the Nasir Jones fellowship was not returned.
Michael Raposa, a professor of religion studies, said the time period between November 2017 and spring 2018 was “one of the darkest that I have experienced during my 35 years here as a member of the faculty.” He said it was difficult for him to learn about Peterson’s alleged sexual harassment of Miller and of the way faculty members and members of university administration allegedly treated her.
He said he was particularly “outraged” when Miller lost her directorship of the women, gender and sexuality studies program at the beginning of the 2018-19 academic year.
“I would add my voice to those calling for greater transparency on the part of our university’s leadership concerning the incidents involving James Peterson,” Raposa said. “What did Lehigh know, when did we know it, how did we act in response, and what are we doing to ensure that this sort of thing is less likely to occur in the future?”
Peterson’s suspension — and who was told what — prompted concern among faculty members involved in a job search for a joint psychology and Africana studies professor. The search was co-chaired by Peterson, but after his suspension, Miller was tasked with filling in as co-chair.
One of the other members on the search committee, whose name was redacted for privacy, had emailed Hall on Nov. 8, 2017, asking for clarification and guidance on how to inform job candidates and handle their inquiries regarding Peterson’s absence from the interviews.
In emails shared with The Brown and White by a member of the search committee, Hall responded on Nov. 8, just a day after the email from the Provost’s Office announcing Peterson’s suspension, that the search committee should treat the absence as “unfortunate but in the category of non-issue.”
“If you draw attention to it, you will make it an issue,” Hall wrote. “Only if someone asks would you respond with something like, ‘Yes, we are sorry that he can’t be here. Something came up.’ And stick to that.”
Transparency lamented by some faculty
Rozehnal said in the vacuum of a silent leadership, “rumors and conspiracy theories multiply and spread, and the truth gets lost.”
Miller said tension plagued the Africana studies program in the days following Peterson’s suspension. She said Hall’s choice to select Miller to fill in for Peterson’s classes and independent studies, as the co-PI of the National Endowment for the Humanities grant and as the co-chair for the psychology and Africana studies job search only sparked more anger and resentment.
Since Hall only gave Miller permission to inform Africana studies’ “cluster faculty” about the Peterson news following their Nov. 6 meeting, the cluster faculty members were upset that it was Miller, and not the administration, directly delivering the information to them. A gap in information also arose between the cluster faculty and other faculty members associated with the program.
The Africana studies cluster faculty are those faculty members hired specifically for the Africana program. The other “core faculty” members are hired through other departments but are listed under Africana studies due to their expertise or training.
“The toll that it took on me? While this is all happening, the dean put us in a position of having to maintain silence,” Miller said. “So being the bearers of information that is litigious and sensitive and controversial, asking mostly black faculty to walk around holding a particular secret, asking vulnerable students to hold on to information that might suggest who this professor is… Now you have a class whose professor is not there, now you have a faculty told their director is gone indefinitely. It felt immediately overwhelming and burdensome to be walking around with information that we’re told if we talk about it, we could end up in court. I felt incredibly threatened.”
Keetley said she was disappointed with the position that students found themselves in, as they were instructed to terminate all contact with Peterson following his November suspension from campus. She said she was told by Hall to say “as little as possible.”
“The situation was not a good one for students,” Keetley said. “But as horrible of a situation as it was for the students, it was ultimately James Peterson’s fault.”
Miller has since dropped her affiliation with the Africana studies program and is now exclusively a religion professor due to the “abuse” she feels was directed at her from other Africana faculty members following Peterson’s resignation. She said the hostility stemmed in part from her being directed to inform cluster faculty about the Peterson developments and the direction she received from Hall to “rein in” speculation and rumors.
She said her colleagues in the religion department have been supportive of her throughout the entire ordeal.
“(Peterson) was a predator with an incredible amount of institutional power and prestige that went all the way up to the board of trustees,” Miller said. “And (Lehigh) put people in harm’s way.”
This report was compiled by The Brown and White’s Investigative Team.