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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

February 22, 2018   |   Ithaca, NY

Opinion

Editorial: Complex discussions must follow news of allegations

The revelation of Ithaca College President Shirley M. Collado’s blatant professional ethics violations and uncontested misdemeanor conviction for sexual abuse in 2001 have caught the campus’ attention. While the nature of this incident from Collado’s past may be difficult to grapple with, it demands the Ithaca College community to discuss and critically engage with the serious questions raised by the surfacing of this story on our campus.

Much of the initial public conversation surrounding the story has revolved primarily around the anonymous package that alerted The Ithacan to the case. Some are questioning the motives behind the package and its influence on The Ithacan’s article. However, it is important to understand that The Ithacan’s determination of the newsworthiness of the case, as well as its reporting, was derived from the full public court file. Journalists receive anonymous tips often, and although the original source’s motivations can figure into the story, they are secondary in determining the story’s news value. The information itself, not the source, should be the focus of discussion.

The community should consider the following crucial matters:

  • As the #MeToo movement has swept the nation, many on campus have been stressing the importance of believing individuals who make accusations of sexual harassment and abuse, without any exceptions. Why is the community treating this case differently? While this is easy to say when those accused are distant public figures, sexual abuse allegations are much harder to come to terms with when the person accused is a popular leader in our own community. But is the proximity and painful nature of this case an acceptable excuse for immediately dismissing the allegations of the patient without devoting more time and consideration to both sides of the story?
  • It is essential to note that Collado has always denied that she had any sexual contact with the patient. In explaining her no contest plea, she points to her lack of resources, her own emotional pain following the suicide of her first husband and her lack of a strong support network. Given the fact that Collado was a young woman of color with limited funds and support, the case raises questions about race and the legal system. How might racial and class discrimination have played a part in how Collado was treated in this case? At the same time, how might existing stigma surrounding mental illness have played a part in how the patient was viewed in the case, as well as by our own community?
  • Some are arguing that since this case was adjudicated in court 17 years ago, Collado deserves privacy from public scrutiny. But since she is the president of our college, shouldn’t the community know about such a consequential incident in her life? Does the amount of time that has passed since the allegations really lessen their severity?
  • Transparency is another important topic of conversation, especially considering administrative transparency was a prominent
    concern under former President Tom Rochon. Many — including the 280 faculty and staff members who signed a letter that was circulated — argue that Collado has been sufficiently transparent. They point to her vague comments in IC View about “claims” made against her and “steps” she took to “end legal action.” Now, during the first real period of adversity in her presidency, is the time for our community to show Collado our expectations for administrative transparency. Are we as a community really going to the set the bar for transparency so low that we are willing to accept the comments in IC View as an adequate explanation of this case? Does releasing an additional statement under the pressure of the impending publication of The Ithacan’s story qualify as transparency? 
  • Some say the fact that the trustees and the search committee were aware of the case during the search process is enough for them. However, the campus community was widely suspicious of the Ithaca College Board of Trustees just two years ago. What has changed now, that people are so willing to accept the board’s judgment on this without knowing the information themselves?

There are many ambiguities surrounding what happened 17 years ago, but there are aspects that are more clear. Even if one decides to not believe the patient’s accusations of sexual abuse against Collado, the ethical issues involved in this case must be taken more seriously. The unit where Collado worked had extremely strict rules to protect patients from being hurt by their therapists. While she portrays her decision to allow the patient to live with her as a compassionate choice, Collado, as a 28-year-old Ph.D. with specialized training in trauma therapy, certainly knew she was putting the patient at risk. After Collado asked the patient to move out, the patient’s therapists were worried that Collado’s actions had literally put the patient’s life in danger. But Collado says she regrets the decision because it put herself at risk. She has not, in any public statement, expressed regret about the harm her reckless decision caused the patient. What does that say about her?

At this year’s MLK Week keynote speech, a question was asked about how to respond to well-liked public figures guilty of past wrongdoings. In his response, the speaker, Marlon Peterson, asked, “Are these people sincerely acknowledging the wrong that they’ve committed? Are they trying to reduce it as just something that happened back in the day? Are they trying to place some blame on the person that was harmed?”

The 280 faculty and staff who signed the letter take the position that the conversations on campus should be about “how people move forward after terrible events, recover and learn from their own failings and those of others, and need not be defined by the worst thing that ever happened to them.” Frankly, they are missing the point. These conversations should focus on sexual abuse, mental health stigmas, legal representation for people of color, our community’s expectations of transparency and other critical issues that arise in the story. The case is undoubtedly complex, meaning our response must be complex and nuanced as well. Anything less would be a moral failure on the part of the campus community.