These are complicated times when it comes to sexual assault and other sexual or sexualized interactions in which women are subjected, typically by men, to unwanted sexual advances. The ongoing discourse in the media on sexual misconduct signals a new and welcome awareness of the harm associated with this kind of exploitation, and promises to facilitate more and more public conversations about a culture in which it is normative for men to be disrespectful of women, making sexual misconduct pervasive.
We can expect a positive cultural shift that stigmatizes these behaviors and increases the support that victims receive. But we must be careful that our enthusiasm for this change not create a situation where alleged perpetrators suffer humiliation and punishment for behavior that does not meet either the letter or spirit of violations of sexual conduct. I am encouraged that a more nuanced conversation, in the media and in our communities, is beginning to prevail.
This is the broader context — one of much needed and rightly celebrated advocacy for victims suffering abuse — in which an anonymous package of materials relating to an accusation of sexual abuse against President Shirley Collado was sent to The Ithacan. Here is a case where a close colleague of mine whom I deeply respect, and the wonderful college where she presides as president, can suffer greatly owing to what I believe to be a false conclusion that many will draw based on a newspaper article.
I do not believe President Collado had sexual contact of any kind with her patient, as accused. I say this with the authority owing to my academic credentials (Professor of Psychology and past Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University, retired as of 7/2017), and the respect I have in the area of sexual abuse and traumatic stress (for example, I am past president of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies). And I say this with the authority owing to my knowledge of President Collado, whom I mentored as a graduate student and whose career I have followed with great interest. Dr. Collado is a professional with an impeccable moral compass; a pioneer in regard to cultural issues in clinical, educational, and community settings; and a leader of great thoughtfulness, kindness, transparency, and integrity. She has devoted her career to helping those individuals who are relatively powerless owing to social position.
If I had read the article in The Ithacan as a student of the College, I would be disturbed about the accusations. But knowing what I do, I am convinced that what might otherwise be believable is in fact not so. I have knowledge of President Collado’s character as lived out over many years. I have knowledge about the severe nature of disorder of patients in the treatment center in which Dr. Collado was interning. I have knowledge about the priority that patient protections receive in such settings owing to the extreme vulnerability of the population. And I know about the inevitable loss of context associated with the passionate voice of an accuser in a situation like this. What I am disturbed about in the end is an understanding of how the revivification of this event initiated by an anonymous package can lead to a conclusion that is utterly false and severely damaging to a wonderful institution who has put an extraordinary person at its helm.
I sincerely hope that your community and the broader community in higher education can approach the information provided in the article about President Collado with the kind of skepticism it demands based on knowledge of the accused and an appreciation of the complicated context in which the accusation has been daylighted. This is a difficult challenge well worth meeting.
Susan Roth, Ph.D.