The following is an important message from Ithaca College President Shirley M. Collado. A related message from the board of trustees can be found here.
Recently, I learned that an anonymous source has been circulating misleading information to other colleges and universities and their news outlets about a traumatic time in my life that took place almost 20 years ago. Seeing how profoundly the facts and my character are being misrepresented and being forced to relive the pain of that time have left me feeling upset, perplexed, and targeted. I do not know who is disseminating this information or how widely it is being shared.
I have been candid about this very trying chapter of my life, and how it has influenced the way I approach my work and my personal path. I have discussed it over the years with confidantes and with leaders I’ve worked for. I discussed it with the Ithaca College Board of Trustees and the presidential search committee during my candidacy for president. While trying to maintain a degree of privacy and confidentiality for myself and other individuals, I shared the broad details of this story in an interview published by the college as part of my introduction to the campus community last spring.
Because the story is personal, it’s very hard to describe the details more publicly than I have in the past, with a campus community who is still getting to know me. However, after intensive reflection, I have decided that I must follow my commitment to owning our full stories with humanity and insight.
In 2000, less than a year after finishing my Ph.D., I was in training as a trauma therapist in a mental health center in a hospital in Washington, D.C., working with patients suffering from very severe psychiatric disorders that limited their ability to function independently. A short time after I began this work, my husband of three years killed himself in our home. He was my best friend and my rock, and I could not understand why he did this to himself and to us. I was devastated, and took a leave of absence to try to work through my overwhelming grief.
During my leave of absence, a former patient sought me out for help when she was in crisis and had no place to stay. Worried for her safety, I invited her into the home I shared with my roommate, but after a brief period I realized that I could not provide the support she was looking for while I myself was trying to heal. So, I let her know that she could no longer stay with us and helped her move out.
Shortly thereafter, I received the news that she was making allegations about me to the staff at the hospital. I suddenly found myself fighting a misdemeanor sexual abuse charge for allegedly having touched her once in a sexual manner above her clothing while she was under my treatment at the center.
I fought the charge to the best of my ability, but my fighting spirit was limited by so many things. I was in my twenties, had very little money and resources, and was grieving a profound personal loss.
And so, I juggled two very strong and opposing instincts: to defend myself aggressively against a painful, false accusation or to devote my energy to healing from my loss. My lawyer recommended pleading no contest to the misdemeanor charge so that I could just end the matter quickly and move on. After a lot of soul searching, I took his advice. I pled no contest, or nolo contendre, to the misdemeanor, ending the matter, and moved back to New York to be with my family, where I completed probation and community service.
In light of the resurfacing of this legal action, I want to unequivocally state now, as I did then, that the accusations in the court documents are simply not true. If I had had more resources and was not dealing with my significant loss, I probably would have fought the charge. But I did what I felt was in my best interest at that time and followed my lawyer’s advice.
I could have let this terrible episode discourage me from advocating for people with mental illness and limited resources, but there are so many people like my former patient who have experienced great trauma and illness and face extraordinary challenges related to health care, housing, employment, education, safety, and more. I actively continued teaching in the areas of trauma and the intersections of trauma, mental health, race, culture, and gender. And, I devoted a great deal of effort to improving services, support, policies, processes, education, training, and prevention related to sexual misconduct and gender-based violence during my tenure at both Middlebury College and Rutgers University–Newark.
I believe that the experience helped sharpen a sense of humanity and empathy that has been with me throughout my career in education. I have always worked to ensure that people’s full humanity is respected and understood, without reducing them only to their most visible labels, diagnoses, or social markers. When I work with students, staff, and faculty dealing with hardships, difficult decisions, big mistakes, losses, or trauma, I have a personal lens that is informed by my own experience and the amazing resilience that I know we all have within us.
I am deeply grateful for the unwavering support and compassion I have received from the board and from all those with whom I’ve discussed this difficult story. And I want to thank you, now, for giving me the time to share this deeply personal and painful part of my life.
Shirley M. Collado