Gordon College and the Institution of Rape

A day or two ago PZ Myers put up a post about sexual harassment of graduate students, and I followed on with some speculations about how numbers might be relatively low in some programs, yet still dauntingly high in others. These writings were sparked by a forthcoming journal article in the Utah Law Review that reports, among other findings, a 10% rate of women graduate students self-reporting as victims of sexual harassment. The cases they were able to study weren’t mild, either, and did not support the fears and hyperbole of those screaming about squashed academic freedom and an environment in which one careless, ambiguous, but innocent statement can result in serious consequences for the careers of even tenured faculty. On the contrary, they found:

First, contrary to popular assumptions, faculty sexual harassers are not engaged primarily in verbal behavior. Rather, most of the cases reviewed for this study involved faculty alleged to have engaged in unwelcome physical contact ranging from groping to sexual assault to domestic abuse-like behaviors. Second, more than half (53%) of cases involved professors allegedly engaged in serial sexual harassment.


When not whining about careers killed by an accidental use of the word girl to refer to an adult, another favorite hobbyhorse of those opposed to addressing sexual assault and harassment in higher education is that sexual harassment and assault are much more rare than competent sociological research reports and that when it does occur, it’s not an institutional issue for colleges and universities, but a law enforcement issue requiring the prosecution of that most isolated of cases, the sexist predator.

In my comment I used some basic math to explain how a relatively low general rate of victimization becomes a rate so high as to constitute a serious barrier to graduating the next generation of researchers and professors in a field if the professoriate and graduate student body in a particular program is currently largely made up of men. But while math of this speculative type can help explain how entire university departments can effectively reinforce gender-skew in an already skewed field, it does not do anything to explain why or how universities fail to take action to eliminate – or at least discipline in the hopes of reforming – sexual predators.

Well, today ThinkProgress.org takes us from the statistical to the idiographic: they have a new report up on Gordon College’s extensive failures in the case of alleged-but-well-substantiated rapist Mischael Pierre Celestin and one other, unnamed, serial predator. ThinkProgress spends a portion of its report discussing Gordon College’s theology, its Christian connections, and the supposed differences between how Christian educational institutions handle rape and sexual assault as compared with secular institutions. For example:

Secular universities, including Harvard and Stanford, have come under heavy fire for their handling of sexual assault in recent years. But religious schools that put a premium on sexual purity have unique challenges when they try to address rape on their campuses, according to Dianna Anderson, author of Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity.

The thing is that while I’m sure that there are cultural differences in how different institutions discuss sexualized aggressions – including harassment, assault, and rape – the institutional (in)actions look very similar across both secular and religious schools. For instance, in both contexts it is common to hear the pleas that given imperfect information the college cannot be held accountable for inaction and that outsiders must assume the best motives despite evidence of lack of care (if  not contempt). Further, the process itself seems equally daunting in both contexts, leading many students to choose not to pursue a complaint.

From the ThinkProgress article:

Isabella [the article identifies her only by first name] reported the incidents to Gordon College police in January 2014, but she told them she was unsure whether she wanted to pursue the campus judicial process. That March, she sent an email to an administrator, documented in a confidential sexual assault report obtained by ThinkProgress, saying she couldn’t face retelling her story in front of a disciplinary panel. Instead, she gave up her scholarship at Gordon and transferred to a different school.

“I pray to God that the other females on this campus in the future do not have to go through what I went through,” Isabella wrote in the email. “Hopefully somebody else will speak up.”

After the email, Gordon quietly closed the case, according to the report.

Later in the same article, details of another victim’s experiences are detailed (the assailant in this case was not Celestin, the man who assaulted Isabella):

Meanwhile, Posadas-Nava pressed forward with the school’s disciplinary process. In her Title IX complaint, Posadas-Nava said administrators gave her conflicting information on how the process worked. She had to repeat her story multiple times, and the hearing panel met to decide her case just seven days after she agreed to pursue the case — not enough time, the Title IX complaint says, to fully investigate.

In 2013 Harvard’s long-running paper The Crimson ran a story with these passages:

[One student, referred to as Paola by The Crimson to preserve her privacy] expresses deep disappointment with the way that administrators respond to students coming forward with experiences of sexual assault. “They question the event so much and ask if you were in the wrong so many times that, after a while, one begins questioning if it even happened,” she writes in an email to The Crimson. Paola … decided not to pursue her case with the Ad Board in part because she knew the perpetrator.

…critics, who include sexual assault survivors and campus activists, say that the Ad Board’s written policy language is not favorable to victims of sexual assault, and that the Ad Board’s lack of transparency about its processes intimidates students who bring their cases before the Board.

There is also a commonality between secular and religious institutions in the assumption that sexualized aggression could only be a problem for other schools, schools that are different in some important way, frequently in the nature of the student body. From The Crimson:

Several nights a month, Julia F.P. Ostmann ’15 staffs an anonymous desk in Lowell or stays by the phone from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. …

… Ostmann says there remains the perception among some students that sexual violence is not a problem on Harvard’s campus.

“There’s this rhetoric that, ‘We’re the best and the brightest. How could someone here do this to another human being?’” says Ostmann, who is a Crimson magazine comper. Yet, she continues, sexual assault “is one of the major issues that we handle at Response.”

From ThinkProgress:

Terry Charek, Gordon’s dean of student care, told Posadas-Nava about the decision in his office that same day, she told ThinkProgress. At the time, she said, he recommended that she seek “discipleship,” or spiritual accountability, and said the panel worried the man might be addicted to sex.

That’s a common explanation for sexual misconduct in Evangelical communities, according to Dianna Anderson — whether it’s premarital sex or rape. “You’re either abstinent or you’re addicted to [sex],” says Anderson. That dichotomy “prevents them from having to confront the idea that a good Christian man might still have behaviors that are negative for women,” she explained.

Both schools had problems publicizing their policies, including details of their amnesty policies. Likewise both seemed to have particular trouble addressing sexualized aggression where the perpetrator and victim share a gender.

ThinkProgress’ report pays particular attention to the problem of serial predators, who (we know from research) actually commit the majority of assaults. Research by Stephanie McWhorter showed 144 of 1146 men newly enlisted to the Navy admitted to at least one rape or attempted rape, but of all rapes or attempted rapes voluntarily reported, 865 of them, were committed by only 96 men. So 2/3rds (67%) of rapists are responsible for 95% of rapes. The total attempted or completed rapes reported by these 96 yield a mean of 9, though the median is almost certainly below that number.

In the criminal justice system, the power of the state to strip a person of basic freedoms is sharply curtailed. This limits the ability of a prosecutor to jointly try crimes committed at separate times in separate places and makes testimony from one victim unlikely to be heard at a trial for violation of another victim. Against the power of the state these limits constitute important safeguards, and even with them many innocent people have been put in prison.

However, the needs and powers of an educational institution are vastly different. A school might want to separate itself from a student for any number of reasons, and students voluntarily separate themselves from schools even more often. In this context, the mere separation of student and school are not clear indicators of a violation of law and an expelled student’s fundamental freedoms are not changed or limited. Moreover, the resources available to a school to investigate whether one student is an ongoing danger to other students are vastly limited compared to those of the state.

All this leads to ThinkProgress’ most fundamental criticism of the process at Gordon, that the school failed to take into account the evidence from one case when considering another. If they had, ThinkProgress suggests, they would have had good reason to expel at least two serial predators. The important summation is in bold, but permit me to include some of the background for their conclusion:

Before enrolling at Gordon, Isabella’s alleged assailant, Mischael Celestin, attended Eastern Nazarene College, a Christian school in Quincy, Massachusetts. An incident report by the school’s campus security from early December 2011, obtained by ThinkProgress, records allegations Celestin was involved in a sexual assault on a female student in his dorm room in mid-November of that year. Celestin denied the allegations at the time, according to the document.

…By fall 2012, Celestin — the son of a Baptist minister — was attending Gordon College. Officials there would not say what they knew about the allegations against Celestin, …

By early 2015, at least three people, including Eric Clark and Isabella, had spoken to Gordon staff or administrators about Celestin, who was still a student on campus at the time.

Shayla Lopez told ThinkProgress that Celestin sexually assaulted her twice while they were both students at Gordon — once in late September or early October 2012 and again in December 2013. Shortly after the second alleged assault, Lopez said that she reported both incidents to her dorm’s director, a Gordon staff member who agreed to pass on the report while keeping Lopez anonymous. Lopez didn’t get any updates after that.

Gordon senior Pauline — she asked only to be identified by her first name — told ThinkProgress that Celestin also tried to assault her in his on-campus apartment one night in January or February 2014 when they were drinking together with a friend, Marianthy Posadas-Nava. Thankfully, according to Pauline, Posadas-Nava opened the bedroom door just a few seconds into the attempted assault and Celestin let up.

In fall 2016, Pauline says she saw Celestin walking down a flight of stairs in Gordon’s science center after hearing about his arrest in a separate sexual assault case. “I was like, ‘Oh God, they’re going to let him run free until he’s in jail,’” she told ThinkProgress in an interview. “That’s when I went to report.” She reported the incident to school administrators and says the school has handled her case well — a big difference from what she says that she saw when her friend Posadas-Nava reported unrelated assaults. …

Despite multiple complaints against him, Celestin attended Gordon until late August 2016, when Brockton, Massachusetts, police arrested him after he tried to meet a 15-year old girl he had been trying to talk into a friendship and had forcibly kissed,

These cases highlight a major obstacle facing universities as they battle campus sexual assault … multiple studies suggest that repeat offenders commit the vast majority of sexual assaults.

Still, schools are often reluctant to combine these cases in order to get serial predators off their campus, according to Bruno.

“What they’ve unintentionally done is brought over that idea [from the criminal system] that you can’t have multiple victims testifying against one person, because of the bias that it could create,” she told ThinkProgress in an email. “But they’re two totally separate systems. So of course you can.”

Is this a Christian problem? Is this a problem only with rape cases and not with cases of sexual harassment or assault?

Of course not. With respect to serial predators, Harvard handled its cases in substantially the same way.

These are some of the important problems that exist with educational institutions and addressing sexualized aggression, and though I fully support research into campus cultures, including the religious culture of a campus when relevant, there is no campus culture that makes a college or university immune to the problems both of sexualized aggression by its students and faculty and flawed systems that confuse the role of protecting students’ safety with the role of criminal sanctions for illegal behavior.

We should learn from the failures (and successes) of Gordon College. We should not dismiss the failures themselves as irrelevant to secular institutions even when we identify unique elements of campus culture that necessitate specific corrections or educational efforts that would be ineffective on or irrelevant to another campus. Gordon College and Harvard should be learning from each other, with the same goal in mind: eliminating the barriers to educational opportunities sexualized aggression currently imposes.






  1. says

    The entire process of having vulnerable graduate students’ careers and advancement depend on individual professors is a set-up for abuse.

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