A George Mason University professor facing termination proceedings retired this spring amid accusations that he had sexually harassed a student, a claim that prompted others to come forward and say they had been harassed, interviews and documents show.
Peter Pober, a communications professor, had presided over the nationally acclaimed speech team at the public university in Northern Virginia. Official documents and interviews with former team members open a window onto Pober’s fall from prominence at the school.
Those documents include written testimony that details allegations about an episode in February involving the professor and the student, who graduated in the spring.
In an interview, the man who wrote that testimony said he was coming forward out of concern that Pober might be able to move to a position at another school.
“He still has one of the best résumés of any coach in the country, in terms of both competitive success and just sheer experience,” he said. “I truly felt as though he was going to end up with another job in education and do the same thing to other people as he did to me.”
The allegations against the George Mason professor come amid a larger national conversation about sexual harassment and misconduct that has reverberated across the academy and industries including entertainment, media and technology. A central concern involves harassers who were able to hide in plain sight, sometimes moving from one job to another.
In his written testimony, the man alleged that Pober made sexual advances. The encounter allegedly happened while the two were alone in a hotel room after a night of heavy drinking, according to the documents.
The Washington Post generally does not identify victims of sexual misconduct unless they voluntarily offer their names to be published. The man asked that his name not be published because the behavior in question was not his own.
The man filed a Title IX harassment complaint with the school, and university officials found enough information to support his allegation “that Dr. Pober engaged in conduct that qualifies as Sexual or Gender-Based Harassment” in violation of university policy, those documents show.
The man turned the records over to The Post. George Mason did not release records from its investigation, but a university spokesman confirmed that the documents supplied by the student were authentic.
“During the investigation, Dr. Pober confirmed that he told you that [he] wanted to have sexual intercourse with you,” a letter explaining the school’s findings states.
Pober acknowledged in a statement to The Post that he had an “inappropriate conversation” with a student, though he denied some of what was allegedly said during the incident.
“I admit that in February 2018 I had an inappropriate conversation with a student on a school trip, although I continue to deny several of the allegations regarding the content of that conversation,” Pober said in the statement, which was provided by his attorney. “I apologized to the student that evening and continue to regret my words.”
Pober, who did not have tenure, retired in May, after the school started “termination for cause proceedings,” university spokesman Michael Sandler said in a statement.
Retirement benefits are regarded as personnel records, Sandler said, meaning the university cannot discuss financial details of Pober’s departure. Pober’s attorney declined to share details of her client’s retirement.
Former team members described Pober as brilliant but demanding, a powerful and respected leader in collegiate speech. He had been a university employee since 2003 and had served as chair of the Faculty Senate.
The man who said he was harassed by Pober was a member of the speech team at the time of the incident.
“George Mason University takes enforcement of Title IX very seriously,” Sandler said, referring to the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. “The university thoroughly investigates Title IX complaints, and when there is evidence of violations, it takes appropriate action.”
The documents the man provided to The Post show that George Mason took “swift, decisive action on this matter,” Sandler said in a statement, which noted that an investigation continues.
George Mason did not have a record of complaints against Pober before February, Sandler said, but after it received the initial allegation, university officials received “several other complaints.” Pober was placed on administrative leave, and the university ordered him to stop interacting with students.
A letter provided by the former student shows that George Mason decided to place Pober on administrative leave in mid-February.
“I have always considered myself a teacher,” Pober said in his statement. “As difficult as it was to decide to retire from GMU, that decision was the right one for the university and its forensics program.”
One of the other complaints about Pober came from a former member of George Mason’s speech team — known as the forensics team — who alleged Pober made a sexual advance, though the incident happened after the man graduated. The man said he met with Pober expecting to discuss a coaching role.
“During what was supposed to be a business dinner, Dr. Pober purchased several drinks for the two of us, made unwanted sexual advances once I was intoxicated, and then the next morning claimed he didn’t remember what happened,” the man said in a statement to The Post. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of privacy concerns.
The man, who said he later worked as a coach for George Mason’s team, filed a complaint with the university in March, three years after the alleged incident.
He said he did not initially come forward because he did not believe he had grounds to ask George Mason to act — he was neither a university employee at the time nor a student. He decided to share his experience after learning that someone else had filed a complaint.
The second man provided a letter showing that the school found enough evidence to support his harassment allegation. The university confirmed the authenticity of the letter.
The Post spoke with the man’s roommate, who lived with him at the time of the alleged incident and still does. She said that after the man returned from meeting with Pober, he told her the professor had made sexual advances.
Pober’s attorney provided redacted letters about investigations into two other cases. In those instances, the letters show, the university did not find enough evidence to support allegations of harassment. The university verified that those documents were authentic.
The forensics team, which focuses on public speaking, “is a success story at Mason,” Sandler said. “We are committed to the program and have made it a priority.”
The man who alleged being harassed in February acknowledged having a rocky student-professor relationship with Pober. The alleged incident happened in New Orleans after a competition elsewhere in Louisiana, according to the former student’s account of the night.
Team members attended a dinner in the French Quarter, which included “a generous amount of drinks,” the man’s written Title IX testimony states. They made stops at bars as the night progressed, and the now-former student started to notice how much Pober was touching him, according to the written testimony. At one bar, he wrote, he and Pober slow danced.
“I thought it was a little too intimate, so I broke away relatively quickly,” the man’s testimony states. “He stared at me for awhile afterwards and smiled. He bought me another drink.”
The alleged incident in the hotel room happened in the early morning hours. The man, who wrote that he was “still far from sober,” described moments he said he remembered, including Pober telling him he loved him and had been watching him all night.
The man thought Pober was trying to pay him a compliment, but then noticed a shift in tone, as the professor became more flirtatious. Eventually, the student alleged in his testimony, Pober told him that he had been wanting to have sex with him for years, and continued to make sexual advances, at times using graphic language.
“As he pointed at the bed, I cautiously told him I had no interest,” the written testimony states.
The conversation lasted longer than an hour, the now-former student said in a telephone interview, because he was wary of suggesting to Pober that the encounter was strange. He did not want to seem combative, he said, but wanted to make clear he wanted no part in what Pober was suggesting.
“I wish I had left,” he said in his written testimony. “I wish I had told him he was out of line and stormed out. He continually acknowledged he was out of line and then kept pushing, and I kept wishing this would turn into something different.”
The man left the hotel room, saying he needed to sleep. In the documents, he alleged that Pober adjusted his jacket as he left, swore at him and said: “I was planning on taking advantage of you. But you had to take control.”
“He laughed, so I pretended it was a joke, too,” he wrote. “I told him good night, I went back to my room, and I had a panic attack.”
The complaint was investigated by the school’s office on compliance, diversity and ethics, documents indicate. In addition to the sexual harassment matter, Pober also violated George Mason’s drug and alcohol policy for employees, because of “substantial impairment brought on by excessive alcohol consumption” while he was performing official duties, according to a university letter provided by a former student.
Three former members of the team who were on the trip provided similar accounts of a drunken night out. The three were not witnesses to what is alleged to have occurred in the hotel room but learned details from their teammate.
They included one woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue. She said she waited outside the door while her teammate and Pober were inside, and learned what happened through text messages and a conversation with her teammate not long afterward.
“For men in power who are sexually exploiting people that are under them, your time is up,” she said. “This can’t keep happening.”