In 2016, Kashdan told graduate students gathered in his hot tub about a sexual experience he had in Europe, and in 2018, he went with graduate students to a strip club where he received a lap dance, the internal investigation found. The professor’s lawsuit said these incidents were misconstrued.
Letters from the university to the professor, summarizing the findings, recently came to light through GMU’s motion to dismiss Kashdan’s lawsuit. The university chastised the professor in February 2019 for a “lack of appropriate professional behavior” and concluded he violated rules against sexual or gender-based harassment, the letters show.
Kashdan denied wrongdoing. But the university, according to the lawsuit, rejected his internal appeal to reverse the conclusions. He then turned to the courts.
His suit, filed in September in federal court in Alexandria, alleged that GMU and its officials had run a flawed investigation, displaying bias against men, and violated his rights to due process and freedom of speech. But a federal judge sided with the university in an April 23 ruling that dismissed the case.
According to the lawsuit, Kashdan was barred from teaching graduate courses for two years and ordered to undergo sexual harassment prevention training.
But the university allowed him to continue teaching undergraduates, without notifying the campus about the findings or punishment.
GMU spokesman Michael Sandler told The Washington Post the public university followed state rules that prohibit sharing personnel information. He said cases involving the anti-discrimination law Title IX are “nuanced,” and the university’s response depends on facts and circumstances of each situation.
“If we determined that an individual posed a danger to our community, we would remove them from our campus and have done so in the past,” Sandler wrote in an email. “In this matter, we took appropriate steps based on the findings of the case to prevent the behavior from continuing.”
Kashdan used the pseudonym “John Doe” when he filed his suit, a step he maintained was necessary to protect his reputation. But he acknowledged his identity as the plaintiff Tuesday in a statement to The Post after U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady denied his request to proceed with the pseudonym. O’Grady also dismissed the 162-page suit on the grounds the professor had failed to state a sufficient complaint.
The judge’s ruling found that the plaintiff admitted to “much of the underlying conduct” that GMU concluded was harassment. O’Grady acknowledged the professor’s assertion of innocence.
“Even so, he has failed to state a claim because he has not pleaded particularized facts suggesting gender bias was a motivating factor in GMU’s findings,” the judge wrote. O’Grady found similar fault with other core allegations in the suit.
“I respectfully disagree with the Court’s decision in my case and intend to file an appeal,” Kashdan wrote in a statement to The Post issued through his attorney, Andrew Miltenberg. He added: “The reason I filed my lawsuit was to bring to light the significant flaws in George Mason’s Title IX process. To this day, I have not seen the evidence gathered during the investigation.”
Sandler, the GMU spokesman, wrote: “The court’s decision to dismiss this case confirms that the university handled this matter in accordance with the law.”
Kashdan appealed the ruling this week to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
Kashdan, a tenured member of the psychology faculty, has taught at the university since 2004 and leads the Well-Being Laboratory at GMU. He declined to be interviewed.
Two women who filed complaints with GMU in 2018 against Kashdan say his conduct deserves more public scrutiny. They agreed to on-the-record interviews with The Post.
Caitlin Williams, 29, a graduate student in clinical psychology, and Sarah Bricker-Carter, 33, who holds a doctorate from GMU in that field, said they are going public because they want to protect other students. “I decided that it was my responsibility to finally speak up about Todd Kashdan’s behaviors,” Bricker-Carter said.
Previously, Bricker-Carter said, she had “put on a tense smile” and stayed silent for fear of saying something that would damage her career. Kashdan was on her dissertation committee, she said, and wrote her letters of recommendation.
The case illustrates tensions over sexual harassment on college campuses that have sharpened in recent years.
Across the country, students and graduates are providing accounts of sexual misconduct by tenured faculty who often hold great sway over the careers of students and postdoctoral fellows.
Accused professors say their reputations have been unfairly pulverized.
Kashdan contended in the suit that he was smeared by “stale,” uncorroborated and false allegations from four current and former female graduate students. He argued that his remarks about sex were either directly related to his research and teaching on sexuality, or amounted to harmless banter with graduate students in social settings outside the laboratory and classroom.
The professor, according to the suit, “was surprised to learn that the same women who had given him unsolicited praise for his teaching and research, and sought him out for assistance with academics and their careers, now alleged that he had created a ‘hostile environment.’ ”
Kashdan’s lab recently won a research grant of more than $1 million from the Charles Koch Foundation. A course catalogue listed him this school year as teaching an undergraduate class on the science of well-being.
Williams said Kashdan should not be allowed to teach. “I just don’t think he should be in a position of mentorship with anyone,” she said. “It bothers me in general that he’s teaching and still has access to students.”
Sandler said GMU would not hesitate to protect students and employees.
“The safety of our students, faculty and staff is our top priority,” Sandler wrote. “The university took appropriate steps in the Title IX matter filed against John Doe. It conducted a thorough investigation, reached a conclusion and took appropriate action to ensure that the behavior exhibited by the faculty member did not continue. All of that is outlined in the court file.”
Title IX is a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs.
A survey last year of more than 181,000 students at 33 prominent research universities found that 18.9 percent had endured incidents of sexual harassment that interfered with their academic pursuits or created an “intimidating, hostile or offensive” environment on campus. Among female graduate students who experienced these problems, 24 percent blamed a faculty member or instructor.
Universities across the country have intensified Title IX enforcement in recent years as the #MeToo movement has uncovered sexual misconduct in academia, entertainment, media, government and industry. Critics say the crackdown at schools has gone too far.
At the University of Virginia, a disciplinary panel recommended termination of English professor John Casey in 2018 after an internal investigation concluded that he should be held responsible for inappropriate sexual contact with a female student. Casey said the contact was consensual but that he decided to retire “rather than fight on.”
At GMU, communications professor Peter Pober, who led the school’s forensics team, also retired that year amid accusations he sexually harassed a student. Pober acknowledged an “inappropriate conversation” with a student but denied several allegations about the content of that discussion.
Details about Kashdan’s case began to emerge in December, when GMU moved to dismiss his suit and filed with the court redacted records chronicling what happened after four women complained about the professor. Separately, Bricker-Carter and Williams provided The Post with documents showing they were among the four.
Two of the women told the university that the professor during an April 2013 class had provided a “detailed personal description to students of performing oral sex on a woman at a party,” according to letters of determination from the university’s Title IX coordinator at the time, Jennifer R. Hammat. Witnesses corroborated the account, Hammat wrote.
Kashdan acknowledged that he presented a personal anecdote while teaching about sexuality and sexual disorders. But the professor contended there was a pedagogical purpose. “No sexual details were provided in Plaintiff’s discussion about this woman other than that Plaintiff performed oral sex on her,” the suit stated. “It was a concrete example of exhibitionism because she invited others to watch. This example was directly relevant to the topic being taught — sexual disorders.” The professor also cited a positive peer evaluation from a faculty colleague who observed his teaching in that course.
The other two women complained to the university about more recent incidents.
In March 2018, one said, the professor went with a group of graduate students to a strip club in Atlanta, according to a letter of determination from Hammat. “During the investigation,” Hammat wrote the professor, “you agreed that you attended the strip club with the students and received a lap dance.”
Kashdan maintained in the suit that the outing was organized by a woman who afterward lodged a complaint. He acknowledged he should have bowed out of the excursion once he realized the focus was a strip club. But he denied that his behavior was discriminatory.
Hammat also scrutinized a December 2016 party at the professor’s home. “You also confirmed that you and your graduate students ended up in the hot tub, discussing life, wellness, research and a recent sexual experience you personally had in Germany,” Hammat wrote the professor. “This was corroborated by several student witnesses.”
Kashdan said the gathering was meant to celebrate the end of the semester. “There was never a point of time where anyone was alone in the hot tub with anyone else,” his suit stated. The professor “acknowledged that he discussed his trip to Germany as part of a larger discussion with his lab students, who were involved in research concerning human sexuality at the time, about many different topics,” according to the suit.
Hammat wrote to the professor that the investigation found “repeated instances of sexual conversations with students you supervise and teach” that crossed the line of appropriate behavior, according to court documents.
Hammat, now dean of students at the University of Southern Indiana, declined to comment.
The psychology department chair, Keith Renshaw, wrote the professor in May 2019, according to a letter GMU filed with the court: “Your conduct ignored the significant power dynamic that is a part of the relationship with students whom you taught, supervised, and mentored.” Four months later, according to the lawsuit, Renshaw notified the professor that he had been disaffiliated from a graduate program — a major rebuke for a tenured academic.
Kashdan maintains he is a victim of a coordinated assault on his character and questions why the four women did not raise their complaints years earlier. His suit claimed that one of the four had been fired from his lab for “poor performance” and that the women were “close friends.” Bricker-Carter and Williams said both claims were false.
“The four of us were not all friends prior to this process,” Bricker-Carter said. She called it “absolutely ludicrous” for the professor to suggest that the women concocted their complaints in “an elaborate revenge scheme.”
The other two women, contacted by The Post, declined to make public statements.
Kashdan’s suit contended he was deprived of “the most minimal due process protections including notice, cross-examination and the right to review the evidence against him.” The university said he was given a chance to defend himself.
The case spotlights issues in how faculty members talk with students about sex and other sensitive matters.
“As a professor who researches and teaches about human sexuality, a core part of my job is openly engaging with graduate students about topics related to sex, and freely exchanging our thoughts and ideas,” Kashdan wrote in his statement to The Post. “These are sensitive subjects, and it’s understandable that some students will feel uncomfortable. Subjective discomfort, however, is not sexual harassment.”
Those who filed complaints said Kashdan went too far. “At no point was Todd’s own sexuality on our syllabus,” Bricker-Carter said.
“In no way is someone’s discussion of their own personal life, especially around sexuality, required or encouraged as a pedagogical tool,” Williams said.
Experts say limits on personal discussions are essential in academia.
“We have to be careful in upholding boundaries in the types of stories that we tell,” said Susan Nolan, president-elect of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology and a professor at Seton Hall University. Nolan said she was speaking about the issue generally and was unfamiliar with the GMU case. “I don’t tell stories off the cuff,” she said. “Students are students — they’re not our friends.”