Update: The University of Maryland at College Park removed William "Tony" Rivera from teaching today after the publication of this article:
Content warning: This story includes detailed accounts of sexual harassment.
Editor’s note: The Chronicle has changed the names of students with asterisks next to their names due to the sensitive nature of their stories. This story is the first of two that describes how Duke handled allegations of sexual harassment against a professor. The second story is about how power dynamics and other systemic forces delayed the reporting of sexual harassment in this case.
Last semester, Duke found a professor responsible for violating its sexual harassment policy. Now, he’s at the University of Maryland, where he will be teaching a course next Fall. His supervisor there was not aware that he violated the harassment policy at Duke until The Chronicle contacted him.
In an Office of Institutional Equity investigation, multiple current and former students and staff made sexual harassment allegations against William “Tony” Rivera, former visiting professor with the Social Science Research Institute and director of the Laboratory for Unconventional Conflict Analysis and Simulation (LUCAS). The allegations documented in the OIE sexual harassment report obtained by The Chronicle include making sex-related jokes—such as jokes about genitalia, performing oral sex and the size of his penis—and engaging in “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.”
In January 2018, the University of Maryland announced that Rivera would work for one of its centers. The center’s director later confirmed he was not aware of the allegations.
Rivera said in a statement that the Duke investigation was not fair.
“In an odd way, though, I’m glad this is public so that a) I can speak to this once for all and b) so that I can finally heal, let this go and move on to doing great work with committed students—the vast majority of whom continue to work with me because they know me, trust me and know not just my mind, but my heart (some have testified in the OIE kangaroo court and spoken to The Chronicle on my behalf),” he wrote.
The Chronicle spoke with seven individuals who were both Rivera’s students and LUCAS staffers about their experiences with him. Three of those students said that Rivera’s conduct was always professional. But the others had a different experience.
‘I just f***ing froze’
One former student, Robert*, described several incidents when he felt Rivera was being predatory. The first incident occurred on the last day of Rivera’s class in 2014, when Rivera took his students to an off-campus bar. Until that point, Robert said Rivera had dropped a few hints that he might be interested in him, such as inviting him to get away for a few days.
Robert said he denied that request.
At the off-campus bar, Robert, who was underage at the time, and other classmates were served alcohol and Robert got “quite drunk.” He left the bar and was walking back to his East Campus dorm. To his surprise, he realized Rivera was just behind him. Robert said they got onto the lawn when Rivera stopped him and said “I want you” multiple times.
“I just f***ing froze,” Robert said. “I had no idea what to do. It was kind of like everything flashing before your eyes—me deciding whether or not to stay or go. As tipsy as I was, I was really thinking, ‘What happens now? Is this guy going to ruin me if I don't…’ All these thoughts raced through my mind.”
Robert said he thought a safe thing to do would be to kiss Rivera on the cheek, but almost immediately after, he realized it was a big mistake. He told Rivera “I don’t want to do this” and left for his dorm. A few days later, Robert also texted Rivera that he was “uncomfortable with any kind of relationship that exceeds being professionals, teacher and student, and good friends.”
Rivera responded that the “gist” of Robert’s message was “clear,” according to the report.
In the 2017 OIE investigation report, Rivera said “he ‘bumped into’ [Robert] after leaving [the off-campus bar], and [Robert] kissed him unexpectedly. He did not recall placing his hands on [Robert] or telling [Robert] he wanted him.”
For about a year, Robert said he and Rivera didn’t communicate. Robert knew some of his friends were taking Rivera’s capstone seminar and were involved in his lab. He decided to work with Rivera professionally, as students he trusted worked in Rivera’s lab.
At an out-of-state conference more than a year after the first incident, Rivera and other conference-goers made plans to go out after dinner, during which some of them drank alcohol, Robert said. They went to a whiskey bar and drank there as well. Robert and Rivera headed back to the hotel. Another student was in Rivera’s room because he was a last-minute addition to the trip, so Robert ended up discussing lab work in Rivera’s hotel room while the other student was asleep.
“I thought if [the student] is there, this should be okay,” Robert said. “Like if [the student] is there, I'm okay. I can go there to his room, I can bring my journal and we can talk business.”
At first, everything seemed normal. Rivera was receptive to Robert’s ideas and wanted him to follow up via email, Robert added. Then, they stepped out of the room to get a bottle of water. On the way back, Robert said Rivera surprisingly made a physical advance toward him.
“This time, he more aggressively stops me, turns me around and tries to like kiss me, tries to forcibly kiss me,” Robert said, adding that he was able to lean back so there wasn’t any contact and that he forcibly told Rivera, “No!”
Rivera had a different version of events. In the 2017 OIE investigation report, he “indicated no recollection of attempting to kiss [Robert] during the conference.”
“I categorically deny, in the strongest possible way, any accusations that state or imply that I have inappropriately touched someone,” he said in his statement to The Chronicle. “Anyone who knows me knows I would never violate someone’s physical space and anyone who knows me well, who knows my personal history, knows why that’s the case.”
Three current and former students referred by Rivera to The Chronicle said that Rivera has never made advances toward them. Those students said that he has always conducted himself in a professional way. One said his experience working with Rivera was “overwhelmingly positive.”
Another student, Noah*, reported unwelcome advances from Rivera since the beginning of their working relationship. For Noah, it was smaller incidents over time. Noah said Rivera told him that he was attracted to him soon after they first met. Noah replied that he was uncomfortable with Rivera saying that.
“[Rivera] wanted to assure me that he would never act on his urges, which I think is so strange that he should have to say that,” Noah said. “I didn't think much of it at the time.”
Noah said he felt that Rivera was resisting the urge for sexual advances. However, Rivera disputed this in his comments to OIE in the report.
“[Rivera] indicated, ‘without context,’ he did not recall telling [Noah] that he found him attractive, physically and as a person,” the report says. “Dr. Rivera explained he could possibly see himself telling someone he/she was attractive in the appropriate context. Additionally, he explained he could see himself telling [Noah] that he found him attractive in terms of his leadership potential and his potential to contribute to the lab.”
Noah, Robert and another male student, who worked at LUCAS and took Rivera’s class, said that he would make inappropriate comments.
However, three other students The Chronicle interviewed denied ever hearing such comments during the time they have worked with Rivera.
In the OIE report, Rivera had an explanation for unsavory comments and the allegation that he simulated unzipping his pants and asked if his penis was sufficient to make a measurement.
“Dr. Rivera replied that he could not categorically deny he has ever made jokes related to parts of the anatomy. Dr. Rivera stated, ‘As a caveat, I always ask students and staff in the lab to tell me if they are uncomfortable with anything I say,’” the report noted. “In response to the allegation that he simulated unzipping his pants, Dr. Rivera said he did not specifically recall doing so, but it could have been possible, depending on the context and who was present.”
The three students echoed Rivera’s statement, saying that Rivera made it clear that if they felt uncomfortable by his comments, they could tell him.
“At no point have I witnessed any behavior that I would even remotely consider to be unprofessional,” one of the students said. “Dr. Rivera has consistently made it really clear that he values feedback on his communication style. I’ve never once seen him respond to any feedback like that negatively or disrespectfully.”
Another former student and staffer, Emma*, felt that Rivera had treated her differently after she rejected his proposals to start a romantic relationship. After she rejected him, he turned cold toward her, she claims.
“When I rebutted him the last time, our working relationship changed drastically,” she said. “His mood around me, which had always been joking and friendly with non-work situations and serious and considerate for work-related interactions, turned cold, bordering on hostile.”
In the report, Rivera “declined to provide further response” when asked if he had ever expressed a romantic interest in Emma.
Was the OIE process fair?
In his statement to The Chronicle, Rivera wrote that the OIE investigation was unfair.
“When these accusations were first brought to me I refuted with logic, fact and evidence certain key points in these scurrilous allegations,” he wrote. “These were ignored by the ‘investigator,’ Lonnie Hinton. Not one piece of exculpatory evidence that I brought forth made it into the final report, not one. Further, I pointed out to officials at Duke that the investigation violated Duke policy on several critical points.”
One of his points was that the investigation ignored OIE’s statute of limitations. According to the policy, there is a statute of limitations for when a complainant can file a complaint against professors and supervisors—“no more than a year after the most recent conduct alleged to constitute harassment.”
The report says Robert spoke with OIE in 2014, 2015 and 2017, but did not name Rivera until a fourth time, in May 2017 after his senior spring semester, for fear of retribution. Without the name, OIE could not act. So, although Robert spoke with OIE within a year of each incident, the actual investigation happened two or three years after the events.
Rivera wrote in a statement that because the events took place long ago, it made it hard for him to remember what happened.
“It is impossible to remember years after the fact (which is why Duke has a statute of limitations, which was totally ignored), whether this or that was said, the context in which it was said, who was or was not present and a bunch of other important details, that any researcher (let alone a competent investigator or news outlet) worth their salt would want to know before judging or publishing,” he wrote.
Hinton, equal opportunity and compliance investigator for OIE and the investigator on this case, did not respond in time for publication. Howie Kallem, assistant vice president of OIE, replied on his behalf, noting first that Duke does not comment on specific cases. However, he did make a general statement about the statute of limitations policy.
“Harassment complaints often consist of a series of acts over time; while an individual act may not be a policy violation, a number of acts taken together can cumulatively be sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive to be a policy violation,” he wrote.
OIE’s statute of limitations does have exceptions.
The policy says these exceptions apply “if the nature of the allegation or complaint is particularly egregious,” which will be determined by OIE, and if OIE initiates the complaint within a year of learning about the incident.
There is another way the investigation might not have been in accordance with OIE’s policy.
After Robert reported Rivera by name in May 2017, the OIE investigation gathered comments from seven other current and former students—male and female—who had worked at the lab. The report was released Sept. 4, 2017.
However, page seven of the OIE policy states that “the informal process shall extend no longer than 45 business days after the allegation is made.” In another place of the same policy—page 10—it says the informal process “will generally take no longer than 45 business days from the time of the filing of the complaint; if the process will take longer, the parties will be notified (including as to the reasons for the delay).”
This case went through the informal process, as there was no hearing.
“The complaint process is designed to provide a timely, fair and balanced investigation and outcome,” Kallem wrote.
Did Duke comply with Title IX?
The OIE investigation found that Rivera’s conduct was “sufficiently egregious or persistent so as to violate the harassment policy.”
“The information gathered in this investigation is sufficient to support a finding that Dr. Rivera’s conduct created a hostile work and learning environment. The interviews indicated Dr. Rivera consistently made sexually explicit comments to staff and students,” the report stated. “Given the information obtained from the investigation, there is a sufficient showing that Dr. Rivera engaged in unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature with...students and staff under Dr. Rivera’s supervision.”
It is unclear whether Duke had to report this finding to the federal government because of a grant Rivera received.
In 2014, LUCAS under Rivera’s leadership received a three-year, $1.6 million grant from the Minerva Research Initiative, which is administered by the Department of Defense. Because it involves federal funding, the Minerva Initiative must comply with Title IX, said Carla Gleason, public affairs specialist for the Department of Defense.
She added that Title IX complaints, which can include sexual harassment complaints, should be filed in accordance with a university’s policies and in coordination with the university Title IX coordinator—Kallem at Duke—who is required to report information about those complaints to the Department of Defense. Those reports could initiate DOD investigations and possibly affect the grant.
“We do not have any Title IX complaints [from Duke] at this level,” she wrote last Monday. “That does not mean they don't exist.”
However, Kallem wrote last Friday that Duke did not have to report findings of sexual harassment to the Department of Defense in this case.
“It is our interpretation that the grant that you reference has no requirement for Duke to report findings of harassment to the Department of Defense,” he wrote.
‘Tony came highly recommended to us’
According to page 14 of the OIE Harassment Policy and Procedure, the office will notify the parties of any sanctions that “relate directly to them” and will verify that remedial actions have been implemented. It does not say whether OIE will inform both parties of sanctions, nor does it mention informing anyone not party to the case of disciplinary actions.
Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for government relations and public affairs, declined to comment about whether Rivera was disciplined for violating the harassment policy to protect the “privacy of our employees and the integrity of the investigative process.” However, he noted that Rivera is no longer an employee of Duke.
Rivera now works at the University of Maryland at College Park. According to UMD’s schedule of classes for Fall 2018, Rivera is slated to teach an online course called “Motivations and Intents of Terrorists and Terrorist Groups.”
A Jan. 24 press release from the University of Maryland noted that Rivera was taking a new job at its National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). There, he is a “investigator” and “research affiliate.”
“Tony came highly recommended to us for his passion for counterterrorism focused research that can inform policy and practice, as well as for mentorship,” said William Braniff, START executive director, in the Jan. 24 press release.
There is no mention of who “highly recommended” him.
When The Chronicle reached out to Braniff, he wrote in a March 16 email that he was not aware of the sexual harassment allegations made against Rivera.
“The allegations referenced in your inquiry to Dr. Rivera are the first that I am learning of this,” he wrote. “I appreciate you bringing this to my attention, so the matter can be addressed.”
Braniff declined to comment further on how the matter would be addressed.
Read the second part of this series here. If you have had experiences with sexual harassment or the Office of Institutional Equity that you would like to share with The Chronicle in a confidential manner, please contact Likhitha Butchireddygari at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read Rivera’s full statement below:
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Class of 2019
Local and national news department head 2016-17
Born in Hyderabad, India, Likhitha Butchireddygari moved to Baltimore at a young age. She is pursuing a Program II major entitled "Digital Democracy and Data" about the future of the American democracy.