Education

The Damage Campaign

Cassia Roth remembers March 9, 2020, very clearly. It was her birthday. It was a week before a nationwide Covid-19 lockdown led her university to move its classes online.

It was also the day she found herself facing some of the most serious accusations imaginable in the academy.

An email sent to nearly a dozen people at the University of Georgia, where Roth is an assistant professor, alleged that she had plagiarized parts of her master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation, stealing the work of the sender, another young female scholar.

Then the accuser went further: Roth, she wrote, had stolen the sender’s syllabi, and was posting her photo on pornographic websites.

“She is an imposter, a serial plagiarizer,” the sender wrote of Roth, “and she needs to be held accountable for her actions.”

Roth recognized the name of the sender. It was a former graduate-school classmate of hers, someone she’d considered a friend when they studied history together at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The accusations shocked her. They didn’t even make sense, she says. Roth studies Latin American and Brazilian history, but the work she’d supposedly copied was about the Indian diaspora. The claims about pornographic websites were even stranger. But the email triggered a campus investigation.

And, Roth later learned, she wasn’t the only target.

Melissa Golden, Redux, for The Chronicle

Cassia Roth at the U. of Georgia

The Chronicle is not naming the woman at the request of Roth and others she targeted, who are concerned about her well-being. This article will call her by an initial, R.

From late February to May last year, R., then an assistant professor of history at Union College in New York, leveled serious accusations against at least 16 people, including 13 former Ph.D. students at UCLA. The vast majority of the victims were women, and most of them are now faculty members at institutions across the country. The frenzied email-harassment campaign included allegations of plagiarism and sexual misconduct that, according to the targets, are completely false. (The victims who spoke with The Chronicle have been exonerated by their employers.)

The harassment campaign prompted weeks-long investigations and upended the scholars’ lives for much of the spring semester, at a time when the pandemic was also causing professional and personal upheaval. What’s more, almost none of the targeted scholars had tenure.

Even though their institutions cleared them months ago, Roth says, she and others fear they could now be associated — forever — with the false claims. The accusations they faced are the sort that can derail careers and permanently damage credibility.

The women sought help from Union College, their own institutions, the local police, even the FBI. But they felt they couldn’t get much recourse. And even months later, the question remained: Who is responsible for cleaning up this mess, anyway?

Last spring Jyoti Gulati Balachandran had just finished her first book. Balachandran, an assistant professor of history at Pennsylvania State University, was supposed to be celebrating that pivotal moment in her academic career.

But then R. accused her of plagiarism and harassment. In an email sent to seven Penn State administrators, R. alleged that Balachandran had plagiarized R.’s master’s and doctoral dissertations, and lifted R.’s experiences for her own CV.

“This fabrication of information is not new to her,” the email, sent from R.’s campus address, claimed. R. also threatened to report Balachandran “to various conference committees and academic organizations.”

Faculty members across the country, from New York University to the California Institute of Technology, were facing similar claims.

“She did not write a single page of that dissertation or did any research,” read another email accusing a faculty member of plagiarism and stealing syllabi. “Also, she has been sending across fake CVs to institutions and at conferences where my published articles are being cited as her own.”

Early on, those were the most common allegations. Then Roth and other victims discovered fake email accounts and online profiles in their names. In some cases, messages from those accounts accused other victims of stalking, harassment, and sexual assault. In others, the accounts falsely accused scholars around the world, primarily in the field of history. The victims unanimously believe R. was responsible.

Natasha J. Baker, a lawyer who often works on faculty-misconduct investigations, says she’s never heard of a case like this before. She’s seen situations in which people outside an institution have filed complaints against faculty members, but few, if any, have been completely baseless. “This seems pretty extreme,” Baker says.

R.’s motives for sending the emails are unknown. Her first accusations were made against Union College employees, and the institution placed her on leave in March 2020. By May, she was no longer employed there. The same month, the accusatory emails appeared to stop. Law-enforcement officials declined to pursue criminal charges.

“This case involved a complex, rapidly evolving, and atypical pattern of behavior,” Phillip J. Wajda, a spokesman for Union College, wrote in an email.

R.’s whereabouts are unclear. Repeated attempts to contact her were unsuccessful.

In what appears to be a blog post written by R. last June, she denies that she wrote the emails. Other people used her name to create fake email accounts and send disparaging messages, she writes.

While the victims’ institutions have well-oiled systems for handling plagiarism and Title IX accusations, the processes were ill suited to respond to R.’s repeated false claims. Department chairs wanted to support their faculty members, disregard R.’s missives entirely, and move on. But they were required to report the allegations to campus investigators, triggering research-misconduct and Title IX probes, some of which took weeks to resolve.

Enduring a plagiarism investigation was the last thing an untenured junior scholar like Roth wanted to be doing. But anytime the University of Georgia receives such a complaint, it is automatically referred to the research-integrity office.

The investigator told Roth that he had seen a lot of crazy things in his career, but this was “one of the craziest.”

After nine days, the office cleared her.

A month later, the situation intensified.

Emails from professors and administrators around the world — some of them senior scholars in her field — flooded her inbox. They were all asking the same question: Had Roth sent them a message, from a non-university account, accusing someone of plagiarism and sexual assault?

The messages, coming from accounts like [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected], bore almost identical language:

“She sexually assaulted and grievously injured me.”

“I have blocked him electronically and reported him to the police.”

“She is unfit to be employed in an academic institution.”

“He is a psycho and a threat to people around him.”

Roth started hearing from Title IX offices at the institutions of the scholars she’d supposedly accused of sexual assault. She had never met some of the faculty members in question. No, she wrote back over and over again, that wasn’t me.

That’s what happened to Naomi Taback, too. Taback, an assistant professor at Temple University, heard from three colleges in a two-day span about allegations she’d purportedly made. Initially, Taback thought she’d been targeted by a computer virus. “It is so embarrassing to be supposedly emailing all of these chairs of a history department,” she says. She told them she hadn’t sent any such emails.

Taback thought about all the leading historians “reading these unhinged emails in my name.” What if those same scholars ended up evaluating her next conference proposal or publication?

“Even though I’m not at fault,” she says, “the first thing that these important historians in our field are going to think about when they see my name are these accusations of stalking.”

It would have been one thing to have credit-card information stolen, she says. It was another to watch a former close friend try to ruin her academic reputation. “This was so personal, and it was so difficult to stop it.”

As the false accusations piled up, some of the victims started connecting the dots. Roth got in touch with Balachandran, Taback, and other victims. They realized they had been implicated in emails with nearly identical language; some had even supposedly written emails accusing one another. They had all gone to graduate school together at UCLA. And they had all known R. Some had even been her friends.

The women gathered, first on an email chain and then on Zoom, to share their experiences. They uploaded all the accusatory emails to a shared Google Drive folder and posted a statement on Facebook.

As the young scholars feared the worst, their department leaders tried to run interference.

From the start, said Carla Pestana, history-department chair at UCLA, R.’s allegations didn’t read like “measured complaints.” One of Pestana’s faculty members had been accused of plagiarizing R.’s dissertation. But when Pestana spent a weekend reading both 300-plus-page texts, she found they had only a single article citation in common.

Pestana felt a “fierce protectiveness” over her faculty member. But she also couldn’t fail to report serious allegations, which would immediately raise alarm bells for campus officials. Even the strangest-sounding claims had to be funneled through the proper channels.

Plagiarism allegations went to the research-integrity office. Sexual-misconduct claims went to the Title IX office. Investigations were opened. The university bureaucracy started to churn.

After Pestana alerted UCLA investigators to the allegations, she wrote a department-wide email. She couldn’t say much. Personnel records were confidential, and given that Title IX complaints frequently lead to lawsuits, university lawyers advised Pestana to be cautious. But Pestana wanted to avoid rumors both within the department and outside it. Don’t respond to any strange-sounding emails, she told her colleagues, and don’t forward them.

Pestana estimates that she spent at least 100 hours trying to contact every person who had been accused or had supposedly sent an email with false allegations, and replying to administrators on other campuses.

And yet there was only so much she could do. She reported all of the illicit emails and blocked the sender. But a new account could be created in minutes.

As the barrage of emails continued, Balachandran was subjected to plagiarism and Title IX investigations based on the false accusations. In the moment, she worried about the fact that one of the complaints had gone to her dean. “I don’t want to have that association, right? That when the dean thinks of me, he’s like, Oh, you’re the one who was accused.”

Her department head, Michael Kulikowski, tried to reassure her. But “like all very large universities, Penn State is very bureaucratic,” he says. Anytime a complaint is filed, officials conduct a thorough investigation.

“One would love to be able to simply say, No, this is quite clearly just wrong, and throw it out the window,” Kulikowski says, but “the university has to do its due diligence.” When a faculty member is falsely accused, he says, it’s important for those accusations to be aired and proved false beyond a doubt. The plagiarism investigation into Balachandran was closed within a month. “For something this potentially complicated,” Kulikowski points out, that “is relatively efficient.” Balachandran says Kulikowski and others at Penn State supported her throughout the ordeal.

Still, Kulikowski wishes that Penn State could have done something more to “proactively defend Jyoti’s reputation.”

While personnel matters are always confidential, a college could, with the targeted professor’s permission, issue a public statement, says Baker, the employment-law expert. “There are ways to make the process feel better, depending on how you approach it,” she says.

Several Georgia administrators signed a boilerplate letter for Roth to use, instead of drafting a response every time an accusation came her way. “Here at the University of Georgia, Dr. Roth has established herself as an exemplary educator and scholar,” the letter reads in part, “and her reputation should not suffer as a result of these distressing incidents.”

But that letter wouldn’t prevent other colleges from looking into the complaints. And some investigations were already in the works by the time Roth received the letter. In one case, Roth says, it felt as if a Title IX investigator was more concerned about the false sexual-assault claim than about the fact that Roth was the victim of online harassment.

Even if this kind of online harassment is relatively uncommon, the victims say, it’s not unheard of. They point to a New York Times article last year that detailed another professor’s experience dealing with false allegations by a fellow scholar. Colleges should be prepared to respond, they say.

That’s a lot easier said than done. Years of attention to sexual misconduct in higher ed have increased the pressure on colleges to take all complaints seriously. It’s hard to imagine a policy that draws a satisfactory line between accusations that seem bizarre but could have merit, and false allegations designed to smear someone’s reputation.

At the very least, the victims believe colleges and law-enforcement agencies should have intervened to help them, as well as R. herself. But no one seems to know who exactly should have done so.

Roth tried contacting Yahoo to have the fake accounts in her name shut down, to little effect. She filed a report with the local police department in Schenectady, N.Y., where Union College is located, and another with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. And she urged Union College to do something.

From Union College’s standpoint, there wasn’t much the institution could do.

On the small campus of 2,000 students, the public-safety office’s primary duties include issuing parking tickets, registering vehicles with the college, and reporting potential student-conduct problems. Now its director, Christopher Hayen, was shouldering the burden of a potential criminal case against R.

In late April last year, Hayen wrote to R.’s victims several times, according to emails shared with The Chronicle. In one update, he told them that he’d met with an FBI agent and an investigator on the Schenectady police force, and he acknowledged the possibility of civil litigation. He promised the victims that he’d update them as soon as the outside agencies had reviewed the matter, and he urged them in the meantime to “enjoy the weekend the best you can.”

The next week, Hayen emailed the victims again, saying that the agencies would have had to subpoena R.’s computer to prove she had sent the emails with false allegations. But law-enforcement officials didn’t have the authority to do so, he said, because the incident was at most a “violation,” not a crime. “There is no further action that law enforcement is taking at this time,” he wrote, and further questions should be directed to the FBI, the state police, and the local police. (Hayen did not respond to repeated interview requests from The Chronicle.)

In early May, the chair of Union College’s history department, Andrea R. Foroughi, sent Roth an email. “I want to offer my sincere apology for the damage that a former member of my department has wrought against you, and against other historians,” she wrote. Legal restrictions hampered what she was allowed to say, but Foroughi emphasized that she and R.’s former colleagues were “appalled.” She included a copy of a message she said was being sent to all the history departments she’d heard from about the case.

Signed by Foroughi and Union’s vice president for academic affairs, the letter assured recipients that Union was investigating the matter, providing support and resources to victims, and cooperating with law-enforcement authorities.

But that response felt inadequate to Roth. She and the other victims wanted the college to issue a definitive statement refuting the allegations, and to get R. the help they felt she needed. Roth hadn’t heard from her since the summer of 2019. That fall, several scholars who knew R. saw that she had blocked them on social media.

“I feel Union College has really done too little too late,” Roth wrote to Foroughi on May 4. “I know these decisions are out of your control, but this ongoing harassment has caused considerable damage to my ability to work over the past two months, not to mention emotional distress in an already distressing time.”

Foroughi replied: “I sympathize with your frustration; I have urged the college to take action for the past two months.” She was slowed by bureaucracy — personnel law, Title IX regulations, and digital-harassment laws.

In an email to The Chronicle, Foroughi said she’d immediately notified human-resources officials and other administrators at Union once she’d learned what was happening. She’d spoken with victims and connected them to Union officials, and corresponded with department chairs at other institutions who had emailed her. Early on, Foroughi said, “the person named by those individuals” was placed on a leave of absence, and her access to her college email account was revoked.

Roth’s frustration was not with Foroughi but with Union College. That exasperation boiled over when an outside lawyer, hired by the college, questioned whether R. had used her Union account to send accusatory emails. “It is not our responsibility as victims,” Roth wrote to the lawyer, “to keep Union College up to date on [R.’s] actions.”

In late May, the lawyer sent Roth and other victims a letter acknowledging that the plagiarism claims “did not include any direct evidence,” and that all of the misconduct accusations “follow a similar pattern.” It didn’t honor Roth’s request for a clear statement that the accusations were all false.

That wasn’t possible, said Wajda, the Union College spokesman, because the college didn’t investigate any claims made against people outside the institution. “However,” he wrote in an email to The Chronicle, “the letter sought to alleviate the burden on affected individuals of explaining their part in a larger pattern of similar, unsupported allegations against multiple faculty at different institutions across the country.”

The victims knew Union was in a bind. But if the college couldn’t clear their names, they’d have to do it themselves.

Throughout the spring of 2020, Balachandran would often wake up at 5 a.m. to work on her research. The Penn State professor had an article with an April deadline. But she knew more false accusations could appear later in the day and require her immediate attention, taking away crucial writing time.

As the pandemic hit, Balachandran was also tending to her in-laws, who had just moved in, and supervising her two young children, then in kindergarten and second grade, as they acclimated to virtual learning. Any spare moment was spent talking to the police, contacting former colleagues she hadn’t spoken to in years, and fighting to protect her reputation.

“We felt a shared sense of responsibility to reach out to those people who might have been accused,” Balachandran says. But often, the exhaustion of constantly monitoring the situation would overwhelm her. “There was one point in late April that pretty much every single day, somebody in the group would say, ‘Hey, today I received like five emails from this university asking me if I sent out an email,’” she says.

For weeks, she and other victims remained tethered to their inboxes, in simultaneous dread and anticipation of the next message from R., from department chairs, or from the police. Once law-enforcement agencies declined to take action, the women felt as if they were out of options to stop the harassment.

By late May, the emails seemed to dissipate. But the women were shaken by what the ordeal had wrought.

Late April, when R.’s harassment peaked, was already a difficult time for Roth. It marks the anniversary of her husband’s death. Usually, she takes a couple of days off work and goes on a short solo trip.

In 2020, getting away wasn’t possible, and not only because of the pandemic. A Title IX office somewhere was emailing Roth about sexual-misconduct allegations. She had to respond.

Soon, Roth will go up for promotion, and then for tenure. Her personal website lays out a long list of academic positions and research projects. But for the past year, those accomplishments weren’t the first thing readers saw. Instead, they were met with a statement about R.’s harassment.

Roth just took down that statement this month. But in her email signature, above her faculty title and a promotion of her new book, there’s a boldfaced disclaimer saying any messages from personal email accounts alleging to be her could be fraudulent.

She doesn’t plan to remove that anytime soon.


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