Trigger warning: Please be advised that the following covers sensitive topics, including sexual assault.
The Board of Trustees is one of the most powerful groups at Vassar. According to the Vassar Governance, “The ultimate responsibility for Vassar College rests with the Board of Trustees, which manages the property, business and affairs of the College.” The Board now includes 32 alumnae/i and the President of the College, together with one student observer and one faculty observer. A trustee’s regular term is four years, and those elected to a regular term may be re-elected to a second or third consecutive term by the Board. Meeting thrice per year, the Board appoints all officers, grants degrees, authorizes the annual budget, approves all contracts of appointment, receives all monies, executes deeds of gift and maintains capital investments. With such a powerful group, it is essential that its members represent our institution appropriately, and their values are aligned with those of the Vassar community.
Recently, The Miscellany News received a tip that a trustee, Richard W. Roberts ’74, was accused of sexual assault, allegations that were covered by such outlets as The Washington Post and NBC News. In March 2016, a woman named Terry Mitchell filed a lawsuit against Roberts, claiming that he raped her repeatedly in 1981, when she was a witness in a high-profile murder trial in which Roberts was part of the prosecuting team. She was 16 at the time, then the legal age of consent in Utah. Roberts was 27. According to the suit, Mitchell was already the victim of sexual assault by several other men. The suit further asserts that as a prosecutor Roberts used his access to her mental counseling records to deceitfully gain the trust of Mitchell and her parents. She reported that he raped her once in a hotel room, and “intimidated, coerced, and manipulated Mitchell to have sexual intercourse nearly every day for several weeks.” Roberts acknowledged the existence of the sexual relationship at that time, and that “the relationship was indeed a bad lapse in judgment. However, the relationship did not occur until after the trial and had no bearing on the outcome of that trial.”
On the day that Mitchell filed the suit, Roberts retired from the bench, citing unspecified health issues. He has not stepped down from his position as trustee, however. He served as a trustee from 1995- 2007, received the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College award for outstanding service to Vassar in 2009 and is now serving another term as trustee during the 2016-2017 school year. The case never went to trial because the statute of limitations had expired before Mitchell brought forth her allegations. Thus, Roberts is innocent in the eyes of the law. However, concerning factors remain that make The Miscellany News question his overall judgment and conduct. For example, he admitted to having a consensual relationship with a witness as a public prosecutor, and he resigned from his position the very same day that the allegations surfaced. Further, although Mitchell had reached the age of consent by that time, a relationship between a 16-year-old girl and a man of 30 implies the potential use of exploitative power dynamics–a choice on Roberts’ part which calls for greater scrutiny.
Therefore, Roberts’ legal innocence does not preclude the question: Why is he still a trustee? While a court has not found him guilty, Roberts has not presented a convincing case for his innocence or any evidence that exonerates him of reasonable suspicion. If Roberts did commit sexual assault, there is no doubt that he is unfit to serve on the Board of Trustees or be further affiliated with Vassar College in any way. On the other hand, even if Roberts is innocent, the facts of the case still expose professional misconduct and poor judgment on his part; this behavior should itself warrant investigation into whether he is a suitable representative within Vassar’s most powerful governing body as well. At an institution that has already struggled in recent years to adequately support the rights and safety of survivors, the trustees’ tacit acceptance of Roberts’ behavior–whether or not that behavior was exploitative professional misconduct or sexual assault–reflects poorly both on Vassar’s values its capacity to ensure a safe, supportive environment for survivors on campus.
The most comprehensive and accessible information about the the Board can be found in The Governance of Vassar College 2015-2016, last updated on July 1, 2015 and available on the Dean of the Faculty webpage. It details the legal obligations the College upholds with its employees and affiliates and includes information about the nomination and election of trustees. Article VII, “Indemnification of Trustees and Officers,” confirms that the College will cover the legal expenses associated with any action, lawsuit or proceeding, on behalf of any trustee, director or officer of any organization in which the College has interest, whether or not they are still in office. The stipulation is that the person in question must have acted in “good faith” and in consideration of the best interests of the College. As to criminal cases, the statement reads, “[The defendant must have] had no reasonable cause to believe that the conduct was unlawful.” The costs will only be covered if a “disinterested majority” of trustees approve of it. It is clear that the College will indemnify its trustees if they believe them to have been acting in the best interests of the institution. What is not clear is if the Board would or did do so in Roberts’s case.
This ambiguity demonstrates well the core problem with how the Board of Trustees and the Vassar Administration operates: a lack of transparency. On a very basic level, most students do not know who is on the Board of Trustees, how they are chosen, what these trustees have done to represent them or the overall power that the Board wields. Some of this information is available on Vassar’s website and in the Governance, yet these sources are not presented to students. Rather, they must seek out these documents to gain any understanding about the Board of Trustees. In fact, the most candid source about the Board of Trustees (and the Administration as a whole) is the website Vassar Transparency Coalition (http://vassartransparencycoalition.weebly. com/trustees). This website provides names and biographical information for most everyone involved with the institutional hierarchy at Vassar. Even still, this source is a years out of date–meaning that no mention of the allegations against Roberts is made– and was put together by Vassar students; this information would be more meaningful if it came directly from the Administration as a means of bridging the obvious disconnect between students and the Board.
Considering this fundamental lack of transparency between the Board of Trustees, the Administration and students, perhaps it is not surprising that when the allegations against Roberts surfaced last spring, the Administration did not facilitate a discussion for students to voice their opinions about the matter. At the very least, students should have been notified that these allegations were made. Neither course of action was taken by the Board or the Administration. For a college leadership that talks so much about the importance of sexual assault prevention and centering survivors’ voices, failing to proactively address these allegations promotes a culture that silences survivors and implicitly excuses predatory behavior. To say that Vassar is a space that promotes safety while simultaneously ignoring allegations of sexual assault against a Board member is inherently negligent and hypocritical. We at The Miscellany News respectfully ask for clarification as to the how the community can be sure that Richard W. Roberts, and the trustees more broadly, appropriately represent Vassar’s institutional integrity, ethical standards and values. If the trustees have reason to believe that Roberts is not the man these allegations say he is, we hope that they will share these reasons with the campus community so that we, too, can have confidence in our leadership. If they do not have reason to believe in Roberts’ ethics, then, we at The Miscellany News would like to ask why they still feel his position as a trustee is appropriate.
— The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board