Title IX report filed for sexual assault allegations against adjunct professor

By Ariana Portalatin, Managing Editor

Zoë Haworth
Title IX report filed for sexual assault allegations against adjunct professor

In the wake of the “Me Too” movement, adjunct creative writing professor Bobby Biedrzycki has been accused of sexual assault by a former student who filed a complaint last month with the college’s Title IX Office regarding an incident that allegedly occurred two years ago.

Biedrzycki has also been accused of molesting and physically assaulting one of his former students in 2007, who recently wrote about the alleged encounter for the Wonkette blog.

Assistant Professor in the Humanities, History and Social Sciences Department Michelle Yates wrote in a Nov. 7 comment on a Facebook status about the various allegations that she had forwarded them to Columbia’s Title IX Office. Yates confirmed in a Nov. 20 email to The Chronicle that she had actually done so.

“That office is supposed to ensure that the College remains a space free from discrimination and to investigate sexual harassment and violence,” Yates wrote in the Facebook comment. “I don’t know what, if anything, will happen, but I thought the office should at least know about this. And, as a faculty member, I’m obligated to report disclosures of this nature.”

A report was filed by Director of Equity Issues and Title IX Coordinator Rabia Khan Harvey Nov. 14 detailing allegations against Biedrzycki—who has not taught at Columbia since the Fall 2016 Semester. The allegations were made by 2015 creative writing alumna Calley Nelson following a Nov. 4 Facebook post made by Nelson.

She alleges that Biedrzycki kissed and groped her while she stayed the night at his apartment in August 2015, several months after she graduated from Columbia.

According to a copy of the report sent to The Chronicle by Nelson, Nelson needed a place to stay after bedbugs were discovered in her apartment. Biedrzycki, who was her professor for her “Story, Fiction and Film” course at Columbia, said she could stay at his apartment for a couple of nights. The report states that Nelson agreed to stay at Biedrzycki’s apartment because she had trusted him and had what she termed a “safe” relationship with him.

Nelson was friends with Biedrzycki on Facebook and had previously posted about stress symptoms, to which Biedrzycki responded “I experience the same symptoms; let’s meet for coffee to discuss.” Biedrzycki had also offered Nelson an internship with storytelling company 2nd Story, which Nelson said she thinks was a “grooming” strategy, according to the report.

The report states that during the night of the incident, Nelson noticed “warning signs” while Biedrzycki showed her around his apartment but did not think much of them during that time. She recalled Biedrzycki describing how soft his new mattress was and also commenting, “I love nerdy girls; they’re so sexy,” while showing Nelson books inside his office.

According to the account, Biedrzycki told Nelson “his girlfriend and he were not doing well and neither was he and his therapist.”

According to her complaint, Nelson said she was seated on Biedrzycki’s couch when he made unwanted sexual advances toward her. Nelson alleges that Biedrzycki forcefully kissed and groped her, but Nelson was able to roll over and tell Biedrzycki she was tired because it was almost 3 a.m. and both of them had to get up early the next morning. Nelson texted Biedrzycki after leaving the next morning, telling him his actions were inappropriate, and blocked him on all her social media accounts, according to the report.

Nelson stated in the report that she was blamed for the incident by her ex-boyfriend and she eventually told some of her male mentors—current or former adjunct professors at Columbia—of the incident but they responded by saying, “Yeah, he’s a scumbag,” implying that she should have known better. Because of these responses, Nelson felt ostracized and did not feel comfortable sharing the incident with anyone else until she made her Facebook post, according to the report.

Nelson thinks Biedrzycki took advantage of her because he knew she was vulnerable during that time, both financially and physically.

During a Nov. 9 interview with The Chronicle, Nelson said she was inspired to make the Nov. 4 Facebook post because women have recently come forward with their own sexual assault stories and claims in the film industry and against a favorite band of hers, PWR BTTM.

“I’ve been feeling a little bit on guard about how people have been handling sexual assault cases and after what happened with the band PWR BTTM,” Nelson said. “They were a pretty popular up-and-coming band for a while and spoke a lot about being queer and in the music industry, and a lot of people looked up to them, and then sexual assault claims started coming out and that got me thinking a lot about what happened to me right when I graduated college.”

Since writing her Facebook post, Nelson said both current and former students have shared their own incidents involving Biedrzycki. Nelson also came in contact with fiction writing alumna Robyn Pennacchia, who is also included in Khan Harvey’s report.

Pennacchia wrote a Nov. 6 blog post detailing her own incident with Biedrzycki after she was no longer a student. In the post, published by online magazine Wonkette, Pennacchia discussed the 2007 incident with Biedrzycki, which was previously described in a Nov. 5 Facebook post.

“I went out with [Biedrzycki] and some other folks for a drink, during which he repeatedly kept sticking his grubby ass hands up my skirt,” Pennacchia wrote on Facebook. “I didn’t say anything, but I called a friend to come get me. When my friend arrived, he flipped the f–k out at me, slammed my head into a brick wall, then grabbed my hair and held me up against the wall and quite angrily said, ‘I thought we were going to f–k.’ I went home and threw up.”

Pennacchia told The Chronicle she had written about the incident, as well as another separate incident involving a different former faculty member at the college, in an Oct. 2, 2014, article in Death and Taxes, an online magazine, but did not name either of the men.

Nelson’s Facebook post inspired Pennacchia to write about the alleged incident and name Biedrzycki this time, she said.

“I was alerted by people who knew of what happened to me to [Nelson’s] post, and when I saw her post, I wrote a thing on Facebook. Because I do have that platform, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m ready, and I am just going to come forward with this as hard as possible because I don’t want it happening to anyone else anymore,’” Pennacchia said.

Pennacchia said she did not report the incident to the Chicago Police Department or Columbia’s Title IX Office at that time because she did not think anyone would care, she said, and she was not ready to discuss it openly.

Biedrzycki responded to the allegations in a Dec. 7 emailed statement to The Chronicle.

“I have brought these allegations to the attention of my attorney, and we are currently investigating these claims,” the statement said. “At this point, I have been advised not to comment further, but I look forward to the day I can speak publicly about these allegations. With that said, I continue to have enormous respect and admiration for the brave women and men who are speaking out on this important topic.”

Former Chair of the Creative Writing Department, currently known as the English and Creative Writing Department, Tony Trigilio declined to comment, stating he could not comment on personnel issues.

College spokeswoman Anjali Julka said in a Nov. 8 emailed statement to The Chronicle that the college is aware of the allegations.

“We are aware of the allegations and immediately began looking into them. [Biedrzycki] has not taught at Columbia since fall 2016 and has not applied to teach here in the Spring 2018 Semester,” the statement said. “We cannot comment on any specific allegations due to personnel and student privacy issues. However, we emphasize that Columbia is committed to maintaining an environment that respects the dignity of all individuals. Columbia does not tolerate sexual violence, harassment, or discrimination based on religion, race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, age, disability or ethnicity, by or of its students, faculty or staff. It is our policy that every member of our community must refrain from any form of sexual violence, harassment, or discrimination. Allegations of such conduct are taken very seriously by the institution and investigated by the appropriate college officials.” 

In response to requests for comment from Khan Harvey, Interim Vice President of Strategic Marketing and Communications Mark Rosati echoed in a Nov. 20 statement the college’s policies previously stated by Julka.

Organizations affiliated with Biedrzycki also released their own statements in response to the allegations.

Dawn Marie Galtieri and Chelsey Sprengeler, creators of Break It Down—a pilot program challenging white privilege and supremacy, affiliated with Chicago arts community program Voice of the City—posted a Nov. 13 Facebook statement in response to the allegations.

“We, the creators and facilitators of Break It Down, are aware of the numerous accounts of violence—sexual harassment, assault and abuse—brought forth by women against our colleague and co-facilitator Bobby Biedrzycki, and we take them very seriously. We unequivocally believe the women who have come forward with their stories of his abuse,” the statement said. “Our plans for Break It Down restarting soon will be directed toward a women+ identified space, with focus on breaking down White Male Patriarchy, alongside our original focus on breaking down Whiteness, White Supremacy, and White Privilege. More information will follow. We want to state clearly that Bobby Biedrzycki will not be a part of Break It Down moving forward.”

In a Nov. 6 Facebook post, 2nd Story also acknowledged the allegations and described steps taken in response, including removing Biedrzycki’s name from its website, creating an email to be used for sharing information and questions with the organization and developing an ombudsperson position to help individuals file complaints.

“We have become aware of accusations of sexual assault against an individual who was formerly involved with 2nd Story. We have read the statements, and we believe and commend these women for their courage in coming forward,” the Facebook post said. “The actions outlined in these statements are antithetical to the values and work of 2nd Story. We are shocked and outraged, and we take these accusations very seriously. We are looking more deeply into this, and will share our action steps at a later time.”

According to the college’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy & Procedures, Columbia encourages victims of sexual harassment, which includes sexual violence, to report offending behavior to officials who can provide support and assistance, including responsible employees, non-professional counselors and confidential resources.

Responsible employees are defined in the policy as college employees who have the authority to redress sexual harassment, have the duty to report sexual harassment incidents or who a student believes to have this authority or duty. Responsible employees include, but are not limited to, the Title IX Coordinator, all full-time and part-time faculty members, resident advisers and all employees in the Office of Human Resources, Office of the Vice President of Student Affairs and Office of Safety and Security, according to the policy.

Nelson said Khan Harvey contacted her by email about filing a complaint with Columbia’s Title IX Office, and doing so helped her come to terms with the incident.

“Being able to talk to someone frankly about it who was supportive and not judgemental helped me come to terms with what happened,” Nelson said. “Knowing that there’s someone on campus and just in the world who is fighting for younger, weaker people who don’t know they’re in harm’s way or in danger until it’s kind of too late—I think that [Khan Harvey] being a part of Columbia at this time is really integral in making sure that we hire the best people and get rid of the professors who are not professional and respectful of their students.”

Annie Clark, executive director of End Rape on Campus, a sexual assault survivor advocacy program, said it is up to students to decide whether to report to a  Title IX Office, after which the office will have to respond in a timely manner to ensure a safe campus.

“If they do choose to report, the school has an obligation to investigate within a time frame,” Clark said. “We’re under a different administration right now federally, so some of those things have changed, but what hasn’t changed is that Title IX does enough that every student regardless of gender should have a safe and equitable aspect to their education, and if that professor is engaging in behavior that is prohibiting a student from a having a safe and equitable access to education, the school has a responsibility to stop that behavior and/or take appropriate action. They should also be doing preventative work as well.”

Carly Mee, a staff attorney at SurvJustice, a nonprofit organization providing legal assistance and resources to survivors of sexual assault, echoed that institutions have a duty to take prompt and effective action to stop and prevent sexual harassment if they receives notice of it.

Although Nelson and Pennacchia are no longer at the college and Biedrzycki is not currently teaching at Columbia, Mee said the college should still investigate the allegations.

“The school should likely still be looking into it and investigating whether there were multiple occurrences; maybe there are students who are still on campus who experienced the same thing. There may be students who still need to remedy what occurred,” Mee said. “That could look like accommodations to make sure they’re still having access to education for those who are still on campus. It could also lead to deciding to impose something like a no-trespass order against the teacher, so the teacher can’t come on campus anymore. I think the school still has an obligation based on the widespread nature of the problem to look into it and establish if there’s this hostile environment that’s affecting multiple students as well.”

Mee added that institutions investigating sexual assault allegations can send various messages to the campus community depending on what the  investigation finds.

“It can mean there are potential remedies needed for the campus at large now because they are going to be aware this was a problem and that can really instill fear and distrust around people who do have power on campus … so other professors and things like that,” Mee said. “At the same time, it’s a positive thing that it’s being investigated.”

Pennacchia said she hopes recent events encourage more women to come forward with their own stories.

“My hope is that more women are just feeling comfortable coming forward and realizing the terrifying fallout of what they think is going to happen, where everyone just ignores them and assumes they’re a whore, isn’t happening like it used to anymore and they will be believed,” Pennacchia said. “I’m hoping people will start talking to women and making sure they know if something does happen, they will be believed.”