A President’s Newly Revealed Sexual-Abuse Case Stirs Controversy at Ithaca College

Rutgers U. at Newark

Shirley M. Collado, president of Ithaca College, pleaded no contest to a charge of misdemeanor sexual abuse in 2001. She says she has been transparent about the episode, but the student newspaper revealed new details.

The sudden revelation that Ithaca College’s president, Shirley M. Collado, pleaded no contest to a sexual-abuse charge in 2001 has rocked the New York campus and raised questions about the leader’s transparency and an anonymous source’s motivations.

An article on Tuesday in The Ithacan, the campus’s student newspaper, detailed accusations that Ms. Collado, then a psychologist practicing under the supervision of a therapist, had taken advantage of a patient and violated her employment contract with a psychiatric institute in Washington, D.C. Ms. Collado pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of sexual abuse in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia in 2001.

The article was published, the newspaper said, after The Ithacan received an anonymous package containing legal documents on the case.

The bombshell revelations prompted a swift response from the Ithaca administration. Ms. Collado released a statement to the campus, as did the private college’s governing board. In her statement, Ms. Collado maintained her innocence and said she had made the no-contest plea on the basis of legal advice. She added that her decision to plead no contest occurred shortly after her husband’s suicide.

Moreover, she said, in her statement and in a subsequent interview with The Chronicle, her history has not been a closely guarded secret. She had mentioned “claims” against her in a college-conducted interview shortly after she was hired as president, in February 2017. She took office in July.

“I fought the claims for a while, but I didn’t have the resources, social capital, or the wherewithal to keep going.”

“I fought the claims for a while, but I didn’t have the resources, social capital, or the wherewithal to keep going,” she said at the time. “I was in my 20s, and I had just tragically lost my husband, so I decided to take steps to end the legal action so that I could focus on taking care of myself and moving on with my life. It was a very difficult decision, but it’s the kind of decision that young people face daily when they feel they have no options, no resources, and no outside support.”

According to The Ithacan, Ms. Collado was convicted of having “placed her hand on the patient’s clothed breast with sexual intent” while serving as her therapist. The charging document stated that “Collado knew, or had reason to know, that the sexual contact was against the patient’s permission, as the patient was an inpatient at a psychiatric hospital,” the newspaper reported.

Prosecutors argued, the newspaper said, that Ms. Collado had been in a sexual relationship with the patient for months — a claim the Ithaca president denies.

She disclosed the full history of the case to the college’s presidential-search committee and its Board of Trustees. The board’s statement reiterated support for Ms. Collado on Tuesday, saying it was “evident that Dr. Collado’s subsequent life experiences, her professional successes, and her empathetic nature demonstrate resilience of character and an ability to both learn and grow from an extremely challenging set of circumstances.”

A Target

Claire Gleitman, a professor of English and president of the Humanities and Science Faculty Senate, was a member of the presidential-search committee. She said the committee had spoken with Ms. Collado about the case before she was hired. After deliberating, the committee decided the case was a singular incident, not a pattern of behavior, she said.

The Board of Trustees, whose members read court documents from the case, came to the same conclusion, she said.

Although Ms. Collado had always been forthcoming about the case, the president said, the anonymous package sent to The Ithacan was “unsettling.” She also said she felt targeted.

“I’ve shared things that I think most presidents don’t get up and share about who they are.”

“It’s hard enough to have to share such a deeply personal and painful part of one’s life with a community that you’re just starting to get to know, but it’s the right thing to do, and I stand by that,” Ms. Collado told The Chronicle. “I’ve shared things that I think most presidents don’t get up and share about who they are.”

Ithaca hired Ms. Collado, in part, because of the very factors she has cited in her defense when talking about her no-contest plea: She comes from a less-privileged background than most college presidents.

Ms. Collado succeeded Thomas R. Rochon, who stepped down amid fiery protests over perceived racial injustices on the campus. The new president was seen as a promising agent of change on the issue of diversity, as a first-generation college student and a former head of the Posse Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income students get scholarships to attend prestigious colleges and universities across the country.

“I don’t have to be the chief diversity officer to be doing chief-diversity-officer work,” she told The New York Times last year.

This week’s episode could be used as an example for minority students at Ithaca, Ms. Collado said on Wednesday.

“I say to people all the time that, you know, joking with them about what it means to be the first,” she said. “And I’m committing my life to really shifting that so that more students are on the pathway of really changing not only who gets to be in the academy but what are the right conditions to be in the academy for people like me to thrive.”

Despite the renewed controversy over the case, Ms. Collado said she was grateful for the support she’s received from people on the campus. Four bouquets of flowers from supportive members of the community arrived in her office on Wednesday, she said.

“Leaders don’t always get a chance to be full people, and I think it’s really hard to be a full person in this job,” Ms. Collado said. “And I resist the temptation to not be who I am.”

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a breaking-news reporter. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at [email protected]