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Saturday, May 18, 2024

UF investigation uncovers two female staff accused of sexually harassing male professor

Title IX
Title IX

Assistant professor Mark Hart wanted a new office.

He shared a wall in with Sheena Pryce Fegumps, a co-worker in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions who is accused of touching Hart and making sexually explicit comments at him for more than a year.

But it wasn’t just Pryce Fegumps, the college’s community outreach coordinator for the public health masters program. Christy Ewing, the college’s former academic programs specialist for the social and behavioral sciences doctoral program, is also accused of sexually harassing him — sometimes partnering with Pryce Fegumps to do it, Hart said. 

The Alligator reached out to Ewing and Pryce Fegumps but neither responded before publication after a reporter sent an email, visited their office and called their work phone numbers. 

When Hart asked the college’s administration to move his office location in November 2018, he said it didn’t happen. But he didn’t want anyone to get in trouble, so he said he held his tongue.

But in July 2019, he decided to speak up.  

Hart then opened two Title IX investigations for sexual harassment against Pryce Fegumps and Ewing. Both investigations from UF’s Office of Title IX Compliance, which ran from July 8 to Dec. 11, contain 100 pages worth of allegations, including those above. 

The investigations state that Pryce Fegumps and Ewing’s actions rose to the level of sexual harassment. It also said that two deans within the college, Amy Blue and Cindy Prins, didn’t report Hart’s case for at least a year when they were required to report it to Title IX immediately under UF guidelines.

Blue and Prins kept their positions, according to the college’s website that was last updated Wednesday. 

Both investigations were posted online Dec. 23 by Andrew Cistola, 31, a second-year UF public health masters and first-year doctoral student. He created a website addressed to the public health college’s dean Michael Perri that calls for transparency concerning sexual harassment cases within the college. 

Sources close to the investigation confirmed to The Alligator that the records are real. When a reporter asked Perri for comment on Hart’s case, they forwarded The Alligator to UF spokesperson Steve Orlando, who declined to comment. 

Hart’s case closed seven months after the case against Andrew Lotto, a former professor within the same college who was accused of sexually harassing multiple students and was allowed to resign instead of being fired. 

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In a statement to The Alligator, Hart said his situation was different than many other sexual harassment cases because he did not fear that Ewing and Pryce Fegumps would jeopardize his safety. 

But he did share something else with other cases. 

“What I do think I have had in common, unfortunately, is resistance in reporting my story,” he wrote. “My only goal in all of this, and as this, unfortunately, spills out into a public forum, is to do my part to create an environment at UF and my College where everyone feels safe.”

“I just wanted to feel you against me”: The case 

It started on Nov. 5, 2017 during an American Public Health Association conference in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Hart, Ewing and Pryce Fegumps, among others in their department, were eating dinner at a Greek restaurant when Ewing and Pryce Fegumps began to touch Hart’s upper thigh underneath the table, he told investigators. Ewing and Pryce Fegumps had allegedly been drinking and talking about how they wanted to hook up with men during the conference, according to the report. 

Later in the evening, Hart said Ewing and Pryce Fegumps suggested that the three of them go back to one of their rooms, according to the investigation. Hart told them he was married and wasn’t interested. 

When interviewed by investigators, Ewing said she never touched him that night but that she could have “come up with scenarios in which she became super drunk and stumbled and maybe touched his leg.” 

But Elizabeth Wood, the director of the public health bachelors program, told investigators she saw Ewing touch Hart’s leg during the dinner. Wood declined to comment. 

Ewing later said she wasn’t drinking that night, but then recalled an incident where she and Hart were drunk at the end of the evening. Hart allegedly grabbed her as she got out of an elevator, she told investigators. 

Hart told The Alligator this never happened. 

Pryce Fegumps told investigators she didn’t remember touching Hart’s leg during the conference. The investigation points out that she could recall other details about the conference, such as trying to set Ewing up with a man at a bar. 

The incidents continued throughout 2017 and 2018, Hart said. 

In another incident, Ewing allegedly offered Hart a hug and then told him, “I just wanted to feel you against me.” Pryce Fegumps is accused of saying they could use the condoms she had in her office as handouts for students and that she could relieve his stress by getting under his desk, Hart told investigators. 

Meredith Nappy, an academic assistant in the college who declined to comment to The Alligator, told investigators that Hart told her about some of the incidents. One included a situation where Pryce Fegumps told Hart, “Do you want me to lay down on the conference table so you can ravage me?” before a meeting. 

Ewing and Pryce Fegumps denied all accusations in the investigation files. Pryce Fegumps told investigators she believed Hart was retaliating against her due to rifts in the college.

A year passed by. The American Health Public Association’s 2018 conference took place in San Diego, and Hart took his wife with him this time, he told The Alligator and investigators. 

But that didn’t stop Ewing and Pryce Fegumps, he alleges. During another dinner on Nov. 11, Pryce Fegumps whispered in Hart’s ear that she wished his wife wasn’t there so they could have some fun and rubbed his lower back, Hart told investigators.

Then on Dec. 3, 2018, someone filed an anonymous complaint that Hart was undergoing sexual harassment, according to the report. 

Wood, who allegedly saw Ewing touch Hart’s upper thigh during the 2017 conference, told investigators she was the one who filed the complaint. 

“Every time Dr. Hart has asked for this behavior to stop, he’s been met with people calling it a joke, especially by the two women,” she said, according to UF’s Ethics and Compliance Hotline incident description included in the report. “It is only because he is male that this behavior has continued and not been taken seriously.” 

Hart wrote an email to Amy Blue, the college’s associate dean for educational affairs, about the situation on Dec. 11, 2018. He said he’d been having four to five panic attacks a day and that his blood pressure had skyrocketed over the past year. 

“I am just ready for the ‘end game’ on these issues. I am tired of the fight, I am tired of the friction,” he wrote. “I want to start 2019 with a clean slate.”

But 2019 did not start out the way he would have liked. 

Blue scheduled a Jan. 7 meeting between Hart and Perri about his concerns, but they never talked about Hart’s situation during the meeting, Hart told investigators. 

In February, Hart said Ewing and Fegumps had started to grow hostile toward him. A rumor started going around that Hart was forcing Katherine Pizarro, one of his employees in the college, to babysit his children. Another said that he’d recently been having drinks with the students in his class, according to the investigation. 

Wood told Hart that Ewing had started the babysitting rumor, and Ewing told investigators that she talked about it to some staff members — but she insisted that it was true. 

Blue said she followed up on both rumors and found no evidence of either, according to the investigation. Pizzaro declined to comment. 

Hart said the rumors are what did it. He emailed Title IX Director Russell Froman on July 8 to start the investigation against Ewing and Pryce Fegumps. Froman declined to comment. 

“I continue to see a culture in our College of inaction, one where a lot of people who have administrative roles don’t want to do the right thing when faced with difficult situations,” Hart wrote. “I have decided that I am willing to see this through.” 

“That couldn’t have happened”: The inaction 

The investigation records eight times that Hart reached out to people about his situation — including two deans in the college. 

After returning from the 2017 conference in Atlanta where the first incident occurred, Hart told investigators that he spoke with Cindy Prins, the public health college’s assistant dean for educational affairs, about what had happened.

Hart said Prins responded by saying “That couldn’t have happened,” and “What did you do to make her feel she could do that?” according to investigation files. Hart added he felt like his concerns were being “pushed under the rug,” so he didn’t bring it up again until a year later.

After a year of continued sexual harassment and Pryce Fegumps’ advance during the 2018 conference in San Diego, Hart met with Prins and Blue to say he didn’t feel comfortable working closely with Ewing or Pryce Fegumps. 

“Why didn’t you stop this more?” they asked, along with “Maybe you didn’t tell her strongly enough no,” and “Was she just getting the wrong impression?” according to Hart. 

Blue and Prins forwarded The Alligator to Orlando, who declined to comment. 

Prins told investigators that this was the first time she’d heard of the events, despite Hart saying he told her in 2017. Blue said she spoke with Perri about it and that they decided to not act due to the upcoming winter break and Hart’s wish for the case to not go to Title IX. 

In January 2019, Blue contacted Lorie Martin, UF’s director of human resources, who told her she was obligated to report it to Title IX, according to the investigation. However, Blue held off until March when she, Prins and Hart met with Martin to “hypothetically” talk about Hart’s situation on March 8. 

Martin told the group she was a mandatory reporter and would need to bring any sexual harassment allegations to the Title IX office — and reminded the three that they all had the same obligation to report, she told investigators. Blue forwarded Hart’s Dec. 11 email to Martin three days later. 

It is unclear if Prins ever reported Hart’s allegations to Title IX. 

Hart was demoted from his positions as the college’s director of online learning and director of doctoral and master’s programs in public health for the social behavioral sciences concentration on Oct. 29.  

The email from Perri did not explain why he was relieved of his duties, but Hart believes it could be because he cursed at Blue in frustration a few days earlier, he told The Alligator. 

Blue and Prins’ handling of Hart’s case goes against Title IX protocol, according to the investigation.

“Although Hart expressed that he did not want to officially report his sexual harassment allegations, it was the responsibility and duty of Prins and Blue to inform the Office of Title IX compliance,” the investigation reads. 

The UF employee handbook would agree. 

“Any employee with supervisory responsibility, as well as faculty who have knowledge of sexual harassment, is required to promptly report the matter directly to the Title IX Coordinator and may be disciplined for failing to do so,” it reads. 

“There are a lot of unresolved matters”: The aftermath

Hart is still in the same college but is now a clinical assistant professor in the department of epidemiology. Blue kept her position as associate dean and is now the college’s director of online learning, according to the college’s academic staff page that was updated on Wednesday — one of Hart’s former positions. Prins kept her position as the assistant dean as well. 

Ewing resigned from her position, Orlando told The Alligator. The college’s website still lists Pryce Fegumps as the public health master program’s community outreach coordinator. 

It is unclear whether Prins, Blue or Pryce Fegumps have been disciplined for the investigation’s findings. 

“There are a lot of unresolved matters regarding those employees so I’m not at liberty to discuss them,” Orlando wrote in an email statement. 

Some students were upset about losing Hart as a mentor after he was removed from his positions. Alejandra Salemi, a 22-year-old second-year master’s student in public health, said she collected more than 15 letters from students and staff in support of Hart in November that they then turned over to administration. 

“Dr. Hart deserves to be in this college, and I think the removal of him from his positions is harmful,” Salemi wrote in her own letter. “He is so gifted and talented and has impacted the students he has come across in the best ways.” 

On Wednesday, Perri sent an email to all students, staff and faculty in the college about the sexual misconduct cases. He announced two open forums with UF’s Title IX director on Friday — one with students from noon-1 p.m. and one with faculty and staff from 1-2:30 p.m. in the HPNP auditorium.

“I take very seriously the responsibility to provide a safe environment in which our students, faculty and staff can work and learn,” Perri wrote. “Failure to report or retaliation for reporting such incidents will be subject to disciplinary actions as outlined in UF policies.” 

Cistola updated on Thursday in response to Perri’s email. The website now contains Lotto’s 149-page case file, which he warns for people to read at their own discretion due to the sexual assault allegations’ severity, he wrote in on the home page. 

Cistola listed on the home page five questions about Lotto’s case to be discussed at the open forum. Cistola also expects written answers to the questions by Feb. 15. 

Emma Crowley, a 24-year-old UF master’s student in public health and sexual assault survivor that works with Cistola on the website, is also gathering questions from students that she will ask at the forum in case somebody doesn’t want to go or doesn’t feel safe attending. 

“There’s a lot of benefits to openly asking questions and openly providing answers that can be then added to the public record,” Cistola told The Alligator. “Making sure everyone is able to speak and speak in a way where they feel safe is extremely important in the process.”

Contact Hope Dean at Follow her on Twitter @hope_m_dean.

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