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Friday, September 24, 2021

UF public health college holds open forums in the wake of sexual harassment cases

“How do you suggest students carry on in their studies and internships without trust and respect in the college administration?” 

“Clearly your faculty trainings are not working. What do you plan to change?”

“Why are individuals allowed to resign or even stay in their jobs if findings of Title IX violations are found?” 

These are questions that students, staff and faculty asked UF’s College of Health and Health Professions Friday afternoon during open forums in the wake of multiple Title IX investigations bubbling up at the college. 

Michael Perri, the dean of the college, announced the meetings last Wednesday to answer questions about Title IX procedures and investigations within the college. About 30 people showed up to the student forum and more than 70 attended the faculty and staff forum. 

Perri and UF Title IX Coordinator Russell Froman answered questions that the audience submitted anonymously through an online form. George Hack, the associate dean for undergraduate education and instructional development, and Carolyn Hanson, a clinical assistant professor, read the questions out loud for Perri and Froman to answer. 

Audience members primarily asked about three Title IX investigations in the college. One included Andrew Lotto, a former professor who allegedly sexually harassed multiple students and faculty members for two years. Another two covered Christy Ewing and Sheena Pryce Fegumps, two faculty members who allegedly harassed assistant professor Mark Hart for two years as well.

Perri told audiences that the public health college has about 300 faculty and staff, and these are the only three Title IX investigations he’s dealt with in the past 12 years, he said. 

“If you take a look at it from that point of view, the system is addressing what's being brought forward to us,” Perri said during the student forum. 

Froman said that three cases is three too many. 

Some students would agree –– and many weren’t happy with the way questions were submitted online. When anyone in the audience raised their hand or tried to speak, administrators interrupted and told them to submit their questions to the online form instead.

“I feel like they just tended to group certain questions together. I don’t feel like my questions were answered,” 27-year-old Isabel Walker, a second-year public health practice master’s student, said. “The fact that a student tried to ask a follow-up question and got shut down made it feel like it was very controlled.”

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The student in question was Alejandra Salemi, a 22-year-old second-year public health master’s student. 

“They clearly don't want people asking questions,” Salemi said. “They're pretending to do what's best for the students once again, but they're actually just doing whatever is needed to protect themselves and protect their reputation.” 

Before the faculty and staff meeting, Perri asked all students in the room to raise their hands. Salemi, along with a group of about five other students, did. 

Perri asked them to leave the auditorium. 

Salemi said that she’s a teaching assistant who is paid by the university, but Perri wouldn’t budge. 

“Isn’t this an open forum?” she argued.

“This is the open forum for faculty and staff,” Perri answered. The students paused before leaving. 

“It shows how aggressive and toxic he is. It was very clear that he was trying to publicly embarrass us,” Salemi said. “I just think that's really inappropriate for a dean to purposely try to bring shame and that type of energy to a student.” 

The Alligator asked several faculty and staff members in attendance for comment, but all declined. 

UF spokesperson Steve Orlando told The Alligator that Perri could ask students to leave under state law

“That was not an open meeting under the law because there was not a meeting of a decision-making body, ” Orlando said. “Nobody was making any decisions on behalf of the university, so the dean did have the right to ask people to leave.”  

Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, agrees that Perri’s decision was legal — but he’s not sure if it was the right step. 

“When you hold a meeting like that and you're trying to clear the air about a matter of public concern and controversy, it does not restore public trust to exclude people from the from the discussion,” he said. “Even though the First Amendment may not entitle people to sit in the audience and listen, it seems like it would probably be a good idea.” 

Andrew Cistola, the creator of openlettertodeanperri.com, attended the student forum. Cistola has uploaded Lotto, Ewing and Pryce Fegumps’ investigations onto his site and written several letters to Perri demanding that he distribute the public records related to the incidents in the name of transparency. 

The names of witnesses and victims are redacted from Lotto’s case in accordance with state law. However, Ewing and Pryce Fegumps’ case files are not redacted on Cistola’s site. 

Froman said that victims and witnesses in future cases could see these unredacted reports online and fear that their names will be leaked. 

“That [website] was not sanctioned by the college or by the university,” Froman said during the faculty and staff meeting. “That has a danger involved in that, because it actually will inhibit people in the future in participating in the Title IX process.”  

Cistola told The Alligator that he’s glad the forums were called, but that they did not meet his requests outlined in the letters.

“I didn't observe any attempt to disclose publicly known information about what's been going on,” he said. “This is a great start to ask them questions but there's still a lot of information that we don't feel like the college has provided.”

Contact Hope Dean at hdean@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @hope_m_dean.  

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