Title IX at Stony Brook

Stony Brook graduate student Erin Mosier filed a $3 million lawsuit against the University, SUNY, and Stony Brook history professor Larry Frohman. Mosier alleges that Frohman sexually degraded her from 2016-2017. STATESMAN FILE

After she filed a suit against her alma mater, Stony Brook University graduate Erin Mosier’s story of alleged sexual harassment and discrimination at the hands of her former history professor sent shockwaves through the campus community. The Statesman recently sat down with Mosier and her lawyer, Brian Adam Heller, to discuss the details of her case.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What made you want to study at Stony Brook in the first place?

EM: It was close to home, it had a good name, it had a good program. I always wanted to be a social studies teacher so I went for social studies education where Professor [Lawrence] Frohman was the undergrad advisor. I had to apply for it, write a paper on it and meet with Professor Frohman for him to allow me in.

When did you start to encounter problems with Professor Frohman?

EM: My first semester, Fall 2015, I had a history class with him. Three or four weeks into the semester I started noticing he always acted different toward me in class. He was hard on his students but he was targeting me more. When I was in office hours though in Spring 2016 trying to set up my schedule for the next semester, I noticed a lot of inappropriate comments as well. The following year, when I was in the education classes with him, that’s when it got really bad.

What sort of impact did being in Professor Frohman’s class have on your wellbeing?

EM: I was a wreck. I was always nervous. I would come home from school in tears. I never wanted to go back. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t my healthiest. I wasn’t doing well in any of my classes. My grades were suffering from the anxiety.

Did you ever make an attempt to confront Frohman yourself?

EM: I did tell him in class a few times that he was making me uncomfortable. And then he didn’t stop so other people in the class would chime in and say “She just said you’re making her uncomfortable, you need to back up.” In office hours, he advised me all the time that I should drop out, that I would never make it, and then when I would go to him and say “I want to drop out of your program, I’ll never be good enough,” he would then play mind tricks with me. He’d say “Oh do I really make you feel that way? I don’t want to do that.”

BAH: It’s difficult for any student to challenge their professor. But when he’s running the program that she’s in and wants to finish then it’s even harder. She really tried to confront him but just given the power dynamic she didn’t have much. And he knows that. That’s why he felt like he could do this because who’s going to stop him?

Before you opened the Title IX case, did you ever try to get out of taking his class?

EM: There was no way of doing that because he was the only professor for those classes that I needed and he was the only advisor for the program as well.

What other actions did you take to try and solve the problem before going to Title IX?

EM: I met with professor Sara Lipton to discuss everything that was going on. And there was a student there with me who was a witness and they confirmed everything that was happening in class. Professor Lipton advised me to go to the department chair, Paul Gootenberg. She came with me to the meeting. All the discouraging statements that Gootenberg made and has since denied were said in front of her. When he said those comments about “What was your appearance and how were you acting to be treated that way,” Professor Lipton stood up for me.

What was your feeling when you walked away from that meeting?

EM: I walked away feeling hopeless. From most meetings at Stony Brook I walked away feeling hopeless.

What was your experience with Title IX like?

EM: The first meeting with them was a few hours. They took down every piece of evidence that I had. They told me it would be a 60-day process. That was in April 2017 and it ended up going to October. Every time I called or emailed just to get some guidance about the investigation, I always got “We can’t tell you that.” They never returned my phone calls. I had to keep chasing them. I had another meeting with them at the end of summer. Beforehand they said “We’ll tell the university police what’s going on and we’ll come up with a safety plan.” When I got to that meeting the police had no idea why they were there. Title IX never communicated with them what was going on. The best advice they had for me was “If anything happens call 911.” I left again feeling hopeless. This was three days before the semester started and the last thing they said to me was “We can’t guarantee your safety.”

Did you ever feel unsafe on campus?

EM: I had to get friends to escort me around campus because there were times that I would run into Professor Frohman. Before the end of the fall semester of 2017, I bumped into Professor Frohman again and I was just a wreck. I went to Labor Relations to file a complaint with them and they told me that Title IX did not handle my investigation properly. After that I never heard from Labor Relations again.

BAH: He got increasingly more intimidating toward Erin. She became fearful to go to his office for office hours. Sometimes if she was in the building where his department is located, he would just stand over her while she was reading or listening to music and just wait there until she realized him. There was one incident in class where she was giving a sample presentation to the class and he just got right in her face and got very close to her to the point that other students in the class said “You’re making her uncomfortable.”

Do you feel like officials at Stony Brook took your case seriously?

EM: Cathrine Duffy from the Dean of Students office was the only kind person I encountered that really made an effort to support me. But she didn’t have any power to make a decision or anything. Everyone else at Stony Brook let me down. I went to President Stanley’s office a few times. I wrote him a letter. I called his office. I never heard back from him. But then I’d see online that he was posting videos about how he doesn’t tolerate harassment on campus and how he supports Title IX. I met with the [former] Associate Provost Richard Gatteau and his best advice was to drop the program and leave Stony Brook. Once when I was on the phone with him he told me, “I can’t keep discussing this, I don’t have time for this.” I was really let down from the beginning, after the first meeting when professor Gootenberg told me “What did he do now, I can’t keep covering for him.”

Was Frohman aware that you had opened up a Title IX case against him? Did you fear he would retaliate against you because of that?

EM: I don’t know when exactly he became aware because Title IX wouldn’t tell me anything. In April, I found out that Professor Frohman hired a private investigator to deal with me. I then called Title IX to tell them and a few days later they told me he was no longer allowed on campus because he brought the private investigator on school grounds, not really because of what he did to me.

Can you explain why he hired a private investigator and how you found out about it?

EM: At that point I had already transferred to SUNY Old Westbury in order to finish my program, but the investigator emailed and called students in my program and I found out about it through them. One night, my friend at Stony Brook walked into where his class was supposed to be and the private investigator was waiting for him in there. The investigator knew his name without ever having talked to him. He told him he was there to clear Professor Frohman’s name. That student said “This is extremely unprofessional,” and walked right out and called me. He later found out that the class had been split up and some students were specifically told to go to the room with the private investigator.

What kept you going? Why didn’t you just leave Stony Brook?

EM: I almost did drop out. What really kept me going was my family. And I always wanted to be a teacher and nothing was going to stop me. I wasn’t going to let this one person kill my dream. Old Westbury saved me, though, by allowing me to finish the program there. Stony Brook didn’t do anything.

What did it feel like when you finally graduated?

EM: Graduation was stressful actually. I was afraid to go. I didn’t know what would happen, if he would be there or not. It wasn’t an enjoyable time. And I still haven’t gotten my diploma.

What do you hope comes as a result of this suit? Do you think this will change the way things work at Stony Brook?

EM: How Stony Brook handles these incidents needs to be completely changed. I think they need to be more informed on how to handle these cases. I just never want to hear about another female going through this. Because the pain and suffering that I had to go through, just to get an education, was unbearable. I would hate to see another student go through that torture. Stony Brook prides itself on being a campus of equality where everyone is welcome. But I did not feel safe or supported on campus at all. I honestly don’t know how I got through this. And I still have ups and downs and battles that I have to overcome.

SUNY deferred request for comment to Stony Brook University.

Stony Brook University spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow provided the following statement via email: “Due to State and Federal privacy laws, the University is unable to comment on specific litigation, including the case that is the subject of your inquiry. The University does have policies and procedures in place to fully investigate claims that are brought to our attention. Courts have the opportunity to consider the full record including information that cannot immediately be publicly shared.”

Frohman did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Lipton declined to comment. 

Gootenberg stated he was unable to comment on matters pending litigation.

Gatteau did not immediately respond to request for comment.