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One of the women harassed by a Cal State University San Marcos professor said she decided to speak publicly about her ordeal because she believes it reveals areas for improvement when it comes to investigating Title IX cases and communicating the outcomes to victims and other students.
After Hanna Holford reported her business professor’s behavior to California State University San Marcos officials, she never returned to his class – or to any class, except when it was required for a final or presentation. She felt so much anxiety about seeing him on campus, the potential fallout and the school’s investigation process that she decided to finish her final semester entirely online.
In the fall 2019 semester, Holford told school investigators that her professor, Chetan Kumar, had been harassing her. He made comments like, “I could get fired for this but you are so beautiful,” commented on her sex life, asked her for off-campus meetings, texted her photos of himself in a wetsuit, complimented her looks and touched her unwantedly.
By now, many of the details of what happened next have been made public through reporting by Voice of San Diego. The university moved to fire Kumar, but backtracked when his union intervened. The school was set to allow him to continue teaching, but backtracked on that as well after public outcry. What hasn’t been public, until now, is a direct account from any of the women whose complaints initiated the ordeal. Holford said she decided to share her story publicly because she’s concerned Kumar could be returning to campus when school resumes and about the university’s handling of the case throughout its investigation process.
In an interview with Voice of San Diego, Holford said she was initially afraid to report the harassment to school officials because Kumar held power over her grades during her graduating year.
Holford is one of four women who reported that Kumar had harassed them that semester. University investigators substantiated her claims, and determined that the incidents violated school policies and state education code. In Holford’s case, investigators not only concluded that Kumar’s conduct was “unwelcome, sexual in nature, and sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive,” but also that it could have limited her ability “to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by the university.”
She said transparency was a problem throughout the case, and she didn’t know he’d been allowed to keep his job until it was reported by Voice of San Diego. She said she’s frustrated she found out about the settlement at the same time as the general public, and believes the deal Kumar signed with the university amounts to “a slap on the wrist.”
She said her experience reveals numerous areas for improvement when it comes to investigating such cases, and communicating the outcomes to victims and other students.
Holford was in Kumar’s class in fall 2019 and previously worked as his teacher’s aide. She said Kumar was friendly then, but his advances became sexual when she was a student in his class during her final year of college.
“It was like a switched flipped once I got into that program,” she said. At one point in the semester, Holford told Kumar that her engagement recently ended. It was a turning point, she said.
In response, Kumar said that they “should get together to cry on each other’s shoulders.” She said she felt Kumar pressured her to meet with him after he sent her multiple follow-up requests, and she ultimately agreed.
After the meeting, Kumar texted her repeatedly. She didn’t reply, but he continued to text her until she asked him to stop to keep their relationship “purely professional.” Holford said she felt his texts were particularly invasive because she didn’t give Kumar her cell phone number. He obtained it from a caller ID log after she called his office phone without her permission, she said.
She told Voice of San Diego that the entire instance bothered her, but she knew she had to report it when he told her that she could use notecards on a class presentation even though he didn’t normally allow it.
The power dynamic between Holford and Kumar made Holford uncomfortable. It felt like he was giving her special accommodations that no one else had, she said.
“And that’s when I reported him. I was worried, like, if I blow him off, is he going to give me a bad grade? Or what’s going to happen?” she said. Holford was regularly on the College of Business Administration’s dean’s list and worried not just about her own grade but those in her group for a final senior project. She and her group eventually finished the course with a different professor in the college.
Kumar did not respond to an interview request. Kumar told school investigators at the time that he didn’t want a relationship or have any inappropriate physical contact with Holford, and his only intention was to mentor her. He said the hugs and compliments he gave her were friendly and told investigators he’d had similar conversations with students about their sex lives before.
But Kumar’s conduct wasn’t the only thing that impacted Holford’s ability to participate in her final semester of college. Holford said the university’s Title IX process was so frustrating and stressful that it made her never want to return to the campus. Before she reported the case to school officials, she didn’t know about the process, and said she was surprised when she found out that office didn’t actually lean in her favor as a student but is a neutral party to accusers and the accused.
“The process is a lot to put yourself through. It’s really emotional,” she said. “I would stay in my room and just cry and think ‘how am I going to finish this semester?”
In the beginning of the process, Holford said university officials told her they were going to notify Kumar about her complaint. At that point she no longer felt comfortable on campus and felt she had no choice but to finish school entirely online. But that decision caused its own issues. She said the Title IX office didn’t fully communicate with all of her professors about why she wasn’t returning to class, and it put her in the uncomfortable position of explaining to one professor.
Margaret Chantung, a spokeswoman for the university, said officials from the Title IX office communicates with faculty and staff on students’ behalf to set up accommodations, “while also being careful to protect their privacy.”
At one point, university officials offered her the option to withdraw from the semester and return the next semester, she said. The offer discouraged her, and she said if it wasn’t her last semester of college, she would’ve considered leaving the university entirely. She said she also told investigators she didn’t want to return to campus, but they made her do so during the process.
“I would not choose to ever go back there,” she said.
She said she felt she was being kept in the dark throughout the process.
In the summer after she graduated, a Title IX investigator at the university sent Holford a letter about the outcome of the investigation. Bridget Blanshan, the investigator and associate vice president of Student Development Services, wrote to Holford that her claims were credible, and outweighed Kumar’s defense. Officials determined Kumar’s conduct including his sexual comments was “sufficiently severe” and limited her ability to participate and benefit from the university’s services.
“Several factors contributed to the severity of Respondent’s conduct including, the fact that Respondent had significant authority and power over you. Respondent was your current advisor for your course, and responsible for assigning your grade in the course. The … course is a requirement for graduation; failing or withdrawing from the course would have delayed your graduation date. Further, Respondent highlighted his willingness to abuse his position of power when he told you that you could use notecards on your presentation when it had previously been communicated to the class that notecards were prohibited,” the letter reads.
In November, the university told Kumar he would be fired. But the employee union that represents faculty members in the CSU system quickly appealed, and university officials ultimately agreed to settle the case if Kumar agreed to drop the appeal and stop talking to Holford and the other women who complained.
Holford said she didn’t know about the settlement agreement until VOSD’s report on the case. She said one of her last correspondences with university officials was a request for her to participate in a labor arbitration hearing regarding Kumar’s case. But the settlement ended the process.
“I wasn’t kept in the loop. It was a very confusing back and forth. I had to keep checking in, and if I hadn’t kept checking in, I know there wouldn’t have been any communication at all,” she said.
Under former Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’s leadership, the Department of Education enacted policies that changed how universities respond to students’ reports of sexual harassment and assault.
The new policies gave more rights to those accused of sexual assault on college campuses. The Biden administration has committed to rolling back Title IX’s due process protections for individuals, including professors, accused of sexual harassment on college campuses, but there haven’t been changes to those policies so far.
Chantung said the university “does not disclose conversations between campus Title IX advocates and student complainants related to the process or outcomes,” in alignment with the confidentiality provisions of university policy.
University officials have since reassigned Kumar to another position in which he will not work with students. It’s still unclear what Kumar will be doing or when he will begin, Chantung said in an email to VOSD on Friday. The fall semester begins on Aug. 30.
Holford said students should be aware of the Title IX complaint process and the process needs to improve if university officials expect more students to be willing to disclose abuse or harassment.
In a letter to the campus community, CSU San Marcos President Ellen Neufeldt acknowledged concerns that the case “may have a chilling effect on future reporting of sexual harassment.”
In an email to Voice of San Diego on Friday, Chantung declined to comment on Holford’s case, but said,
“We care deeply about our students and never want to add to the stress of these difficult moments. … During every investigation, we strive to keep lines of communication open. Circumstances may arise beyond the control of the Title IX office that require the extension of time frames such as the complexity of the allegations, the number of witnesses involved, the availability of the parties or witnesses, or other unforeseen circumstances.”
In response to public outcry over the university’s handling of the case, Neufeldt announced the school would launch a task force to address sexual harassment on campus.
“In addition to the resources and support offered by Title IX Office, CSUSM also employs health educators in Student Health & Counseling Services whose major responsibilities are to plan, implement and employ health promotion and education programs for students, including on sexual violence, advocacy and education,” Chantung wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego.
Sage Carson, a manager for the national nonprofit Know Your IX, and other advocates for student survivors of assault and harassment have argued the new federal policies worsened the already grueling experience for students reporting incidents to school officials.
“Survivors need to be given timely notice and need to be aware of hearings and information. This student should’ve been alerted about the settlement. There should be timely notice to both parties,” Carson said. “The most important thing after violence happens is to put the power back into a survivor’s hand. Even though they’re not steering the ship, they should have knowledge.”
I asked Holford why she decided to speak publicly now.
“I think it will help get the message out that a professor who harassed students is still on campus. I thought I preferred the privacy, but now that I see there’s support and students are holding protests about this case, I know that I’m not alone, and I’m more comfortable with speaking out,” she said. “I would love for him not to be employed anymore. He should not be at that school.”