A Montclair State University professor has been removed for allegedly making inappropriate sexual comments to a student. That student, who was interviewed by The Montclarion but asked to remain anonymous, is saying the university did not react fast enough.
Michael Allen, an associate professor in the theatre and dance department, was a few months away from his 21st anniversary at Montclair State when students of his class, Playwrights of Color, received an email entitled “Michael Allen is gone” from Jessica Brater, the theatre studies program coordinator.
The student alleges Allen confessed to having sexual feelings about the student, comments which were captured on audio. He said he had known Allen prior to being a student at Montclair State, and looked up to him as a father figure.
Toward the end of September 2021, the student said Allen asked to meet with him to discuss working on a project with another student who had written a musical.
“I now realize, looking back on every conversation I had with him, he would make inappropriate comments or make sexual remarks or statements,” the student said. “But this time, he really just went full-on into extremely personal details about his personal life, feelings about students he teaches, trauma from his childhood [and] stuff about his family life that was deeply personal.”
In the one hour and 15 minute conversation, which the student had been recording for note-taking purposes, Allen revealed he had sexual feelings for the student while working on a production together years earlier. At the time, the student was 15 and Allen was 61.
The student disclosed that people in the theatre industry are trained to be easy to work with and agreeable, which made it hard for him to come forward, but he knew he had to for himself and other students.
The student filed an initial report to Human Resources (HR) and Title IX in September 2021. They told him he’d have an outcome in late December or early January. According to the student, he did not hear anything for six months, forcing him to take matters into his own hands on March 20, when he emailed Montclair State President Jonathan Koppell, Dean Margaree Coleman-Carter and Brater himself.
“I understand why people don’t ever speak up [at Montclair State],” the student said. “I essentially was gaslighting myself for six months until I realized what they were doing to me was wrong.”
After making his initial report in September, he said he waited four days to find out the head of Title IX was on vacation and they hadn’t moved forward with anything. The only thing he was offered at the time was assistance from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).
“This is beyond feelings,” the student said. “I want to make sure stuff actually gets done. This isn’t about me. Yes, he had these feelings for me when I was a minor, but I am an adult now. What worries me is that there are children in Life Hall all the time, there is a children’s center not half a mile from Life Hall, there are children in this man’s life and what disturbed me beyond belief was that I had a recording, concrete evidence and still, they had this at my very first meeting and no sooner action was taken.”
In October 2021, one month after the student’s first report, he finally got to meet with Ashante Connor and Yolanda Alvarez to go about a Title IX investigation.
The student alleges that, for the six months between September 2021 and March 2022, nothing was done. The student said he was not updated on anything during these few months unless he reached out, which he said always resulted in disappointing news.
When the report made its way to Koppell’s desk on March 3, 2022, the student was told he would hear something back over spring break, but never did. Finally, on March 20, he took matters into his own hands and submitted his own report. Allen stopped teaching his courses shortly after.
“I was walking through these halls speaking to my classmates and other than two or three friends who I really trusted no one really knew,” the student said. “They got me to, for a while, be content with ‘oh, nothing’s happening,’ but then I woke up one day in February and was finally angry. I wrote to the president [in March] and said, ‘you have a pedophile walking the halls of Life Hall.’”
Besides what was said in the conversation, the student is not making any allegations that physical sexual misconduct of any kind occurred.
Other students were shocked to hear this news.
Eliza Andrus, a sophomore musical theatre major, was extremely disappointed in Montclair State when she read a post the student had made in the theatre department Facebook group.
“I didn’t know [Allen] well before because he was mostly a BA theatre studies major [professor],” Andrus said. “But when I read [the student’s] Facebook post, I made it known I was not happy about the situation and that he was still a professor here.”
Sean Simpson, a senior theatre studies major and the victim’s roommate, has heard the recording. He said he was not surprised when he heard the news of Allen.
“Sadly, I wasn’t shocked when I heard [Allen] did this,” Simpson said. “The sad thing is he did all that because he knew the department would basically protect him and he thinks he can do whatever he wants.”
Simpson said he saw how this took a toll on his roommate.
“[The victim] thought the process with HR would be swift,” Simpson said. “But this process took months and months, and I saw him become depressed to the point where he dropped out of the senior showcase for musical theatre majors. So, the way HR handled the situation definitely took a toll on him. We’ve talked about it before and believe since it was a male-on-male sexual [allegation], they didn’t take it as seriously as they should have.”
When asked a generic question on university procedures regarding sexual harassment and employee misconduct during an interview with student media, President Koppell said he understands the reporting process can be frustrating, but said he cannot discuss employee misconduct due to privacy implications. He went on to explain that the university takes these cases extremely seriously and that it is his highest priority to create a safe environment for everyone on campus.
“Whenever there is a discussion or report of whether allegations are being taken seriously or whether students’ voices are being heard, if it’s in The Montclarion or anywhere else, I always send a message and say, ‘I want to know exactly what happened in this instance, give me the story that’s not in the newspaper,’” Koppell said.
The Montclarion reached out to Professor Allen via email to give him a chance to speak on the allegations.
“I’m not interested,” Allen said.
A number of theatre students interviewed by The Montclarion said they were told by Allen that he is on a leave of absence and will retire afterwards.
The Montclarion also reached out to College of the Arts Dean Daniel Gurskis, faculty union president Rich Wolfson, Title IX coordinators Alvarez and Connor, theatre studies program coordinator Brater and Qiana Watson, the associate vice president for compliance and labor relations, who all declined to comment.
In response to the article, university spokesperson Andrew Mees gave a timeline on the communication between the student and the university.
“The Deputy Title IX Coordinator received the initial complaint on Friday Oct. 1, 2021, and immediately scheduled a meeting with the complainant for the next business day, Monday Oct. 4, 2021. Over the next six months there were 11 more interactions between the university and the complainant (a combination of phone calls and in-person and Zoom meetings, all of which are documented) between October 2021 and March 2022,” Mees said. “Based on the circumstances surrounding this particular matter, it was addressed under The State Policy Against Discrimination, which dictates that cases be investigated and brought to conclusion within 180 days (120 days + 60 days extension if needed). The clock begins once there is a fully documented complaint and an Acknowledgment Letter is sent by the Director of Equity/Title IX Coordinator. That letter was sent Oct. 22, 2021, and the case was resolved prior to the 180 day deadline, which would have been April 20, 2022.”
Update: Corrections were made to reflect the general question student media asked to President Jonathan Koppell. The quote was not specifically in response to this case. University spokesperson Andrew Mees’ response was also included in the story.
This article has been updated to reflect that the recording was one hour and 15 minutes, rather than almost two hours.