Alumni of Columbia International University are calling for an independent investigation into what they say is a culture that enables sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct at the Christian college.
The State newspaper interviewed eight former students who said they either witnessed what they considered inappropriate conduct or knew somebody who had witnessed it. Among those accused of unwanted touching is the university's former president, Bill Jones, although nobody The State interviewed accused him of sexual assault.
The public outcry comes after The State reported that current university President Mark Smith's son Doug, who now works at CIU, had been sued over allegations of sexual harassment at Ohio Christian University, including allegedly giving a co-worker a "slut test." The lawsuit against Doug Smith was closed May 3, court records show.
After The State published its story about Mark and Doug Smith, alumni started an online petition calling for an investigation of the school's culture. As of Friday, the petition had more than 400 signatures — twice its original goal — since it was created Monday evening.
"It was an accepted part of the culture," said Andria Baisley, who graduated from CIU in 2007. "Every alumni I've interacted with since the story broke had at least one story of sexual harassment or knew of someone who experienced sexual harassment."
The eight people interviewed by The State spoke about incidents they say happened prior to the Smiths' arrival at CIU. But most said the newspaper's reporting on the Smiths' time at Ohio Christian prompted them to come forward about their experiences at CIU. Since none of the former students reported the alleged acts, there are no formal records of the complaints.
One student said she was sexually assaulted by a faculty member, while some others talked about inappropriate touching. Others heard comments that they considered inappropriate or harassing.
A law firm representing CIU issued a statement saying that the college's policies prohibit sexual harassment and misconduct. It encourages any student who has been harassed to report it to the university's Title IX coordinator or university administration.
"On the few occasions when CIU has received a report of misconduct, the university immediately investigated the allegations and promptly acted to ensure a safe environment for students, faculty, staff, and guests," the statement said. "Neither CIU’s Title IX Coordinator nor its executive management was aware of the allegations contained in this article."
Below are the stories former students told The State newspaper.
Casie Gee, who attended CIU from 2004-2011, said she shared a story of a childhood sexual abuse with a faculty member she trusted, and then the faculty member assaulted her.
"Basically, she was saying she was the hand and feet of Jesus, and re-enacting my (childhood) sexual abuse would heal me," said Gee, who said she was kicked out in her last semester of graduate school for being gay. "I'm still in therapy to unpack all of this and move along."
She said she didn't report the assault at the time. She also would not provide the name of the faculty member to the newspaper.
Gee said she began telling her story of alleged abuse only recently. In the last week, she said she told the same story to alumni Michelle Panchuk, Rachel Kiser and Marie Bacon, which The State confirmed with each of them.
"For her to openly state something happened to her ... I just don't see why she would lie about that," Baisley said.
When asked about Gee's allegation, Panchuk — who graduated in 2007, is now a professor of English and philosophy at Murray State University and who organized the online petition — said, "I have no reason to question its veracity."
Gee is the only former student interviewed by The State who alleged sexual assault.
Another former student, Kaitlin Humes, who now goes by Frances Cone, said she was walking out of chapel in 2007 when she said Jones, then president of the university, walked up to her and started touching her hair.
"He didn't even say hi," Humes, who graduated in 2009, but worked there until 2013, said in an interview. "He just reached out and grabbed my hair and started playing with it and telling me how much I reminded him of his daughter, which made me very uncomfortable."
Humes did not file a complaint, because "at the time it was so confusing I didn't process it until later," she said. "I just didn't think people would believe me, and I was trying to graduate."
Marie Bacon, who graduated in 2010, said Humes told her about the alleged incident around the time it occurred.
Jones, who became the university's chancellor in 2017 after serving 10 years as president, did not return two phone calls from The State newspaper.
Other former students said they experienced something similar.
"One time he came up behind me — I had a ponytail at that time — and put his hands in my hair and said 'I was thinking of you last night,'" said Craig Bacon, Marie Bacon's husband and CIU alumnus.
Craig Bacon said he didn't believe Jones was trying to be sexual, but he still considered it "creepy."
"He should have known it would have a sexual sound to it," Craig Bacon said. "I definitely considered it inappropriate."
Marie Bacon didn't witness the alleged incident, but said she remembers Craig, who graduated in 2007, talking about it when it happened, which she said was before the two were a couple. Craig Bacon said he told friends about the alleged incident when it occurred, but wasn't able to put The State in touch with them, as he said he had lost contact with them since graduation.
Jones also had a tendency to walk up behind students and tickle, hug or otherwise touch them, according to Craig and Marie Bacon, Gee and Humes, who said they witnessed the alleged behavior.
Humes said she saw Jones tickle one of her male friends in the side. "He jumped backward, like he was freaked out, and stared at Jones," Humes said of the student in a Facebook message following an interview. "He didn't really know how to comprehend what was happening. He talked about it later and how uncomfortable it made him. Jones just laughed and kept walking."
The State asked Humes for the name of the student who was allegedly tickled but she did not provide the student's name, saying the student could not remember the incident.
Marie Bacon said she used to see Jones "walk through the cafeteria and hug people or come up behind them and tickle them on the side."
Former students said they didn't believe Jones was trying to be sexual — and none of them accused him of molesting them — but they said he tended to get too familiar with students, something that made them uncomfortable.
"I can't say there was anything drastically inappropriate, but I can say there was a lot of physical contact," Gee said of Jones' interaction with students. "If other people were feeling uncomfortable, I would stand by them 100 percent."
In 2013, Humes said she was working at CIU in the academic success center. After her husband, Stuart Cone, died, she posted on her blog about how much she missed the times when he would kiss her forehead. Humes said a faculty member walked up to her and kissed her on the forehead without her consent. She said it happened on multiple occasions.
"We never talked about it. He just did it," Humes said. "It was super weird."
The faculty member did not respond to two calls and two emails from The State seeking comment.
Humes said another faculty member at CIU witnessed the alleged incident, but when The State reached out to that faculty member, that person did not respond to a request for comment.
Andria Baisley said a person in authority at CIU verbally harassed her while she was a student. She said she remembers what happened, but did not provide details on the record, including the name of her alleged harasser and details of the harassment.
Marie Bacon said she witnessed the staff member sexually harass Baisley and other students. Marie Bacon was able to recall details of Baisley's story, but did not provide them on the record because Baisley was not comfortable sharing them.
Marie Bacon said she and fellow students did not report the incident to CIU, but tried to tell the staff member they were uncomfortable.
"When we expressed dismay with this person, he shrugged it off," Marie Bacon said.
"With this story with the Smiths, it was a breaking point," Bacon said. "I didn't know how many people were feeling this way."
Rachel Kiser, who graduated in 2010, said a staff member "slut shamed" her for having dated one older student while she was a student.
"When my now-husband and I started dating, a person ... pulled him aside and warned him against me, saying I had dated too many guys and to look out," Kiser said.
The assertion she dated multiple students was nothing more than a rumor, Kiser said.
"To me that was very damaging," Kiser said. "I felt like I had a target on my back."
Rachel Kiser's husband, Colin, who graduated in 2009, confirmed her story, and said while he didn't consider the faculty member's comment sexual harassment, he found it inappropriate.
There is a "spiritual aspect that makes their advice so much deeper," Colin Kiser said. "It's not just 'hey, watch out for her.'"
This story was originally published May 13, 2018 7:09 AM.