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A wooden gavel propped up on its sound block in front of a light blue background

Lawsuit: Canisius College Ignored “Serial” Sexual Harassment

Five women who recently graduated from the institution allege that it failed to protect students from repeated sexual harassment by animal behavior professor Michael Noonan.

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Dan Robitzski

Dan is a Staff Writer and Editor at The Scientist. He typically works on the news desk and joined the team in 2021. He has a background in neuroscience and earned his master's in science journalism at New York University.

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Jun 8, 2022

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Five recent graduates of Canisius College, a small Jesuit school in Buffalo, New York, have filed a federal lawsuit against the college’s trustees for how the college responded when they reported a then-professor for “serial” sexual predation, The Buffalo News reports.

The lawsuit concerns Michael Noonan, a prominent researcher who chaired the college’s animal behavior, ecology, and conservation program. According to the suit, Noonan has a long story of selecting young women to join him as students and research assistants on research excursions to countries such as Indonesia, Uganda, India, where he exhibited a pattern of inappropriate touching, prying into students’ private lives, and pressuring them to let him conduct invasive medical procedures. For example, the women would often be asked to record footage of animals using audiovisual recording gear that Noonan allegedly insisted on personally fastening to the students’ undergarments while commenting on their bodies, Inside Higher Ed reports.

When students suffered indigestion or gastrointestinal problems during these trips, Noonan allegedly pressured them to let him give them enemas and anal suppositories, according to Inside Higher Ed. In one alleged incident during a 2019 trip to India, he lay down on a hospital bed and demonstrated how an enema would work, telling a student that it would be life-threatening if she did not accept his offer. When the student traveled to a hospital instead, Noonan entered the exam room against her wishes, Inside Higher Ed reports. One plaintiff alleges that Noonan told her to stop wearing a bra and made sexual comments about her mother. The lawsuit also says that Noonan repeatedly told the women they “should be open to dating older men,” according to The Buffalo News.

See “Sexual Harassment Complaints in Academia Are Up Since 2018

The lawsuit alleges that Canisius College was aware of issues regarding Noonan’s conduct beginning in 2014, when he was reported to the college’s Title IX office, according to The Buffalo News. The plaintiffs and six other then-students reported Noonan to Canisius for sexual harassment in 2019, and the lawsuit argues that students and research assistants would have been spared ongoing sexual harassment, retaliation for speaking up, and associated disruptions to their educations had the college acted five years earlier. In 2019, Noonan was quietly removed from campus, Inside Higher Ed reports, but the students were told that he retired—a claim repeated on Noonan’s website. The Buffalo News reports that the college has yet to release the findings of its internal investigation.

Noonan—who Insider Higher Ed reports currently volunteers at a high school—has not responded to the publication’s request for comment. Canisius College president John Hurley and then-Title IX officer Linda Walleshauser responded via a college spokesperson, who tells the outlet that Canisius “is and always has been, committed to fostering a safe, secure campus environment, and to the maintenance of robust policies that promote student safety and security free from discrimination and harassment. At this point, the allegations in the complaint are simply that—allegations. Canisius College will respond in detail to the allegations of this complaint in due course, but the college denies that it did not respond swiftly and effectively to the conduct reported by the plaintiffs in this lawsuit.”

Following their reports and Noonan’s departure, the plaintiffs say they were unable to continue their research projects, were not connected with new mentors or advisors, and were unable to get recommendation letters or career assistance regarding graduation—all of which amounts to retaliatory behavior on the part of the college, according to the lawsuit. Several of the plaintiffs say they have struggled with depression or anxiety due to their experiences with Noonan and the college’s subsequent handling of the situation, and several have sought help through therapy.

In addition to declaring that their rights under Title IX and New York common law were violated, the plaintiffs are seeking damages with interest and attorneys’ fees. The case has been assigned to a judge.