She And Her Wife Were Anonymously Accused Of Sexual Harassment. Their Wild Story Highlights The Dangers Of Campus Adjudication.

Two professors anonymously accused of sexual harassment. Two university’s investigating the claims. An administrator who states flat out that the truth isn’t the priority. And two careers hampered by one person’s jealous vendetta. The only way to get justice was to pay tens of thousands of dollars.

The story above was told in The New York Times by Sarah Viren, one of the falsely accused women. Sarah and her wife, Marta, were doing well professionally: Both had tenure-track jobs at Arizona State University and thought they would soon be making a desired move to Michigan to further their careers.
Sarah had interviewed for her dream job at University of Michigan, where she would help develop a creative-nonfiction program. She was told an offer letter would arrive soon and that the university would work to find a place for Marta as well.
But the offer letter didn’t come as the weeks went by. To distract themselves, Sarah and Marta attended a party for a friend who had just obtained her Ph.D. Between drinks and conversation, Marta received an anonymous email claiming someone on Reddit was posting about her sexually harassing graduate students. At first, she and Sarah thought the email was spam. Hours later, they looked at it again and saw it included a screenshot of the Reddit post, which read: “If you, like me, have been harassed by Dr. Marta, please contact the anonymous email line with A.S.U.’s Title IX Office.” Ten minutes later, Sarah wrote, another post went up, claiming: “I attended a party at Marta’s house one night, where she got several graduate students drunk and then asked me to her bedroom. When I tried to leave she inappropriately touched me and I dropped her as my graduate adviser.”
Sarah wrote that the email was sent in 2019. She wrote that those first two posts were quickly removed, but two more went up in the following days. The first one, posted the day after the party, said: “Lesbian professors, too, are capable of harassing students despite common narratives.” The second one, Sarah wrote, scared her: “Hi y’all. I’m looking for advice. My linguistics professor has offered me wine several times in her office and acted inappropriately when I see her in various queer spaces in Tempe or Phoenix.”
Sarah wrote that this email was the one that really convinced her the allegations were false.
“Marta almost never used her office; she met students at coffee shops or via Zoom. And she rarely drank wine. Or went to any “queer spaces” that I knew of,” Sarah wrote. “The use of ‘y’all,’ though, made me stop. We were in Arizona. No one says y’all here.”
She realized someone outside the university must be trying to take Marta down, but she didn’t know who or why.
On the Monday after the party, Sarah checked in at the University of Michigan and was told the deans “hope to wrap this up by the end of this week,” as if some problem were about to be solved. Marta also received an email from UM asking her to call the next day. The phone call was not about a job, but about the university having been sent accusations that Marta sexually harassed her grad students. Marta told Sarah the administrator told her the school had “credible information that I’m under a Title IX investigation.”
A Title IX investigation refers to a college or university’s pseudo-legal adjudication process of sexual assault or harassment allegations. Starting in 2011, the Obama administration sent guidelines to colleges and universities telling them they needed to investigate allegations. This, combined with an insistence there was an “epidemic” of campus sexual assault, and the Obama administration’s constant claims to “believe all women,” led to schools eviscerating due process for accused students and faculty.
Sarah maintains throughout her Times article that she agrees with the Obama administration and how schools should handle allegations – yet her story makes clear the way schools handle allegations is wrong and unfair. For Sarah and Marta, an anonymous person who wasn’t even associated with the school was able to cast suspicion on the couple and keep them from moving to their dream city and taking dream jobs. And the only way to completely free themselves of the stigma was to take the false accuser to court, which would have cost tens of thousands of dollars and is a luxury most accused – especially students – don’t have.
Sarah and Marta were forced to prove their innocence, rather than the anonymous accuser having to prove their allegations.
The first anonymous allegation was sent on March 14, 2019, by someone claiming their name was “Rebecca James,” who said she was a graduate student in Marta’s department.
“I have had two undergrads come to me and one fellow graduate student regarding Dr. Marta Cabrero,” the accuser wrote. “Dr. Cabrero has put these students in sexually compromising situations. Inviting them to meet her in her office late at night — when the building is mostly empty — she has offered to help their careers (grad student) or grades and standing in the department (undergrad) in exchange for sexual favors.”
There were multiple errors that were immediately obvious to Sarah and Marta. For starters, Marta is from Spain and has two last names – Tecedor and Cabrero. As Sarah wrote, the first last name would be the primary name, so she would have been called Dr. Tecedor in her department, or just Marta, which was her preference.
The discrepancy didn’t seem to phase the administrator assigned to investigate the claim, Melanie. She said it was “relevant to point that out” but immediately began asking leading questions of Marta, such as whether she met with students at night or offered them alcohol or asked for sexual favors.
Marta said she didn’t know anyone named Rebecca James and Melanie admitted she couldn’t find anyone with that name in Marta’s department, but dismissed the issue by claiming the person could have used an alias. Melanie claimed the allegation was “credible,” even though it provided no specifics and was merely a written allegation.
When Melanie spoke with Sarah separately, she admitted that the true goal of Title IX investigations isn’t to find the truth, but to show the federal government they are investigating everything just to get more funding.
Sarah had asked if the case would be dropped if Melanie discovered the allegation was from an outsider pretending to be a student. Melanie responded by saying: “Because of the funding that we receive through Title IX, we’re required to investigate everything. And with that we want to really run everything to the ground.”
Sarah recorded her conversation with Melanie, which is where the quotes came from.
Melanie then dropped the bombshell those who have been demanding due process for accused students have always known but politicians and schools denied: “If we find out that — and Marta asked the question — if we find out that the information is false, for our purposes that’s not really our end goal; we’re just trying to determine whether or not there’s a policy violation.”
Get that? The truth – the falsity – of the allegations doesn’t really matter to schools; all they care about is that government funding – and that government funding is based upon find accused students and faculty responsible, let the accuser (almost always a woman) go to the media to claim she was mistreated because her allegation didn’t result in the accused being removed from campus. It never matters whether the accused actually did what was alleged, it only matters what an accuser claims.
Marta couldn’t have a lawyer present during the investigation, even though she was told that what she said could be used against her. UM would also not have the ability to compel the anonymous false accuser to talk and could not hold that person accountable.
A defamation lawyer told the couple the only way to hold the false accuser accountable was with a lawsuit, but they needed to know who was behind the lies.
Sarah finally had an idea about who might be behind the allegations. A couple weeks after she was offered the job at UM, an acquaintance – referred to only by a fake initial, J – texted her asking if she was going to take the job. Sarah said she knew J was also a finalist for the job, and seemed to imply that if Sarah turned the job down, he would get it. Sarah texted J back – against Marta’s wishes – to tell him that she wanted to take the job but needed Marta to be offered a spousal hire. She told J she would let him know if she learned more.
J kept texting, saying he hoped negotiations with UM were progressing and keeping Sarah updated on what he was doing. In mid-March, around the time the first anonymous email was sent to ASU, J texted Sarah: “Any news? I’ve been thinking of y’all.”
At the end of the month, J texted “WHY ARE THEY DOING THIS TO US” hours before the first Reddit posts were written.
Sarah now believed J was behind the false allegations, but neither she nor Marta knew how to prove it. Sarah watched J’s social media posts to find clues she could use to prove it was him. A friend reached out to say J had been complaining to him about Sarah getting the job and was telling people about the investigation into Marta, which he shouldn’t have known about.
Sarah and Marta told Melanie about their suspicions. Melanie then asked to meet with them a second time, saying she received “some new information yesterday.” When they met, Melanie said she received another anonymous complaint, this time from some saying her name was “Jessica P. Newman.” Jessica claimed to be one of Marta’s graduate students and claimed she was sexually harassed by Marta and Sarah.
“One night,” the anonymous accuser wrote, “Marta and her wife Sarah had a party for queer students and faculty at their house, and offered me glass of wine after glass of wine and eventually shots of whiskey. When most of the others had left, Marta asked to show me a painting in her bedroom, and when we entered, Sarah was on the bed, topless, and asked us to join her. I said I would be calling an Uber now, but before I could leave the room, Marta took my hand and placed it on her wife’s bare chest.”
Sarah said there was never a party like the one described in the email. She said she and Marta had hosted two dinners for Marta’s graduate-seminar students, but that Sarah left both dinners to put their two kids to bed and no one ever went near the bedrooms. Sarah couldn’t even remember if they had a painting in the bedroom. After some thought, she remembered she did have her favorite painting on a wall, which she had bought years earlier in Florida. While this fact didn’t mean the allegation was true (there’s a good chance one could claim anyone has a painting in their bedroom). Still, the fact that one thing in the email rang true made Sarah uneasy.
Melanie asked the name of the person Sarah thought was behind the lies, and Sarah cooperated. After that, she and Marta hired a lawyer who helped them file a lawsuit to learn identifying information about the emails that had sent the anonymous emails to the universities. Sarah also blocked J on social media.
During a weekend in the mountains, Sarah received a text from a friend saying J was stalking her on social media and was trying to find out if she blocked just him or closed her accounts. He then texted her.
“I’m genuinely sorry if communicating with you made you uncomfortable,” he wrote. “I had hoped admitting to the awkwardness of the situation would make everything OK. I guess I was wrong, and I apologize.”
When they returned, Melanie asked to meet with them again. This time she said she had spoken to UM and was sent all the emails the other university had received. She also said she was talking to Sarah and Marta’s students and colleagues and that “Jessica” had agreed to an in-person interview.
Melanie provided the women with a stack of emails that had been printed out alleging sexual harassment. Issues became immediately apparent. The same email that sent the accusation supposedly from Rebecca James sent another email claiming to be Marta’s colleague R. Orlich. Orlich, a real person, was asked about the allegations and said she hadn’t sent any emails to Michigan.
Emails from “Jessica” were sent to the department chair Sarah was talking to about the job and referred to Marta incorrectly as “Dr. Cabrero.” Jessica claimed Marta’s colleagues had discussed in an email about Marta being removed from a dissertation committee (this never happened) and also claimed The New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education were working on articles about Marta.
Another email from Jessica claimed she was going to the authorities. She presented a screenshot of an alleged conversation between herself and Marta, which showed Marta threatening to ruin Jessica’s career: “We will ruin your career. I will make sure you never get a job once your dissertation is done. My wife and I are well-connected.”
Melanie said she had already checked some facts from the email, including the conversation with the real Orlich and the fact that there were no ASU grad students named Rebecca James or Jessica P. Newman. Still, Melanie couldn’t close the investigation because “Jessica” had agreed to talk.
Melanie called a few days later to say that “Jessica” claimed Marta showed up at her house to threaten her. Sarah used Marta’s phone GPS data to show that she was at home when this alleged incident occurred. Melanie also sent another email from Jessica, which included a screenshot of an email purporting to be from Marta claiming, “You wanted to sleep with us, or at least that is what your body was saying. In Spain this would never happen. People understand their bodies and desires there.”
When J eventually learned about the lawsuit, he started claiming he was being trolled online and said homophobic comments were being posted about him. He went so far as to give a presentation on this alleged harassment at his university.
Sarah wrote to ASU’s president about what was going on, and closed by saying: “We are strong believers in the importance of Title IX protections, but we also feel like there has to be a system in place to protect faculty and students from outsiders who might use that system to defame and harass.”
In other words, justice for me but not for thee. Schools don’t just have to worry about outsiders taking advantage of the Title IX system – plenty of students use the system to get accommodations – such as delaying an exam – or to avoid being dropped from a program due to poor grades. All accused students or faculty need the kind of system that keeps bad actors from making false accusations.
Melanie eventually told the women that starting now, ASU would fact check anonymous accusations before opening investigations, which makes one wonder: Why was it deemed “credible” before it was even fact checked?
It was now two and a half months after Sarah was first offered the job at UM when she finally received the offer letter and a phone call telling her the university was looking for a job for Marta. The two prepared to move to Michigan. While packing, they received an email from their law firm disclosing the phone number linked to the email account claiming to be both Rebecca James and R. Orlich. The phone number matched J’s.
The women thought their lives could carry on, but as with most false accusations, that is not possible. After a month and a half, UM said it couldn’t find a job for Marta. Sarah had to turn down the job.
They decided to sue J. Once he was named in their lawsuit, he started claiming he was receiving anonymous emails from someone, conveniently, taking credit for the whole situation with Sarah and Marta.
“i began trolling you online, sent death threats, broke into your house when you were gone,” this email allegedly said. “i tried to [expletive] up your job applications by getting into your [work] email, i trolled a friend of yours in arizona…”
He then told police at his university that this “stalker” threw a rock through his car window. All this made it possible for J to claim he hadn’t been the one to attack Sarah and Marta, even though the evidence pointed to him.
The problem for the women was that taking J to court would have cost tens of thousands of dollars, and the end, they weren’t willing to pay. They did eventually settle, and were allowed to write or say whatever they wanted about the case, but they couldn’t use J’s real name, even though that meant he could hurt more people.
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