By Chloë-Arizona Fodor and Sophia Brown
On Sept. 20, Vice President for Student Affairs S. Marjorie Thomas circulated an email to New College students updating them on Student Affairs news. At the bottom of the message, underneath notifications about to-go boxes and hammocks was the announcement that, after eight years, Senior Associate Dean of Students Dr. Mark Stier had spent his last day at New College on Sept. 10. Alongside this was the announcement that Nicole Gelfert would be filling this vacancy as Interim Assistant Dean of Students.
Students have long had a tumultuous relationship with Stier, often taking to the forum with complaints about miscommunication and difficulty in securing their desired housing, but also launching more serious accusations of refusal to accommodate students with dietary restrictions or physical disabilities. While the circumstances of Stier’s departure from New College are speculative, new leadership and recent staff changes aim to fill the hole left behind, and hopefully improve Student Affairs services in the long run.
2019 Student Affairs and Title IX Report
One little-known artifact of Stier’s tumultuous relationship with New College is a public 2019 Student Affairs Investigation and Title IX report detailing allegations against Stier during his time as Senior Associate Dean of Students. The report was conducted in response to a request from then-president Donald O’Shea for the initiation of an internal investigation into Student Affairs Staff allegations of misconduct by Stier, who at the time held the position of Interim Dean of Student Affairs.
The statements within were an amalgamation of “email communication, text messages, Title IX reports, and written statements” brought forward by staff members working in proximity to Stier. The report was divided into three categories of allegations, all three of which were ultimately found to be “supported.”
Allegation 1: Gossip, Discriminatory and Disparaging Remarks
The first section in the report alleges that “Dr. Stier [engaged] in gossip, makes discriminatory, inappropriate and disparaging comments about his peers and staff.” The observations that follow echo this, enumerating multiple examples of Stier engaging in inappropriate activity.
The report alleges that Stier “calls other campus leaders and conducts conversations with them on his office speakerphone without informing them that he has others in his office listening in.” According to the Complainant, a number of these conversations seemed to be private and were held with an expectation that the conversation’s confidentiality was ensured.
The Complainant also stated that Stier is a catalyst for gossip regarding his co-workers, breaking confidentiality again by “inappropriately sharing emails that should have remained private.” Elaborating that, “when a co-worker went to the college Human Resources Department to complain, Dr. Stier learned of it and made an inappropriate comment to intimidate the person for having reported him.”
This pattern of intimidatory behavior echoes through the rest of the section. In another instance, witnesses alleged that “Dr. Stier told an inappropriate story during a Student Affairs divisional dinner … that left others feeling awkward and embarrassed,” explaining that “Dr. Stier informed them [the witnesses] that the house the dinner was held in was often used for firing staff members.” The report clarifies that some of the witnesses felt that the comment was stated as a “possible threat or for intimidation of those supervised by Dr. Stier.”
Other observations under this first allegation address a history of Stier offering unequal treatment towards those in his professional sphere. One statement claims that “Dr. Stier made inappropriate comments regarding their race/ethnicity and the race and ethnicity of co-workers in the context of affirmative action,” which was felt to the Complainant to be “demeaning.” On the other hand, another accusation detailed reports by several witnesses that “Dr. Stier appears to favor certain female students who receive favorable treatment,” further claiming that this behavior both made the involved students uncomfortable.
These demeaning comments by Stier extended to high-level administrators, with the report stating that “witnesses report that Dr. Stier routinely makes inappropriate comments about his views of certain high-level college administrators.” The witnesses further alleged that “he… appears to take pleasure in one of his fellow college administrators appear[ing] to be having difficulty on campus.” The witnesses reflect that Stier seems to engage in this type of behavior as a means to “build himself up by tearing others down,” and that he will make similar comments about his staff, sometimes while the staff member is still in the room and while in front of others. The Complainant states their belief that these comments are made “in an apparent attempt to undermine the authority of others and support his own position at the college.”
The first section concluded by asserting that it is “highly and substantially more probable to be true than not true” that Stier engaged in all the aforementioned behaviors of gossiping and making discriminatory, inappropriate and disparaging comments.
Allegation 2: Intimidation and Threatening
The second section in the report alleges that “Dr. Stier uses his position as leverage to intimidate and threaten staff.” Similarly to the first section of the report, this statement is reflected in the accompanying observations.
There are multiple examples offered in this section of Complainants finding themselves subject to personal attacks while working in a professional capacity with Stier. One such Complainant stated that Stier routinely uses his position in a “unilateral” manner to make significant changes on projects and funding without consulting other members of the department.
The Complainant also noted that although sometimes Stier would relent and backtrack on some of these decisions, he would “make disparaging comments about her credentials and ability to lead her department.”
Comparably, others expand upon this by describing situations where Stier would speak negatively about the Complainant to groups of colleagues while the aforementioned Complainant was still in the same room, emphasizing that “the Complainant and witnesses also felt it was done to publicly humiliate Complainant.”
The same individual stated that “within a month of being hired, Dr. Stier told them that, after the Dean of Student Affairs left to take a similar position at another school, that no one at the college was committed to the position.” This was taken to be another attempt to intimidate the individual and push them to leave the school.
Stier also made another inappropriate comment, making a “reference about the Complainant being an affirmative action hire.” Upon telling Stier that the comment was not appreciated, he “continued to make inappropriate comments that their job was not important and they were not well-liked at the college,” the Complainant stated.
In a similar tone, Stier is alleged to have told a complainant that “no one at the college valued them, had nothing good to say about them and suggested they look for another position elsewhere.”
The other portion of this allegation focused on Stier’s lack of communication and a habit of operating unilaterally in ways that undermine the authority of others at the institution.
One such example stated that “Dr. Stier also used his position and influence to undermine the authority with the employees under their [the Complainant’s] supervision… including … working on a title change and promotion for one of their direct reports without informing them,” highlighting that Stier would specifically tell their “direct report” to not communicate these changes with the staff member.
Another statement more broadly characterized Stier as “inconsistent,” and as a person who “does not represent his team equally or fairly.” They alleged that his “oral statements and emails are often in conflict and misrepresent conversations with those he supervises.”
The second section concluded by asserting that it is “highly and substantially more probable to be true than not true” that Stier engaged in all the aforementioned behaviors of intimidation and threatening.
Allegation 3: Mishandling of Title IX
The third section in the report alleges that “Dr. Stier has mishandled certain Title IX issues.” Echoing the previous sections of the report, this claim is elaborated upon by supporting observations.
In relation to the handling of Title IX situations, Witnesses stated that Stier “inappropriately removed a student from campus after receiving a possible Title IX complaint.” He did so without consulting the proper avenues and “without informing the Title IX coordinator and never afforded the removed students an appropriate hearing under Title IX guidelines.”
The report describes this as not being an isolated incident, and provides other examples. Witnesses detailed several other allegedly mishandled Title IX incidents that included situations where “students were removed from campus without due process or informing the Title IX Coordinator of a possible violation.” A lack of communication was also highlighted, with the statement that “[there were] incidents where information was withheld longer than appropriate before reporting to the Title IX Coordinator or other college officials.”
This mishandling of information extends to allegations regarding digital security, with the reports of multiple witnesses that Stier “has mishandled confidential Title IX emails.” According to witnesses, Stier sent “emails involving potential Title IX incidents with irrelevant, inaccurate information and incorrect details.”
The third section concluded by asserting that it is “highly and substantially more probable to be true than not true” that Stier engaged in all the aforementioned behaviors of improperly handling Title IX issues.
After presenting the allegations and affirming their accuracy and validity, the report concludes by offering two recommendations for action regarding Stier’s behavior. The first recommendation calls for New College to “take appropriate action as to Dr. Stier, which should include—at the minimum—additional training regarding diversity, civility, anti-harassment, anti-discrimination and Title IX.”
The second recommendation simply broadens the first, urging New College to “conduct additional training for management and staff” as a whole regarding the same topics.
The report ends here; and although it is difficult to know whether these action items were delivered upon, the gravity of the allegations remains the same.
Stier’s leave from NCF
New College of Florida’s President Dr. Okker declined to comment on the circumstances of Stier’s departure from New College.
“Unfortunately, I cannot comment on personnel issues,” Okker said. “Those are necessarily confidential.”
New College Student Alliance (NCSA) President Sofia Lombardi also declined to comment on this topic. However, she offered a brief message on her experience working with housing during her time as President.
“I have had a really wonderful experience working with the Housing Department,” Lombardi said.“They have always been willing to work with me even on a one-on-one basis if there is a student that may need a little advocacy and support.”
While the circumstances of Stier’s departure from New College remain unconfirmed, Thomas spoke on behalf of the new Student Affairs staff to say that going forward, Housing and Residence Life matters will ideally be more concrete.
“We needed to make sure with the vacancy that we were addressing certain areas so that we could meet students’ needs and be responsive,” Thomas said. “We don’t want the system of how we support students in their spaces to be too interruptive. Right now, that’s why Nicole Gelfert is serving as Interim.”
Gelfert herself could not be reached for comment, but Thomas also said that Gelfert’s new position reflects a larger initiative on behalf of Student Activities and Campus Engagement (SA[U]CE) to revamp Housing and Residence Life services, both to work more closely with each other, and also to “complement the learning that is happening in the classroom” and the academic engagement she feels that students have.
“How do we mimic that in engagement?” Thomas asked. “And some of that engagement can be curricular, some of that engagement can be around civic engagement, some of that engagement can literally be around how we use those [living] spaces.”
The philosophy that Thomas said she aims to bring to Housing and Residence Life now that it is under new leadership is one that places “transactional facilities” second, and the curation of the student experience first. Part of actualizing this philosophy involves working more closely with Metz and Director of Food Service Operations Bill Moore, and having both Dining and Housing operations ultimately report to Residence Life.
“It’s my understanding that, in 20-some odd years, we have probably had about 12 or 13 Deans of Student Affairs,” Thomas later continued. “And so my goal is to figure out, with that in mind, how do we build trust again with our community again—how do we bring some unique programming and facility engagement in our work?”
While Gelfert is currently spearheading some of these changes alongside Thomas and the rest of the SA[U]CE team, her position as Interim Assistant Dean of Students is, as the title implies, temporary.
“With that in mind, our goal is—in the coming month—to hire someone who is focused on Housing and Dining operations, while Nicole Gelfert in her interim capacity will lead the Residence Life piece,” Thomas clarified.
Thomas also took a moment to address potential student concerns about the ways in which the new administration plans to handle matters of possible internal discrimination, intimidation and inappropriate behavior.
“Sometimes I think that students assume because we don’t do exactly what they suggest or recommend, it’s us not listening,” Thomas said. “And sometimes not also considering [that] it might be that we’re taking in all of the feedback that we’re receiving. We’re taking in all the perspectives of a situation. And we’re also taking in our experiences and background and approaching a resolution. Sometimes it’s short-term, sometimes it’s long-term.”
“While some of those things are going to exist, I feel like it’s the rule of myself but also our team to make sure that we have a community and practices that don’t allow certain behaviors to continue,” Thomas said with an air of finality when asked about preventing discriminatory practices going forward. “Not because a policy just tells us to do that, which we have in place. But because we’re the kind of community that has this idea that who comes here really belongs here. We’re a community that [wants] to respect people’s humanity.”