Updated Jan. 17 at 5 p.m.
During winter break, the Hustler staff received an envelope in the mail from an anonymous source containing court documents from a 2001 case involving Shirley Collado (‘94), the president of Ithaca College and a member of Vanderbilt’s Board of Trust, having an improper relationship with a patient while she was training to be a trauma therapist in Washington, D.C. The maximum sentence for the charge was 180 days in jail and a $1000 fine.
The case ended with Collado, who has been on the Vanderbilt Board of Trust since 2014, pleading “nolo contendere” (no contest) to one count of misdemeanor sex abuse, making her a second degree sexual offender. The prosecutor in the case recommended that Collado complete 120 hours of community service, participate in counseling for health care providers who sexually assault their patients and write a letter of apology to the victim. She was only sentenced, however, to 80 hours of community service. In an interview with The Ithacan, Ithaca College’s student newspaper, Collado said that there have never been other allegations of sexual misconduct against her.
Vanderbilt University was not aware of these charges when Collado was appointed to the Board of Trust.
“Shirley Collado spoke openly and publicly about this issue at the time of her vetting and appointment as president of Ithaca College, which is when Vanderbilt became aware of the matter,” Vanderbilt University said in a statement to the Hustler. “She has consistently denied these accusations. These accusations will not affect her status on the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust.”
The Hustler reached out to Ithaca College for comment on Jan. 13. Days later, Collado wrote a letter to the Ithaca College community explaining the context of the allegations. In the letter, Collado denied the charges and discussed several hardships that led her to plead guilty in the case, including her husband’s suicide.
“In light of the resurfacing of this legal action, I want to unequivocally state now, as I did then, that the accusations in the court documents are simply not true,” Collado wrote in the letter. “If I had had more resources and was not dealing with my significant loss, I probably would have fought the charge. But I did what I felt was in my best interest at that time and followed my lawyer’s advice.”
Collado was a part of the first class of Posse Scholars, and received her undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt in 1994. She went on to pursue M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in clinical psychology from Duke University. Collado served as the Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Middlebury College until 2014. In this position, Collado was responsible for developing sexual misconduct and judicial policies, among other functions.
At Vanderbilt, Collado chairs the Academic and Student Affairs Committee, is a member of the Executive Committee and Campaign Committee, and recently completed a membership on the Land Use Committee. In 2015, she was given Peabody’s Distinguished Alumna Award. Collado was named the president of Ithaca College in February 2017.
At the time of the case, Collado was training to be a trauma therapist at the Washington Psychiatric Center Traumatic Stress Syndrome Ward, shortly after completing her Ph.D. According to the Government’s Memorandum in Aid of Sentencing from the case, while Collado was working at the Center, a patient stated that she and Collado “began a sexual relationship” in May 2000, when the two women kissed. According to the victim, Collado told her that these actions, which included fondling and kissing, would be “therapeutic for the victim; that it would bring her out of her shell,” the government memorandum states.
In her interview with the Ithacan, Collado denied this allegation. One of Collado’s former co-workers told the Ithacan they believe the patient’s allegation that she and Collado had a sexual relationship.
After the victim was discharged from the Center in June of 2000, she claimed that she moved into Collado’s house and that their sexual relationship continued. According to the government memorandum, the victim recorded these events in her journal. While Collado confirms that the victim moved in with her, she denies any sexual contact.
The victim notified other therapists at the Center of her sexual relationship with Collado in November of 2000. The victim forwarded emails that she had received from Collado as well as photographs from a trip she took with Collado to the therapists.
“As for us, I must tell you that not a day goes by that I don’t regret mixing everything up, setting poor boundaries and misleading you/[name omitted]/etc. In any way… Anyway, all this is to say that I am not good for you, [victim’s name]… As far as [adult male acquaintance of Collado] is concerned, we are working on many things including what we gained and lost from being intimate with you, building trust between us, deciding what we can be open about at this point…” read one of the emails, which was included in the government memorandum.
After this, founders of the Center were notified. Due to the evidence from the photos and knowledge of the victim, the Director of the Center believed her allegations. The Director of the Center has not responded to the Hustler’s attempt to contact her.
In the defendant’s memorandum, which is cited by the Ithacan article, Collado’s lawyer stated that had the case gone to trial, Collado’s roommate would have testified–and an expert witness would have confirmed–that the victim accessed Collado’s computer while staying in her home, and that the victim authored the emails that she forwarded to the Center as evidence of her relationship with Collado.
The Center viewed the outside relationship between Collado and the victim as an ethical violation and grounds for immediate termination. In her interview with the Ithacan, Collado claimed that she never had a conversation with the directors despite her attempts to contact them.
“The laws and ethical rules prohibiting sexual and outside relationships with former or current patients are designed to prevent the very activity that occurred in this case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Marcus-Kurn, who prosecuted the case, wrote in the government memorandum. “The law recognizes that individuals that are wards of psychiatric institutions are extremely vulnerable to being abused and taken advantage of. The laws are designed to protect them and punish anyone who violates the therapist/patient relationship.”
When the Director of the Center confronted Collado, she admitted that she’d lived with the victim and had been in the area of the Center where the victim claimed sexual contact took place, but denied any type of sexual relationship occurred.
The victim claimed she was too emotional to write a formal letter to the court about the impact that these events had on her. However, she expressed her feelings over the phone with the following statement:
“It brings on such immense pain and it is very very intense feelings of confusion. I start hearing her calling her name, I start smelling her, I start remembering her telling me that it would be good for me to sleep with Steve, and I remember being raped, and I have blocked that all out and I’m afraid that it would kill me if I start dealing with it right now. She has hurt me beyond belief and it’s like so bad that I can hardly touch it because it hurts so bad. I have to take it really slow. I know that I feel a lot inside but I’m not really sure what all of those feelings are because I try really hard not to feel them but I know that they are painful as hell. I literally feel that I will fall apart every time i think I’ll deal with it. And it hurts too much. And I’m really angry that she slept with me and that she convinced me to sleep with her boyfriend and I feel that I was raped and that there is nothing I can do with it because I believe it isn’t against the law in D.C.”
Collado continues to deny that any sexual relationship occurred between the two women at any time, despite the victim’s claims in the government memorandum.
“I can’t speculate why the therapists reported what they did,” she told The Ithacan. “What I can tell you, in a very general way, without disclosing her whole medical profile… this is someone who was treated multiple times — not just by me, by multiple hospitalizations and therapists — had a very serious psychiatric disorders that have lasted years upon years in a pretty serious profile when you look at dissociative disorders, psychotic disorders, things like that.”
The government memorandum, however, states that both of the victim’s two other therapists at the time believe her allegations against Collado, having known her for a long period of time and finding her to be an “extremely truthful person.”
“Although she may have flashbacks of prior abuse or may relive traumatic experiences, her therapists have stated that she does not fabricate or hallucinate things that simply did not happen,” the government memorandum said. “In other words, she has not experienced psychotic episodes and has never been diagnosed as psychotic.”
Ithaca College knew about this matter when they appointed her as president last year.
“We were provided with detailed information regarding this situation, and Dr. Collado was extremely forthright in answering all our questions,” the Board stated. “Then, as now, she vehemently denied the allegations that were made against her.”
The Ithaca Board of Trustees affirmed their support for Collado today.
“Since becoming president of Ithaca College, Dr. Shirley M. Collado has proven to be a great leader, demonstrating not only her commitment to students, faculty, and the broader college community but also to an openness and inclusiveness that are important assets for our institution moving forward,” the Board stated. “One of the things that set Dr. Collado apart during the search process was her compelling personal and professional story, which included not only significant accomplishments in her work life but also a background of achievement and overcoming individual challenges that made her the right choice for a college like Ithaca at this time.”
Tom Grape, the chair of the Ithaca College Board of Trustees, defended Collado in an interview with the Ithacan.
“My own perspective about it is this is something of almost 20 years ago that was adjudicated in court and has been settled,” Grape said. “And I think for us to sort of go back and ask people, well, something that happened 20 years ago when there’s since been a 20-year history of behavior that is spotless, to me, the matter was settled with the court action 20 years ago.”
From President Collado
Recently, I learned that an anonymous source has been circulating misleading information to other colleges and universities and their news outlets about a traumatic time in my life that took place almost 20 years ago. Seeing how profoundly the facts and my character are being misrepresented and being forced to relive the pain of that time have left me feeling upset, perplexed, and targeted. I do not know who is disseminating this information or how widely it is being shared.
I have been candid about this very trying chapter of my life, and how it has influenced the way I approach my work and my personal path. I have discussed it over the years with confidantes and with leaders I’ve worked for. I discussed it with the Ithaca College Board of Trustees and the presidential search committee during my candidacy for president. While trying to maintain a degree of privacy and confidentiality for myself and other individuals, I shared the broad details of this story in an interview<https://www.ithaca.edu/president/news/incoming-president-shirley-m.-collado-shares-her-story-part-1-43846/> published by the college as part of my introduction to the campus community last spring.
Because the story is personal, it’s very hard to describe the details more publicly than I have in the past, with a campus community who is still getting to know me. However, after intensive reflection, I have decided that I must follow my commitment to owning our full stories with humanity and insight.
In 2000, less than a year after finishing my Ph.D., I was in training as a trauma therapist in a mental health center in a hospital in Washington, D.C., working with patients suffering from very severe psychiatric disorders that limited their ability to function independently. A short time after I began this work, my husband of three years killed himself in our home. He was my best friend and my rock, and I could not understand why he did this to himself and to us. I was devastated, and took a leave of absence to try to work through my overwhelming grief.
During my leave of absence, a former patient sought me out for help when she was in crisis and had no place to stay. Worried for her safety, I invited her into the home I shared with my roommate, but after a brief period I realized that I could not provide the support she was looking for while I myself was trying to heal. So, I let her know that she could no longer stay with us and helped her move out.
Shortly thereafter, I received the news that she was making allegations about me to the staff at the hospital. I suddenly found myself fighting a misdemeanor sexual abuse charge for allegedly having touched her once in a sexual manner above her clothing while she was under my treatment at the center.
I fought the charge to the best of my ability, but my fighting spirit was limited by so many things. I was in my twenties, had very little money and resources, and was grieving a profound personal loss.
And so, I juggled two very strong and opposing instincts: to defend myself aggressively against a painful, false accusation or to devote my energy to healing from my loss. My lawyer recommended pleading no contest to the misdemeanor charge so that I could just end the matter quickly and move on. After a lot of soul searching, I took his advice. I pled no contest, or nolo contendre, to the misdemeanor, ending the matter, and moved back to New York to be with my family, where I completed probation and community service.
In light of the resurfacing of this legal action, I want to unequivocally state now, as I did then, that the accusations in the court documents are simply not true. If I had had more resources and was not dealing with my significant loss, I probably would have fought the charge. But I did what I felt was in my best interest at that time and followed my lawyer’s advice.
I could have let this terrible episode discourage me from advocating for people with mental illness and limited resources, but there are so many people like my former patient who have experienced great trauma and illness and face extraordinary challenges related to health care, housing, employment, education, safety, and more. I actively continued teaching in the areas of trauma and the intersections of trauma, mental health, race, culture, and gender. And, I devoted a great deal of effort to improving services, support, policies, processes, education, training, and prevention related to sexual misconduct and gender-based violence during my tenure at both Middlebury College and Rutgers University–Newark.
I believe that the experience helped sharpen a sense of humanity and empathy that has been with me throughout my career in education. I have always worked to ensure that people’s full humanity is respected and understood, without reducing them only to their most visible labels, diagnoses, or social markers. When I work with students, staff, and faculty dealing with hardships, difficult decisions, big mistakes, losses, or trauma, I have a personal lens that is informed by my own experience and the amazing resilience that I know we all have within us.
I am deeply grateful for the unwavering support and compassion I have received from the board and from all those with whom I’ve discussed this difficult story. And I want to thank you, now, for giving me the time to share this deeply personal and painful part of my life.
Shirley M. Collado
A message of support for President Shirley M. Collado from the Board of Trustees
President Collado has the full support of the Ithaca College Board of Trustees. Since becoming president of Ithaca College, Dr. Shirley M. Collado has proven to be a great leader, demonstrating not only her commitment to students, faculty, and the broader college community but also to an openness and inclusiveness that are important assets for our institution moving forward. One of the things that set Dr. Collado apart during the search process was her compelling personal and professional story, which included not only significant accomplishments in her work life but also a background of achievement and overcoming individual challenges that made her the right choice for a college like Ithaca at this time.
The board of trustees, with the assistance of our search consultant Spencer Stuart, conducted extensive due diligence as part of our final candidate vetting process. This thorough background check included a leadership profile analysis and reference checks with a number of individuals we identified as having knowledge of her skills, character, leadership style, and accomplishments.
During the process, we learned of a legal action brought against Dr. Collado, nearly 20 years ago. We were provided with detailed information regarding this situation, and Dr. Collado was extremely forthright in answering all our questions. Then, as now, she vehemently denied the allegations that were made against her. She discussed at length the incredibly difficult circumstances she was facing at the time, and we came to understand the courage with which she navigated the tragic loss of her husband and the devastation of accusations leveled in this vulnerable moment. We know that her decision to resolve the legal action quickly was an extremely difficult one, made on the advice of legal counsel, to try to gain a sense of closure at a very fraught time for her.
As part of the search process, many people who knew or worked with Dr. Collado throughout her career provided answers to a wide range of questions that we had, including on the legal action. Their responses reinforced to us that Dr. Collado had the experience, drive, and personal qualities to make an exceptional president for our college.
It is important to note that, in addition to providing us with details on the incident, she proactively discussed it in an interview<https://www.ithaca.edu/president/news/incoming-president-shirley-m.-collado-shares-her-story-part-1-43846/> that was published by the college last March, shortly after she was announced as our next president. That interview remains publicly available on the Office of the President website.
It is evident that Dr. Collado’s subsequent life experiences, her professional successes, and her empathetic nature demonstrate resilience of character and an ability to both learn and grow from an extremely challenging set of circumstances.
As we stated earlier, Dr. Collado has our full support. She was the right choice when she was named president of Ithaca College last year, and her first six months in office have only reinforced our belief in what an exceptional person and leader she truly is.
Sam Zern, Dallas Shatel, Gracie Pitman and Jenna Moldaver contributed to this report.