After college ousts administrator Tom Elverson, questions linger

When Tom Elverson ’75 joined the Swarthmore College dean’s office in September 2004 as the college’s drug and alcohol counselor, he joined quietly, with little fanfare and no official introduction. Soon after, he was interviewed by the Daily Gazette for a feature called “College Corner,” in which he was referred to as a “mystery dean.” His interviewer led off with a simple question: “What is your job here at Swarthmore?”

“It’s really unique,” Elverson replied. “I’m a psychologist by trade, but here, I work out of the dean’s office. Half of my job is counseling. I do drug and alcohol evaluations.” The other half involved being the advisor to the fraternities, as well as some work in alumni relations and serving as a liaison to athletics.

But when Elverson departed, the reaction was anything but quiet. Facing a barrage of criticism for its response to sexual misconduct and responding to an external review from the campus safety assessment firm Margolis Healy, the college eliminated Elverson’s position.

Communications director and college secretary Nancy Nicely, in a Huffington Post article, cited a decision to “separate the roles of alcohol and drug counseling and fraternity advising” as the reason Elverson, who is a brother and alum of the college’s Delta Upsilon fraternity, was let go, responding to a recommendation in Margolis Healy’s interim report to decouple the role of substance counseling from “any other role that potentially conflicts with the primary role of an AOD [Alcohol and Other Drugs] counselor or programming staff.”

Elverson was not the only administrator whose role was separated in the wake of Margolis Healy’s report and the Department of Education’s ongoing investigation. Sharmaine Lamar, the college’s assistant vice president for risk management and legal affairs and director of equal opportunity, was replaced as Title IX coordinator. Joanna Gallagher, the associate director of public safety, will no longer serve as deputy Title IX coordinator.

Elverson, however, is the only one of the three to not simply lose one of his duties, but to lose his job.

When asked why Elverson could not have stayed on in only one of his two prior capacities, Nicely said she can’t comment specifically on Tom’s circumstances or decision, though she added that the new drug and alcohol counseling position would not be full-time.

Elverson did not return multiple phone and email requests for comments.

A review of Elverson’s history at the school suggests that there may be more to the story. The experiences of survivors of sexual misconduct contacted by The Phoenix raise several major questions. Should the liaison to fraternities also serve as a confidential resource for substance abuse and sexual assault? Why was an employee in the dean’s office listed as a confidential resource for survivors? Was Elverson qualified for his job? And why were Elverson’s roles combined in the first place?

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Like Margolis Healy, some students found Elverson’s roles at odds. But for them, it was Elverson’s position as a fraternity advisor and as a resource to survivors, not his drug and alcohol advising, that caused the most problems.

In the federal complaint filed by students alleging that Swarthmore mishandled cases of sexual misconduct, Elverson was quoted as telling survivors of sexual misconduct that he was “first and foremost a DU brother. Second an alum. Third a drug and alcohol counselor. And fourth an administrator.”

Delta Upsilon’s annual newsletter, the Triangle, in an article published shortly after Elverson was hired, put it this way: “As a DU alumnus, he elected early on to take both fraternities under his wing, advising and acting as a strong representative… in the administrative circles.”

Mike Girardi ’13, a Phi Psi brother and the fraternity’s former president, challenged the notion that Elverson deliberately prioritized the interests of the fraternities over the concerns of others. “I am sure there were instances of conflict where Tom was told about a brother who had assaulted someone and it was someone he knew well, making it very difficult for him to deal with, sure,” he said. “With that said, I would strongly disagree with the assertion that he would intentionally prioritize one student over another, regardless of their affiliations.”

“Tom is very big on owning your mistakes, accepting responsibility for your actions and whatever punishment may follow,” Girardi said. “To allege that he, knowing an assault had occurred or that a student had a drinking or drug issue, would cover that up on the basis of a student being a fraternity brother pains me.”

But Lisa Sendrow ’13, a student who experienced difficulty with Elverson when dealing with her assault, said he did just that. “I went to his office and told him that I was raped by a Phi Psi brother this year, this past semester,” she said. “I didn’t use names at first, but after he kept pushing me, I told him who it was. Instead of validating the fact that I was raped, sober, in my room, he told me, ‘Oh, he would never do such a thing. He is such a good guy.’”

Sendrow said that this was not the only circumstance in which Elverson put the concerns of fraternity brothers over her complaints. “The two bad experiences I had with him were regarding my complaints about fraternity brothers in both houses, and in both instances he told me that the brothers were not bad guys and would never do anything to make me feel whatever I was feeling,” she said.

Girardi said that it was not his intention to delegitimize the experiences of those who had difficulty with Elverson. Rather, he wanted Elverson to have the opportunity to respond to the allegations against him.

“I just wish that Tom was able to have his day in court, so to speak, and that some sort of list of grievances was brought to him so that he could see why students are so upset with him and so that he could respond, apologize, learn, and move forward from this,” Girardi said. “The school snatched that opportunity away.”

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Elverson’s roles, however, may have conflicted in ways that went beyond his relationship to Greek life.
The federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which oversees colleges’ handling of sexual assault, has court-validated rules in place to ensure that no conflict of interest stops a sexual harassment complaint from being fully investigated. (The current version of the OCR rules was put forward in 2001, three years before Elverson came to Swarthmore, and is available online.)

One of these is effectively a requirement that certain school employees, termed “responsible employees,” must report to a school’s Title IX coordinator everything they know about a complaint. Nothing can be kept confidential. If a responsible employee has had notice of a complaint, the school is also considered to have the same notice of it and must investigate the complaint to the best of its ability as well as take action to end any harassment and prevent it from occurring again.

Responsible employees include anyone who “has the authority to take action to redress the harassment” or any “individual who a student could reasonably believe has this authority or responsibility.” What this means, as the National Center for Higher Risk Management, a firm similar to Margolis Healy, explains in their guidelines on Title IX sexual harassment policy, is that “all supervisors are responsible employees.” Any employee with any power over students or other employees is a responsible employee.

In keeping with this, Swarthmore stated on its website and its sexual misconduct resources chart that those in the “Dean’s office, including resident assistants, faculty, athletics, and other employees are obligated to report incidents to the Title IX coordinator.”

Elverson was publicly identified by the college in multiple instances as a dean’s office employee, and was arguably mandated to be one in his capacity as adviser to the fraternities, even just because many students saw him as having authority.

“I met with Tom because he was the fraternity liaison, and I had an issue with a fraternity brother,” said Simon Miller*, another student who faced difficulty when reporting his sexual harassment to Elverson.

But at the same time, he was identified on the college’s sexual misconduct resources chart as a confidential resource, and according to survivors, he presented himself as such.

“He told me that he was confidential in our first meeting,” said Sendrow.

When the college created a sexual misconduct resources web page this spring, however, it changed its position on Elverson’s confidentiality. Under his title, the text “confidentiality is limited to counseling of students on drug and alcohol issues” appeared, apparently conflicting with the school’s claim on its chart and elsewhere that he was confidential for issues relating to sexual misconduct as well. Archived internet pages show that this text remained on the site at least until June 22. Elverson’s name no longer appears on the site.

In addition to Elverson, the chart identifies CAPS counselors, Worth Health Center director Beth Kotarski, SMART team responders, and religious advisers as confidential resources. None of the other confidential sources have potentially conflicting duties in the manner that Elverson did.

(The federal Clery Act, which governs campus crime reporting, mandates that even confidential resources report when they learn of an incident of sexual harassment, but they are allowed to withhold identifying information about the incident.)

Given that the OCR guidelines are not specific in their definition of what a responsible employee is, it is difficult to say if listing Elverson as a confidential resource amounted to a violation of Title IX. But it did confuse students, and caused some to experience difficulty with the reporting process.

“He was a dean who should have reported, but he was also supposed to maintain confidentiality for some issues,” Sendrow said, referring to his capacity as a counselor.

“I think part of the problem was that he should have reported and did not,” she said.

When Miller went to Elverson, he was unaware that Elverson may have been required to report sexual misconduct.

“I did not expect him to report it initially,” Miller said. “However, after meeting with several other administrators, I learned that it was his responsibility to take the initiative and forward the information, not mine.”

Elverson, however, did not report his harassment, a failure that Miller, in retrospect, cited as one of the primary issues he experienced when dealing with Elverson.

“Not only would he make inappropriate comments towards survivors,” he said, “but he also never reported the assaults. The two times I discussed my experiences with him, I left his office feeling exhausted.”

“Since I went to him as a resource for survivors it was his job to report my experience,” Miller said. “He failed to do so.”

Another survivor, Alyssa Marshall*, said that Elverson was unwilling to provide her with information about what reporting entailed. “Besides basically telling me that I was wrong and that he understood what had happened better than I did, all he said was, ‘you have to report, you have to report, you have to report,’ without giving me any information about how to do that or what that actually meant,” she said.

Marshall did not report the incident, saying she did not want to think about it again. But had the reporting process been explained to her, her actions might have been different.

“I think if I had known about what reporting was, I would have done it at that point,” she said. “But because I had no idea, because my understanding of it [reporting] was something I didn’t want, and he [Elverson] gave me no information otherwise, I did nothing.”

When asked if Elverson’s position could cause confusion or if it violated Title IX, college president Rebecca Chopp declined to comment.

Sharmaine Lamar, the school’s assistant vice president for legal affairs and, until recently and during the end of Elverson’s tenure at the school, Title IX coordinator, did not return phone calls or an email request for an interview. Karen Henry, the dean of first year students and gender education advisor, who was the primary administrator in charge of sexual misconduct response on campus until the 2011-2012 school year, did not respond to a request for an interview.

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Elverson’s web of duties is not the only thing that makes his role as a counselor muddled. His licensing and certification to be a therapist are also ambiguous.

In the Daily Gazette interview, Elverson referred to himself as a “psychologist by trade” and later as a “psychologist/therapist,” and said he still maintained a “private practice” two nights per week. According to a brief biography included in the syllabus of a course he taught at the college, Elverson maintained “a private psychological practice for almost thirty years.” In the Triangle article he was identified by DU as a “clinical psychologist” with a private practice in Rosemont, PA. On Swarthmore’s online alumni community, he listed his “career category” as “psychologist.”

But Elverson is not a psychologist. According to Pennsylvania Department of State records, he was never licensed in the state to practice psychology, counseling, marriage and family therapy, or social work, and he has no doctoral degree, which is required to become a licensed psychologist. (According to another Daily Gazette article and his online profile, he has two master’s degrees, one in education and one in “counseling education” or “guidance.”) There is no evidence to suggest Elverson would have received any kind of license in another state, and even if he had, it would not be valid in Pennsylvania.

The course biography also mentions that Elverson “worked as a special education teacher, counselor, psychologist and Dean in the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District for twenty five years.”
According to state Department of Education records, Elverson did receive certification to serve as an elementary school (K-6) guidance counselor and instructor for K-12 intellectually disabled students, as well as a middle school English teacher, but not as a school psychologist. All of his certifications were received in the mid-1980s. Elverson was hired by the district on September 1, 1980, and he left his job at the district twenty years later. (He subsequently worked as the director of support services at a pre-K-12, private, all girls school in the Philadelphia area.) His guidance counselor certification was valid for just six years of service in Pennsylvania public schools.

Pennsylvania law is clear on the question of whether those who are not licensed can refer to themselves as psychologists. Section three of the State Board of Psychology Act reads, “It shall be unlawful for any person to engage in the practice of psychology or to offer or attempt to do so or to hold himself out to the public by any title or description of services incorporating the words ‘psychological,’ ‘psychologist’ or ‘psychology’ unless he shall first have obtained a license pursuant to this act.”

Survivors contacted by The Phoenix said they saw Elverson as a psychologist or a therapist (The Phoenix did not tell sources the results of this investigation prior to asking). “Elverson frequently referred to himself as ‘a licensed psychologist who had been in private practice for 35 years,’” said Lucy Markowitz*, an alum who had difficulty reporting her harassment to Elverson. “During the month or so that he served as my therapist, I understood that he was doing so in the role of a psychologist, not a drug and alcohol counselor or fraternity liaison, since neither of those really applied to my situation.”

“I definitely thought of him as my therapist, which is the main reason I’ve avoided therapy in the rest of my attempts at recovery,” said Marshall, who could not remember whether Elverson had referred to himself as a psychologist.

The Phoenix has been unable to ascertain exactly what Elverson’s private practice consisted of. While it is illegal to practice counseling, psychology, or marriage and family therapy without a license in Pennsylvania and in most other states, there is no formal licensing for drug and alcohol specialists in Pennsylvania. A private organization called the Pennsylvania Certification Board does offer certifications in addiction and drug and alcohol counseling, but those certifications are not required by state law. Elverson is not certified with that organization.

In their interim report, Margolis Healy implied that the college should hire someone with credentials that Elverson did not possess. “We recommend a dedicated, trained, and certified professional with expertise in alcohol and other drug counseling be part of the college’s broader commitment to health and wellness efforts,” the firm wrote.

So why was he hired as a counselor?

When asked about Elverson’s licensing and why he was hired for counseling positions, Chopp again declined to comment.

But according to Robert Gross ’62, who was the college’s dean of students until 2006, two years after Elverson joined the dean’s office, Elverson was originally brought on by former college President Al Bloom to help with the fallout from the school’s controversial decision to eliminate its football program in 2000.

“President Bloom wanted to bring him on as part of an outreach effort to athletic supporters who were upset about the football decision,” said Gross. Elverson’s father was the coach of the football team and when he was a student, Elverson was the team’s manager.

“Because of his background as a school counselor and in private practice, the senior staff thought that the best spot for him in the college would be in the dean’s office where we needed someone to deal with alcohol-related issues,” said Gross.

Elverson’s hiring, according to Gross, was atypical. Indeed, part of the reason that Elverson may have been given the title “mystery dean” by the Daily Gazette was because unlike most administrators, Elverson was hired without a search process.

When a new Dean is hired, there is often a search committee comprised of students, administrators, faculty, and others to help evaluate the candidates and decide which one is best suited for the position, Gross explained.

“Tom’s appointment was not the result of a search process. The hiring was initiated by the president,” he said, adding that the way he was hired is “not a great way to do business.”

“What a search does is provide a fair amount of buy-in on the part of the search committee and the constituents of the search committee,” said Gross. “When there isn’t that buy-in, the person sometimes has to struggle to get acceptance.”

According to Gross, concern about Elverson’s qualifications “probably came up” during the hiring process. But Gross said that Elverson’s position at the school was new. Thus, for the college, he was still an improvement.
“Most of us in the dean’s office are not specifically trained in the area of substance abuse counseling, and yet we do that kind of work,” Gross said. “Tom probably had more experience than most of us even though we were all doing some of that.”

Gross added that the novelty of Elverson’s position also meant the school was not focused on there being a conflict of interest between his role as a fraternity advisor and his role as a drug and alcohol counselor.

“I don’t think anyone raised that question,” Gross said. “This was a new position, and we weren’t sure how it would work out.”

Gross, however, said that Elverson was not brought on to be a resource for victims of sexual misconduct.

“That’s not what he was hired for,” he said.

But the lack of a formal search process, Gross explained, and the fact that Elverson was not specifically sought out to be a counselor, meant the college paid less attention to his counseling qualifications. “I think if we had been looking to hire a drug and alcohol counselor, we would have done it very differently, and those kinds of qualifications would have been a major issue,” he said. “But it was not as we hired him.”

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Licensing aside, how was Elverson as a counselor?

Though drug and alcohol counseling may have been cited as part of the reason for Elveson’s departure, when it came to that aspect of his job, the students contacted by The Phoenix thought he was perfectly proficient.

In spite of his difficulty reporting his sexual assault to Elverson, Miller said that he proved very useful when it came to dealing with his citation. “He was very helpful in that context,” Miller said. “He drove me to the courthouse and told me what to expect every step of the way, which made the whole process a lot easier for me.”

“He was always positive and supportive as a drug and alcohol counselor in my experience,” Miller said.

“I saw Elverson as a therapist on and off for two full academic years,” said Marshall.  “He, in every problem that I talked to him, outside of my sexual assault, was fantastic. He worked as a buffer for me with the administration when I was having health issues, and with professors negotiating work and things like that when I wasn’t up to it.” Elverson’s advocacy on her behalf, Marshall said, was key to her academic survival.

Athletes and those involved in Greek life also described their experiences with him as overwhelmingly positive.

“My personal experiences with Tom were nothing but positive,” said Elle Larsen ’15, who plays women’s basketball and is a sister in Kappa Alpha Theta, the school’s new sorority.

According to Larsen, Elverson was the basketball team’s biggest fan, coming to nearly every game.

“My family lives in Georgia, and I don’t really have a lot of support at the games. So it was really nice to have someone there recognizing all our hard work and dedication,” she said.

Girardi agreed, saying that Elverson was both a great supporter and mentor to the Greek community. “He was always receptive to our concerns and an unwavering supporter of Greek life,” Girardi said, adding that “one of his more admirable qualities was his ability to tell us when we were wrong and what we could do to be better.”

“Whenever there was something Phi Psi was worried about, whether it was our rising cost of rent with the school or issues with the campus community, Tom was never hesitant to go to bat for us with the administration or to get our leadership the answers we needed to make certain decisions or respond to certain crises,” he said.

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But when Elverson was charged with counseling survivors, many found him poorly prepared.

“I don’t think that counseling about survivor issues is a position Tom should have been given,” said Markowitz. “It seemed as though he was unaware of how common sexual assault is, and how people who commit these acts can be seemingly normal,” she added.

Markowitz offered a personal example. “I mentioned that a relative of mine was raped twice in college, and he asked if she had been ‘date raped or attacked.’ I said that I was confused— isn’t a ‘date rape’ as much an attack as any other rape?— and he replied ‘You know what I mean.’”

“I definitely do not think that he was qualified to help out with assault cases,” said Marshall, who said that Elverson did not believe the circumstances surrounding her assault.

“Elverson made it very clear that he thought that I was an idiot,” she said.

Markowitz approached Elverson after she caught a student attempting to record her showering while staying on campus over the summer. “Because CAPS doesn’t operate over the summer and because I was pretty shaken by the experience, Tom offered to serve as my therapist,” she said. “Though he didn’t question my experience, for which I’m very grateful, I found that he seemed to be very insensitive when it came to matters of sexual assault. For example, within the first few minutes of our first session, he asked me point-blank if I had been abused as a child, because of certain traits he had observed in me over the past two years.”

“I terminated therapy after a handful of sessions,” she said.

 

*Names with asterisk marks are pseudonyms for individuals who chose to remain anonymous to protect their identity. 

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