by Ruth Bruno
When 21-year-old Anna Brewer accepted her theater professor’s invitation to meet up for lunch one day at the end of her junior year, she assumed she would be discussing career goals and opportunities with her mentor. But as she sat at Stanley Quarter Park, with then-46-year-old Professor Joshua Perlstein, the casual conversation suddenly turned decidedly disturbing.
“He had been talking about moving to Connecticut and then he told me that moving to Connecticut to meet me was his destiny,” the student, who changed her surname to Kelly after her marriage, recalled of the 2004 encounter. “At that moment, all the blood left my face. I immediately understood that the relationship had changed and I had no idea what to do.”
And then, Kelly said, Perlstein kissed her slowly on the cheek.
Kelly was shocked by the kiss, she said, but was cautious about turning down his advances.
“I was trying to be nice about it because I was aware I was in a park, alone with a man who had become dangerous to me,” Kelly, who is now 35, said in an interview with The Recorder in February.
As the two walked back to campus, Perlstein took her hand, she said. Kelly let her hand go limp.
When they returned to the campus, Kelly and Perlstein parted ways in front of the steps to Maloney Hall.
“Before I left, he reached around, gave me this huge hug and reached around and grabbed my butt,” Kelly said in the interview.
University officials have known Kelly’s story since she filed a formal complaint more than a dozen years ago. Despite finding that Perlstein violated Central’s sexual harassment policy, and reports involving allegations of misconduct with other female students, Perlstein remains a professor at Central, having received tenure in 1998 and a promotion to Associate Professor in 2000.
Over the course of an investigation by The Recorder, eight former students and faculty have come forward to disclose unwelcome advances by Perlstein they have personally experienced or students have reported having to them. Three of those interviewed had made reports to school officials.
Perlstein, who began teaching at CCSU in 1992, declined to comment when asked about the specific allegations that had been made by Kelly and several other students, stating only that “the university has a fair and thorough process in place to investigate these matters.”
Susan Pease, who served as the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at the time the complaint was made, and recently retired in late March from her role as interim-provost, said that the administration responds to complaints and takes disciplinary action when complaints are made.
“Folks should not assume that action hasn’t been taken,” Pease said.
Some actions, she said, may not be evident to the university community, such as a letter of warning or an informal conversation with a faculty member.
While disciplinary records for state employees are generally available to the public, the union contract for faculty members in the state-university system mandates that “the entire content of personnel files shall be considered private and may not be opened to any outside scrutiny,” except by court order.
“I think the sad thing is that we can’t say anything,” Pease said.
But years later, Kelly is still left wondering if the university ever took action on her complaint. And she is not alone.
Kileen Nadeau, who enrolled at CCSU in 1996, said she declined an opportunity to stage-manage one of Perlstein’s shows and avoided being alone on campus after she was harassed by him her junior year.
Twenty years ago, as Nadeau stood in an empty hallway outside the Black Box Theatre in Maloney Hall, Perlstein walked up behind her.
“I didn’t even hear him approach me and he tried to kiss me,” Nadeau said in an interview. After pulling away and questioning his actions, Nadeau said Perlstein told her, ‘Don’t pull away when I try to kiss you.’ Perlstein continued to try to kiss her, Nadeau said.
“He boxed me in. It was completely predatory behavior. Planned, targeted. I was very confused as to what had just happened,” Nadeau said.
Nadeau said she eventually managed to push her way past Perlstein and left the hallway.
In the week following the incident, Nadeau’s academic advisor, Professor Tom Callery, noticed she had become more reserved and quiet and asked Nadeau if anything was troubling her, she said. When Nadeau told Callery about the incident, he encouraged her to file a complaint to the university.
Nadeau ultimately decided not to make any formal complaint for fear that in the end, the complaint would look worse for her than it would for Perlstein.
“What kept coming to my mind was that there were no witnesses,” Nadeau said in an interview. “It was his word against mine and it would have possibly brought my own behavior into question.”
Years later, after hearing that Callery had become chair of the theater department, she sent him an email on March 13, 2014, detailing her account of Perlstein’s behavior.
“I was totally shocked and did not know in that moment how to respond and ended up doing exactly what he commanded – for his tone, although softly spoken, was nothing short of threatening in nature,” Nadeau wrote to Callery in the email obtained by The Recorder.
Within minutes of receiving the email, Callery forwarded it to Lou Pisano, Chief Human Resources Officer at the time, email records show. Pisano reached out to Nadeau and she recounted her story to him by phone, she said.
“Thank you again for taking the time to speak with me and for being so candid. I appreciated your taking the time to speak with me and for your concern. I will try not to bother you unless it’s absolutely necessary that I talk with you,” Pisano wrote to Nadeau in April of 2014.
It’s unclear what became of Nadeau’s report, if anything. Pisano, who retired from the university by the end of 2014, declined to answer questions about Perlstein. Current Chief Human Rights Officer Anna Suski-Lenczewski said the Human Resources Office has no record of any complaint made by Nadeau or Kelly.
Pease maintained that complaints that have been made often do not come from the directly-affected student.
“A lot of times, people don’t make official complaints and we can’t operate on rumors,” Pease said.
Pease reiterated that no investigation could be opened unless an official complaint is made directly by the person who was affected by an action.
“I personally find it frustrating because there is some egregious behavior that goes on,” Pease said.
Other Reports to Human Resources
When Professor Sheila Siragusa started teaching at Central over a decade ago, she was met with comments by Perlstein, which, she said, were derogatory. Siragusa collected a record of sexual comments that were made by Perlstein and sent it to Human Resources on Sept. 10, 2010.
“09/07 – My first day on the job,” Siragusa wrote, “Josh came in to ‘share’ the joke about how he’d imagined a really Sofia Loren-like, sexy, dark woman when he was talking to me on the phone and how it turns out I am nothing like that.”
In the months that followed, Siragusa began detailing the comments made to students as well.
One of the students, who ended up in Siragusa’s reports, said Perlstein approached her in the fall of 2010 to notify her she wouldn’t be cast as “Maggie” in the play “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” because he didn’t consider her to be “sexual enough.”
Siragusa had included the comments he had made to the student in her document to Human Resources, adding: “He asked ‘How would you feel if people called you fat? You’d have to be okay with that.’ [He was] asking her if that’s ‘hard for her to hear,’ until she was in tears.’”
Following Siragusa’s documentation, Chief Human Resources Officer at the time, Anne Alling, reached out via email to the student and requested a meeting.
“Would you be willing to talk to me about any concerns you have regarding the theater department?” reads an email from Alling dated Nov. 16, 2010.
The student, who preferred not to be named for this article because she still works in the theater community, responded to Alling and said that she would be willing to meet.
However, a few days later, Alling informed her, “I don’t think a meeting would be necessary after all,” according to emails obtained by The Recorder.
In a recent interview, the student said Perlstein’s comments had continued beyond Siragusa’s reports. She said Perlstein had commented on her breasts after telling her she was not right for the role.
“He went on this spiel and was saying how it’s such a shame that the world only considers ‘thin’ to be beautiful because ‘you walk into a room and your tits are like bam,”’ the student said.
The student recalled feeling uncomfortable, but did not feel compelled to make a complaint because Perlstein commonly made inappropriate comments, she said.
“It was normal for him. He was kind of notorious for making those kind of comments,” the student said.
In an interview, the student said she transferred to Quinnipiac University in 2011 after learning that Perlstein’s comments had been reported to the human resources department.
“I was terrified of repercussions. When you’re a theater major, you have to do shows to graduate and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get into those shows,” she said.
The student said the Human Resources Office reached out to her about her experience again in 2014, but she declined to talk with them, frustrated by her previous encounter.
“I had already made the effort before and they didn’t seem to want to hear it then,” she said. “By that time in my life, I was just ready to forget about him and move on.”
Reporting Years Later
The options for students who do decide to come forward years later remain somewhat limited.
Any person who experiences harassment on campus is encouraged by the university to report to the Office of Diversity and Equity at any time. However, for an investigation to be opened by the office, the student must report the incident within 90 days, according to the office’s policy.
Rosa Rodriguez, who heads the office as the university’s Chief Diversity Officer, said the policy was put in place to ensure a student has ample time to file complaints with external mediators such as the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) or the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
Victims of sexual harassment have 180 days to file with the CHRO and 300 days to file with the Equal Opportunity Office (EOO) if there are alleged violations of federal law.
Mary-Caitlin Harding, associate attorney with the Victim Rights Center of Connecticut, works with victims of sexual harassment and assault on a daily basis and said the process of reporting can take years for some victims.
“It’s unfortunate that three months is all that the student is given,” Harding said, commenting on Central’s policy. “It’s really a hard confine in my opinion.”
If a student reports beyond the 90-day deadline, Rodriguez said she would still make a report of the complaint. That report can be used as a supporting document if a subsequent complaint is made against the same individual, she said.
“I can’t act on these complaints alone because of the period of time that has passed, but I do keep them in a file because they can be used as supporting evidence,” Rodriguez said.
Pease maintained that if there is enough evidence to open an investigation, a faculty member has representation by the American Association of University Professors.
“It’s a difficult, long process,” Pease said of investigations by the university.
According to Louise Williams, president of the CCSU-AAUP, the union is involved as a representative of the faculty whenever the university opens an investigation or moves to make a disciplinary action.
“We’re there to make sure that it’s not hearsay,” Williams said of any allegation made against a faculty member.
Williams said it’s important that both the administration and the union take responsibility in representing their parties.
“Sometimes the administration doesn’t pursue things and we’re not going to throw our own members under the bus,” Williams said.
Teacher Tells Theater Students, Avoid CCSU
Several former students told The Recorder they hesitated to file complaints because, while they felt Perlstein’s behavior was inappropriate and made them uncomfortable, they weren’t sure that it violated any policy.
“There’s always this underlying tone in the department that you just be careful around Josh,” Christy Jerome said, who left CCSU as a senior in 2006 due to personal issues that were not related to her experiences in the department.
Jerome said that throughout her time at CCSU, she turned down Perlstein’s urging to cast her in the play “Oleanna.” The play explores the themes of power dynamics between professor and student and details a story in which a female student accuses the professor of sexual exploitation. Perlstein planned to play the part of the professor and encouraged Jerome to play the part of the student.
When Jerome refused this play, Perlstein suggested “How I Learned to Drive,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play with themes of incest and pedophilia. According to Jerome, Perlstein wanted to play the part of Uncle Peck.
Jerome was uncomfortable with playing the part of the niece, especially as one scene in the play depicts Uncle Peck molesting the female lead.
When teaching at Naugatuck Teen Theater and Newington Children’s Theater, Jerome says she has discouraged her students from pursuing an education in theater at CCSU because of Perlstein’s actions.
“I specifically tell them to go elsewhere, especially if they are an attractive, young female,” Jerome said. “I wouldn’t want someone I love and care about to be there.”
Students who have come forward to talk about their experiences and how they were handled by the university said they have been inspired by the recent national #MeToo movement to come forward once again.
Kelly reiterated her frustration that Perlstein is still teaching at CCSU.
“Every time I see the campus, the anxiety comes back even as an adult, knowing that he’s still there on campus and he still has that power,” Kelly said.
Nadeau voiced similar sentiments. While she feels Perlstein’s actions were dismissed by the university years ago, they still leave her traumatized.
“The thing a person like this leaves behind is a whole hell of a lot of turmoil and guilt and he gets to sit there still doing what he’s doing in the clear, not accountable for his actions, and the rest of us are left reeling,” Nadeau said.