Student wanted dean’s help after rape — but he grew ‘manipulative’ and sexual, suit says

A lawsuit accused former Columbia University general studies dean of students Tom Harford of beginning an inappropriate sexual relationship after a student came to him looking for housing help after she was raped off-campus.
A lawsuit accused former Columbia University general studies dean of students Tom Harford of beginning an inappropriate sexual relationship after a student came to him looking for housing help after she was raped off-campus. Columbia University/Video Screenshot

After she was raped while staying at a friend’s apartment, a woman hoping to attend Columbia University in New York City went to a school official for help.

But a newly-filed lawsuit says former general studies dean of students Tom Harford soon began an “inappropriate,” “manipulative” and sexual relationship with the woman that left her feeling trapped and dependent on his good graces.

“Columbia pays lip service to the ideals of a safe campus, but it has a well-documented record of violating Title IX in preventing and responding to reports of sexual misconduct,” said David Sanford with Sanford Heisler Sharp law firm in a news release.

Sanford Heisler Sharp filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiff, who is only identified in the lawsuit as Jane Doe.

The university declined to comment to the New York Post and The Columbia Spectator. “Our priority is providing a safe and supportive learning environment that fosters the intellectual and personal fulfillment of our students,” a spokesperson for the university told the New York Daily News.

Harford could not be reached for comment by the New York Daily News or the Wall Street Journal Wednesday afternoon.

The lawsuit says a 25-year-old woman was struggling to keep a steady home and job and had decided to begin school at Columbia in September 2018.

She was staying at a friend’s home in May 2018 when she was raped, and reported the incident to authorities and to the university’s sexual violence and rape crisis center, which directed her to Harford, the dean of the general studies college, according to the lawsuit.

Harford set the woman up with a counselor and then told her to come back the next morning, where he allegedly took $500 from his wallet and gave it to her, according to the lawsuit. He also said he would come up with a “creative scholarship plan” for her, the lawsuit says.

Over time, the lawsuit says the two began flirting over the phone and began a sexual relationship. She was uncomfortable, but felt she had to continue the relationship because she felt the dean was helping her navigate the school’s bureaucracy, according to the lawsuit.

Harford allegedly gave her money several times, bought her food, offered to buy her a dress, called cabs and began keeping a copy of her apartment key in his office, the lawsuit says. They performed sexual acts in his office and in her apartment, and he once kissed her in the stairwell of a campus building, the lawsuit alleges.

On one occasion in her apartment, the lawsuit says Harford told the woman a story about how he once became so angry he broke someone’s legs with a bat, which scared the plaintiff into thinking he “might become violent with her.”

When she told him she was uncomfortable with the relationship, the lawsuit says he insisted they could make it work, or that he could move out of his role at the university or help her transfer to another school.

The suit alleges that several staff members were aware an inappropriate relationship was going on, and that the woman told staff at the sexual violence and rape crisis center that Harford had given her money, which shocked them.

The suit also alleges that the vice dean of the school and the student’s adviser both questioned the nature of the two’s relationship but took no action.

The suit says the woman suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, anxiety, shame and other mental issues and that she suffered a loss of finances and education. The suit names Harford and Columbia’s board of trustees as defendants and asks for $50 million in damages.

Harford was made general studies dean of students in 2012 after working as an associate dean of the university’s school of continuing education, according to Columbia.

Harford was removed from his position earlier in August after administration officials discovered conduct “unacceptable in light of his responsibilities,” the Columbia Spectator reported. The announcement was made in an email to students from Lisa Rosen-Metsch, dean of the school of general studies, according to the paper.

Whether someone has asked you for help or you sense someone is in distress, here are some general guidelines to help support possible victims of abuse, be it physical, emotional, sexual, psychological or financial.