University News

Lonsdale to speak at Brown EP event despite student concerns

Students express qualms over on-campus speech by entrepreneur previously accused of sexual assault

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, April 18, 2016

Updated at 12:40 p.m., April 18, 2016

Despite a written promise to cancel the event in response to student concerns, Brown Entrepreneurship Program will sponsor a speaking engagement April 21 featuring Joe Lonsdale, an entrepreneur and co-founder of tech company Palantir and venture capital firm Formation 8, who was accused of sexually assaulting and harassing one of his undergraduate mentees at Stanford University.

The legal case against Lonsdale was filed in January 2015 by Elise Clougherty, his former mentee and girlfriend, the Stanford Daily reported. Clougherty dropped the charges of sexual assault and harassment, among other alleged crimes, in November.

After the case had been filed, Stanford banned Lonsdale from campus grounds for 10 years. In November, after the charges had been dropped, the university revoked the ban, citing evidence that surfaced during the legal proceedings, the Stanford Daily reported Nov. 2.

On April 11, a senior concentrator in computer science, who asked to remain anonymous because of potential professional repercussions, saw a Facebook event advertising Lonsdale’s talk and recognized his name from conversations with friends at Stanford about the legal case, she said.

According to emails provided to The Herald, the student reached out to Brown EP via email, noting her concerns with Lonsdale’s history and asking if Brown EP was aware of the allegations.

A member of Brown EP responded via the group’s email address April 12, noting, “We considered not bring(ing) him to campus, but the case was resolved, and (Lonsdale) was never banned from Stanford’s campus.” The email continued, “Accusations cannot be equated with guilt.”

A leader of Brown EP, who asked to remain anonymous due to safety concerns, said, “We were (aware of the accusations before inviting Lonsdale), and we were also aware of the fact that … all charges have been cleared.”

The senior who wrote to Brown EP expressing concerns received another email from the personal email address of a member of Brown EP April 12. The email, provided to The Herald, stated, “We truly never intended to offend” anyone on campus and cited the dropped charges as justification for pursuing the invitation to Lonsdale.

The senior replied via email, stating that she was “not offended but concerned,” and she questioned how Brown EP came to the decision to invite Lonsdale.

The senior, one of the leaders of Brown EP who contacted her and a second leader of Brown EP met later on April 12. The senior said the meeting began with an affirmation from the Brown EP leaders that they would cancel the event, and the three spent the rest of the meeting assessing how Brown EP could engage with activism and education related to sexual assault awareness and prevention.

The senior wrote in a follow-up email that afternoon, “Thank you for agreeing to cancel the event with Joe Lonsdale on the 21st. I was glad to hear that you agree that it is inappropriate in light of your further understanding of the cases against (Lonsdale).” She agreed to keep the matter confidential until Brown EP decided to go public with the decision.

The second Brown EP leader replied to the senior’s email Wednesday morning, writing, “Thanks again for the feedback and for meeting yesterday with us. We’ve been in contact with Joe’s assistants and have already made it official by cancelling the Facebook event.”

The senior did not reply to the message but received another email Wednesday evening at 11:57 p.m. from Brown EP’s club address, thanking her for her concerns but stating, “After careful consideration, several meetings with Brown’s Title IX coordinators, the Swearer Center and members of Brown’s administration, we have decided to continue with the event.”

The email continued, “It would be unjust to cancel an event because of past allegations that have been publicly settled.”

After the senior first saw the Facebook event on April 11, she reached out to Women in Computer Science and Brown Diversity Advocates, among other student groups, to try to garner support, she said.

A coordinator from WiCS, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of potential professional repercussions, received the same email, which she provided to The Herald, from Brown EP explaining that the event would not ultimately be canceled.

The coordinator said she reached out to one of the leaders of Brown EP and discussed the event via phone. The coordinator said she was told the event would be canceled and did not understand why Brown EP “would renege on that decision.”

Regarding the discrepancy between promises to the two students about canceling the event and the ultimate decision not to cancel it, one leader of Brown EP said that some individual members of the organization may have “leapt and may have said that it would make sense to cancel, but after further consideration” and speaking to a number of administrators, the group decided canceling the event would not be the right decision.

A leader of the organization said, “We realized we may not have been well-equipped to make a decision.” While Brown EP did cancel the Facebook event, the group never formally disinvited Lonsdale, instead pausing to consult with various University administrators before making a final decision, multiple leaders of the organization said.

The administrators, advisers and students consulted by members of Brown EP included Alan Harlam and Lizzie Pollock, director and assistant director, respectively, of social entrepreneurship at the Swearer Center for Public Service; Amanda Walsh, Title IX program officer; Russell Carey ’91 MA’06, executive vice president for planning and policy; members of the University Office of Communications; Mary Grace Almandrez, interim assistant vice president for campus life and student services, and Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources and Education members, the leaders of Brown EP said.

Alana Sacks, a SHARE advocate, wrote in an email to The Herald that SHARE was never contacted about whether Brown EP should host the event.

Brown EP’s members also contacted the organization’s alumni chair, who “recommended we continue with the event,” said one of the leaders of Brown EP.

In addition, the group contacted Lonsdale’s chief of staff, who, according to an email from one of Brown EP’s leaders, told the group “it would be an act of discrimination to disinvite (Lonsdale) since all legal charges have been dropped through both Stanford’s Title IX committee as well as the U.S. Civil Court and that it would result in bad publicity for Brown.”

Of the University’s involvement with the event, Brian Clark, director of news and editorial development, wrote in an email to The Herald, “The University does not intercede unless there is a clear threat to safety created by the circumstances of an event, which has not been determined to be the case for this event.”

Multiple University administrators and staff members will attend the event to assist students in need of support.

Of the reasoning behind reaching out to Lonsdale in the first place, one Brown EP leader wrote in an email to The Herald, “Joe Lonsdale founded Palantir, Addepar and a (venture capital) firm, so we thought his experience would be beneficial and a great learning experience to the Brown community.”

In that same email, the leader wrote, “Upon doing our research, we did come across a sexual assault charge against him. We also saw that this had been publicly settled by both Stanford’s Title IX committee and the U.S. Civil Court. Since this has been legally resolved, we thought it would be okay to go ahead.”

Still, one leader noted she “felt horrible” that the organization may have offended or hurt anyone, and she is “happy that it was brought to our attention so we can make the space as safe as possible and ensure that no one feels marginalized by this event.”

“Brown can be selective about who we invite to campus,” said the senior who expressed concerns. “How does (this event) reflect the values of the organization and the values of the campus?”

The students who initially brought their concerns to Brown EP’s attention are organizing an alternative event to the Lonsdale presentation focused on healthy mentor-mentee relationships and how to deal with harassment and microaggressions, the senior said. There will also be a Sexual Assault Awareness Month “healing space” held in the Brown Center for Students of Color after the event, they added.

Leaders from Brown EP said that they would continue to work with student groups to create programming and educational opportunities about sexual assault and gender inequality. Specifically, they would like to “co-sponsor/co-organize events with (Women in Business and) WiCS that address issues of sexual assault and gender disparity in techpreneurship” and are currently “organizing a Women in Entrepreneurship conference,” among other conferences, “in the fall that will include conversations about women in the tech industry and systemic discrimination.”

14 Comments

  1. Willie Sam says:

    This is an outrage. Any person who has been accused of a serious crime and subsequently found not guilty should not be allowed on Brown’s campus, let alone be able to speak at an event. This would, of course, include Angela Davis, Brian Banks, and the Duke Lacrosse Players.

  2. awinforbrown says:

    good to see Brown defending free speech and supporting a student organization being strong-armed by the Millennial student police. The man was exonerated from all charges – let him speak. Protest and raise awareness, but enough of this

  3. The atmosphere at Brown is absolutely disgusting. I would like it to be known that these so-called “feminists” used intimidation and scare tactics against members of EP. These people are insane, and have absolutely no respect for the concepts of due process and innocent until proven guilty. In the case of Lonsdale, even Stanford determined that there was no basis for the claims brought against him.

    Screw all of you “feminists” who damage the case for women who have suffered legitimate abuse, and who use scare tactics to give yourselves a sense of moral superiority and a name in the Brown community. In the long run, you are doing a great injustice to this school’s reputation and to women everywhere.

    I personally am looking forward to Lonsdale’s lecture. I hope that those outside of Brown will be able to look at this and recognize that MANY OF US HERE DO NOT SUPPORT THIS RAPE HYSTERIA AGENDA. We stand with Brown EP.

  4. Zach Levine says:

    Is anyone else reading through the lines here? Lonsdale revolutionized data science. I understand the initial controversy. But the man was proven innocent. Stanford welcomes him back to their campus. Brown encourages dissenting opinions. Ask questions. Protest if you must. But threats? How is that not the headline to this story? Tell it how it is. This isn’t the right story.

  5. I am disappointed in the BDH for not emphasizing that Brown EP members received personal threats and harassing phone calls from a WICS member. Hopefully more credible news outlets will take up the story It is a shame that student advocates have already abandoned Title IX and started pleading for a guilty until proven innocent standard.

  6. Chris Robotham says:

    This article fails to challenge the portrayal of EP’s temporary decision to cancel the event as a contract between EP and the individual who demanded the cancellation. The use of words like “renege” and “promise” create the appearance of a contract upon which EP could renege – a contract that never existed. EP did not owe this woman anything, they merely had a brief period in which they thought her advice was legitimate before deciding otherwise. Extraordinarily biased reporting, but I wouldn’t expect anything else from a publication that values its standing with the Robespierre-esque elements of our school over journalistic ethics.

  7. 1st Amend. says:

    “A leader of Brown EP, who asked to remain anonymous due to safety concerns” What is going on at this campus?

    • His/her (will keep gender anonymous here for their safety) was directly threatened over this incident. At this point such behavior is expected at Brown, where intimidation is used to keep people silent on these issues. EP leadership: thank you for your courage in not backing down even when you’re safety and reputation were at stake. Shame on those who would abuse their power to try to scare you.

  8. Brown Senior '16 says:

    Isn’t Lonsdale still forbidden from teaching and mentoring on Stanford’s campus? Shouldn’t this be taken into account when inviting speakers on Brown’s campus??

    • finallysenior says:

      No, he was found not guilty in court so the ban was lifted

      • factfinder says:

        Finallysenior, every aspect of your post is false. Please take consideration when you post without researching or considering the facts. It is detrimental to our community.

        First, Lonsdale never appeared in court and was never found “not guilty”. Charges were dropped against him. That is very different. Second, as the Stanford Daily piece that is linked in the article states states, Lonsdale is still forbidden from teaching or mentoring on campuses. He has not challenged that ban. It stems from his irresponsible relationship with an undergrad while he mentored her and has nothing to do with accusations of sexual assault. It is that relationship that many organizations on campus find troubling.

  9. The comments on this article so far are a bummer.

    I am a CS major at Stanford. I interviewed with Addepar several years back and have met Joe Lonsdale. My interaction with him was brief, so I can’t speak to his character, and it was before Clougherty came forward with her story, so I was looking at him less critically then. However, when I heard that Brown had invited him to come speak in a setting so similar to his role on campus here several years ago, my eyebrows raised, and I’ve been following this story since.

    This article fails to mention that, though Stanford lifted its 10-year ban from campus, they did not lift a less strongly-worded “temporary suspension” from engaging in educational or mentorship activities through Stanford. This suspension, as far as I’m aware, is still in place, and Lonsdale, though, yes, he’s free to roam this campus, is not so “welcome” as this article portrays. This is why it was immediately weird to me that Brown EP would think to invite Lonsdale to such a similar setting. He clearly leveraged his position of power teaching a class here to begin a relationship with one his students. To _invite_ him back into an educational setting is a bit tone-deaf in my mind at the very least.

    Second, this article does not acknowledge that dropping charges does not equate to finding someone not guilty, and that’s a pretty critical misunderstanding that has already made its way into the comments on this article. Both phrases “found not guilty” and “exonerated from all charges” are present in these comments. These are just flat-out wrong. The case never made it through the legal system to a point where Lonsdale could have been found guilty or not guilty, exonerated, etc.. Instead, his reaction to the case when it was raised was to file counterclaims of defamation. It is suspicious that someone so confident in his innocence would have to resort to this sort of intimidation technique rather than welcoming a court case as an opportunity to reaffirm his innocence. It’s not like Lonsdale couldn’t financially afford to follow this case through. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s standard advice from a lawyer to file counterclaims, but in my mind it’s also in poor taste.

    There are demonstrably many reasons (emotionally, politically, and financially) why a victim of sexual violence would drop their case in court, but it’s so important to note that dropping a case doesn’t mean the violence did not happen. The status quo for survivors of sexual violence, if they do come forward with a case (though statistically they are unlikely to), is to face intense skepticism and criticism. A high-publicity case like Clougherty’s, brought against a financially successful individual with clout and PR resources like Lonsdale, is bound to exact financial and emotional tolls, and it’s not surprising that Clougherty followed what literally thousands of survivors are forced to do when facing such a heavy burden or potentially career-devasting process. “Innocent until proven guilty” is such a twisted phrase here when you peek at the statistics behind sexual violence as it works through the justice system. It’s a great guidepost for a judicial system that works, but it’s so far from what’s really happening. And back to the point, Brown EP doesn’t _owe_ Lonsdale an invitation to talk just because he is legally innocent until proven guilty.

    Something peculiar to me in this article was the quote from Lonsdale’s chief of staff that “it would be an act of discrimination to disinvite [Lonsdale]” and “that it would result in bad publicity for Brown.” Those sound like some thinly-veiled threats. I don’t think “people who’ve seen sexual violence allegations against them dropped” is a group of people who endure discrimination, and the rhetoric behind those quotes seems like innuendo.

    The other side of the coin here is the matter of free speech. I find it supremely ironic that commenters so adamant that their free speech is at risk here are actively using violent language to silence the qualified concerns of their peers on campus. Isn’t it strange that most people involved in this article chose to speak anonymously? A campus that stands for free speech isn’t a campus where people who actively voice their concerns should feel the need to remain anonymous out of fear of repercussions, socially or professionally. If you can’t recognize your part in demolishing that feeling of free speech, then keep thinking about it until you can.

    I mean, come on! Stand up for your peers! If you disagree, disagree respectfully, give their voices a platform and space in your head, listen to what they’re saying, and if you still disagree, by all means, don’t make them feel like they will only be safe if they’re anonymous. Whether you share their feelings or not doesn’t matter because there are literally people on your campus (and mine, don’t get me wrong) that feel like they can only safely express their concerns by remaining anonymous, and they’ll feel that regardless of whether you feel that or feel like they’re justified to feel that. If you want to do something for free speech, then make your peers feel safe to speak freely. Don’t silence them. If you feel threatened by their rhetoric, it doesn’t mean you have to resort to threatening rhetoric.

    Also, one comment in particular stands out to me: “Screw all you ‘feminists’ who damage the case for women who have suffered legitimate abuse…” Do you mind defining “legitimate abuse”? Er, go ahead and google Todd Akin.

  10. Brown CS '15 says:

    Lonsdale doesn’t have to have been convicted of a crime to have abused his power and engaged in an inappropriate relationship with an undergrad.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/the-stanford-undergraduate-and-the-mentor.html?_r=0
    There are plenty of other successful entrepreneurs who haven’t set terrible examples that Brown could bring instead. I’m also confused why Brown EP is saying that the other students used “scare tactics” to threaten them.

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