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.”