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SUNY Alfred State College under investigation for claims of discrimination against staff

Staffers file claims with Division of Human Rights
Alfred_state_College
Posted at 9:09 AM, Nov 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-16 20:14:18-05

ALFRED, N.Y. (WKBW) — Top administrators at SUNY Alfred State College are being called to question by the New York State Department of Human Rights.

These are people with six-figure, taxpayer-funded salaries, each making more than $135,000 last year. The case against them is rooted in what's being alleged as systemic discrimination.

As the I-Team has discovered, this case isn't stand-alone and there is much more to come.

The Allegations

High on the hilltops of Allegany County sits Alfred State College. It's a small SUNY school with a personnel problem. Some staffers claim there's a culture of discrimination, harassment, and retribution coming from the very top of the school's leadership.

"There is a very powerful group of administrators at Alfred State," Alex Bitterman said. "[It is a] very persuasive group of administrators that I think would not be happy that I'm speaking with you today...that I'm speaking the truth publicly, I think would make them very uncomfortable."

Alex Bitterman is coming forward after being demoted last year, from chair of the Architecture and Design department to professor of Architecture and Design. He is still currently in that role.

By speaking about his experience, Bitterman says he is concerned about his job. Still, he felt it was very important to discuss his allegations.

"There is, I think, throughout SUNY, but particularly at Alfred State...a degree of systemic and institutional denial when it comes to having situations about discrimination come forward," Bitterman said.

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Alex Bitterman describes alleged discrimination to I-Team reporter Ed Drantch.

Bitterman has filed a couple of complaints both internally with SUNY and externally with the State Department of Human Rights. The State University of New York, however, is quick to note these complaints were filed after he was demoted. SUNY found no discrimination in its investigation.

But in documents filed with the State, the professor claims he was demoted because of his age and sexual orientation.

In the months after these complaints were filed, Bitterman also filed a complaint with New York State Police, reporting he was sexually assaulted by one of the top administrators at Alfred State College, Provost Dr. Kristin Poppo.

"Kristin Poppo sexually assaulted me in her home at a faculty dinner," Bitterman said.

In paperwork filed with State Police, in January 2021, Bitterman wrote the assault happened about a year earlier, in February 2020. That was three months before his demotion.

"Kristin insisted on showing me a piece of weaving equipment. As she was explaining how the loom worked, her back side of her right hand made contact with my genital area. She then turned her hand around and grabbed my genitals. The grabbing was very forceful."

We tried to speak with Poppo about the claim. Instead the I-Team met her husband-- Peter Callahan-- who is an adjunct instructor at Alfred State College in Bitterman's department.

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Callahan laughed when the I-Team presented the claim to him as we sought answers.

"Well, it's going to be hard for you guys to get in touch with her. I'm sure she's going to have no comment," Callahan said.

The Investigation

State police say their investigation is done. The case is closed. Police say, after doing a number of interviews and collecting evidence, they handed the investigation over to the Allegany County District Attorney's office. We're told by police, the DA refused to press charges because they say there wasn't enough evidence to prove this actually happened.

"They determined the case was not -- as it was relayed to me through the State Troopers-- a slam dunk and therefore they were declining to pursue charges," Bitterman said. "It has changed me. It has changed me absolutely. It has emboldened me to speak out. I think that gives me the fuel to bring this out so the truth sees the light of day."

The truth, according to Bitterman as filed in his case report, is that Poppo "continually used her position to exert influence and power over Bitterman" and was "a really scary person, someone I needed to be super kind to because I don't want to be on the wrong side of the fence with this person."

"When you're in a position of power, it's very easy to manipulate and persuade people to do what they want. I certainly feel that I was manipulated and persuaded," Bitterman said. "It sounds like threats. It sounds like unpleasant talk to have to hear, it sounds like uncomfortable comments that you have to hear and it sounds very consistent when it comes from Kristin Poppo."

He says this all came to a head in April 2020. That was a month before his demotion.

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Kristin Poppo

"Kristin called me on the telephone -- and she called me words...like f****t. She maligned my research as stupid, [expletive], gay, f****t [expletive] that no one wants to or has time to read," Bitterman said.

Bitterman was doing research and and authoring a book about gay neighborhoods around the world. He said he was writing this book as part of his duties as a tenured professor.

"There is no recording [of Poppo says this], but it happened," Bitterman said. "Shortly after it happened, she started to retaliate pretty dramatically against me and my job. That made it clear to me that I was on the outs of this administrative group. They no longer saw me as one of them."

"The discrimination is very much differential treatment of people who are of LGBTQ identity," Bitterman said.

In documentation obtained by the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team-- filed by the State University of New York, "Poppo denies making sexist, homophobic or sexually inappropriate remarks to [Bitterman]. The SUNY investigator also felt this was a co-worker friendship that went sour.

"Kristin and I never had a friendship," Bitterman said. "No matter how they characterize it, Kristin was my boss' boss."

But Poppo thought the two were friends.

"We were not friends. We were friendly, but we were not friends," Bitterman said.

When Bitterman says he approached human resources and the chief of staff, Wendy Dresser-Rectenwald, Bitterman explains he was told to give Poppo a pass. Bitterman said this was because Poppo had been "under stress" from dealing with the pandemic.

A SUNY investigator found Bitterman "did not mention the use of homophobic slurs" when initially speaking with Dresser-Rectenwald.

Ultimately, Bitterman's internal claim of discrimination was deemed unsubstantiated by that SUNY investigator.

In December, after interviewing nine people and reviewing more than a dozen documents, a "Chief Diversity Officer from [SUNY Geneseo]" explained, Bitterman's claims "... were found to lack evidentiary support."

The investigator did write, "I believe that Provost Poppo acted aggressively and unprofessionally towards Bitterman during the ...phone call..."

While Bitterman says the SUNY investigation was a conflict of interest, considering the investigator is being paid by the very system under investigation, the SUNY investigator explained, "Some witnesses mentioned the overall climate at Alfred State is not as welcoming for LGBTQ+ individuals as they would like..."

The investigator wrote, he believes "Provost Poppo has a genuine commitment to LGBTQ+ rights and there was no intentional discrimination on her behalf related to this set of allegations."

Still, that investigator concluded "Poppo's communication style is direct, honest, serious and at times assertive. Some individuals do find her style to be abrasive..."

SUNY wound up launching another investigation into Alfred State College and Bitterman's allegations in January. That's when Jim Malatras took over as SUNY chancellor.

Nearly a year later, there is still no end to this investigation as SUNY once again looks into itself.

"In many investigations, the investigator is going to gather evidence to find for the employer who is paying them," said Lindy Korn, a civil rights attorney in Buffalo.

Multiple Claims Against Alfred State

Korn is representing Bitterman and at least two other people in claims against Alfred State. Those claims have been filed with the New York State Division of Human Rights.

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These three cases have received "probable cause" meaning their claims are moving forward with arguments heard by a judge, testing the credibility of these allegations, using testimony and cross examination.

"In the New York State Department of Human Rights, it's really winning the right to support the claim of discrimination that you have made out well enough to raise a suspicion," Korn said.

Dr. Karla Back, a professor of business at Alfred State College, is the first of Korn's clients whose case has not only received probable cause from the state, but has also already testified in front of an administrative law judge.

Back claims she was discriminated and retaliated against, based on her age and disability.

In her testimony, Back said Alfred State College felt like "a war zone."

"It was very hostile..." and "difficult to be there, often times for long days..." Back said in her May testimony.

SUNY says, Professor Back was treated better than other faculty members. But she testified, she felt her schedule was "manipulated"— just like Bitterman claims he was — only, she would have to move back and forth between buildings for different classes.

This, she says, was done deliberately by a former department chair and perpetuated by the current dean, John Williams.

Back, who is 66 years old said, "I'm teaching from 8:00 to 8:52 and had to be in a different building at 9:00 a.m. It wasn't timing, it was building location."

Back said she would have to "run across campus, often be late to start and had to do the same thing to start 10:00 a.m. class. Had I been in the same building, it wouldn't have been a problem at all."

"There were other faculty that had schedules like that, changed back to the same building and mine was not," Back said. In her complaint, Back explained this "adversely affected her ability to speak with students between classes."

Back believes all of this was retaliation, for testifying in another human rights case. It was filed by her former colleague, her husband, Peter von Stackelberg.

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von Stackelberg believes he was discriminated upon based on his age. He bases his claim on a comment — he says was made — in a meeting.

"It's really clear when the Provost at the college say[s], they need to get rid of old white guys-- at a meeting-- that had multiple witnesses... and then shortly thereafter old white guys start losing their job," von Stackelberg said.

Back says she was one of the people in that meeting when Poppo is said to have made a comment, "time to get rid of the old white guys..."

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von Stackelberg, who is Korn's third client, says five years ago he was told his contract — as an adjunct professor — wouldn't be renewed after the 2016 spring semester. That was shortly after he says that comment was made. He was given no reason why his contract wasn't being renewed. The college says, it is not obligated to provide a reason for non-renewal.

He also alleges Poppo and President Irby "Skip" Sullivan asked human resources for a database of faculty members, who are of a certain age
and older.

"Their explanation was that it was for succession planning," von Stackelberg said.

That's not anything these administrators deny. In the Bitterman investigation, SUNY said this information is critical for "strategic planning."

"These discussions are important for any institution and nothing about planning for the future is insidious or discriminatory," wrote that SUNY investigator. von Stackelberg calls that smoke and mirrors.

"The only succession planning that appeared to take place that correlated with the list was the firing, the demotion, the harassment...the forced retirements of older faculty," von Stackelberg said.

The I-Team asked if it is within the college's purview to say, 'we don't need your services anymore?'

"It is within the purview for the college-- any employer-- to say we don't need your services anymore," von Stackelberg said. "They cannot though -- it's forbidden by law -- for them to do that for discriminatory purposes. The evidence we've got, is the decisions they made regarding termination, demotions, tenure... was not related to job performance."

When we visited Poppo's house to ask questions about these cases, in which she is prominently named, her husband took it a step further in commenting about his colleagues. Again, her husband is an instructor at the college.

"I don't know what to tell you. We've been through all this stuff and it's just a bunch of people that are chagrined and pissed off and they have pretty horrible lives," he said.

Yet, with three professors all with claims against the small college, Korn says their similar stories add power, giving a voice those who feel they are voiceless. She says the pattern is very important.

"Patterns are always important," Korn says, "because it's the context that matters. If it's happened to you and you're the only one and it's he said she said, there's a big question mark. If it's happened to you and the same idea or similar has happened to four or five other people, the credibility tilts toward the plaintiff."

What's Next

There are now calls for an independent inspector general to handle discrimination claims at SUNY.

Poppo has not responded to messages or requests for comment. In June, Poppo was put on paid leave for the fall semester, assigned to course development and grant related projects. According to an internal memo, Poppo will not return to her post as Provost come spring. She will instead become a full-time professor in the English and Humanities department.

Sullivan, the president, has retired. He says he plans on going south and will teach remotely at Alfred State College. His retirement was planned for the end of last academic year.

Dean John Williams and Chief of Staff Wendy Dresser-Rectenwald would not comment for this story.

The I-Team has also filed open records requests with the Division of Human Rights. We've learned 246 claims were filed against SUNY schools between January 1, 2018 and April 23, 2021.

Records show there have been 36 cases filed against SUNY, with a probable cause determination from the Division of Human Rights, filed between January 1, 2018 and July 19, 2021. If the number of cases, filed against SUNY, stayed the same, that would mean 14% of claims filed against SUNY schools have been given probable cause.

The Response

Alfred State College's Officer-in-Charge, Dr. John Anderson, released this statement about these claims:

Alfred State College strongly condemns any instance of harassment or discrimination. We take these allegations seriously, have responded to all complaints promptly, and have both requested and fully cooperated with independent investigations. All investigations that have concluded have found no evidence of illegal conduct. Additional external legal processes are ongoing, as is typical at a large institution. Notably, only a very few individuals are responsible for bringing such actions. The College will continue to vigorously defend itself, as well as those named individuals within the complaints who we believe are actually harmed by these repeated claims.

Campus leadership proactively reaches out to students and faculty to make sure Alfred State remains as a welcoming, inclusive, and safe academic environment. Our priority is to make sure our students succeed in getting an excellent college education, have an encouraging experience, and hit the ground running. Outstanding leaders, as well as countless devoted faculty members, are working together to this end every day despite the trying circumstances of the last 20 months of the pandemic. We will not be deterred from this important work by the unsubstantiated claims of a few.

In response to this story, SUNY released a statement reading:

Every case presented to SUNY has been or is being investigated. In fact, when the Chancellor was made aware in January 2021 of recent discrimination allegations, he directed an immediate and comprehensive investigation within days. We take these matters seriously and have involved a dedicated team of independent investigators in our comprehensive review to get to the facts. Cases and findings are kept confidential to protect all individuals involved.

Incidents of discrimination, harassment, and assault threaten the core values of SUNY. All allegations will be taken seriously and thoroughly reviewed and if any wrongdoing is found, we will respond to the full extent of the law.