Columbia’s Knotty Noose Problem


Last October 9, a Tuesday, someone tied a noose to the third-floor office door of Columbia Teachers College professor Madonna Constantine, a black woman whose work focused on racial issues in teaching.

During the outcry that followed, politicians condemned the apparent act of racial intimidation, Teachers College president Susan Fuhrman denounced the (still unknown) perpetrator, students held a raucous demonstration outside the stately brick institution, and—weirdly—copycat nooses started showing up all over the country.

The story made international news and landed an appearance on Good Morning America for an academic working in a narrow, largely unknown field. Police, however, couldn’t seem to locate the culprit.

Then, in February, another revelation: In a terse statement from Fuhrman, it was announced that two former students and a former professor had accused Constantine of repeated acts of plagiarism. It turned out that the college had been secretly investigating Constantine for 18 months—long before the noose showed up on her door—and had been using an outside law firm to do the job.

Constantine angrily denied the accusations, appealed the plagiarism charges, and filed a grievance against the college.

Last week, after the school term had ended and the controversy died down, the college suddenly announced in a letter to faculty that Constantine had been fired, pending a hearing before a faculty committee. Also, a Manhattan grand jury apparently continues to examine the noose incident for possible criminal charges. Investigators reportedly subpoenaed Constantine’s financial records. (Her lawyer says that she has not been called to testify.) Constantine, meanwhile, is mulling legal action, and few doubt that the matter will result in one or more lawsuits. The new fall term promises to be a lively one for Fuhrman and the college.

Fuhrman has tried mightily to keep the professors at the college from talking to the press. But speaking with both faculty and former students over several months, the Voice has learned that as many as 10 people complained about Constantine over several years, and these sources say the college did little to intervene. The central allegations against Constantine first surfaced in January 2006, more than two years ago.

The Voice has also learned that Constantine attempted to silence her accusers in the spring of 2007 by sending them letters threatening to sue unless they dropped their claims. She used college stationery and the college mailing account.

The letter to accuser Karen Cort, a former student, reads in part: “I will take whatever steps I deem appropriate to protect my professional and personal reputation from further harm.”

Those letters, one college source says, may have been the thing that tipped the scales against Constantine and led to her firing.

What emerges after talking at length with people at Teachers College, including people close to the investigation, is a story that goes back nearly a decade, laying bare a seedy side of academic life that normally remains unseen, especially in places like the distinguished graduate school in education affiliated with Columbia University.

“The story is not so much about this one professor, but what happens in academia, how these institutions operate,” an insider says. “The angle isn’t just that she abused her power—there’s a lack of a process for protecting students whose work is being used by professors.”

When she chose Madonna Constantine as her doctoral adviser in 2002, graduate student Karen Cort thought she was choosing the best professor in the counseling-psychology department at the best teaching college in the country.

As one of the few black women professors in the field, Constantine was prominent in the department, and well known around the country in counseling circles. Cort felt that working with her was inspirational.

“I thought so highly of her,” says Cort, who came to Teachers College after five grueling years as a school counselor.

As the term ended, however, one of Cort’s other professors told Constantine that Cort had done well on a paper about school supervision, a subject Constantine herself had written about. Later, Cort says, Constantine pulled her aside and accused her of plagiarism.

“Committing plagiarism in an academic setting is like committing murder,” Cort says. “I knew it could get me tossed out of school. I thought I was in trouble, even though I knew I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Cort says she knew that she hadn’t plagiarized Constantine, because she was aware that Constantine had written on the same subject, and so she purposefully steered clear of her material. Cort also believes that Constantine hadn’t even read the paper before making the accusation.

But then, Cort says, things got weird. Despite her accusation, Constantine never pursued official sanctions. Instead, as punishment, she ordered Cort to cancel plans for the January break and come to her office.

Constantine had Cort mark each book in her office with the professor’s stamp. The shelves in the office held hundreds of books. The job took several days to complete.

To Cort, it was like having to write her name on the blackboard over and over. She felt that she was being treated like a child.

“My boyfriend told me, ‘She’s hazing you,’ and he wanted me to report her,” Cort says. “But I didn’t know who to talk to about it. If you said something negative about her, no one would believe it.”

Cort didn’t report the incident until years later.

Constantine had arrived at Columbia Teachers College in August 1998 as an assistant professor, having taught previously at Temple University in Philadelphia. She had a doctorate from Xavier University in New Orleans and a doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of Memphis. Constantine’s specialty was teaching educators how to recognize and successfully deal with racial and cultural differences in their jobs.

“She had a huge personality,” says one colleague. “She’s one of those people who makes the party.”

Constantine was very ambitious: She aspired to run the department and become prominent in national associations. As the winter 2003 semester began, however, Cort learned that Constantine had taken a job with Ohio State University. It remains unclear why Constantine decided to switch jobs.

Before Constantine left, Cort asked her for permission to begin a second-year project—a large research undertaking.

Constantine at first said no, but then agreed. She told Cort that she had to get it done by the summer.

“I had to kill myself to get it done,” Cort recalls.

Her research would look at the effects of burnout on school counselors—a topic dear to Cort, because she came to Columbia in part to escape the stress of that job.

Constantine then made a strange demand: She ordered Cort to list her name—not Cort’s—as the principal researcher.

“It was only later that I learned that the rule was that I should have been named as the primary researcher,” she says. “It’s valuable because it lets you publish your research down the road.”

Eventually, Cort asked Constantine if she could publish the paper. According to Cort, Constantine said no, it wasn’t good enough; the writing just wasn’t up to par.

“I just said OK and moved on,” Cort says. “All of my classmates got published. I got nothing out of the project.”

Later, she found out that Constantine had published the paper as her own.

After her vocal appearances following the noose incident, Constantine has said little publicly since the news of the plagiarism investigation broke in February.

After months of trying, however, the Voice was able to obtain an interview with Constantine’s lawyer, Paul Giacomo, approximately a week before his client was fired.

In his first extended interview on the subject, Giacomo made the claim that Cort and Constantine’s other accusers stole ideas and research from his client—not the other way around.

“Karen Cort is a liar, and she has been proved to be a liar,” he says. “Everything has been rejected by verifiable, written evidence. Everything is documented—it’s not just ‘he said, she said.’ “

Giacomo says he can prove that Cort and the others lifted material from Constantine based on documents filed by his client, which predate, by a period of years, the papers at issue.

“They said enough about my client that’s been wrong and can’t be backed up,” he says. “We have the true story and the true documentation. My client’s name will be cleared.”

Further, Giacomo says that the law firm retained by Columbia to look into the matter, Hughes, Hubbard & Reed, conducted its investigation in secret, failed to fully investigate the holes in the claims of Constantine’s accusers, and ignored evidence favorable to his client.

Even after he supplied that information to the firm, a second report laid out the exact same findings as the first, he says.

“They railroaded her,” Giacomo says. “They put out a report with conclusions reached primarily in a vacuum. They never asked us for anything. It’s just doesn’t make any sense.”

Regarding Cort’s research project, for example, Giacomo contends that Constantine actually submitted her paper for publication in May 2002—long before Cort began her own work.

“My client did substantial research on the topic at Temple, and she submitted an IRB [a formal project proposal] in 1997,” he says. “Years earlier, Madonna Constantine had done the work, and it had similar language to the paper Cort submitted on October 13, 2003.”

The Constantine paper, co-authored with another professor, was published in 2005. “The provenance shows it is my client’s work,” Giacomo says.

In response, the college’s investigator suggested that the documents were not authentic, telling Giacomo that their authenticity could not be verified. Giacomo acknowledges that Temple could not independently provide copies of the records.

“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” Cort says in response to the charge that her allegations are lies. “But there’s no reason for me to do all of this if I’m lying—it doesn’t make any sense. It actually put me in harm’s way. I was just a student.” Constantine’s Ohio State job would be short-lived. She soon wanted to return to Teachers College—and, more importantly, Dean Darlyne Bailey, a close friend and the school’s acting president at the time, wanted her back. Another dean hired Constantine without posting the job or conducting a search for candidates.

At the time, Bailey defended the hiring by saying that Constantine had only taken a leave of absence. (Bailey declined to comment for this story.)

In February 2004, Constantine assumed control of the prestigious Winter Roundtable conference, succeeding Professor Robert Carter in the job. Constantine got a raise, and a large annual stipend of as much as $50,000. The size of the stipend, known at the college as a “seed fund,” far outstripped what most professors get. (Giacomo said he can’t comment on the figures.) Most importantly, she was subsequently made a full professor, which meant tenure; she also became chair of the department later that year. Now it would be very hard to fire Constantine.

When Christine Yeh, another professor, first heard that Constantine had returned with a better job and more influence, she was dismayed, a friend of hers tells the Voice.

Yeh and Constantine had published a paper together in 2001. But Yeh was also the first person to clash with Constantine. She left Teachers College in 2005 for a research fellowship in San Francisco. Yeh, who did not respond to repeated calls from the Voice, told The New York Times in February that Constantine was one of the reasons she decided to leave.

Toward the end of 2005, Yeh was contacted by the editors of an academic journal, who were reviewing a paper she’d submitted for publication. There was a problem, they said: Yeh’s paper had already been published in another academic journal about six months earlier under Constantine’s byline. The title and some of the wording were different, but they were essentially the same paper.

Yeh, finding herself accused of plagiarism, had to prove that she didn’t steal the work. “She wanted to get away from TC over Constantine, but now she was forced to defend her ethics,” the friend says.

Around the same time, Constantine decided to take a sabbatical and would relinquish her title as chair of the department during her leave. The faculty elected Professor Suniya Luthar in November 2005 to replace her. Going through the department’s files, Luthar soon began to find things that disturbed her.

During Christmas break in 2005, Yeh called to report that Constantine had stolen her work, and she said that she could prove it. Luthar was also approached after the new year by Tracey Rene Juliao, one of Yeh’s former doctoral students, with a similar story: She too claimed to have had her work plagiarized by Constantine.

As the months passed, others came to Luthar, claiming that Constantine had stolen their work or committed some other kind of misconduct.

Meanwhile, Luthar—after examining the files of the chair’s office—started raising awkward questions about how the department had functioned under Constantine. For one thing, she found that Constantine had been diverting the lion’s share of department resources to the people in her circle, including Derald Wing Sue and Marie Miville, at the expense of other professors. (Miville did not return the Voice‘s calls, and Sue declined requests for an interview.)

“Everything is supposed to be divided fairly, but there was an unequal distribution of resources,” one insider says. “And the budget was kept in a strange way: Things which were supposed to be on one line were on another. Luthar made sure the funds were distributed equally.”

There were also allegations that college funds had been used for personal purposes.

Giacomo, Constantine’s attorney, declined to comment on the alleged misuse of department funds, but he did say he had evidence that Yeh and Juliao have falsely accused Constantine of plagiarism.

“We have the same type of multiple previous documents, verified by third parties, by other journal editors, all predating Yeh’s work—papers Constantine did at Temple in May 1997, and even submissions to other journals. Yeh’s publication didn’t come until 2003; Constantine’s submission was in 2001, and that’s been verified by the editor. We have seven years of documented authorship,” he says.

As for Juliao’s claims, Giacomo says the pattern is similar. “There was an article published in 2006 by Constantine and another author, Rhonda Bryant, but the provenance goes well before Tracey submitted her dissertation,” he says. According to Giacomo, the draft manuscript was submitted in March 2003, and this is confirmed in Bryant’s records.

Giacomo adds the charge that Cort and Juliao would have had access to Constantine’s files because she was at Ohio State at the time.

“Tracey would have had access through my client’s records at Columbia,” Giacomo says. “My client created, and the students copied.” In other words, Giacomo is accusing Juliao not only of copying Constantine’s work, but also of physically pilfering her files while Constantine was away.

Again, the college, in its investigation, seems to have discounted Constantine’s documents, labeling them “unverified.”

In January 2006, Luthar brought the plagiarism allegations and other issues to Dean Darlyne Bailey. At the time, Bailey was the vice president of academic affairs, one of the college’s top-ranking officials.

“Bailey was not responsive to the issue,” one insider says.

Bailey had been largely responsible for bringing Constantine back to Columbia after the professor resigned her post and moved to Ohio State; plus she and Constantine were friends. It may have been a conflict of interest for her to handle the matter in the first place.

Bailey did pass the allegations on to President Arthur Levine, but she also defended Constantine and moved against Luthar, accusing her of trying to undermine the reputation of the department. “[Bailey] said nothing was wrong, and she started to accuse [Luthar] of being a bad chair,” an insider says.

Constantine, meanwhile, showed up at Luthar’s office and accused her of “gossiping.” She threatened to sue Luthar. Someone had apparently tipped her off to the complaints, which were supposed to be confidential.

Bailey’s response to the allegations against Constantine was to hire a consultant to assess Luthar’s ability to run the department. The consultant, Barbara Bunker, was a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Buffalo. Reached last week via e-mail, Bunker told the Voice: “That was a confidential report which I did for the vice president and dean at the time. I am not at liberty to discuss it. Sorry.”

Bailey eventually forced Luthar to vacate the department chairmanship and selected instead Professor Derald Wing Sue—a certified hypnotherapist, former member of a Clinton-era presidential panel on race, and one of Constantine’s closest colleagues. Given Sue’s relationship with Constantine, his appointment seemed to be another signal to the rest of the faculty that Constantine was being protected. (Sue did not return phone calls.)

“That was a total conflict of interest,” an insider says. “He would have had access to all the information on the complaints.”

Over the next few months, faculty allies of Luthar peppered the administration with the kind of impassioned letters that only academics can write, demanding her reappointment as chair. Luthar appealed her removal to a faculty committee, which supported her.

Sue’s name was withdrawn as chair. When long-serving college president Arthur Levine left that July, the new president, Susan Fuhrman, opted to appoint Marie Miville—another close ally of Constantine—as co-chair of the department.

Luthar returned to her regular teaching post, but she didn’t let the matter drop; instead, she filed a formal grievance. For her part, Bailey continued to call for Luthar’s resignation—right up until her own departure, for a position at the University of Minnesota. (Bailey, insiders say, left when it became clear that she would not be named president of the college.)

Reached at the University of Minnesota, Bailey said that she’d been advised by Teachers College not to comment. She acknowledged that she was under no requirement not to comment, but simply preferred to respect the wishes of her former employer.

Karen Cort, meanwhile, began to hear rumors that Yeh and Constantine were fighting over plagiarism charges. “Someone suggested that I might want to look at my own stuff,” she says.

She came across an article written by Constantine—along with a University of Missouri–St. Louis professor named S. Kent Butler—titled “Collective self-esteem and burnout in professional school counselors.” (Butler did not return repeated phone calls from the Voice.) That sounded awfully familiar, given Cort’s own research. “Several months later, I finally printed it out and read it and noticed the similarities,” she says.

Cort went to Luthar, who had been deposed as chair but still, as Cort says, “continued to work on” the Constantine case. She told Luthar about the incident involving the rubber stamping, and she mentioned the plagiarism almost in passing.

“Most professors publish in one or two areas, but she has so many publications on a variety of topics,” Cort says. “Why? She steals ideas.”

In the summer of 2006, college officials and investigators with Hughes, Hubbard & Reed began to ask questions of Cort. She cooperated, citing her account of plagiarism and emotional abuse. Then, in January 2007, the lawyers told her that they had solid evidence against Constantine on the plagiarism charges. Would she be willing to waive confidentiality and allow her name to be released?

Cort declined. “I was concerned that the release of my name would damage my academic standing,” she says. “And I was concerned Constantine would act against me.”

Juliao and Yeh got similar calls; they also refused. But the trio began to support and advise each other and spent their own money on a lawyer, Lennox Hinds, who once represented Nelson Mandela. However, they asked the college to pay for his services, reasoning that they were at risk of being sued by Constantine. The school eventually agreed. All three, meanwhile, refused to allow their names to be used in the investigation and assumed that their participation was still anonymous.

Then a Federal Express package containing a letter from Constantine arrived at Cort’s home. The letter was written on Teachers College stationery and paid for via a college mailing account. “She wrote that she knew I was about to graduate, and she said she had heard rumors that I had alleged plagiarism against her,” Cort says. “She vehemently denied it and said if I continued to defame her, she would take steps against me. It was a threat.”

Yeh, Juliao, and at least one of Constantine’s other accusers also received letters, according to sources. To Cort, this suggests that the professor had someone inside the administration leaking highly sensitive information to her.

Over the summer of 2007, the plagiarism case continued to build momentum. In August 2007, the lawyers began to speak with Constantine about her side of the story. According to Cort, one of Constantine’s defenses was that she had been listed by Cort as the “principal researcher,” proving that she hadn’t stolen from her student.

“She used it against me,” Cort says. “She told the attorneys that it was her work, because she was listed as the principal.”

Giacomo says he submitted a mass of evidence supporting Constantine’s case to Hughes, Hubbard & Reed in September 2007, but that the law firm didn’t examine it.

In October, Constantine quietly withdrew her threat to sue Luthar, canceling an earlier legal document she had filed indicating her intent to bring a lawsuit. It remains unclear why she changed her mind.

And so the stage was set for the college to move ahead with its plagiarism case against her. But in October, just when the results of the long investigation were about to burst into full view, someone placed a noose on Constantine’s office door.