Canisius College showed deliberate indifference to sexual harassment complaints about a popular professor and then retaliated against a group of students when it finally took action against him, a new federal lawsuit claims.
The professor in question, animal behaviorist Michael Noonan, hasn’t worked at Canisius since 2019. But the case’s five plaintiffs—all female recent graduates of the Jesuit college—say that they would have been spared harassment, unwanted physical contact and academic disruption if the college had acted on earlier complaints about Noonan dating back to at least 2014.
Canisius denies wrongdoing in the case and said it acted on reports about Noonan according to its policies and procedures.
Noonan did not respond to a request for comment. Canisius removed him from campus in 2019, according to the lawsuit, but told students he’d retired. Noonan’s personal website says he retired. He’s now volunteering in a high school on the West Coast, the plaintiffs allege.
According to the lawsuit, Noonan used his position as director of the Canisius Ambassadors for Conservation to select young women to travel with for research. (The overwhelming majority of his research assistants were women, as well, the lawsuit says.) During research trips, he allegedly discussed his personal life with students and asked them intrusive questions about their own lives, calling it “girl talk.” He also allegedly insisted on fastening audiovisual equipment to the women’s undergarments during video projects, once commenting that a student was “flat-chested.” Noonan allegedly had to approve students’ clothes and hair for these video projects, telling students he “owned” them, and sometimes braided students’ hair without their permission.
Noonan “hounded” students with stomach issues during research abroad to let him personally give them enemas and anal suppositories, as well, the lawsuit says. During one trip to India in 2019, Noonan allegedly told a student suffering from constipation that not getting an enema could be “life-threatening,” and allegedly he lay down on the hotel room bed to explain in detail how it would work and feel, insisting he’d given a student one before. This student and a plaintiff decided to seek care at a hospital instead, and even though one of them says she told Noonan that he’d crossed a line, he still allegedly insisted on entering the exam room with them when they did not want him there. During a trip to Uganda in 2018, Noonan allegedly offered to “assist” another plaintiff with an anal suppository, and asked her and other students to come to his room to “stretch his knee” by straddling his leg and pulling on it.
“Noonan moaned in a way that suggested he was deriving more than just physical relief from his students,” the lawsuit says.
Another plaintiff says Noonan called her his “daughter,” encouraged her not to wear a bra and said that he’d be interested in dating her married mother. This plaintiff says she drank on the weekends to cope with stress related to the case and that she’s in therapy now.
Other plaintiffs who reported similar experiences say they’re seeing therapists, as well.
Daniela Nanau, the women’s lawyer, said that her clients’ longtime hopes of working in academic science have all been derailed due to Noonan’s and Canisius’s actions, and that they came forward “because there’s really no other way for them to protect the women who come after them.”
“My clients all went to Canisius College because they wanted to be a ABEC majors,” Nanau said of the animal behavior, ecology and conservation program that Noonan founded and taught in for 40 years. “It’s a very specific program that is not offered in most colleges and universities. They all wanted to be environmental scientists or have something to do with animals in the sciences, and all of them intended to go to graduate school. And now most of them do not feel safe in the academic space after witnessing not only professors’ reaction to their complaints about a colleague—who I believe was a known predator on campus—but also the administration’s reaction.”
Nanau continued, “Rather than follow the policy, Canisius administrators didn’t provide my clients with accommodation, with support, whether it be academic or medical. Nothing was done to make sure that the projects that had started under Noonan were completed the way they were intended.”
President John Hurley and Linda Walleshauser, Canisius’s vice president for human resources and former officer for compliance with Title IX, the federal law barring gender discrimination in education, responded to requests for comment via a college spokesperson, who shared a written statement. The statement says Canisius “is and always has been, committed to fostering a safe, secure campus environment, and to the maintenance of robust policies that promote student safety and security free from discrimination and harassment. At this point, the allegations in the complaint are simply that—allegations. Canisius College will respond in detail to the allegations of this complaint in due course, but the college denies that it did not respond swiftly and effectively to the conduct reported by the plaintiffs in this lawsuit.”
Canisius further said that the behaviors described in the lawsuit, “when first brought to the college’s attention as part of internal complaints lodged back in 2019, were promptly and thoroughly investigated and addressed. At all times, Canisius treated the students’ allegations seriously and until the filing of this lawsuit, the college understood that it had acted in full accord with the students’ wishes.”
Canisius “prides itself on its commitment to its Catholic, Jesuit identity and strives to reflect that in all of its policies and practices,” the college said.
In another federal lawsuit against Canisius filed last year, three female students who ran track accused the college of ignoring a culture of sexual assault on the team. According to the Jane Doe plaintiffs, some male current and former students on the team would intentionally get younger female athletes drunk and high in order to assault them when they were inebriated and incapable of consenting to sex. Canisius said at the time that students’ reports about problems on the team “were promptly and thoroughly investigated and adjudicated under applicable college policies.”
Canisius is facing yet another lawsuit from faculty members who allege that the college used the pandemic as a smokescreen to lay them off without declaring financial exigency, granting them right to appeal or consulting any faculty governance body. The professors say that Canisius tried to settle with them but what it offered paled in comparison in lost wages to come. (Canisius laid off other professors in 2020, citing COVID-19, settling with most of them, even as it appointed four new assistant professors and a new dean.)
Hurley, who has overseen all of these controversies, announced his coming retirement last year. He steps down at the end of this month.
Nanau said that while Canisius has elsewhere been accused of tolerating sexual misconduct, Noonan may have been especially insulated, given that he attracted federal research dollars with his uncommon program of study, and because he served as a department chair and was previously married to an administrator at the college.
“When you have all that in the mix, it can embolden people. They don’t feel like they’re necessarily obliged to conform their behavior to the rules,” she said.
Noonan was president of the Faculty Senate, as well, and Hurley thanked him by name in a 2015 convocation speech for being a “catalyst” to improving the college’s commitment to shared governance.
‘That’s Just the Way He Is’
According to the lawsuit, a professor reported Noonan in 2014 to the college’s Title IX office. (Nanau said she interviewed the professor, who has since retired and could not immediately be reached for comment.) Canisius allegedly failed to adjudicate that complaint or others like it until a group of students came forward in 2019. At that time, another professor in Canisius’s biology department, Elizabeth Hogan (who did not respond to a request for comment), allegedly learned that Noonan had sexually harassed someone on his research team. Hogan’s interview with that student led her to another student who had complained about Noonan in 2018 to the ABEC program chair, to no effect, the lawsuit says.
Hogan allegedly referred these complaints to the Title IX office, run at the time by Walleshauser. Within a few weeks, a number of the plaintiffs went to the Title IX office to file a document they’d compiled detailing their allegations. This included accounts of Noonan allegedly intervening in students’ medical treatment without their consent and demanding that he be the one to insert suppositories and enemas. Students also alleged his behavior was controlling and that he’d complained about men who’d been “ruined” by the Me Too movement.
Walleshauser allegedly promised the women that she’d investigate based on their document and that they’d be protected participants during the process. But the women say that promise didn’t play out. Instead, the plaintiffs allege, they had to continue working with Noonan as they wondered if he knew they’d complained about him—and if they’d be punished for it.
A month later, the women say, Canisius abruptly removed Noonan from campus and prohibited him from contacting anyone there. A few months after that, the plaintiffs say they went back to the Title IX office to ask what was going on and were promised they’d soon be able to review and comment on the case report. Yet this never happened, as Canisius never issued any report, the lawsuit says.
In June 2019, the student complainants were notified via email that Noonan had retired from the college.
Regarding an ongoing video project with Noonan involving Indian tigers, that email from Walleshauser said that “you will be afforded access to the film or video work that was created, for use in creating your own finished work.” Walleshauser said Noonan would be finishing his own version of the project with the existing footage, and that if “you elect to have your names and images removed from Dr. Noonan’s finished work, he will also need to remove reference to you in any credits listed in that finished work.”
After this email, the students say they were never given any meaningful help in completing the project. The ABEC chair allegedly failed to obtain the tiger footage in a timely manner, claiming it was “too difficult” to figure out who owned the rights to it, but still insisted that the students produce some work to get credit for a related class. (The students say they scrambled to make a series of podcasts.)
Third- and fourth-year students who’d been advised by Noonan were not given a replacement, the lawsuit says, “thereby depriving them of recommendation letters and information regarding graduation requirements.”
One plaintiff says that when Noonan was still at Canisius, she’d complained to the ABEC chair that she felt trapped, because she needed his recommendation letter to get into graduate school, and that the ABEC chair said there was nothing that could be done because “that’s just the way [Noonan] is.”