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A photo of the St. Norbert College campus

Concerns over how St. Norbert handled sexual assault cases years ago continue to roil campus.

St. Norbert College

A former administrator who is now a trustee at St. Norbert College is suing a graduate for allegedly defaming him in 2018 while criticizing his response to sexual assault on campus.

The trustee, the Reverend Jay Fostner, served as vice president for mission and student affairs at St. Norbert for nine years before his position was eliminated in a reorganization in 2020. At the time, the college was under fire for its handling of sexual assault complaints. Fostner, specifically, was accused of being dismissive of sexual assault allegations on campus.

Margaret Uselman, a 2018 graduate, was a vocal critic of Fostner, blasting his alleged callousness in a Facebook post and local media interviews. Now, that public criticism is the subject of Fostner’s defamation lawsuit. Fostner filed the suit in December; last week a judge set a jury trial for next September.

An Ugly Conflict

Concerns about how St. Norbert—a private Catholic college with about 2,000 students in Wisconsin—handled sexual assault on campus came to a head in spring 2018, when more than 100 students signed a letter to the then president arguing that such cases were mishandled or ignored, according to local media reports.

In his student affairs role, Fostner bore the brunt of the complaints—unfairly, according to his legal counsel, who told Inside Higher Ed that while Fostner was involved in the college’s Title IX process, he was not an investigator in sexual assault cases.

In the fall of 2018, Uselman helped organize a second letter, which garnered more than 300 signatures from students and alumni calling for an investigation of Fostner. The college responded in January 2019 by launching a third-party review of how it handled sexual assault complaints; officials said the review showed that its processes were strong but burdened by personality conflicts and departmental clashes, which needed improvement.

The college faced criticism for never releasing the full report to the public. Officials insisted the report did not reflect wrongdoing by any staff members, including the embattled and oft-criticized Fostner.

In the aftermath of the report, Uselman expressed disappointment in an interview with a local TV station, telling Fox 11 News she found it was disturbing “that no one is being held accountable.” She said at the time that she knew of at least 25 others who had raised concerns about Fostner’s response to sexual assault claims.

Uselman also claimed, in a 2018 Facebook post, that Fostner sought to silence victims of sexual assault.

Faculty members weighed in on the controversy, casting a no-confidence vote in fall 2019 against Fostner “continuing in any position” at the college, according to local media reports. The vote came while Fostner was on a yearlong sabbatical that began in July 2019. In January 2020 his position was eliminated.

By July 2021, Fostner was back at St. Norbert College, this time as a trustee chosen by the abbot of St. Norbert Abbey, the religious order that sponsors the college. The bylaws of the college require that the abbey appoint a certain number of trustees.

Suddenly, the man who faculty felt should have no position at the college had more power.

Amid criticism of his appointment, Fostner’s supporters took to local editorial pages, proclaiming he was a victim of cancel culture, wronged by a smear campaign that mischaracterized his role and responsibilities at a college he had served faithfully.

Jordan Loeb, legal counsel for Fostner, took a similar position in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, noting the uproar at St. Norbert came in the midst of the Me Too movement, when criticism of sexual misconduct was magnified. He said the Me Too movement and clergy abuse scandals became conflated with issues at St. Norbert, leading to unfair criticism of his client. Loeb argued that the public has a misunderstanding of Fostner’s role in the controversy and that the former administrator was never a Title IX investigator. Loeb cast Fostner as a convenient scapegoat for the missteps of then president Brian Bruess, who resigned in 2022.

Loeb described the legal battle as “the venue of last resort” because “the story refuses to die.” Waxing biblical, Loeb said that “turning the other cheek doesn’t work” given that his client’s reputation has suffered irreparable damage and he has lost professional opportunities due to the controversy.

“The defendant in this case made very public and very false allegations against Jay Fostner that not only did he mishandle Title IX investigations, but he deliberately protected at least one person, and perhaps generally, people who are accused of sexual assault on campus,” Loeb said.

Loeb was also critical of St. Norbert College, arguing that the institution could correct the negative perceptions of Fostner by clarifying his role in its Title IX processes. Instead, the college has remained largely silent, he noted.

Lawyers for Uselman did not respond to a request for comment from Inside Higher Ed, but Uselman denied defaming Fostner in a GoFundMe post seeking $40,000 in donations for her legal defense.

“During my time on campus, I sought to improve a number of the college’s policies and procedures related to sexual assault on campus. Some of my efforts overlapped with Rev. Dr. Jay Fostner’s tenure at St. Norbert College. On December 7, 2022, Fostner sued me in Brown County Circuit Court for alleged defamation and punitive damages. Rev. Fostner alleges that certain comments I made in the past defamed him. I strongly deny Rev. Fostner’s allegations and intend to defend myself in Court,” Uselman wrote on the crowdfunding website on Aug. 8.

A college spokesperson declined to comment on the litigation and defended the institution’s Title IX processes in an emailed response.

“St. Norbert College is proud of its efforts to continually improve Title IX related policies, practices and efforts to effectively support survivors of sexual assault (and other gender-based violence),” the spokesperson wrote, pointing to “revised reporting and response procedures” and various other changes.

Officials at St. Norbert Abbey did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Bruess, who is now president of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.

An Uncommon Clash

Religious orders frequently appoint priests from within their ranks to governing boards of the institutions they sponsor, noted David Rowe, senior vice president and managing principal of AGB Consulting. Such appointments are a way “to maintain the mission of the order” and make sure an associated college adheres to the values of the sponsoring organization.

But certain elements of the St. Norbert College case are uncommon, he said.

First, Rowe noted that it is unusual for a former administrator to step into the role of trustee—particularly if that employee had been pushed out of the college in some way.

Second, it is uncommon for a trustee to sue a graduate, he said, adding that such legal battles can send waves of negativity through college communities, particularly at small institutions.

“In general, it can be difficult for a university to manage these kinds of intramural legal disputes, whether it’s a trustee suing a student or graduate or other actors within the institution,” Rowe said. “Filing suits against other people within the institution, I think that can be difficult, particularly for a small institution to manage. In terms of optics, I also think it would be terribly disruptive to the fabric of the community itself.”

Rowe added that in a case where a trustee brings a lawsuit against a graduate or other community member, it would be best practice for them to step away from the board, which Fostner has done in this case, taking a temporary leave of absence amid the legal battle.

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