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Thomas Roma, Photographer and Columbia University Professor, Accused of Sexual Misconduct [UPDATED]

The accusations against Roma, a documentary photographer who is also the director of the photography program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, were all made by former students.

Thomas Roma giving at TED talk at Columbia University in 2014 (screenshot via YouTube)
Thomas Roma giving at TED talk at Columbia University in 2014 (screenshot via YouTube)

Five women have come forward accusing Thomas Roma, a photographer and professor, of sexual misconduct. The incidents they outlined in interviews with the New York Times mostly occurred in the 1990s while the women were students of Roma’s at Columbia University and the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York.

One of the women, actress Mozhan Marno — who was an 18-year-old sophomore at Barnard College at the time of the alleged incident in 1999 — subsequently filed a written complaint to Columbia, where Roma has been teaching since 1996. An investigative panel concluded that she and Roma had been complicit in the encounter. The University failed to investigate Roma’s behavior further, according to Marno; he still teaches at Columbia, where he serves as the director of the School of the Arts’ photography program.

The four other women who spoke to the Times on the record were all students at SVA, where Roma taught for many years, and one was subsequently also his teaching assistant at Columbia. That woman, Ash Thayer, an artist and filmmaker now based in Los Angeles, claims Roma forced himself upon her in his office at Columbia in 1999, putting his penis in her mouth despite her repeated exclamations of “no.” She quickly pushed him away and fled.

“I froze,” Thayer told the Times. “He committed oral rape against me.”

Allison Ward, a student of Roma’s at SVA in the mid-1990s, said they had several sexual encounters. Though she said she was not forced in any of the incidents, she did describe Roma’s behavior as “predatory” and added that she “was mortified and embarrassed but went along with it.” Despite the apparent pattern of behavior described by these former students of his at SVA, a spokesperson for the school said that it “does not have a record of any complaints against Mr. Roma.”

“It is our standard practice to investigate whenever we receive a report that a faculty member may have sexually harassed a student,” Suzanne Goldberg, the executive vice president for university life at Columbia, told the Times, adding that the university forbids faculty members from having sexual relationships with students whom they oversee. (In 2014, the university’s policies on sexual assault on campus became the subject of nationwide debate during then-student Emma Sulkowicz’s performance art piece, “Carry That Weight.”)

Though Roma did not respond to the allegations himself, his lawyer, Douglas Jacobs, told the Times:

The statements they are making about his asserted misconduct are replete with inaccuracies and falsehoods. … All four have taken isolated, innocent incidents, none of them predatory, and have created fictitious versions of reality that are libelous and in the present political climate designed to damage his career and his personal life. Professor Roma’s sympathies then and now lie with those who have been mistreated in any way and he completely fails to understand why these women have chosen to create these complaints two decades after the alleged facts supposedly occurred.

Contacted by Hyperallergic, Roma’s gallerist, Steven Kasher, declined to comment on the allegations.

Roma is a successful documentary photographer who has taught extensively at Columbia, SVA, Yale University, the Cooper Union, Fordham University, and elsewhere. He has published more than a dozen books — most recently Plato’s Dogs (2016) — many of them focusing on specific communities in his native Brooklyn. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and many other institutions. He is married to Anna Roma, the daughter of modern photography pioneer Lee Friedlander.

Update, 1/4/2018, 10am EST: Roma has announced his retirement from the School of the Arts, effective immediately, a Columbia University spokesperson told Hyperallergic.

Hyperallergic is committed to reporting on sexual harassment in the art world. If you have a story about personal or institutional abuse in our field, please write to Claire Voon at [email protected]

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