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Lawsuit alleges Ohio State head of CAR sexually harassed PhD candidate

An Ohio State Ph.D. candidate in the College of Engineering filed a lawsuit against Ohio State  in a federal district court in Michigan on Friday, alleging the director of the Center for Automotive Research sexually harassed her, and later defamed her to officials at Ford Motor Company, where she was interning.

Giorgio Rizzoni, the director of CAR and the Ford Motor Company chair in electromechanical systems at Ohio State, is accused in the lawsuit of repeated sexual harassment, including groping the student on multiple occasions and grabbing her hand without permission, and then retaliating when she would not agree to his advances.

The student made sexual harassment accusations against Rizzoni to Ohio State on Dec. 13, 2017, and the university followed up on the complaints and “issued” a 38-page report that found the student’s claims to be false, according to the lawsuit.

The Lantern requested a copy of the report, but university spokesman Ben Johnson said the report is protected by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

“Ohio State does not tolerate sexual misconduct of any kind,” Johnson said in a statement. “We cannot comment further due to the pending litigation.”

CAR is a research center at Ohio State’s College of Engineering that focuses on developing “sustainable and safe” transportation in the United States. Its projects include the Venturi Buckeye Bullet, which regularly tests the land-speed record for electrically powered cars.

According to its website, CAR involves “more than 40 visiting scholars, 45 staff members, 56 undergraduate students, 42 CAR-affiliated faculty and 100 graduate students who carry out over $8 million of research projects annually.”

The Lantern left voicemails at both office and mobile phone numbers listed for Rizzoni, and sent him an email. An automatic response from his email address said he is out of the office until Sept. 10.

Johnson said Rizzoni was placed on leave while the investigation was underway. A letter sent to Rizzoni dated March 29, 2018, that was attached to the emailed statement from Johnson, said he was taken off his leave when the investigation was concluded.

The letter said the investigation found “insufficient evidence to support the allegation” against Rizzoni. It said the investigation lasted more than three months and that 39 people were interviewed, including “the parties to the complaint, faculty members, staff, current and former students and relevant external individuals.”

“Further, the investigators reviewed extensive evidence submitted by the parties and gathered independently,” the letter read.

The lawsuit calls the investigation “a sham” and claims none of the witnesses had “first-hand knowledge of any relevant facts” because all the events took place behind closed doors. Bruce Fox, one of the lawyers for the student, said in an email the university told the lawyers it was confidential and could not be released.

“She has asserted in her Complaint filed in the federal district court in Michigan that she resisted quid pro quo sexual harassment by Rizzoni, endured retaliation by him for resisting, and was then subjected to a sham investigation by the University after she reported him,” Fox said in a statement. “She hopes that her lawsuit will bring to light that which has been hidden and deter recurrent misconduct at this institution.”

The international student sought admission to the College of Engineering and had reached out to Rizzoni, who promised financial support. She was accepted into the Ph.D. program on March 10, 2014, and Rizzoni visited her in her home country on March 29, 2014, the lawsuit read.

The pair met at his hotel, and the suit states Rizzoni “lured” the student to his room and repeatedly made advances toward her, including grabbing her hand and shoulders, and making suggestive remarks.

The student arrived in Columbus on Aug. 21, 2014, and was assigned to work with Rizzoni at CAR, the lawsuit said. It added that in January 2015, Rizzoni took the student to Dearborn, Michigan, to visit Ford, the sponsor of her research.

The lawsuit said the sexual abuse continued into 2015, with Rizzoni caressing her thigh during car rides. She turned away his advances and tried to avoid going on trips to Michigan with him, but he threatened to revoke her financial support if she stopped, the lawsuit stated.

The student was an intern at Ford in summer 2017, the lawsuit said, but she left before the start of her time with the company to seek medical treatment for the emotional distress from Rizzoni’s abuse.

Rizzoni complained about the student’s behavior to employees at Ford, including Dyche Anderson, the student’s direct research supervisor, the lawsuit stated. Anderson responded to the email, saying that he believed some of the student’s behavior appeared to stem from possible depression and that she might feel uncomfortable to be in a man’s office with no one else in the building, according to the email attached in the lawsuit.

The student told a professor about Rizzoni’s sexual harassment on Dec. 12, 2017, after Rizzoni pulled her funding on her research, the lawsuit stated. She also filed a complaint with a human resources representative for the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, along with a separate report to Ohio State’s Title IX office on Dec. 13, 2017. On Feb. 2, 2018, it said she filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The lawsuit said the student filed the complaint to redress the harassment she faced, but also to prevent Rizzoni from victimizing other women.

The Lantern does not name victims of sexual harassment or assault unless given permission.

*Correction on Sept. 6 at 3:31 p.m.: The article originally said Ohio State published the 38-page report. Since it was not public, the story was corrected to say “issued a 38-page report.”

7 comments

  1. We are now in a time when women file sex harassment lawsuits to make money. This story does not sound credible.

  2. I am a woman who has had the honor of knowing Giorgio Rizzoni for 20 years. I am devastated that his stellar reputation could be tarnished so heartlessly with invented stories by a student who has personal issues. Over the years, I have met so many female and male students who had nothing but wonderful things to say about their experience with Giorgio. There is no way I can support this false charge to an innocent professor, husband and father. This woman has harmed not only Giorgio, but all of us by taking advantage of the #metoo movement in a dishonest way. Please speak up for Giorgio if you have also been lucky enough to know him!!!!

  3. This lawsuit is a complete and total farce. Prof Rizzoni is a tireless advocate for women in engineering, and has helped and guided so many young women in their careers – women who will stand up for his honor and innocence and vouch for him. The university interviewed 39 people through the course of a 4 month investigation and not a single one of them could corroborate the accuser’s story! Horrible to see someone make such damaging and false accusations. Don’t believe this tripe.

  4. I had the privilege of having this man for a professor in one of my undergraduate classes. It is rare to find a professor that actually cares about teaching young students and Rizzoni is one of those professors. That fact that he goes out of his way to teach students despite being the head of automotive research and a Ford chairman makes him all the more special.

    We owe it to this guy to presume him innocent until proven guilty, which is what that cancerous #metoo movement is trying to get us away from.

    • Prof. Rizzoni has been found innocent already. It is amazing how she thought someone would believe that Rizzoni could do anything like this.

      My guess is that she is after the money…

  5. The article says “The international student sought admission to the College of Engineering and had reached out to Rizzoni, who promised financial support. She was accepted into the Ph.D. program on March 10, 2014, and Rizzoni visited her in her home country on March 29, 2014, the lawsuit read.
    The pair met at his hotel, and the suit states Rizzoni “lured” the student to his room and repeatedly made advances toward her, including grabbing her hand and shoulders, and making suggestive remarks.
    The student arrived in Columbus on Aug. 21, 2014, and was assigned to work with Rizzoni at CAR, the lawsuit said.”

    If a professor misbehaved with you the very first time he met you – why do you accept an assistantship to work with him? She should have filed a police complaint and gone to some other grad school! Only after the assistantship was stopped in Dec 2017, did she think it necessary to complain! How very convenient.

    I have known Rizzoni for many years and he was a stand-up guy. He had many women grad students in his lab – it is strange that this “monstrous side” suddenly surfaced with this one woman.

  6. I have known Giorgio for over 25 years. In all this time, I have interfaced with him in classrooms, travel and meeting settings. NEVER have I ever seen him act inappropriately to anyone!! This is a classic example of someone trying to get something they don’t deserve and instead of working on their PhD assignments, they were creating false accusations. This is such a waste of money spent by our government and the university defending someone innocent.

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