The director of Ohio State’s Counseling and Consultation Services office was ordered to undergo sexual misconduct training last year after a university investigation found sufficient evidence of misconduct.
Micky Sharma, who oversees the university’s main mental health resource for students, was accused of sexism and inappropriate touching, according to an anonymous complaint filed in January 2018.
“Ohio State does not tolerate sexual misconduct of any kind, and these misconduct complaints were thoroughly investigated,” Ben Johnson, Ohio State spokesman, said in a statement. “In accordance with Ohio State’s sexual misconduct policy and the findings of the investigation, the university issued formal corrective action.”
The Office of Student Life sent Sharma an official reprimand July 9, informing him he had violated sexual misconduct policy, that he would be required to attend sexual misconduct training in person at Ohio State, take “Leadership Blind Spots” training online, and that any further transgressions would result in further punishment, including up to termination.
“I regret that my actions made anyone uncomfortable, and I have done much reflection on accountability and respect and how I can advance these values in all areas of my life now and in the future,” Sharma said in a statement to The Lantern.
In a July 31 letter to Student Life, Sharma wrote that he disagreed with the findings and called them the result of an “unethical, one-sided, culturally insensitive process.”
Public records obtained by The Lantern included statements from two unnamed female employees who said Sharma inappropriately touched them, sent them suggestive text messages and made flirtatious comments.
Unwanted physical contact
In 2012, a woman listed as “Witness 2” in the report, said that during a car ride, Sharma made unwanted contact with her by placing his hand on her upper thigh.
The woman told investigators that during a drive to Otterbein University for a conference/talk Sharma pointed to printed directions on her lap and then let his hand rest on her upper thigh.
The woman told investigators she found the contact “somewhat” sexual in nature, but would not describe it as groping. She believed it was meant to intimidate her and assert Sharma’s power. She was, at the time, a fellow applying for a senior staff position and refused to ride in cars with Sharma after the incident, according to the report.
Sharma denied ever touching the upper thigh of an employee in his interview with investigators.
Another woman listed as “Witness 1” said she experienced unwanted, prolonged physical contact by Sharma in February 2015 while attending a Big Ten conference in Nebraska with CCS staff.
The woman told investigators that during a walk to dinner that was estimated to be more than 15 minutes, Sharma put his arms around her in a way that she described was like trying to protect her from the cold. Sharma never removed his arm, but he did not try to make any further contact. She was a trainee at the time.
The woman said she didn’t think the contact was sexual in nature, but that it made her feel strange and uncomfortable, and that Sharma did it to show the power differential between them.
In addition to their specific incidents, both Witness 1 and 2 described interactions with Sharma where he squeezed their shoulders.
Sharma acknowledged giving consensual hugs and high fives, and said that he would occasionally pat employees on the arm or back as a way of encouragement.
Flirting and messaging
Witnesses 1 and 2 both told investigators that Sharma would frequently send them text messages outside of work about non-work matters.
Witness 1 said that in October 2016 she received a text message from Sharma that she believes was not intended for her, but implied that he was trying to set her up with someone else romantically. Sharma had previously asked her in June 2016 if she was single, according to documents.
When Sharma was made aware of this situation, he said that the message was not about the employee, but rather that of a friend whose daughter has the same first name and that he was not trying to set up a female employee.
Witness 1 told investigators about another specific instance that made her uncomfortable in which Sharma sent her pictures of high heels with the message, “You need these shoes. They are the type you like.”
The witness perceived the text to be flirtatious, and another witness who was aware of the text told investigators it was inappropriate.
Sharma told investigators he had commented on her shoes because she had a hurt ankle and that he did not remember sending the picture. Witness 1 did not mention an injured ankle in the report.
Witness 1 said Sharma would message her on and off, beginning while she was a fellow, but the texting was so frequent that other employees made comments about it.
She said they were never sexual in nature, but she perceived them as flirtatious. The woman said the number of text messages sent to her felt inappropriate, but she felt she had to respond because he was her boss.
Five of the other witnesses were aware of Sharma texting Witness 1, with one of the other witnesses saying the behavior was odd and inappropriate.
Describing the behavior as weird, Witness 2 said Sharma would text her frequently, beginning when she was a fellow.
Witness 2 told investigators that Sharma on multiple occasions would send her pictures of blonde women at sporting events that were clearly not her with the message, “Are you having fun at the game?”
When made aware of these allegations Sharma said he had never sent messages of this nature and that he never sent messages to trainees.
Sharma also said that he does engage in banter and jokes with employees and, due to the size of the office, with some employees more than others. He said he did not know if it was perceived as flirtatious.
Two other witnesses said they believe Sharma has a lack of awareness regarding his behavior and the perception it creates. The witnesses said they had discussed the behavior among themselves but not with Sharma. One of them explicitly stated they had witnessed behavior they perceived as flirting with an employee.
Comments in the workplace
In addition to the comments about her shoes, Witness 1 said that Sharma would make comments about how she was dressed or her appearance. While she said they were not sexual in nature, the woman said that Sharma’s comments caused her to begin to think about how she was dressed and her appearance prior to coming to work.
Witness 2 said that after she returned from maternity leave, Sharma made comments about her body approximately five to 10 times. In one instance, Sharma made a comment about her body in a meeting that caused the meeting to stop and for attendees to look at her.
Sharma told investigators that he does not make comments about the bodies of employees. When made aware of the specific claim of Witness 2, he said if he did make the comment, it would’ve been intended as a compliment.
Both witnesses 1 and 2 said they never observed Sharma making comments about the appearances of male employees.
In addition to comments about her appearance, Witness 2 said Sharma made sexist remarks to her when she asked about a salary review. The woman said that when she brought up the raise of another employee and asked if it was possible for her to get a higher salary, Sharma called her a “spoiled brat” and said other Big Ten offices would feel the same way about her.
Sharma told investigators that he told Witness 2 that those in her profession — specializing in eating disorders — were perceived as spoiled brats but that he never called the employee herself a spoiled brat.
The other 14 witnesses said they did not recall any sexist remarks by Sharma, but that they believed Sharma calling one female employee “bossypants” could be perceived as sexist. The witness who was called “bossypants” said she did not find it sexist. Sharma said he stopped calling the employee “bossypants” to avoid the perception of sexism.
Criticism of investigation
In Sharma’s letter to Senior Vice President for Student Life Javaune Adams-Gaston following his reprimand, he said that he “vehemently disagreed” with the findings of the investigation and raised concerns with the process.
Sharma said that the investigation was approached with a presumption of guilt and that while interviews followed up on items raised by witnesses, they never followed up on ones he raised.
He said the investigation was biased against him. When asked about stereotypes against white women, Sharma said he had none. He asked investigators if the witnesses were asked about stereotypes against Indian men, and they told him no.
Sharma said that an accurate set of findings could not be reported without looking into the question of stereotypes of Indian men and asked if the findings would be the same if he were white.
Sharma also questioned the length and finality of the findings. He said that the five-month investigation took far too long and was disrespectful to him and his staff.
He also said that not allowing for an appeals process was unfair, especially since one of the witnesses interviewed was someone with which he had an unresolved disagreement years ago.
Finally, Sharma said that the investigators did not respect his work or that of his staff. He raised concerns that one witness was interviewed the same week that they were interviewing for a pay raise. He also raised concerns that investigators contacted him to schedule a second interview while he was helping coordinate a crisis response for a university tragedy.
Public records indicate that Sharma completed both his in-person and online training that was required by the Office of Student Life.
Public records provided to The Lantern included a certificate from Sharma’s completion of “Understanding of Sexual Misconduct Policy” training date Aug. 28, 2018.