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Lawsuit: Canisius College professor sexually harassed female students

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Michael Noonan

Then-Canisius College Professor Michael Noonan talks to a 100 middle school students at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in Basom, N.Y., on June 13 2006.

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Heralded animal behavior professor Michael Noonan frequently traveled across the world with Canisius College students, filming wildlife and making videos aimed at conserving the natural environment.

His website lists 135 student research assistants, many of whom joined him on trips to exotic places such as Indonesia, Uganda and the Amazon.

But Noonan’s actions on one of those trips and on campus – including accusations that he repeatedly sexually harassed female students – are now the focus of a federal lawsuit against the college.

Among the complaints: On an overseas trip in India to film tigers, Noonan reportedly insisted on administering suppositories and enemas to female students suffering from constipation.

Five former Canisius students have sued the college’s trustees, accusing the college of retaliating against them after they complained in 2019 about Noonan, a longtime professor and chairman of the animal behavior, ecology and conservation program.

The college maintained that it acted appropriately in responding to internal complaints in 2019 and denied that it retaliated against the women.

“The conduct complained of in this 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,” the college said in a statement Wednesday. “Federal privacy laws prevent the college from responding publicly in detail to these allegations at this time, but the college is confident that it took all appropriate steps to swiftly address the reported concerns, and that it properly respected the rights of all participants in the process.”

Noonan, 71, who now resides in Washington State, did not respond to an email and a voicemail seeking comment.

Noonan was on the Canisius faculty for 40 years. He shepherded a program with a national reputation and received the college's Distinguished Faculty Award in 2003. He retired with little fanfare in June 2019.

Months earlier, in January or February, several women complained to the college’s vice president of human resources that Noonan had sexually harassed them and engaged in other gender-based misconduct.

Noonan pursued “sexualized” discussions about his private life and the private lives of students; touched students’ hair and clothes, including bra straps and underwear; and suggested many times that young women “should be open to dating older men” like him, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit claims that the college knew about Noonan’s penchant for sexual harassment and discriminatory misconduct since at least 2014, when a faculty member reported him to the college’s Title IX office.

At least 11 students, including five women who brought the lawsuit, reported Noonan’s “harassing misconduct” to Canisius administrators in January or February 2019, according to court papers filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York.

The lawsuit filed last week by Glendale attorney Daniela Nanau refers to Noonan as a “serial sexual predator” and accuses the college of condoning his behavior because he ran one of the college’s most popular undergraduate programs and brought in millions of dollars in private donations and government grants.

The plaintiffs are five former Canisius students: Sierra Boucher, Lily Engebrecht, Natassia Tuhovak, Hannah Whelan and Cassidy Wood.

The plaintiffs claim that the college’s handling of the complaints amounted to retaliation because they were unable to continue their research projects and were not provided with mentors and advisors to replace Noonan. The plaintiffs also said that after they complained, they couldn’t get proper recommendation letters or assistance with their educations and plans for work or further studies in the conservation field upon completing their undergraduate degrees.

Four of the plaintiffs were among a group of nine female Canisius students who joined Noonan on a trip to India in January 2019 for “Project Tiger,” which involved research, interviewing Indians about Bengal tiger preservation efforts and gathering video footage of tigers in their habitats.

On the trip, Noonan repeatedly insisted on knowing the bowel movements of students and sought to give those who were constipated an enema, court papers said. When two of the women went to the hospital, Noonan joined them in the examination room, without their consent, according to court papers.

The students who went to India were unable to complete the Project Tiger film because Noonan kept the video footage and the college did not try to get it back, according to court papers.

Some plaintiffs who had participated in other trips with Noonan as part of the Canisius Ambassadors for Conservation program said the professor had made them extremely uncomfortable by taking pictures of them and videotaping them in their bathing suits and frequently discussing his romantic relationships with younger women.

The lawsuit also claims that Noonan regularly chose women over men to join him on trips. Noonan's website lists 135 student research associates, 21 of whom are men.

The plaintiffs and several other women in January 2019 gave Linda Walleshauser, Title IX officer at the time, who is now the college’s vice president of human resources, a written report detailing accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct against Noonan. Walleshauser told the group she would investigate and assured the women they would be protected from retaliation and supported by the college, court papers said.

Noonan was removed from campus about a month later, and in late April 2019, Walleshauser promised the plaintiffs an opportunity to review her investigative report to the college, court papers said.

But on June 11, 2019, Walleshauser emailed the women to say that Noonan had retired, effective June 1, and that they would be allowed access to the Project Tiger film and video so that they could complete their own work.

Canisius has said nothing publicly about why Noonan retired, nor has it revealed the findings of its investigation into the women’s claims of misconduct.

The plaintiffs said they are suffering from anxiety, trauma or depression, which they attribute to their experiences with Noonan and the college’s handling of their complaints.

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My byline has run in the Ithaca Journal, USA Today, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and the New York Times. I have been a staff reporter at The Buffalo News since 2002 and currently am part of the watchdog team.

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