Thomas Roma, Photographer and Professor, Accused of Sexual Misconduct

Posted January 3, 2018 12:10 p.m. EST

In 1999, when Mozhan Marno was an 18-year-old sophomore at Barnard College, one of her professors began talking with her about having an affair. Inside his office one day, the professor, Thomas Roma, removed her coat, lifted her shirt and pulled down her pants, she said. He put his mouth on her breast and placed her hand on his penis, she added — behavior she described as consensual, overwhelming and “controlled and initiated by him from beginning to end.”

Afterward, Marno said, she heard that Roma — a prominent photographer who teaches at Columbia University — regularly pursued sexual relationships with students, and became uncomfortable when he made suggestive remarks after promising to act only as a mentor that semester. In January 2000, she made a written complaint to Columbia. But out of embarrassment, Marno said, she provided a watered-down account to the school’s investigative panel.

The panel determined that she and Roma were both complicit in the incident, she said, a decision that left her thinking Columbia “should be ashamed of itself” for not investigating Roma more thoroughly.

“Everybody talks about moving through the world through mentorship,” she said. “I never got close to a male professor ever again.”

Marno, now an actress with credits on “House of Cards” and “The Blacklist,” is one of five women who spoke on the record with The New York Times to describe sexual misconduct by Roma, the director of the photography program at Columbia’s School of the Arts and a documentary photographer whose work is owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and other museums. The Times also interviewed people with whom the women discussed Roma’s behavior at the time of those events or later.

The accusations depict behavior said to have occurred mostly in the 1990s and that followed a similar pattern: Roma started relationships with young women he taught at Columbia and at the School of Visual Arts, flattering and cajoling them, making sexual advances — and, one woman said, placing his penis in her mouth. He would also often remind them of his professional stature, the women said.

That stature carries considerable influence, beyond the usual power disparity between professor and student: In the field of photography, Roma could make a difference by providing letters of reference, recommendations for grants, and introductions to art dealers and collectors.

Roma, provided with details about the accounts of the women, declined to be interviewed. His lawyer told The Times that Roma disputes any suggestion that his behavior was ever coercive and that the professor had cooperated fully with Columbia’s inquiry into Marno’s complaint.

The lawyer, Douglas Jacobs, issued a statement saying that Roma was “shocked” by the accusations from the other four women.

“The statements they are making about his asserted misconduct are replete with inaccuracies and falsehoods,” Jacobs said. “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.”

Four of the five women attended the School of Visual Arts around the same time; some were friends there and have stayed close. Joyce Kaye, a spokeswoman for SVA, said the school “does not have a record of any complaints against Mr. Roma” when he taught there in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Suzanne Goldberg, Columbia’s executive vice president for university life, said in response to the accusations against Roma: “It is our standard practice to investigate whenever we receive a report that a faculty member may have sexually harassed a student.”

Goldberg said that university policy forbids faculty members from having sexual relationships with students they oversee. Columbia, like many schools, has been trying to navigate ongoing campus debates about how best to handle student allegations of sexual misconduct. Goldberg said Columbia “looks differently at these matters today than 20 years ago” when Marno filed her complaint. “Our policies on faculty conduct have been strengthened accordingly in recent years,” she said. This year, William V. Harris, a professor of Greco-Roman history, retired after accusations that he had harassed three students.

Roma, whose best known work includes black-and-white images of worshippers in African-American churches and portraits of people at the Brooklyn criminal courthouse, has received two Guggenheim fellowships and had solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography. He is married to a daughter of Lee Friedlander, a giant in the world of documentary photography, and has published 15 monographs with introductions by writers like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Norman Mailer. His teaching career includes stints at Fordham, Cooper Union and Yale, according to his website.

The five women described Roma as a charming and charismatic teacher who cultivated a street-wise persona and emphasized perseverance, sacrifice and dedication to craft. The women, as well as some former students who posted anonymously online about Roma’s teaching, said that he could be an unsparing critic, but also had the ability to instill confidence and inspire.

One of the women, Ash Thayer, a filmmaker and artist in Los Angeles, said she studied with Roma in the mid-1990s at SVA, then in the graduate program at Columbia, where she was also his teaching assistant. In 1999, Thayer said, she was working in Roma’s office at Columbia shortly after a mutual friend, photographer Raghubir Singh, had died. Thayer said that she was sitting at a desk when Roma asked her to turn around. His penis was erect, she said, and he moved toward her. She repeatedly said “no,” but Roma placed his penis in her mouth before she pushed him away and left, Thayer said, estimating that the encounter lasted perhaps 30 seconds.

“I froze,” she said. “He committed oral rape against me.” Allison Ward, a student at SVA in the mid-1990s, said she had several sexual encounters with Roma. One occurred in a classroom, she said, recalling that she “was mortified and embarrassed but went along with it.” Ward said that she had wanted to please Roma and gain his acceptance, adding “he was the first person in my life who had connected my passion for photography with a path forward.” Roma did not force any contact, she said, but had been “predatory” and had “crossed a line” by seeking a sexual relationship.

“He was coercive and would keep trying,” she said. “He was a little relentless.”

Another SVA student in the mid-90s, Angela Cappetta, said that after repeated requests she allowed Roma to photograph her in her apartment. There, she said, Roma asked to touch her breast and put her hand on his crotch. “I thought I’d have to go along with it or it would be detrimental,” she said. She drew the line when he asked to have sex, she added.

On campus, Roma often surrounded himself with a coterie of male and female students who would sort his negatives and act as teaching assistants, the five women said, adding that Roma would regularly invite students on outings or to gatherings at his house in Park Slope.

In 1997, Ilana Rein, a graduate student at SVA, said that Roma, who was then her thesis adviser, invited her to a backyard gathering. He asked her into his photo studio, then bluntly stated that he needed something from her and placed her hand on his crotch, Rein said. Taken aback, she did not object, but soon began feeling ill, removed her hand and left.

“I was blindsided because I thought we were going to look at photographs,” Rein, now a filmmaker in Los Angeles, said. “This is someone who I trusted.”

Some of the former students stayed in touch with Roma after these encounters, saying that they were intimidated, sought his help or wanted to believe that his behavior had been out of character. But, some added, Roma could be dismissive or even cruel to those who had rebuffed him.

Rein said that during a trip to Coney Island with students after her encounter with Roma, he repeatedly singled her out for mockery, while others laughed. “There was a kind of violence to it,” she said. “He had such a vise grip on us back then.”

Thayer said she blocked out memories of the office incident and, after graduating, remained in sporadic touch with Roma, exchanging emails and sometimes asking for recommendations or advice. In 2014, she said, she met Roma in Brooklyn and let him know that a book of her photographs was about to be published. He told her he might be able to help her get a teaching job at Columbia, Thayer said, but then implied that he would expect intimate contact in return. She has not seen or spoken with Roma since.

“I just kept wanting him to be the mentor that he was supposed to be,” Thayer said. “But I realized that there was not going to be a time when he was not inappropriate with me and asking for a sexual relationship.”