For the past four years, George Mason psychology professor Todd Kashdan has been fighting the public Virginia university where he works.

Yes, he admitted in court filings, he hosted graduate students in his hot tub, where he discussed his experience at a German brothel. Yes, he likewise acknowledged, he went with students to a strip club and told them about performing oral sex on a woman at a party.

But he argued in a lawsuit that it was “anti-male bias” for the school to discipline him for sexual harassment.

Last week, Kashdan lost at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit after a lower court had earlier rejected his claims against the university in 2020, saying there was no evidence of discrimination against him. The higher court came to the same conclusion.

Kashdan’s work focuses on happiness and well-being. He’s written a “What’s your trigger?” quiz for the New York Times and talked happiness on the “Hidden Brain” podcast. He has a Substack, “Provoked.” A tenured professor since 2008, he’s written several self-improvement books.

But in 2019, according to the court record, Kashdan was barred from teaching or hiring new graduate students for two years and disaffiliated from GMU’s clinical psychology program for at least five years. He also was told he could no longer teach, mentor, conduct research or serve on dissertation committees as part of that doctoral program. Those punishments came after a school investigation, detailed in documents made public through his lawsuit, concluded he sexually harassed four female students.

In his suit, Kashdan said the school violated his right to equal treatment through Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded schools — the same law he was disciplined under. Such claims became more common after the Obama administration issued Title IX guidance that made it easier for college students to pursue claims of sexual assault or harassment. Men argued that in trying to make campuses safer for female students, colleges had trampled on their rights. The Trump administration expanded rights for those accused of sexual misconduct; President Biden repealed that measure and his administration issued its own version in a new regulation set to be finalized this fall.

Kashdan said he was also denied his rights to free speech and due process under the First and 14th amendments.

In 2018, the four current and former female graduate students reported to the GMU administration that Kashdan engaged in repeated inappropriate comments and behavior during class-related activities, according to documents made public in the lawsuit. Kashdan asserted in that suit that those interactions, some dating back several years, were either taken out of context or fabricated.

He said in his suit that students had welcomed and sometimes initiated the behavior deemed inappropriate and that one of the complaining women organized the strip club trip and bought him a lap dance while another had asked how many sexual partners he had had.

“The same women who had given him unsolicited praise for his teaching and research, and sought him out for assistance with academics and their careers, now alleged that he had created a ‘hostile environment,’” Kashdan’s lawyers wrote, positing that one student and her three friends turned on him because she was fired from his lab.

That woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared the professional repercussions of reporting Kashdan, said she chose to leave the lab and provided emails indicating she chose to apply for and attend a different program. She and the other three women say they were not all friends before independently deciding to report Kashdan.

Sarah Bricker-Carter and Caitlin Williams, who went public with their complaints in a 2020 Post interview, said they and other students felt compelled to go along with Kashdan’s sexual boundary-crossing to succeed in the clinical psychology program.

“It was not a secret,” Bricker-Carter said; older students had told her she would have to “play ball” to do well in Kashdan’s classes. “Throughout my graduate work I faced decisions over what I was willing to go through in order to get where I needed to get,” she said. “I didn’t push back and was able to get his favor in that way, but it didn’t uphold my values.”

Williams said Kashdan took advantage of a power imbalance particularly acute in clinical psychology, a highly competitive field in which small groups of students spend years with professors who not only judge their work but also determine access to grants, research projects and other opportunities.

“Once you’re in, you’ll do anything to stay in and to stay in the good graces of the people who control your life,” Williams said. She said the “last straw” for her was a Facebook post in which Kashdan promoted a new article by describing in detail how he would have sex with it.

Kashdan denied some allegations of sexual comments made in private conversations; those made in group settings, he argued, were pedagogical in nature. He said he deployed the oral sex anecdote as an example of exhibitionism and the description of the German brothel as part of a broader conversation about human sexuality. Asking a student what pornography she liked was part of a group discussion about using data from the website in research, he said.

Even if the behavior was inappropriate, Kashdan argued, there was no evidence it had a negative impact on the female students’ education.

“He can’t accept the fact that he’s caused harm,” Williams said.

Kashdan alleged that “pressure from negative publicity, campus activism and federal investigations” led GMU’s Title IX administrators — already “biased … on the side of women’s rights” — to give short shrift to exculpatory evidence in his case, including positive student reviews.

Far from biased in their favor, Bricker-Carter said, the Title IX process was “pretty miserable.” She and Williams both wish Kashdan’s punishment had been more severe.

The university did not tell the student body that he was found to have violated the sexual harassment policy, saying doing so would violate state rules on personnel information. The investigation and the punishment only became public because Kashdan sued and was barred from using a pseudonym. He was never barred from teaching undergraduates or working with post-doctoral students. He can employ and write with clinical psychology graduate students who choose to work with him independently, according to the court record. He came out with his fourth book last year — “The Art of Insubordination.”

“He’s turned this into this bad-boy mystique,” Bricker-Carter said. “He is making money, and getting this reputation, when the reality is that it has come at the expense of others in a more vulnerable position than him.”

In a statement, Kashdan said he was “disheartened” by the decision and called the Title IX process “dysfunctional.”

“As a psychologist, professor, and researcher, I advocate for constructive dialogue around difficult topics,” he added. “I research human behavior and teach how to openly challenge dysfunctional ideas. Sexual harassment is unacceptable, as are false accusations. If we are going to have productive conversations in academia, to open and challenge minds, we must find a way to protect those who are mistreated as well as those who are falsely accused.”

A federal judge in Alexandria dismissed Kashdan’s suit in 2020, noting that he “admits to much of the underlying conduct” and did not offer “particularized facts that gender bias was a motivating factor” in the investigation. Kashdan appealed to the 4th Circuit, which on June 13 similarly found that “while pressure from the Department of Education or the general campus climate is relevant, it does not suffice by itself to plausibly allege sex discrimination.”

The unanimous decision was written by Judge Allison Jones Rushing, a Trump appointee, for a panel that also included appointees of George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush.

Both courts also threw out Kashdan’s 14th Amendment claim, on the grounds that he had no right to due process because he did not suffer a “significant demotion.” As for his First Amendment claim, supported by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, the appellate court noted precedent that public employees’ speech is protected only if it is on a matter of public concern.

“It is simply implausible that the public is ‘truly concerned with or interested in’ Kashdan’s personal sexual exploits or the intimate and private details of his students’ sex lives,” the court wrote.

Nick Anderson and Laura Meckler contributed to this report.

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