Ex-student sues Oakland Community College, alleges prof assaulted her

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

A former Oakland Community College student filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against the college and several administrators, alleging that she was sexually assaulted by the former head of the school's architecture program after at least five complaints had been lodged against him since the 1990s.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, alleges Syed Ahsan, a professor of nearly 30 years, gained the plaintiff's trust, groomed her and sexually assaulted her starting three years after she began attending OCC.

Oakland County Community College has been sued over allegations that a longtime professor sexually harassed and assaulted a student.

The Detroit News does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault unless they speak out publicly.

The alleged assaults began in the fall 2016 when the woman was 23 and Ahsan "lured (her) to his house under that guise that he would provide her additional assistance and academic support in her classes," according to the lawsuit.

"Beginning in 2016 and throughout 2018, while acting as (the plaintiff's) professor and mentor, Defendant Ahsan forcefully and without the consent of (the plaintiff), groped (her) breasts, hugged her, put his unwanted hands on (her) body, and forced his open mouth onto (her) hand, head, forehead, cheek, and mouth," according to the lawsuit. 

The suit also names the OCC Board of Trustees, Chancellor Peter Provenzano Jr. and several college administrators, alleging they failed to protect her. 

Ahsan could not be immediately reached for comment.

Provenzano said he is taking the allegations of this former student seriously.

"Soon after the receipt of an internal Title IX complaint, we hired an independent, outside legal expert to conduct a comprehensive investigation," the chancellor said. "That investigation played a role in our administration’s decision to terminate the instructor named in the complaint. The investigation found that he committed lapses in professional behavior that the College considers unacceptable.

"We are committed to ensuring a safe experience for all our students," Provenzano continued. "Our goal is to provide a learning environment free from the type of behavior alleged in this case."

The lawsuit comes amid the ongoing #MeToo movement and sexual assaults complaints across the nation, including the highly-publicized case of Larry Nassar, the pedophile who assaulted women for decades as a Michigan State University doctor. Besides the plaintiff in the OCC case, Okemos-based lawyer Jamie White represented 50 of the 500 women who came forward with accusations against Nassar, now imprisoned for life.

Other sexual assault lawsuits involving Michigan academia include a civil claim against University of Michigan professor David Daniels, a renowned opera singer on leave from the university, who along his partner, Scott Walters, allegedly sexually assaulted a 23-year-old performer in May 2010 at the Houston Grand Opera.

The lawsuit against OCC outlines allegations against Ahsan involving five Jane Does, the first being a woman who wrote college officials in 1997 alleging that he had harassed her while they were colleagues at the University of Waterloo in Canada in 1990, according to the complaint.

The other Jane Doe cases in the suit include an OCC subordinate of Ahsan from 1994 through 1997; the suit alleges he grabbed her and forced her breasts against his chest.

"Jane Doe 2 complained numerous times to many individuals about the sexual harassment and assaults perpetrated by Defendant Ahsan, yet no action was taken by Defendant OCC," according to the lawsuit.

Other Jane Does in the suit also included a student enrolled in an OCC work-study program in the fall of 1996 who worked for Ahsan.

Among other things, he allegedly put his arms around her when she was typing and kissed her cheek, according to the suit. The complaint also says he demanded twice that she come to his house to have him sign her time sheet, and both times, he "greeted her wearing a bathrobe." 

She made a complaint to OCC, according to the lawsuit, but "(d)espite this notice, Defendant OCC knowingly allowed a sexual predator to work with students, staff, and administration." 

 Ahsan allegedly sexually harassed another woman by commenting on her lips and body and demanding she wear a dress when she came to visit him, the complaint says His behavior allegedly escalated in 1996 when he groped and fondled her buttocks, according to the lawsuit.

The woman reported him to OCC’s Public Safety Office because she felt unsafe, but the college took no action, according to the lawsuit.

Ahsan was terminated after a 1997 investigation, then reinstated in 2000 after an arbitration hearing, according to the lawsuit.

A year after he was reinstated, Ahsan allegedly sexually harassed an OCC student by asking her on dates, hugging her and giving her extra credit for working on a website with him in his office, according to the lawsuit.

He also allegedly asked her to go on a trip with him to St. Louis in 2001, the suit says. She reported him to OCC and an outside investigation was launched.

A report concluded that, “Mr. Ahsan’s actions were particularly egregious because his harassing behaviors began immediately upon his return to work following the arbitrator’s reinstatement,” according to the lawsuit.

He was suspended for one semester, according to the lawsuit.

"As a result of Defendant OCC’s complete and utter failure to protect or warn its female students and employees, Defendant Ahsan continued his sexually assaultive rampage against female students on Defendant OCC’s campus," according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiff filed a Title IX complaint in May 2018. Five months later, a report showed that investigators interviewed five male students, who reported no inappropriate comments or sexual advances from Ahsan, according to the lawsuit. It concluded that he created a sexual hostile environment, which lead the plaintiff to be unable to complete her coursework.

"As a direct and/or proximate result of Defendant OCC’s actions and/or inactions, (the plaintiff) has suffered and continues to suffer discomfort, sleep deprivation, physical illness, uncontrollable anxiety, severe depression, suicidal thoughts, severe emotional distress, shock, humiliation, fright, grief, embarrassment, loss of self-esteem, disgrace, loss of familial relationships, loss of enjoyment of life, and will continue to suffer pain of mind and body, was prevented and will continue to be prevented from performing her daily activities and obtaining the full enjoyment of life, and has sustained and will continue to sustain loss of earnings and earning capacity."

The lawsuit alleges OCC was negligent and violated Title IX law and the plaintiff's civil rights. It seeks monetary damages and non-monetary damages to be determined by a court.