Nearly two years after Utah State University’s president announced an outside investigation into sexual assault allegations against professor — one that was expected to last only a few weeks — officials remain silent on exactly where the case involving Dennis Hirst stands.
USU President Noelle Cockett and university spokesman Tim Vitale say they can’t discuss the matter involving the associate professor of music now, but hint they would be able to at the “appropriate” time. Cockett and Vitale also did not provide a timeline as to when that would be.
“There are a lot of moving parts that are still moving,” Cockett wrote in an email to The Herald Journal, referring to the university investigation.
Addressing the length of time the probe has taken, Vitale wrote, “Many considerations can come into play both during any investigative process itself and then in any follow-up personnel action process that could follow.”
Dennis Hirst — a longtime professor at USU who has been responsible for organizing events such as the prestigious Wassermann Festival — has been working from home since fall semester of 2018, when Cockett announced an outside law firm, Parr Brown Gee and Loveless, had been retained to investigate his conduct.
That investigation came after an investigation into the USU music department; Hirst being reprimanded by school administration; and the the fact that it became public that a Cache Valley woman filed a civil suit against him, claiming he raped her when he was 23 and she was 17. In that suit, filed in 1st District Court, Jaime Caliendo is seeking at least $300,000 in damages for sexual assault, sexual battery and infliction of emotional distress.
In the past, Hirst declined multiple requests for comment from The Herald Journal, but this time, his attorney, Herm Olsen, provided one.
“Mr. Hirst reaffirms that the allegations of the civil complaint are false and without merit,” Olsen stated in an email. “He is unable to provide further comment on issues concerning either the USU review or the civil complaint as both matters are ongoing.”
The latest: USU investigation
Vitale echoed Olsen’s comments in the sense that the university “does not discuss personnel actions that are not complete.”
Those comments prompted The Herald Journal to file a request for records under Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act at the beginning of June, but the university denied those records, which were: a final report from the Salt Lake City law firm; a report on Hirst’s conduct from a university Title IX inquiry panel; a final sanctions report related to Hirst; and an email from USU Provost Frank Galey updating Caliendo and Hirst as to where the investigation stands.
Vitale explained that, from USU’s point of view, the records include “private personnel records” and the records in question fall under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act — federal law. Even if they were subject to GRAMA, Vitale added, the school would consider them “private records because public disclosure would result in a significant invasion of privacy.”
With regard to the “final sanctions report” on Hirst, USU believes “records disclosing disciplinary actions are not public until the disciplinary action has been completed and all time periods for administrative appeal have expired,” Vitale wrote.
Caliendo would not share any documents with the newspaper related to her cases or reveal conversations she’s had with USU’s Office of Equity, which oversees the school’s Title IX response team.
But Caliendo did answer a series of questions in an email, including her thoughts on how USU has handled her case.
“I feel that USU has conducted a thorough investigation over the last two years. I’m not aware of any final action that has been taken in this matter,” Caliendo wrote.
It was not until fairly recently that USU started calling her weekly to provide updates on the investigation.
Amanda DeRito, USU’s director of crisis communications and issues management, told the newspaper that the regular calls are a practice, not a policy, and is possible as a result of the expansion of the Equity office.
“USU recognizes the Title IX investigation process is difficult for the parties involved. Weekly updates give the university the opportunity to check in, make sure the parties are receiving appropriate supportive measures, and provide additional referrals for resources if needed,” DeRito wrote.
Caliendo also commented to The Herald Journal broadly about survivors of sexual violence and how they’re treated by case investigators and society as a whole.
“I’m encouraged that the achievements as well as the struggles of women are being more fully recognized. Without question, there’s been a lot of progress in women’s rights in the last 100 years. It’s great to celebrate how far we’ve come,” Caliendo wrote. “But in such a celebration, it’s worth at least reflecting on the contrast between progress and the still-disenfranchised survivors of sexual crimes. There’s more that must be done, particularly to support survivors in the context of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment.”
Status of Caliendo v. Hirst
Just as USU’s Title IX investigation outcome has remained unclear since 2018, so has Caliendo’s civil case.
That’s because the Utah Supreme Court had not yet ruled on Mitchell v. Roberts, a sexual assault case involving a federal judge. The former judge, Richard Roberts, was sued in 2016 by a woman who claims he raped her in 1980 when she was 16 and he was an adult, prosecuting a man she witnessed being gunned down.
Roberts argued the statute of limitations for charges had passed, but the woman’s attorney’s cited a 2016 change to Utah code that gave victims of sex crimes more latitude on taking legal actions against their perpetrators. The argument set up a challenge to Utah’s high court.
The court recently decided the case and ruled that “the Utah Legislature is constitutionally prohibited from retroactively reviving a time-barred claim in a manner depriving a defendant of a vested statute of limitations defense,” dealing a blow to Caliendo’s case.
In the aftermath of the case, women convened on Utah’s Capitol steps to share their stories of abuse and their reaction to the high court’s ruling.
Caliendo told The Herald Journal she is worried about what repercussions this ruling could have on sexual violence survivors like her.
“The removal of the opportunity to confront one’s perpetrator in an effort to heal what are often decades-old wounds does irreparable damage to both survivors and the integrity of our society,” Caliendo wrote. “Everybody suffers when someone who’s hurting can’t heal. Having the legal opportunity to address issues of abuse, even years after the event, and once the survivor finally feels ready to face a grueling investigative process, is the only equitable solution. I’m hopeful that Utah lawmakers will continue to pursue this issue, and that voters will overwhelmingly support any future measures that strengthen survivors’ rights.”
Olsen, meanwhile, called the state high court’s ruling “favorable” and demanded Caliendo drop the lawsuit. Caliendo told the newspaper she was not certain what would happen with her civil case.
Asked by The Herald Journal if she would consider suing USU if her civil case against Hirst was not resolved to her satisfaction, Caliendo responded, “right now I’m focused on participating in the current Title IX investigation, to completion.”
Timeline of inquiries
While the outcomes of the university’s Title IX investigation into Hirst and the civil lawsuit remain unclear, the uncertainty persists after a series of other developments involving his employment.
In the summer of 2018, Hirst was reprimanded by the university following a report from outside counsel that recommended he be removed as interim piano program coordinator.
That report, authored by Attorney Alan Sullivan’s firm Snell and Wilmer, found Hirst contributed to a culture of psychological abuse and enabled or ignored gender discrimination in the USU piano program over several years.
Hirst pushed back on the school’s reprimand in his own letter, saying, “As far as I know, I did not contribute to a psychologically abusive environment. I acted to mitigate the effects of the hostile environment to the best of my ability.”
USU’s decision to reprimand Hirst took several mitigating factors into account, including that more recently, he had “contributed to a positive change in the treatment of students in the piano program.”
The reprimand could not have come without the investigation by Snell & Wilmer, which, in February of 2018, was hired by USU to investigate the music department and how it handled former students’ sexual violence claims when they were students there. USU hired Sullivan’s firm after seeing students share their stories on Facebook of alleged faculty misconduct.
The Sullivan report found Hirst was one of several officials, including piano program coordinator Gary Amano, who contributed to a culture of psychological abuse and enabling or ignoring gender discrimination in the USU piano program over several years. Amano retired a day before the report was publicly released.