A year after her harassment lawsuit against the University of South Carolina settled, Allison Dunavant still carries the weight of an experience she hardly ever talks about — an experience that changed her adult life and warped the way she sees the world.
She’s alarmed as USC continues to employ David Voros — the School of Visual Art and Design (SVAD) professor who she says harassed, intimidated and isolated her during a horrific 2016 study abroad trip to Italy when she was a graduate student.
Voros allegedly engaged in sexual acts in front of Dunavant, sexually harassed her, then deprived her of food when she wouldn’t comply.
“What does it take to fire a tenured professor?” she asks.
Dunavant is especially concerned after two USC SVAD instructors recently filed a lawsuit with “the same complaints and concerns, repeated” about Voros and the university’s handling of sexual harassment complaints.
“How many women have to complain before they fire him?” Dunavant asks. “Why are they still protecting him?“
She’s troubled as she reflects and remembers all of the times university officials made her feel like she was the problem — and allegedly stonewalled her on multiple occasions after she reported the harassment.
“Students who have been sexually assaulted on campus have to go through the same people and navigate the same channels I did – and that really worries me,” Dunavant told FITSNews. “Especially grad students … they have even fewer options to get help.”
Even after USC agreed to pay Dunavant $75,000 in a settlement, she still doesn’t feel like she got justice in her case.
“I hated the idea of the settlement, because it wasn’t about the money — I don’t want people to think I was in it for the money,” Dunavant told FITSNews. “The lawsuit was a last resort, after exhausting all of my options the university offered grad students with formal complaints.”
She said the process of suing — after the two-year grind she spent sounding the alarm bell with the university — was slow, painful and isolating. Eventually, she reached a point in 2019 when she wanted to move on with her life and just wanted to get it over with.
“In terms of justice, I don’t feel like I got what I wanted because the people who enabled this to happen should have some kind of consequence,” she said. “Like David Voros, his wrongs are the most glaring — but he’s not the only problem. The problem is the whole system. The way they treat victims, it’s terrible.”
Since she filed her original harassment complaint, Voros has made more than $315,000 from his university salary.
Dunavant is unsettled, now knowing that the problem is much greater than Voros, the School of Visual Art and Design, and even beyond the University of South Carolina.
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“Ironically, the systemic issues that are prevalent at USC in their inability to accept and resolve complaints, are also prevalent in our legal system,” Dunavant said.
She hopes her story helps change that — or at the very least, sheds some light on a system that made her feel alone, self-conscious and damaged for so many years.
A Horrific Study Abroad Trip
When Dunavant thinks back to her study abroad trip in Monte Castello di Vibio, Italy, she has a hard time finding the words to describe what happened. She’s still processing what happened to her, because frankly, the truth is hard to accept.
“Honestly, it was so crazy, like soap-opera crazy,” she said. “Like there is no way anyone would believe how nuts the situation actually was.”
Her lawsuit describes an unfathomable experience that began in May 2016, when she and two other students agreed to go to Italy with Voros three weeks before the USC study abroad program — ostensibly to help him set up the school before students arrived.
Voros told the students he would provide them with meals as long as they helped him prepare the supplies and complete other tasks related to the International Center For the Arts (ICA), a company owned by Voros, the lawsuit said.
“When we got there, it was nothing like he described,” Dunavant said.
She said the working conditions were horrific — she had to scrub feral cat pee off the floor and furniture, among many other dirty jobs. The living quarters for students at the ICA were littered with scorpions, rodents, and other creatures.
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“It looked like the building had been abandoned for some time,” Dunavant said. “There was no heat or air, the water in the building was undrinkable.”
The “provided meals” were served by Voros at his home — which made the students entirely dependent on the professor while they were in a foreign country, Dunavant said.
A few days in, another female student arrived and moved her stuff in at Voros’ home, unlike the other students who were staying in the ICA building, per the lawsuit.
One evening, as Dunavant entered Voros’ home to get dinner, she said she walked in on Voros and the other female student having sex.
After this, Voros’ attitude toward Dunavant shifted entirely, she said. The late-night dinners he’d host — the only option for eating — became increasingly more uncomfortable.
During meals, he’d touch her legs and face in a way that was very unsettling, she said.
Then, he started to make sexual comments, according to her lawsuit. He’d say things that indicated if she was “more like” the other female student who was having sex with him, things would be much easier for her on the trip.
After several bizarre and uncomfortable incidents where Voros and Dunavant disagreed, Voros threatened to kick her out of the program. He said he would call the police to arrest her for trespassing on his property, the lawsuit said.
“I was in a foreign country and didn’t know what he could do to me,” she said. “I was scared.”
He ordered her to stay in her room — with bars on the windows — until she changed her attitude toward him, according to the lawsuit.
“He told me I wasn’t allowed to go to his house for food,” she said. “Thankfully, another student would sneak me food. It was the only way I could eat for a few days.”
As soon as she could, Dunavant called her parents and told her she was concerned for her safety. Her parents contacted the university immediately.
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For days, Dunavant’s mother begged officials to make arrangements to remove her from the situation safely and pay for her flight home.
During these encounters, USC officials informed Dunavant’s parents that the trip was not sanctioned through the university, which wasn’t at all how Voros presented it and described it through his USC email.
Finally, university officials reached an agreement and helped Dunavant leave Italy, but the nightmare was far from over.
‘Revictimizing The Victim’
Soon after she arrived home from Italy, Dunavant began the process of filing a formal complaint with the University of South Carolina — a first step in what felt like a long uphill battle against a giant well-oiled machine.
“From the very beginning, I was treated like I was the problem and the university made it very hard to even file a complaint,” she said. “The complaint process felt more like a system to run you into wall after wall until you get too tired and too frustrated and you give up.”
Dunavant said at every step, she felt that the complaint process was “revictimizing the victim.”
“For starters, there really aren’t any avenues for grad students to voice their concerns like there are for undergrads,”she said. “Even if there were, I don’t think (USC officials) would listen.”
When she emailed USC ombudsman Dale Moore to see where to file the complaint, he “responded by stating he cannot provide information or resources on making a complaint or grievance or counseling until he deems a complaint is warranted,” according to the lawsuit.
This was one of many roadblocks Dunavant ran into while trying to formally warn the university about her professor.
She filed her first formal complaint against Voros on June 15, 2016.
Months passed, and Dunavant said she was left in the dark throughout the entire investigative process. In the meantime, her academics suffered as she scrambled to change her schedule and classes to avoid Voros at all costs.
Finally, USC officials concluded their investigation (below), and determined that there was not enough evidence to support Dunavant’s claims that Voros violated university policy.
The investigation focused a lot on whether or not Voros called Dunavant a b*tch, which she felt was a minor claim among the many she listed in her complaint.
“I just felt frustrated and let down, like I was just running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to get someone to listen and do something about it and no one was doing anything,” Dunavant said.
She tried to appeal the university’s decision on the first complaint, and former USC president Harris Pastides made the final ruling to reject her complaint.
“Later, I found out that Pastides is friends with David Voros,” Dunavant said (this statement is also made by a teacher in another lawsuit). “So all the way to the top to the highest administration of the university, there are these relationships that prevent the university from acting on behalf of the well-being of their students.”
For the next two years while she was in grad school, Dunavant said she saw a number of USC officials who dismissed her claims, including: current SVAD Chair Laura Kissel, former SVAD Chair Peter Chametzky, and assistant director of the EOP Carl Wells.
While she was fighting the system, Dunavant said she felt pushback at every turn. The harassment felt like it was coming from all angles, including her SVAD teachers.
“The way I was treated by Voros and other faculty made me feel like I was nuts to the point where I was questioning the validity of my experience in Italy and asking myself what actually happened to me,” she said. “Looking back now, I know I had every right to complain, but at the the time, they just made me feel ashamed and embarrassed. I just wanted to succeed and do well in grad school and get through it. “
SVAD instructor Jaime Misenheimer said in her lawsuit that Voros pressured her to give Dunavant a bad grade in her class in August 2016.
Dunavant said Voros told other staff members that she had a manic episode in Italy and made up the details about the trip. She said this interfered with virtually her entire graduate degree education all the way up until her thesis.
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“My thesis, objectively, was successful and had the most people attending my gallery show out of all the candidates, but several faculty members wouldn’t sign off on my thesis,”Dunavant said. “We found out through deposition that David (Voros) was good friends with the faculty members who wouldn’t sign off on my thesis. So, the harassment extended to trying to derail my actual career,” she said.
After graduating in 2018, Dunavant distanced herself from both academia and art, and instead tried out a couple corporate jobs that had nothing to do with her graduate degree.
But when her lawsuit settled in late 2019, she realized that it was time to take charge of her career that had been derailed by Voros and the system for too long.
“I wasn’t going to let someone who was trying to take down my career be the end of my career. Instead, I used it to fuel something better,” Dunavant said.
She used the settlement money to start up her own freelance art business in Charleston, South Carolina.
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“It really pushed me toward the path I didn’t know I wanted to be on,” she said.
And while university officials might not have listened to Dunavant’s concerns, her case has sparked several student protests and outrage in the SVAD school.
“I wish USC would look at the way they handle these complaints in terms of protecting students,” Dunavant said. “At the very least, they could recognize these three lawsuits and realize that David Voros is harmful to students and teachers.
FITSNews reached out to University of South Carolina officials to ask a number of questions about Voros, Dunavant’s lawsuit, and policies for harassment complaints.
USC spokesperson Jeff Stensland told FITSNews “the university typically doesn’t comment on active litigation,” and declined to answer our questions — despite the fact Dunavant’s case has been closed for more than a year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR..
Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an investigative journalist from Kansas who has worked for newspapers in Missouri, Illinois, and South Carolina before making the switch to FITS. She currently lives on Hilton Head Island where she enjoys beach life. Mandy also hosts the Murdaugh Murders podcast. Want to contact Mandy? Send your tips to email@example.com.
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Note: The photographs in this story were taken by Chad Savage.