PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Williams College officials informed Democratic congressional candidate Don Carlson he couldn’t return to teach there after seeing text messages in which he allegedly alluded to a potential relationship with a graduating senior, Target 12 has confirmed.
As Target 12 first reported Wednesday, Williams officials told Carlson he was no longer welcome on campus following an incident at the end of the 2018-19 academic year, when he was completing a temporary full-time faculty appointment there.
In a statement distributed to other news outlets Thursday morning, Carlson’s campaign flatly denied one part of Target 12’s previous report, saying, “Despite what some unnamed third party may have thought, Don has never made an overture to a student.”
However, multiple people familiar with the episode alleged that Carlson sent a text message to the student late in the Spring 2019 semester in which he suggested a relationship modeled on a website where people can pay to go on dates.
In a later text, they said, Carlson allegedly indicated he would have liked to have given the student about $5,000 to help the student financially.
No formal complaint was ever filed against Carlson under Title IX, the federal law governing sex discrimination in higher education, and an attorney hired by Carlson has emphasized that there was no “formal investigation” nor any “formal findings of wrongdoing” on his part.
But Jim Reische, a spokesperson for Williams, told Target 12: “The allegations are disturbing, and our thoughts go out to everyone affected.”
While Reische declined to answer specific questions about the texts and how Williams responded to them, he urged “anyone who has experienced sexual harassment or unwanted attention at Williams” to report it to the college.
Carlson’s campaign did not respond to follow-up questions Thursday.
A Williams alumnus, Carlson had returned to the college annually to teach short-duration winter study courses from 2014 through 2018, then went on to be named a full-time visiting professor of economics and environmental studies for the 2018-19 academic year, according to online college records and Carlson’s LinkedIn profile.
In his statement to other news outlets, Carlson’s spokesperson never denied that Williams officials told him he couldn’t return to teach there in the future following the incident in 2019, saying only that “he never intended to go back.”
Informed of that assertion, Reische shot back: “Williams can’t comment on details of any allegations. But we’re relieved to hear that Don Carlson has no interest in trying to teach here again.”
Carlson currently holds a position as head of a leadership program at Yale Law School, where he is on a leave of absence to run for Congress. Debra Kroszner, a spokesperson for the law school, indicated leaders at Yale were surprised by Target 12’s report.
“Don Carlson was hired following a thorough vetting process conducted by a professional firm,” Kroszner said in a statement. “We never received any information about these allegations or any other issues of concern.”
She added, “We will take care to review and address any and all new facts that arise as appropriate.”
Carlson, a 62-year-old Jamestown resident, is one of 12 Democrats competing in the Sept. 5 primary for Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District. A multimillionaire from his years as a venture-capital investor, Carlson had loaned his campaign $600,000 as of June 30, giving him the most money among the candidates at that date. He is also a lawyer who graduated from Harvard Law School.
No public polling has been released in the 1st District primary, but Carlson is one of only five Democrats who has had the resources to go up on TV with campaign ads. The others are former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, former White House official Gabe Amo, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos and state Sen. Sandra Cano.
In a statement Thursday night, Matos expressed concern about the revelations.
“As a mother, I am disturbed by what we are learning about Mr. Carlson,” she said. “My thoughts are with the people affected by this and I will keep them in my prayers.”
Matos added, “These are serious allegations and Rhode Islanders need a leader they know and trust. Someone who will fight to protect our democracy, address gun violence, and stand up to constant threats to our rights and women’s reproductive freedom.”
In his statement to other news outlets, Carlson denounced WPRI 12 for running the report about his conduct at Williams. He also distributed a statement from the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, a powerful national organization that has endorsed him, arguing that such news reports risk “opening the door to homophobic tropes and innuendo.”
But fellow Democrat Nick Autiello — who shared the Victory Fund endorsement with Carlson before quitting the 1st District race in July, and recently endorsed Matos — said the group had been privately urged not to issue what he described as a “disappointing statement.”
“The story makes no mention of his sexuality or the gender of the student in question,” Autiello wrote Thursday on social media. “@VictoryFund should retract this statement unless Carlson actually denies the accusation in public.”
A Victory Fund spokesperson did not respond to an email seeking the organization’s response to Autiello, who is a former member of the Victory Fund’s board for campaign endorsements and fundraising.
Carlson’s spokesperson told The Boston Globe he still plans to participate in WPRI 12’s upcoming prime-time congressional primary debate, which will air live next Tuesday at 7 p.m. The Public’s Radio reported the Jamestown Democratic Town Committee, which has endorsed Carlson, plans to meet Thursday evening to discuss whether they should take action in response to the report.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.