Last fall, after Vanessa C. Tyson began a prestigious fellowship at Stanford, she told a gathering of colleagues in a behavioral sciences program that she had been sexually assaulted years earlier, citing personal experience to illustrate a larger point involving sexual violence.
As several fellows shared lunch on a patio, Dr. Tyson expressed the sense of having been blindsided by her assailant, a man she worked with at the 2004 Democratic National Convention whose political career had since taken off, according to Elizabeth A. Armstrong, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan who was part of the lunch group.
“What she told us was pretty much exactly what was in the statement that she released but with vastly less detail,” said Dr. Armstrong, a fellow in the Stanford program.
Another fellow, Jennifer J. Freyd, a University of Oregon professor known for her work in sexual violence, also remembers the conversation, relaying how Dr. Tyson described how the incident was “clearly a traumatic experience.”
Several months later, Dr. Tyson’s allegation that she was attacked by Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax of Virginia during the 2004 convention has roiled politics in Virginia and deepened the state’s leadership crisis. The governor and attorney general are facing calls to resign after admitting in recent days that they donned blackface as younger men in separate incidents.
Mr. Fairfax has vigorously denied Dr. Tyson’s account, which she laid out publicly in a statement her lawyers issued Wednesday. His ability to stay on as lieutenant governor now appears more precarious, with leading Democrats — including Virginia’s legislative black caucus and some members of the Congressional Black Caucus — calling for an investigation and bracing for more details about the accusation.
In interviews with The Times this week, five people said that Dr. Tyson told them over the last two years that she had been sexually assaulted in an encounter at the convention, and that her account was consistent with her public statement this week. The people said she provided varying levels of detail to them, but three of them said she identified the assailant as Mr. Fairfax, a lieutenant governor, or a politician on the rise.
Dr. Tyson did not tell anyone in 2004 about the encounter with Mr. Fairfax, according to people close to her legal team, and she did not notify or file a complaint with police.
But throughout academia, there has been an outpouring of encouragement for Dr. Tyson, 42, who has taught at Scripps College in California and Dickinson College in Pennsylvania over the last decade, and earned a Ph.D in political science from the University of Chicago.
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More than 740 academics have signed a letter of support for her, according to its organizer, Nadia E. Brown, a political scientist at Purdue University who said Dr. Tyson also told her of the assault. A GoFundMe account, set up by a political scientist at Menlo College in California, had raised more than $20,000 as of Friday morning. A hashtag has sprung up on Twitter: #IBelieveVanessa.
“Everything she said in her statement was exactly what she told me when we talked,” said Diane L. Rosenfeld, a founding director of the Gender Violence Program at Harvard Law School, who said Dr. Tyson told her of the assault in December 2017.
“She’s not doing this for any fame,” Dr. Rosenfeld added. “She’s not suing him for money, so disbelievers and doubters can’t say, ‘Oh, she just wants money.’ She just wants, as she says, the Virginia voters to know who this person is.”
Dr. Tyson’s account was also partly corroborated late Wednesday night by Representative Bobby Scott, Democrat of Virginia, whose aides said Dr. Tyson told the congressman a year ago that she had made an allegation of sexual assault against Mr. Fairfax, without offering details.
Dr. Tyson has declined to give an interview to The New York Times. She has said she was spurred to come forward by the realization that Mr. Fairfax might soon become Virginia governor. That possibility arose after the disclosure last week of a racist photograph on Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page, and his subsequent admission that he had once blackened his face as part of a Michael Jackson costume, leading to widespread calls for him to resign.
In her statement, Dr. Tyson described a forced sexual encounter with Mr. Fairfax in a Boston hotel room while the two were working at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. It began with kissing that was “not unwelcome,” she said, but quickly escalated into non-consensual oral sex.
She asked for privacy, insisting that she wanted to resume her life as an academic and professor. “I do not want to get embroiled in this highly charged political environment,” she wrote in the statement.
At the time of the alleged assault, Dr. Tyson was already volunteering at a Boston rape crisis center. She had helped start the center’s Survivor Speakers Bureau, where she shared her story about being sexually abused as a child. She also started a self-esteem program for female juvenile offenders in Massachusetts, according to a biography posted on her personal web page.
Her work at the rape crisis center made her attack feel “especially degrading,” she said in her statement. She said she did not speak of it for years because she felt “deep humiliation and shame.”
In separate interviews Thursday and Friday, five friends of Dr. Tyson said she told them of the encounter either in late 2017, early 2018 or last Fall. One, a mutual friend of Dr. Tyson and Mr. Fairfax, who asked not to be named to protect his own privacy, said he dated Dr. Tyson in the late 1990s and believed her account. Given her experience with abuse as a child, he said, she was not the type of person to become intimate in the way she described with someone she had just met.
The distinguished Stanford fellowship she began last fall is merely the latest rung up the academic ladder for Dr. Tyson, who had a working class upbringing in the Los Angeles area, the biracial daughter of a single white mother. Friends said her mother often took her to Los Angeles Dodgers games when she was growing up, buying cheap tickets for seats in the bleachers, and today Dr. Tyson remains an avid fan.
Dr. Tyson graduated from Princeton in 1998 and would later tell the Princeton Alumni Weekly that she identified as African-American partly because that was the way the world saw her. “I am biracial, but I could not pass for white,” she said.
She would go on to obtain a masters and doctorate, both in political science, at the University of Chicago.
Now a professor of politics at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., Dr. Tyson is also the author of a book, “Multiracial Coalitions and Minority Representation in the US House of Representatives,” published in 2016.
In a statement issued Thursday, the college confirmed that Dr. Tyson “shared with several members of the Scripps community the details about a 2004 sexual assault,” and said those conversations “are consistent” with her written account.
Dr. Tyson’s personal story has also lately merged with her professional life. Fellow academics say that especially since the 2016 election, and with the rise of the #MeToo movement, she has been thinking about sexual assault in the context of political science.
Last year, after a prominent political scientist in the Midwest was accused of sexual harassment by a former student, Dr. Tyson became part of a collective of feminist political scientists that called itself #MeTooPoliSci, said Dr. Brown of Purdue, one of the group’s organizers.
The group, dedicated to addressing harassment and imbalances of power within the political science field, mounted a letter-writing campaign and silent protests, and raised money to pay for victims’ legal expenses, Dr. Brown said. It also issued the letter of support for Dr. Tyson this week.
“In addition to being political scientists,” its authors wrote, “many of us are also scholars of the politics of race, gender, and sexuality, and as such, we recognize the all-too-familiar tropes that are being deployed to try to shame, silence, and delegitimize Dr. Tyson.”
“I really see her as speaking truth to power,” Dr. Brown said. Referring to Dr. Tyson’s openness about her childhood experience, she added: “She’s sharing her story pretty much in a matter-of-fact way. She doesn’t pull you aside to tell you what happened; she doesn’t talk about it in hushed tones. She owns it.”
Friends describe Dr. Tyson as gregarious, and a mentor to younger scholars, particularly people of color. “Academics are socially awkward people,” Dr. Brown said. “We tend to be a lot more introspective and quiet and reserved, and she pulls people out of their shells.”
Bernard Fraga, an assistant professor of political science at Indiana University, said Dr. Tyson mentored him after they met at political science conferences.
“It was very clear that she was an advocate for young scholars especially,” he said, as well as for “minority scholars of color who were often marginalized in our discipline.’’
Dr. Freyd, the Oregon professor who is also doing a fellowship at Stanford, said that she and Dr. Tyson have become close despite having known each other for only a few months. On Thursday, Dr. Freyd joined 35 other fellows at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences to support her.
“We are incredibly proud to call Vanessa Tyson a colleague,” their statement said. “We know her to be a thoughtful scholar of integrity and compassion and stand with her in this difficult time.”
Next Tuesday, Drs. Tyson and Freyd are planning a symposium at Stanford — arranged well before Dr. Tyson disclosed her allegations. It is titled “Betrayal and Courage in the Age of #MeToo.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research
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