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Ojai boarding school strips former head’s name from campus after sexual abuse report

An aerial view of a school campus with sports fields
An aerial view of the Thacher School in Ojai on June 22, 2021.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The Thacher School, among California’s most elite private schools, announced Thursday that it would remove the name of its former head of school from the campus dining hall and athletic field. The move is part of a series of steps following a report last month that detailed decades of allegations against faculty members of student sexual misconduct, harassment and “boundary crossing.”

The Board of Trustees, in a letter to the school community, said Michael Mulligan’s name would be removed due to occasions in which he “failed to appropriately demonstrate leadership and act when informed of concerns about sexual misconduct.” The misconduct was detailed in a 91-page report from lawyers with the Los Angeles law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson.

The Wednesday night vote to remove Mulligan’s name from the Ojai campus was unanimous, according to the board.

“By taking this action, we stay true to the values Thacher aspires to as a school and as a community. We teach our students to face the mistakes they make and deal with the consequences,” board Chair Dan Yih said in the letter. “If we do not hold ourselves, as leaders, to the same standards, we cannot expect our students to do the same.”

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Mulligan led the school from 1992 to 2018. When he retired as Thacher’s long-serving head of school in 2018, the school bestowed the honor of naming its new, 412-seat dining hall after him and his wife, Joy, a beloved teacher and administrator.

Yih said the couple’s devotion and contributions to the school would not be forgotten, but that “the high honor associated with a name on a building is fundamentally inconsistent with the gravity and serious consequences of Michael Mulligan’s failure to protect Thacher students from harm.”

In a statement, Mulligan said he and his wife were “disappointed that the current Thacher Board has acted in a hasty and poorly thought-out manner to remove our names from the recently dedicated dining hall building on campus.”

“Erasing from the dining hall building my name as well that of my wife ... does not address the serious challenges Thacher’s leadership face,” Mulligan said. “Joy and I will fight to protect our reputation and good names. For us, Honor, Fairness, Kindness, and Truth truly matter.”

Paul Mones, an attorney representing multiple Thacher alumni who were victims of sexual abuse at the school, said Thacher’s announcement is “par for the course” for schools who ignored decades of abuse and want to appear proactive.

“People in positions of authority knew that teachers were sexually abusing students, or knew that they were acting inappropriately, or they hired people who they knew had significant boundary issues,” Mones said. “As soon as people started coming forward, they should have immediately, as is their mandatory duty under California law … gone to law enforcement.”

Former Head of School Bill Wyman’s name will also be removed from a hiking trail named for him. The report described outside lawyers’ findings in 1992 showing that Wyman, who served as headmaster at the school from 1975 to 1992 and died in 2014, had engaged in “a pattern of offensive verbal conduct and improper touching” toward female students and staff. Wyman resigned after the discovery.

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At least one affiliate of the school — the Oberndorf Foundation — asked for its name to be removed from a freshman dorm in response to the board’s decision.

“This is an extremely sad day for Thacher and the many members of the Thacher community who care deeply about the school and Joy and Michael Mulligan,” a spokesperson for the foundation stated. “Together, the Mulligans gave over 30 years of their lives in selfless service to the school and made it into the premier institution it became under their leadership. To remove their name from Mulligan Hall seems unimaginable.”

The decision at the school comes a month before the start of the fall semester and amid growing outrage among students, faculty and parents who have criticized Mulligan’s past actions and the school’s actions since the report, which some believe have lacked urgency.

Frustration was evident in an online petition created last month to remove Mulligan’s name from the school. The petition ballooned to more than 500 signatures from within the Thacher community.

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Mulligan’s name came up several times in the report, which documented in graphic detail allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by faculty and staff toward students over the span of four decades.

He disputes several details of the report, including a summary of his actions in one account in which a former student who graduated in the 1990s alleged that she and her roommate were raped by two drunken male students. The former student said that when they reported the incident to Mulligan, he allegedly told her to “think long and hard” before using the word “rape” at Thacher. She felt he was prioritizing the school’s reputation over their welfare.

Both students refrained from using the word “rape” again out of fear.

Mulligan reported the incident to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office as well as the county’s child welfare service. According to the report, Mulligan’s account contradicted the former students’ descriptions, as he contended the students never used the word “rape.”

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The report also states that Mulligan supported the hiring of a coach he met at a New England school in 1987, even though he had learned the coach had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a girl on his team.

“I particularly regret situations where certain decisions I made contributed to this suffering, and I fully accept that criticism. I am genuinely sorry,” Mulligan said in a letter that was published alongside the report.

Along with the removal of Mulligan’s name, the board said it was establishing a standing Board Committee on Student Safety and Well-Being, directing the administration to create a new task force to respond to allegations of sexual misconduct and retaining an independent expert to review Thacher’s sexual misconduct education and response mechanisms.

Munger, Tolles & Olson will continue to receive, investigate and report on allegations of sexual misconduct, as well as failures to respond appropriately, at least through Sept. 30, and will prepare a report to be shared with the community, according to Yih.

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The board has also asked the law firm to investigate Blossom Beatty Pidduck, the current head of school, at her request. The law firm will investigate any awareness of, and any response to, sexual misconduct that occurred during her ongoing tenure as a Thacher employee.

Times staff writer Melissa Gomez contributed to this report.


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