It was May 30, 2013—the day of his graduation from Harvard University—and Damilare Sonoiki's life was about to change forever. But not the way he expected.
Over the next six years, his career in finance hit a dead end, he pleaded guilty to insider trading, and he was accused of sexual misconduct in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. He never received his Harvard degree, either.
Years earlier, the future looked much brighter. A native of Nigeria who had immigrated to the U.S. when he was 6 years old, Sonoiki was an American success story. He won numerous accolades at Harvard: He served as president of the university's Black Men's Forum, and was a recipient of the Association of Black Harvard Women's Annual Senior Award. He was chosen as male orator for his graduating class, and gave a speech to his fellow students that is still available on Harvard's YouTube channel. The next day, at his commencement, he walked across the stage just like everyone else.
But Sonoiki would never officially receive his Harvard degree. Unbeknownst to him, two female students had filed sexual misconduct complaints against him just hours before his graduation. According to a lawsuit Sonoiki has now filed against Harvard, these complaints were filed at the urging of administrator Sarah Rankin, who directed Harvard's Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. Months afterward—following an adjudicatory procedure that Sonoiki says violated basic principles of fairness—the school's Administrative Board formally expelled him.
"I had these false notions in my head of some kind of fairness," Sonoiki tells Reason. "It was Kafka-esque. It was just crazy."
Six years later, Sonoiki is suing Harvard for breach of contract. His lawsuit, filed in October 2019, argues that the university's sexual misconduct policy was "vague, over broad, and inherently unfair, and lacked basic definitions necessary for students to understand the elements of a policy violation." Indeed, Sonoiki was barely allowed to participate in the process: He was not able to appear at the hearing or confront witnesses against him, according to his attorney, Susan Stone. And the matter was adjudicated under Harvard's then-standard of evidence: "sufficiently persuaded," a vague standard that is not clearly defined in the Harvard handbook.
Prior to graduation, Sonoiki had landed a job at Goldman Sachs, and went to work there afterward. As the investigation into his alleged sexual misconduct continued, he feared his employer would eventually discover that he had never actually received his diploma. His lack of a diploma caused him to lose out on a major financial opportunity: He was eventually offered a job at a different investment firm that came with a significant signing bonus, but the firm rescinded the offer after running a background check on Sonoiki.
Deeply frustrated—and in need of cash so that he could pursue a lawsuit against Harvard—Sonoiki made a very bad decision: He engaged in insider trading.
"I was reading about all these stories about students who had sued their school, and so I thought, okay, that's what I'm going to do," says Sonoiki. "But obviously those things cost $50,000, or $100,000, which I just didn't have."
In 2018, he pleaded guilty to tipping off the NFL player Mychal Kendricks about four corporate acquisitions, which earned the Cleveland Browns linebacker $1.2 million in profits. Kendricks, in turn, paid Sonoiki $10,000 in cash and other perks—Eagles tickets and an invitation to a music video set—according to The Wall Street Journal.
"It's hard to explain the amount of anxiety and pressure that this stuff can put you under," says Sonoiki. "But it was a really stupid idea, just very dumb to [engage in insider trading]. I wish I hadn't."
Coverage of the insider trading scandal brought Sonoiki additional troubles: a second Journal article mentioned the sexual misconduct allegations against him, thus making them public for the first time. "Until a few weeks ago, Mr. Sonoiki's tale was that of an inspiring immigrant," the publication noted.
There were three sexual misconduct accusations against Sonoiki stemming from his time at Harvard. The first was made by a woman identified as "Ann" in his lawsuit. They saw each other at a party in spring 2011, and had a sexual encounter afterward. Nine months later, Ann went to Harvard's Office of Sexual Prevention and Response and told Rankin that she had blacked out that night and woke up having sex with Sonoiki. He disputes that she was blacked out during the encounter.
Importantly, Ann told Rankin she did not want to file a Title IX complaint, according to Sonoiki's lawsuit.
The second woman, "Betty," rented a New York City apartment with Sonoiki during summer 2012. The apartment had only one bed, which they shared. Their relationship became sexual, and they remained friends after the summer ended, according to Sonoiki.
The third woman, "Cindy," was an acquaintance of Betty's, and had intended to live with them in the apartment until her summer plans changed. Months later, in spring 2013, she encountered Sonoiki at a Harvard formal event. They had a sexual encounter that night, and the next morning, Cindy went to campus health services for emergency contraception. One of her doctors informed Rankin, who scheduled a meeting with Cindy.
Cindy declined a sexual assault examination, and told Rankin that she did not wish to file a Title IX complaint, according to Sonoiki.
But Rankin told Cindy that she "should file a Title IX complaint because [Sonoiki] had allegedly sexually assaulted another woman," according to Sonoiki's lawsuit. Jay Ellison, an associate dean and secretary of the Ad Board, which adjudicates students misconduct, also urged Cindy to file a complaint, the lawsuit claims.
Rankin, who is now a Title IX coordinator at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, did not respond to a request for comment.
On May 17—two weeks before Sonoiki's graduation—Rankin called Ann and asked her to file a complaint as well, according to the lawsuit. Meanwhile, Ellison informed Sonoiki that there were informal sexual misconduct allegations against him, and if they were to become formal before commencement, it would impact his graduation prospects, Sonoiki told Reason.
At the time, Sonoiki expected that, at worst, it would simply take him longer to receive his degree.
"Stupidly, my biggest fear was like, my parents are coming in a week, do I have to tell them to cancel?" says Sonoiki. "They're excited. They're coming to see me graduate."
According to the lawsuit, the administration's efforts to persuade the women succeeded, and they filed complaints just in time to impact Sonoiki's future. A few days later, Betty also filed a complaint, alleging that "anywhere between three to five of her sexual encounters with [Sonoiki] in June 2012 were non-consensual," according to his lawsuit. For her part, Cindy "didn't think much about" her experience with Sonoiki, but after Rankin informed her of the other two incidents, Cindy changed her mind and decided to report, according to the lawsuit.
The effect was that the three women—each of whom had not initially considered their experience with Sonoiki to constitute sexual assault, according to him—were corralled into making life-derailing accusations against Sonoiki by Harvard's administration.
Harvard did not respond to a request for comment.
For the next several months, Sonoiki—who had moved to New York City—spoke with the Ad Board via Skype in an attempt to resolve the matter. He believed he was completely innocent of the charges, and looked forward to clearing his name. It soon became obvious to him that this would be impossible.
"I was trying to give my best recollection of events that were a year or two years ago," said Sonoiki, referencing his conversations with Harvard's investigators, "but I could also tell from their body language that if I said I didn't remember, or if I changed what I had said slightly, they thought I was lying."
Harvard's process specifically prohibited lawyers from being involved in these meetings, according to the lawsuit. Sonoiki was permitted to consult a faculty adviser, but this adviser couldn't be a lawyer, according to the university's policy at the time.
Sonoiki's lawsuit suggests that Harvard's treatment of him might have been motivated by racial discrimination—a violation of the handbook's guarantee that disciplinary procedures will be free of racial bias. He notes that not a single member of Harvard's 30-person Ad Board was a black man.
None of the three women who accused Sonoiki were black, and two of them were white. As I've written previously in my coverage of various Title IX disputes, some evidence suggests that black and immigrant male students may be disproportionately likely to face sexual misconduct adjudication, often because of accusations made by white women. The Atlantic's Emily Yoffe has made note of this phenomenon as well—albeit cautiously, given the dearth of solid data—in a must-read piece:
Melissa Kagle is one of three people who brought the race-discrimination complaint about Colgate to OCR. Kagle is a former assistant professor of educational studies at the school who, over the course of her last three years at the university, became a prominent critic of Colgate's handling of sexual misconduct. (She left after being denied tenure in 2016 and now works at an education nonprofit.) Her co-complainants were minority students who'd been accused of assault or harassment, and to whom Kagle had become an informal adviser. …
Kagle believes that men of color—and especially foreign men of color, students from Africa and Asia—were uniquely defenseless when charged with sexual assault, typically lacking financial resources, a network of support, and an understanding of their rights. She told me that university administrators, in their zeal to address an issue that was a top priority of federal regulators, had gone after rumors and third-party reports of assaults, pressuring some female students to pursue complaints. I spoke with two women who made harassment complaints against a Rwandan student who was later expelled. One said she hadn't wanted to make a complaint, but was told that it would help another woman feel safer; neither believed expulsion was the right outcome.
These concerns are shared by some members of Harvard's own law faculty.
"Case after Harvard case that has come to my attention, including several in which I have played some advocacy or adjudication role, has involved black male respondents, but the institution cannot 'know' this because it has not been thought important enough to monitor for racial bias," wrote Janet Halley, a law professor at Harvard, in a 2015 article for The Harvard Law Review Forum. "The general social disadvantage that black men continue to carry in our culture can make it easier for everyone in the adjudicative process to put the blame on them."
Sonoiki's lawsuit also argues that even if the Ad Board was unbiased, it had no jurisdiction to investigate him because he had already graduated—and since the Ad Board had not yet issued a formal charge, withholding his degree was improper.
"The issuance of charges against a student required an affirmative action by the Ad Board," Sonoiki's attorneys argue in his lawsuit. "Mere complaints of wrongdoing did not constitute a charge."
The lawsuit alleges four counts breach of contract and denial of fairness. Sonoiki is seeking in excess of $75,000 from Harvard on each count, an expungement of his disciplinary record, and his degree.
Harvard has filed a motion to dismiss the suit. Oral arguments will begin next month, on February 25.
Some people who read Sonoiki's story will undoubtedly lose sympathy for him when they learn about his insider trading conviction: Here was someone who had made it in the world and threw all that away. It occurs to Sonoiki that readers may come away with that impression. He understands. But he stressed that he felt trapped in his situation, knowing that it was only a matter of time before Harvard's denial of his degree would become public and cost him everything.
"I didn't have some rich uncle I could call to bail me out," he tells Reason. "I was just in a really, really nervous, anxious, dark place."
Just before the insider trading and sexual misconduct allegations became public, Sonoiki had left Goldman Sachs to become a TV writer, thanks to connections from his days at The Harvard Lampoon, a student-run humor publication. He had already earned writing credits on The Simpsons and Black-ish. These opportunities evaporated once his past came to light, though he hopes he can get a second chance if the lawsuit is settled in his favor.
"Obviously, we'll see," he says. "It's an uphill thing."