Emily Jan / Zieusin / Rangizzz / MirasWonderland / The Atlantic

A #MeToo Nightmare in the World of Competitive College Speech

Success in forensics is about making yourself vulnerable. Several former competitors accuse a prominent coach of exploiting that vulnerability to sexually harass students.

In the lobby of a deserted student-union building in Peoria, Illinois, the George Mason University speech team falls into formation. Following their coach, a petite, white-haired man in a silk designer tie, they walk single file down an empty hallway and into an empty classroom, where someone plugs in a speaker, turns up the music, and announces that it’s time to dance.

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On this rainy Saturday morning in April 2017, no one really wants to dance. It’s 6:30 a.m., and most team members are running on four hours’ sleep and a granola bar for breakfast. Everyone is in a suit. Still, they sway their hips, kick the air, jump up and down, bang on the walls, and belt out their best rendition of Nicki Minaj’s “Starships.” At least one person leaps on top of a chair. Because standing off to the side, arms crossed, their coach, Peter Pober, is watching.

Pober considers the dancing essential. It’s his time-honored pretournament ritual, designed to coax students out of their head for a few moments right before they compete. The prevailing wisdom in collegiate public speaking is that to be truly excellent, the performer must expose himself completely, presenting a speech so “raw” and “real” that he sheds his self-consciousness. So as the team dances—for about 20 minutes, before every tournament—Pober closely examines each student. If someone appears too reserved or too controlled, he will often arrange to meet with him after the tournament, and let him know.

In the world of competitive public speaking, known to insiders as “forensics,” Pober is legendary; his team, legendary by extension. Pober has participated in speech, as a competitor and then as a coach, for more than 35 years, steering two of the country’s top speech programs—at the University of Texas at Austin, where he worked until 2003, and at George Mason—and winning more top awards than almost any other coach in the country, building an international reputation. In 2005 he started the George Mason Institute of Forensics, colloquially known as GMIF, one of the preeminent high-school public-speaking camps in the country, and led it for 13 years. When Pober walked through the halls at a speech tournament, people would turn around and stare.

Many who knew Pober well weren’t surprised when, in February 2018, after 15 years as the director of George Mason Forensics, he was placed on administrative leave amid allegations of sexual harassment. Pober’s special interest in “good-looking, skinny white boys” was an “open secret,” Jon Tyree, who graduated from GMU in 2014, told me. According to several of Pober’s former students, he would invite his “favorites” out for one-on-one dinners, buy them round after round of margaritas, and host them at his home for Thanksgiving. Less well known were the things he’d allegedly whisper to certain students and young alums in tournament hotel rooms or nestled in the back corner of his favorite dive bar: to the then–GMU student Jim Welty, “I want to fuck you on this bed,” or to the alum Sean Cummings, “I have wanted to fuck you” since an encounter they had when Cummings was 17. (Pober did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.)

Forensics afforded Pober the ultimate cover. The best speeches—the ones that feel “real,” and that go on to win national championships—are deeply personal, says Landry Ayres, a former GMU Forensics student and coach. Selecting topics at the beginning of each season, Ayres told me, many students ask themselves, What makes me vulnerable? What is uncomfortable for me? What can make me cry in 10 minutes? Students often choose to speak publicly about unprocessed trauma from their past, opening up about things they’ve never told anyone. And if GMU team members’ competitive success led them to an emotional breakdown, Pober was there to help build them back up.

In the quest to create formative experiences for high-school and college students, many extracurricular activities, such as competitive speech, encourage vulnerability. In college-essay workshops, music programs, and theater troupes, students are pushed to mine for meaning—to write, speak, sing, play, or act out their most personal thoughts and memories. This can be empowering: I competed in forensics in high school, sharing things in my speeches that I’d never even told my parents—and because of public speaking, I started college with far more confidence than I’d had four years earlier. But this emphasis on vulnerability also gives a tremendous amount of power to the people in charge. “It makes it easier for someone, if they’re a predator, to prey,” says Welty, who filed the Title IX complaint that led to Pober leaving George Mason.

I interviewed five men who described being sexually harassed by Pober as GMU students or young alumni. Their stories—strikingly similar, though they came from students and alumni who graduated more than a decade apart—suggest that Pober had a clear strategy for drawing select students close. He would, they said, often begin with a practice session in a hotel room or windowless office, where he’d wring all possible emotion out of a student’s speech. (“Get vulnerable!” was a Pober mantra.) By the end of the hour, multiple alums told me, they’d both be crying, sitting inches apart. “Peter would say ‘I love you,’” Tyree said. “And you always felt like you had to say it back.”

Most college competitors begin their forensics career in high school. More than 150,000 high-school and middle-school students participate in the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA). The group touts big-name alumni such as Brad Pitt, Sonia Sotomayor, Bruce Springsteen, Elizabeth Warren, and Oprah. The college circuit, while considerably smaller, attracts the most die-hard high-school competitors, who tend to believe deeply in the stated mission of the activity: to speak truth to power, and to “make a difference in the world.” For many students, forensics is their first-ever opportunity to speak, uninterrupted, for up to 10 minutes and have people listen. Some will have substantial impact: Over the course of a season, competitors deliver their speeches in front of hundreds of people. If they advance to a national final round, they might reach tens of thousands, in person and online.

More than a dozen categories exist in forensics. Students can choose to deliver a prepared speech, perform an excerpt from a play, or read a selection of prose or poetry. Others make up speeches on the spot. In what is perhaps the most objectively bizarre category, “duo,” two competitors stand side by side, acting out a sequence of scenes—laughing, crying, “popping” from one character to the next—and never once looking at each other.

“It’s kind of like the island of misfit toys,” said Quincey Smith, who graduated from GMU in 2011, when I asked him what kinds of people are drawn to forensics. In the four years I competed in high school, I found the average “forensicator” to be quieter and more introspective than you might expect—and intensely relieved to have found a team that requires no athletic ability whatsoever. “It’s full of queer folks,” Smith said. “Young people who are, for the first time, learning to identify and understand themselves in new ways.”

Pober knew how to talk to speech kids. Addressing the high-school students at GMIF, he’d announce, with booming bravado, that speech would make them better researchers, writers, speakers, and citizens, multiple GMU alumni told me. Connor Manning, who attended GMIF as a student for three consecutive summers, told me they saw Pober as a kind of god. (Manning, who identifies as nonbinary, uses plural pronouns.) After years of feeling like they were floating—queer, closeted, and unsure what they wanted in life—Pober gave Manning something to work toward: “With the way he talked about speech and debate, I felt like I could do something that mattered.” Once Manning “got on [Pober’s] radar,” distinguishing themselves at camp and winning national awards, they said Pober would regularly seek them out at tournaments, asking about their speeches and their future. At the tail end of their last summer session, after most campers had left, Manning says Pober scheduled private practice sessions to work with them one on one. “It felt like, Wow, one of the most important people in this community actually cares about what I’m doing,” Manning said.

At camp each year, Pober invited rising seniors to audition for the GMU team. GMIF was an important recruitment mechanism for him—approximately half of all GMU team members in any given year had been campers first. (Manning joined the GMU team after auditioning the summer before their senior year of high school.) Pober sought out other, non-GMIF students at the high-school NSDA National Tournament, which he attended, and judged, for many years.

When Sean Cummings met Pober at nationals as a high-school junior, he was immediately “completely enamored,” he told me, and eager to join the team. But once he got into GMU, his parents were hesitant to let him go—no one in his family had ever left their home state of Massachusetts for college. Pober met with Cummings’s dad, promising him that his son would be joining a “family,” Cummings said. A few months later, in early 2011, when Cummings still hadn’t committed to the school, he said Pober called him on his cellphone and offered to increase his scholarship with money from Pober’s own pocket. “He said, ‘I believe in you that much. I want to invest in you that much,’” Cummings said. Cummings felt like he couldn’t say no. He joined the team that fall.

Kate Loving, Zach Eisensten, Landry Ayres, Jenny Questell, Tyler Watkins, Mickey Cox.
(Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

A few days before each tournament, Pober would sit in his office while a string of students cycled through, each modeling the suit they planned to wear. “Turn around,” he’d say, twirling a finger. If a student’s suit was pulling across the belly or thighs, Pober would point to the offending area and instruct him to either pay for alterations or return it. With women, Pober was particularly strict, according to Jenny Questell, who graduated from GMU in 2014. Female team members could wear only skirt suits; gemstones were strongly discouraged, as were sparkles and the color black. At tournaments, Pober would often approach his female students, gesture to their cheeks, and say, “More rouge.”

Even when they weren’t traveling in a pack, at tournaments, Mason students were easy to spot. Competitors from other schools sometimes called them “Peter’s robots.” The men, especially, were styled in Pober’s image, encouraged to select a tie from his personal collection. “He’d say he was building our team look,” said Mickey Cox, a former GMU Forensics student and coach. “But what he was really doing was marking people.”

Pober started every school year with a lecture on the “legacy” of GMU Forensics. At tournaments, team members had to embody the epitome of professionalism, friendliness, and class, according to the team handbook—because, as Pober would say, their association with GMU meant someone was “always watching.” And, to some extent, he was right. As the team danced during warm-ups, competitors from other schools would sometimes peer through the door. Many admired the GMU team from afar, former competitors told me, wishing they could be a part of it. Pober was determined to keep things that way.

Pober, staunchly opposed to social media, would allegedly use his husband’s Facebook account to monitor his students through their photos and profiles, according to several former GMU team members. Under one particular photo posted in 2012, a student wrote that she was laughing so hard she was “peeing her pants.” Soon after the comment was written, Pober responded with an email to the team titled “EVERYONE READ NOW!!!!” “I AM COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY DISGUSTED ABOUT THE UNPROFESSIONAL BEHAVIOR THAT OCCURRED TONIGHT,” he wrote in all caps. “Behave like the Legacy demands or get out! And I mean it!” Three years later, when a GMU coach shared a team joke with members of a different forensics program, Pober wrote, in another note to the listserv, “Do NOT EVER discuss outside of our team ANYTHING personal and playful. We MUST be able to play with each other NEVER in fear of implications outside of our family. NEVER!”

While Pober would regularly refer to the George Mason team as a “family,” he also made sure students knew they could be asked to leave at any time. Team members were required to re-audition once or twice a year. These tryouts weren’t just a formality, Pober assured the team. “This is a true audition,” he wrote in an email in 2014. “We expect substantial cuts to the roster.” Pober would often threaten to force students out. “Watch yourself, Tyler,” Pober wrote in a 2016 email to the then-student Tyler Watkins, when Watkins asked to reschedule a meeting with Pober over Thanksgiving break. “You might find the January auditions tougher than you think.”

Because a large portion of GMU team members came to Mason on speech scholarships—funds multiple alums told me Pober appeared to unilaterally control—the continuous audition process gave Pober tremendous leverage. For students who don’t live in Virginia, where GMU is located, the school’s sticker price is $48,552 a year. Without their speech scholarships, many former team members, almost all of whom came from out of state, told me they never could have gone to Mason. Occasionally, Pober revoked scholarships from team members, multiple GMU alumni said—some for a low GPA, others for smoking a cigarette on tournament grounds. If they crossed him, several alumni said, they knew they might have to drop out of school. (A university spokesperson did not address Pober’s power over scholarship money when asked.)

The surest way to get on Pober's good side, it seems, was to tell him things—the juicier and more personal, the better. Three times a year, the team gathered for “campfire,” an event designed by Pober ostensibly to facilitate bonding. For approximately four hours, students would sit in a circle at a tournament hotel or retreat facility and air their most intensely personal experiences: mental-health issues, family crises, eating disorders, sexual assault. (Depending on the location, the event only occasionally included an actual campfire.) For some, the event became a display of competitive emotion: Who could make the most people cry? Months after a campfire session, when everyone else had forgotten exactly what was said that night, Pober would remember. “He’d bring it up in conversation,” said Jim Welty, Pober's former student who filed the Title IX complaint against him, “saying offhanded things like, ‘Hey, is it your mom again?’”

Pober knew that Cummings’s mom was addicted to prescription painkillers. When Cummings started brainstorming topics for his speech in his senior year at GMU, Pober suggested one he thought would be particularly powerful: What is being the child of an addict like? Over the next few months, Cummings said he and Pober spent hours together in a conference room the size of a large closet, rehearsing the piece and discussing its subtext.

On some level, Cummings told me, he knew he probably shouldn’t have been doing the piece. He’d leave practice sessions in tears, unable to shake the memories that Pober had asked him to recall in painstaking detail. Cummings couldn’t just stop, though, because the piece did well, advancing to the finals at multiple national tournaments. He knew Pober wouldn’t want him to switch to something different. Even after watching him deliver the same piece for months, Cummings said Pober still cried every time he heard it.

On the GMU team, tears were how you knew you were doing something right. Sure, it was “a little weird,” Tyree said, when Pober would start to cry in the middle of a speech—but for the most part, students didn’t question it. They wanted to believe that their coach was genuinely moved by what they had to say.

Welty, who graduated from GMU last spring, wasn’t interested in getting personal with Pober. He watched his teammates use speech as an outlet for their deepest thoughts and feelings, weeping in front of rooms full of strangers—and if that worked for them, he thought, that was fine. But he’d pass.

Welty wasn’t dazzled by Pober the way many of his teammates were. For starters, before coming to GMU, Welty had never heard of him. When he first met Pober, Welty said, “I could tell he was taken aback that I didn’t know who he was.” During team meetings, Welty, a team captain, would openly challenge Pober, demanding explanations for his actions and decisions. When Pober cried during one particular practice session, Welty said he waited, unfazed, for him to stop, then coolly offered him a glass of water. “For once, the person who Peter was trying to favor wasn’t interested,” said a current junior on the GMU team, who asked to remain anonymous because of his continued involvement with GMU’s forensics program.

Starting freshman year, students on the GMU team talked about “senior trip” in hushed tones: “the highlight of college,” “the best night of my life,” “epic.” It was supposed to be the ultimate reward: After four years of demanding behavior befitting of the “legacy,” for one weekend Pober would let the rules slide. He’d put the seniors up in the best hotel, take them out for five-course meals, and buy them as much alcohol as they could keep down. “What happens on senior trip, stays on senior trip,” Pober would tell the senior class. On the trip, the line between student and coach would blur: They were all drunk; they were all friends. “It was Peter’s ritual of having us move from student to adult,” said Welty’s former teammate Lucas Muratore.

The last night of Welty and Muratore’s senior trip began at Galatoires, a swanky, jackets-required French-Creole restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The team—six members of the senior class—arrived in full suits, exhausted from a long day of competition in Baton Rouge and starving. But as soon as they started perusing their menus, Welty said, Pober told the team to put them down. “No, no,” multiple team members remember him saying. “Cocktails first.” After cocktails, two three-liter bottles of wine appeared. About two hours passed, Welty told me, before Pober allowed the team to order any food. “Peter turned the waiter away seven times,” filling up everyone’s glass as soon as it was less than half empty, said Alekhya Tallapaka, another senior on the team and Welty’s co-captain. (Both have since graduated.) When the team left the restaurant at 12 o’clock—two hours after closing time—almost everyone was drunk.

At dinner, Tallapaka said, she started to notice that Pober was treating Welty differently than the others: touching his arm and shoulders, holding his gaze, leaning in toward him when they laughed. The team kept drinking at a nearby bar after dinner, taking shots—and by 3 o’clock, Welty was struggling to stand. When the DJ announced that the next song would be slow, those who were there remember that Pober, also extremely drunk, his shirt mostly unbuttoned, pulled Welty in toward him. “We were all just standing around, watching as they slow danced,” Tallapaka said. “They were so close, and Jim was clearly so uncomfortable.” When the team said goodnight, around 4 a.m. in the hallway, breaking off to their separate hotel rooms, Pober asked Welty if he could speak to him in private. “It’ll just be a second,” Pober said, and Welty followed him into his room. Worried about her teammate, who she knew was severely intoxicated, Tallapaka waited for him outside, sitting with her back to the door.

Inside the room, Welty told me, he remembers Pober saying, “I want you to know that I have never worked with a student like you before.” He complimented Welty as a speaker and as a team captain. Pober allegedly told Welty that he’d been having problems with his husband and that they hardly ever had sex. Welty remembers Pober saying, “I just wanted to tell you that I have wanted to fuck you for years.”

Welty was in the hotel room with Pober for an hour and a half that night. For most of that time, he said, he was leaning against the wall, trying to keep his balance, head spinning, as Pober tried to persuade him to have sex. Eventually, when Welty announced that he was going to bed, Pober put his hand on his shoulder. “I was planning on taking advantage of you,” he said. “But you just had to take control.”(In a statement to The Washington Post last year, Pober said, “I admit that in February 2018 I had an inappropriate conversation with a student on a school trip, although I continue to deny several of the allegations regarding the content of that conversation.”)

The following afternoon, sitting on the ground by his gate at the New Orleans airport, Welty typed out a first draft of the Title IX complaint he would submit two days later.

“It was a major slipup,” said Jenny Questell, as we sat outside a café in Washington, D.C., in August. Pober had been harassing young men for years, she said. She told me she personally knew of six victims harassed by Pober from 2010, when she joined the team, to 2017. Jon Tyree and Sean Cummings, two of her best friends, each spoke with her after Pober solicited them for sex. But there was one big difference between Welty and the rest of the men Pober targeted, Questell said: At the time of the harassment, Welty was a student. The others were not.

At George Mason, the university’s Title IX office provides students with an avenue to report incidents of sexual harassment perpetrated by a professor. And Pober was smart, Tyree told me: “I think he knew there would be less chance of someone coming forward with alumni, whereas students might.” Pober would often invite the best students—usually his favorites—to stay on campus as graduate assistants, or GAs, coaching the team for two years after graduation while earning a significant scholarship for a master’s degree at GMU.

While these students still had access to the University’s Title IX resources as GAs, multiple former coaches told me that they felt completely dependent on Pober—for money and for their education. When contacted about this story, Michael Sandler, a university spokesperson, said the school had received no Title IX complaints about Pober before it heard from Welty in February 2018. “George Mason University takes enforcement of Title IX very seriously,” Sandler wrote in an email. “The university thoroughly investigates Title IX complaints, and when there is evidence of violations, it takes appropriate action.”

When Pober asked Cummings to stay on to coach, Cummings wasn’t interested. After he graduated in 2015, he moved to Boston, got a job at a prominent theater, and tried to put some distance between himself and forensics. But one year later, he moved back to D.C.—to work in an Eastern Market office building one block from Pober’s favorite restaurant. Three or four days a week, he’d see Pober sitting outside, drinking margaritas. Pober would wave; Cummings would sometimes walk over to say hello. Occasionally, they would plan to have a drink or dinner.

Before it closed down in the winter of 2017, Banana Café was a staple in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, with picture menus coated in heavy plastic. “Banana,” as Pober called it, wasn’t anything special. “It had good salsa, good queso, and their Cadillac margaritas were the strongest in town,” said Rob Warchol, a GMU alum. “That’s all Peter cared about when we were there.”

At any given time, Tyree told me, a “rotation” of people—mostly coaches and local alumni, primarily men—received regular invitations to join Pober for an evening at Banana. When Cummings met Pober at the restaurant one night in the summer of 2017, the evening started out like all the others he’d spent there: Pober ordered a round of margaritas, then another—assuring Cummings that “all this” is “on me.” Somewhere around Cummings’s fourth drink, the conversation turned explicitly sexual. “When you performed your piece for me, there were so many times when I wanted to bend you over and fuck you,” Cummings remembers Pober saying. Pober reminded Cummings of the second time they met—when Pober persuaded his dad to send him to Mason. “He told me he wanted to fuck me,” Cummings told me. “Even all the way back then.”

Cummings thought about reporting the incident, but he didn’t know who to tell. Even though he went back to campus often, to judge tournaments and help out with the team, he was no longer officially affiliated with the school. So he avoided one-on-one meetings with Pober, and tried to put it out of his mind.

Eight months later, Cummings got a text from Welty, who had been three years behind him in school. On the team, Cummings had been Welty’s captain and mentor. When, in a subsequent conversation, Welty recounted, word for word, his encounter with Pober in the New Orleans hotel room, Cummings told me that he could finish Welty's sentences: “The things he said to Jim were pretty much exactly what he said to me.” Cummings decided to share his experience with the administration, contributing his own story to Welty’s complaint. He wanted to make sure Pober couldn’t just move to another school, coach a different group of students, and start over. Now that Welty had been brave enough to come forward, Cummings told me, this had to be the end.

Pober was placed on administrative leave in February 2018, shortly after the team got back from New Orleans, and retired in May. He was later charged with four counts of felony embezzlement of university funds. (The charges were dropped in January 2019. Pober’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.) At first, Pober told students that he’d be gone only temporarily—and would still be available to practice over Skype. But the Skype meetings never materialized. Over the next few weeks, Tallapaka, Welty’s co-captain, met with individual members of the team, one on one, to tell them that Pober was gone, though at first she didn't say why.

No one was in the mood to prepare for nationals. Andrew Eilola, who took over as interim director of forensics when Pober left, rescinded some of Pober’s policies, lightening the mood. Flashy nail polish, sparkles, and flat shoes, he announced, would all be permitted at tournaments in the post-Pober era. The women on the team immediately started shopping for pantsuits.

But there was still the question of how to tell people what had happened. When they saw other teams at nationals, what would they say? By this point, most people had heard that Pober was out—he’d resigned from his leadership position in the American Forensic Association, the organization that hosted college nationals each year—but almost no one knew why.

Adelina Mitchell, a team member who had attended the senior trip with Welty, decided to write a poem. She’d been performing a selection of poetry on the #MeToo movement for months. A few weeks before nationals, with Welty’s blessing, she narrowed the scope of the piece by removing certain poems and adding others, now focusing specifically on sexual harassment in forensics. Similar incidents, she said, were also “open secrets” within the forensics community.

In October, Ken Young, the forensics director at Bradley University, another top college-speech program, resigned over an allegation of sexual assault. While teaching at a speech camp for high-school students about a decade ago, Young allegedly assaulted a fellow counselor, a 23-year-old woman, according to a social-media post the female counselor wrote about the incident. (Young did not respond to requests for comment on this article.) While no other harassment or assault allegations against top forensics coaches are public, several current and former forensics competitors, including Mitchell, told me that the problem extends far beyond Young and Pober. Mitchell expects to see more resignations in the future.

The final poem in the collection would be about the GMU team, written by team members, Mitchell decided. To write it, she drafted a few lines about how she saw Pober—“this imperial perfect person,” “revered as royalty”—then shared the document with five current and former team members. “Add whatever you want,” she wrote in an email. Over the course of three days, they edited the same Google Doc, adding lines and comments, sharing stories. It was important to Mitchell that the final product feel like a true collaboration. “We did this together,” she told me.

Before nationals, Mitchell ordered 500 teal ribbons printed with the phrase #IEToo (“IE,” or “individual events,” is another term for competitive speech), a hashtag inspired by #MeToo. The first day of nationals, she handed out 50. By the end of the tournament, all 500 were gone.

Mitchell sailed through the tournament’s preliminary rounds, quarterfinals, and semifinals. When she performed her poetry in the final round of nationals, more than 200 people were in the banquet hall, sitting on the floor and standing in the back. Many were wearing her ribbons. Welty, Tallapaka, and the rest of the GMU team were scattered throughout the auditorium, some holding one another, as Mitchell launched into the final stanzas of their poem:

We saw the Pedestal you Perched yourself upon
begin to crumble
So we, your loyal followers
We flocked to the base and
We kicked
We punched
We fought that throne
With tears in our eyes and holes in our hearts
Until that pedestal came crashing to the ground

And when the air cleared,
We smiled

Because we could finally see
The Legacy
of Honor
of Excellence
of Resilience
of Opportunity
of Empowerment
of Siblings
That we always were

Not because of you,
But in spite of you

The audience leapt out of their seats, cheering. In the poem, Mitchell had, in broad strokes, described the night in New Orleans: Pober pushing the team to celebrate, his teeth stained purple from the wine. It was the first time anyone had said anything about the incident in public. When the round was over, a group of GMU alumni—all men—found one another in the hallway outside of the banquet hall. They huddled in a circle, arms draped over one another’s shoulders, crying, while hundreds of coaches and competitors streamed past. “These were all people who were betrayed by Peter,” Tallapaka said, “some who had finally accepted that ‘Yes, this happened to me, too.’”

For support and resources related to sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE.