Fear and Groping in Boulder

Power, politics and patronage--three reasons why CU's "zero tolerance" sexual-harassment policy could be one big nothing.

Jennifer Miller had put up with all she was going to take. An employee of the University of Colorado for almost thirty years, she'd risen from the ranks of the typing pool to a high-profile, $42,000-a-year job on the administrative support staff. But they couldn't pay her enough to turn a blind eye to what she saw as sexual shenanigans and an abuse of raw power unfolding in her office on the Boulder campus--a situation that, by Miller's account, drove her into therapy and out of a job.

Last year her therapist encouraged Miller to write an "uncensored letter" to her ex-boss. It was an opportunity to vent her feelings, even though the letter wouldn't actually be sent. So she sat down at her computer and typed one last memo to the man she considered to be at the root of her unhappiness and many other problems at CU: James Corbridge, the chancellor of the Boulder campus from 1986 until 1994 and for twenty years one of the top administrators in higher education in the state.

Dear Jim,
It is time you knew how I have felt about you and your treatment of me and others...I was warned before I ever went to work for you that you had an eye for the women...I remember one time when you came back from California and you had met a woman [who] seemed to fascinate you and we began to call her endlessly for you. You would have me call her out of meetings and track her down because you wanted to talk to her. It was sickening to watch.

Then there were the coeds who would catch your eye and more than once I saw the disgusting way you would just stare at some blond young thing with your mouth half open and you would try to find a reason to go up to that young woman to strike up a conversation. You would always talk about how bright they were and perhaps I should create a job on your staff so that you could hire them. Sometimes I did try to create positions as you requested but the positions were always so vague...Foolish me. I tried to develop real job descriptions with real assignments, but that isn't what you were really interested in...Women knew you had power and the young ones were always mesmerized by you.

What seemed to distress Miller the most were what she called "the little flirtations" within the chancellor's office. There was the co-worker who "always came out so well" on raises and promotions and was allowed time off from work "to get her legs waxed, her hair cut, her nails done." Another woman drove Corbridge to the dry cleaner and the barber and stayed after work sipping wine with him in his office. The chancellor was openly affectionate with both of them, Miller wrote, while Miller was expected to chill the wine for after-hours get-togethers and to arrange dates for her boss:

I hated it and I should never have had to do it. I should have told you to get your own dates but I never understood what lines I could draw and still keep my job...I saved your ass and made you look good, and I furthered your standing many times. But I couldn't save you from yourself. You always had a strong tendency to think with your pants and not your head.

Last November Miller filed a lawsuit against Corbridge, current Chancellor Roderick Park and CU's Board of Regents. She claims that Corbridge created a "sexually charged atmosphere" in the office during the six years she worked for him; asked her for dates and harassed her after she let him know his advances were "unwelcome and inappropriate"; rewarded those who responded to his attentions with extravagant raises, promotions, travel and other benefits, all at university expense; and punished Miller by denying her professional advancement and unfairly reassigning job duties.

In court filings, CU officials including Corbridge have denied virtually all of Miller's allegations. Corbridge, who has returned to his faculty post as a tenured law professor, has suggested that his former assistant misinterpreted his efforts to offer her "the opportunity to have a glass of wine following working hours in order to further develop professional camaraderie." University attorneys have fought to keep details of the case secret, obtaining a gag order on the discovery process last month after excerpts from the deposition of former CU president Judith Albino, dealing with information she'd received about Corbridge's alleged womanizing, surfaced in the Rocky Mountain News.

"This relatively straightforward case of sexual harassment has evolved into a high profile case which has been sensationalized by the media," declared federal magistrate Donald Abram, in granting the gag order. "I've never seen a deposition like that of Judith Albino and misuse of the system as I've seen in this case. It's disgusting."

Sensational? You bet. Disgusting? Perhaps. But straightforward? Think again.
Miller's case is the latest in a series of high-profile lawsuits involving claims of sexual discrimination and harassment at CU. The complaints range from sexual favoritism and academic sabotage to egregious misuse of public funds; what they have in common, though, is an alleged pattern of retaliation and other improprieties by key university officials that tended to escalate the disputes rather than resolve them.

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