Fear and Groping in Boulder

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

The Siege Mentality
At the moment, CU is experiencing its greatest internal shakeup in more than a decade. Last fall former president Albino accepted a six-figure incentive package from the regents to step down from her post a year early; she's now winding down her CU career as a member of the Health Sciences Center faculty while job-hunting elsewhere. Having been thwarted in their attempts to shield the search process from public scrutiny, last month the regents confirmed that interim president John Buechner would stay on as her successor. Buechner, a career CU insider for 33 years, was the only candidate interviewed for the job.

Dean Middleton is on his way to a vice-chancellor post in Ohio; at commencement last month he received an award for his many years of distinguished service to CU. Chancellor Park has one year left on his contract before he'll step down, too. Other administrators who played key roles in the stormy Albino years have retired, moved on to shinier posts elsewhere, decided to run for Congress, or, like Corbridge, eased back into the warm embrace of tenured academia.

Still, the changing of the guard hasn't magically altered the climate of strife at CU. At least four major campus harassment and discrimination lawsuits, including the Miller and Larson cases, are expected to go to trial in the next year or so. Two weeks ago, in one of his final acts as dean, Middleton announced that CU was placing its entire Fine Arts department in "receivership" under the acting control of an outside chair; supposedly, the entire department has been so rocked by claims of sexism and conflicts of interest among faculty that only an outsider could assume the helm. The legacy of the previous administration--a time of hijinks and low intrigue, power plays and payoffs--continues.

Some observers are optimistic about the new harassment policy's ability to improve matters. With its strict reporting deadlines and flow charts illustrating how complaints are supposed to be handled, it leaves little room for the kinds of delays and uncertainties that have been the hallmark of past cases.

"The real issue is being able to resolve these cases in a timely fashion," says Susan Kirk, the only woman on the nine-member Board of Regents. "The process just takes too long, especially for the victim, but also for the respondent. What people don't understand is that there are certain procedures that need to be followed."

Critics of the new policy, though, wonder if it will really have much of an impact. They point out that its strict reporting requirements leave no room for an "off-the-record" conversation with an administrator about a possible harassment situation and thus may encourage more protracted investigations rather than speedier, informal resolutions. The policy also puts more pressure on supervisors and faculty chairs to inform on those they suspect of harassment--driving the level of responsibility downward, perhaps, and leaving top administrators less accountable than ever for what happens on their watch.

But then, as Susan Cherniack points out, the policy is "only a piece of paper." It's execution that counts, and both Cherniack and her support-group co-founder, Karen Ashmore, question CU's commitment to rooting out offenders.

"They have no incentive to do it on their own," says Ashmore. "It's going to be the taxpayers and the legislators who are going to force them to get their act together."

But if anything moves slower than a harassment complaint inside the state's leading public university, it's probably a politician responding to the problem. In the past session members of the Colorado General Assembly made a lot of noise about Albino's golden parachute package, the regents' efforts to keep the presidential search a closed-door affair, the costly harassment settlements and related CU follies such as a short-lived attempt to raise student fees to help defray the expense of the harassment suits. Inquiries were made, protests lodged, investigations vowed.

The result? Legislators were so steamed at CU that they managed to withhold $5,000 from the university's billion-dollar budget, with the express intent that the money be deducted from the Board of Regents' travel allowance.

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