Fear and Groping in Boulder

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

A biologist by training and a former dancer in the National Ballet, Gamow had one of the best-known names on campus. His father, physicist George Gamow, had been one of the principal proponents of the "big bang" theory of the origin of the universe and a pioneer in DNA research; a science award and a building at CU, Gamow Tower, are dedicated to his memory. The younger Gamow had earned three degrees at CU and joined his father on the faculty in 1968, shortly before George's death.

In the decades since, Igor Gamow had carved a niche for himself in Boulder as a flamboyant, unorthodox figure who rode a motorcycle by day and an Arabian stallion named Pegasus at night. He supervised off-campus programs in Nepal, taught courses in "creative technology" and "animal locomotion," and frequently collaborated with students on his ceaseless stream of inventions, which included a running shoe, a pressurized snorkel and the Gamow Bag, a contraption for treating high-altitude sickness. His Biological Altitude Testing laboratory, known as the BAT Lab, was festooned with Batman and Star Trek memorabilia, as well as other artifacts reflecting his eclectic interests in horses, mountain climbing, poetry and Eastern philosophy.

Sarah had come to know Gamow in the fall of 1982, when she was a 21-year-old junior and treasurer of CU's chemical-engineering student society. Gamow was the faculty advisor to the group and talked with her one-on-one on several occasions. Although the professor sometimes made "vaguely suggestive comments," Sarah later wrote, "I wrote such things off as misinterpretations on my part, or transient weirdness on his part." Gamow, after all, was more than twice her age, married, and a college professor--the kind of person she "automatically trusted."

According to Sarah, one cold November night Gamow offered her a ride home--not by steed or chopper but by pickup truck. But instead of taking her home, she says, he drove her to Chautauqua Park and began to embrace and fondle her. Sarah characterizes the incident as an assault, one she didn't resist because she was "frozen with fear." The encounter ended only when she managed to blurt out, "This is really wrong"--at which time Gamow ceased his advances and took her home.

That night, she adds, changed the entire course of her academic career. Her GPA plummeted, and she changed her major just to avoid Gamow. "Academically, it had an effect until I finished my degree," she says now. "I was scared to go into the engineering center, and I was taking classes there five days a week. I didn't think I could trust any of the professors."

Gamow recalls the incident differently, saying that the ride occurred during daylight and that he didn't own a pickup truck at the time. He says he and Sarah were good friends before and after the incident (Sarah disputes this). He also says his overture consisted of nothing more than a "strong hug."

"There was a romantic component, but not as described," he insists. "And that, certainly, I should have avoided. It's an embarrassment to me."

Sarah didn't tell anyone about the incident for years. Even after she returned to CU as a graduate student in biology, she says, she still feared Gamow. So last summer she contacted the Ombuds Office and asked Seebok to arrange a meeting, her first contact with her former advisor in more than a decade.

Ombuds gatherings are supposed to be confidential, and no one took notes at Sarah's meeting. Sarah says she read a letter she'd written to Gamow recounting the experience and the pain it had caused her. "Gamow apologized for what happened," she wrote in a memorandum about the meeting, composed six months later. "He claimed that was the only time he has ever become sexual with a student. He claimed that the day I was assaulted was an aberration, a single sorry incident in his life."

But Sarah says she was deeply troubled by something else Gamow supposedly said in the course of defending himself and his positive interactions with most undergraduates: that he currently was involved in "eight romantic relationships" with students.

Gamow has denied uttering the remark. "She attributes to me statements that I never made," he says.

But Sarah couldn't get the disputed remark out of her head. What if this "single sorry incident" wasn't an isolated case? What if the supposedly "romantic" relationships were really something else? She began to ask around campus about the poetry-spouting inventor, and by fall she'd connected with a young woman--call her Jane--who'd reported Gamow for sexual harassment three years earlier.

Jane, who also requested anonymity, came into frequent contact with Gamow as a seventeen-year-old freshman in the fall of 1992. Gamow taught one of her first classes at CU; he was also her advisor and headed a student research group that she joined. She had been on campus only a few weeks, she wrote in her complaint, when Gamow "proposed that he and I do a 'mind melding' and agree to share all of our ideas and thoughts with each other."

Before long Gamow was encouraging her to meet with him away from his office and to move beyond their "intuitive" encounters to a truly "rational" meeting. Jane wasn't sure what he had in mind, but she found out, she says, when he summoned her to a Sunday night rendezvous in a poorly lit nook of the campus outside the engineering building. Gamow held her hands, caressed her face and kissed her, she wrote, while explaining that what he was proposing was "essentially the same as running off to Las Vegas together and not leaving the bed for a week."

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