Fear and Groping in Boulder

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

Jane says she didn't know how to extricate herself from the situation gracefully but finally managed to get a ride to her dorm on the back of Gamow's motorcycle. She attended only two more classes with her mind-melding mentor; at the second, Gamow slipped her a note about poetry that made her decide she didn't want to have any more meetings with him, rational or intuitive. Like Sarah, she changed her major in order to avoid Gamow. She even sought counseling, she says, once she realized that the experience had upset her far more deeply than she'd anticipated.

"I remember thinking this would take a couple of weeks to get over," she recalls. "But every time I sat down to study, I'd start thinking about the situation, getting disgusted because I would be reminded of when he kissed me, what his beard felt like--it was really disturbing. It was my first semester, and I really wanted to do well, but I couldn't focus on school. I even saw a psychiatrist at Wardenburg [Student Health Center]. I really hated life enough to wonder why I was even bothering to wake up in the morning, because I was just going to cry all day."

Before the end of the semester, Jane hand-delivered a letter of complaint about Gamow to Richard Seebass, then dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. She never received any response, she says, so she took her grievance to CU's Office of Affirmative Action & Services, which convened a formal panel. (Documents indicate that Dean Seebass did conduct some sort of "informal investigation," but both Jane and Gamow say he never interviewed them.)

Gamow has steadfastly denied making any sexual advances on Jane. He says he often urges students who want to talk about extracurricular matters to meet him outside the office, and Jane's visits to discuss poetry were taking up too much of his office hours. It's also not unusual for him to talk about "rational" and "intuitive" approaches to scientific problems or about hypothetical "mind melds"--which, as any Trekkie knows, is the way Mr. Spock communicates with other life forms.

"I use the expression ten times a year--'If we can do a mind meld,'" he says. "That's my teaching style. The [harassment] committee made it sound like 'mind meld' was some kind of sexual fetish."

Gamow admits holding hands with Jane and kissing her on the cheek or forehead. Although the behavior was "probably inappropriate" by current standards, he says, he insists he had no romantic intent. But intent is usually irrelevant in determining whether harassment has occurred; it's the "unwelcome" behavior's impact on the victim that matters. And the panel found that "the actions of Igor Gamow impacted the complainant in such a way as to adversely affect her academic performance and emotional state."

Jane had asked that Gamow be banned from serving as a freshman advisor, but such a move was outside the panel's authority. Instead, it recommended that the university pay for Jane's counseling, that incoming engineering students attend mandatory training in appropriate relationships with professors, and that Gamow be required to review the harassment policy and watch a training video on the subject.

No one bothered to tell Jane if any of the panel's recommendations were ever followed. Gamow says he did watch the harassment video and considered the matter resolved. A year later, though, he was informed that Dean Seebass wanted him to limit his contact with students only to regular office hours--a condition far beyond what the panel had proposed. Gamow promptly filed his own grievance over the university's handling of the case.

The faculty's Privilege and Tenure committee, which looked into his grievance, took issue with both the fairness of the panel's proceedings and the reasonableness of Seebass's directive, which was eventually rescinded. But the faculty inquiry, which took months to complete, didn't put the matter to rest, either. Following her encounter with Jane, Sarah decided to file a "third-party" complaint against Gamow, one of the first cases to be heard under the university's new harassment policy. Although she has no evidence that Gamow is currently harassing anyone, Sarah wanted the university to look into his alleged remark about ongoing romantic relationships with students and his "history" of harassment.

Sarah says her meeting with the ombudsman might have gone quite differently if she'd known about Jane, and Jane says that learning about the earlier incident only confirmed her suspicions.

"I knew there had to be other women before me," she says. "Looking back on it, everything seemed so well-rehearsed. He had all the lines ironed out. I always felt so angry that these other women hadn't reported it so that he wouldn't be there anymore, or at least change his behavior. But then I thought, maybe they did report it. Maybe they did everything in their power, but nothing happened."

Ironically, one of the drawbacks in CU's harassment-reporting system is its confidentiality. Complaints can be funneled through a bewildering variety of channels, from the hush-hush Ombuds Office to a range of forums dealing with staff, faculty or student issues. Cases tend to be dealt with in isolation, and since there's no central reporting authority, tracking repeat offenders is difficult.

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