Isn't It Romantic?

A CU investigation finds no evidence that a professor is harassing students but recommends a refresher course in "appropriate behavior."

In one of the stranger tests of the University of Colorado's new get-tough policy on sexual harassment, an internal committee has found "no concrete evidence" to support harassment charges against a prominent Boulder professor--even though the committee's report raises uneasy questions about the professor's admitted "romantic" relationships with female students.

Earlier this year, chemical-engineering professor Igor Gamow, a fixture on the Boulder campus for nearly thirty years, was accused by two CU students of having a history of harassing undergraduate women ("Fear and Groping in Boulder," June 6). They had urged the university's Sexual Harassment Committee to investigate his conduct toward current students.

Gamow, a celebrated sixty-year-old inventor and son of "big bang" theorist George Gamow, has conceded that he exhibited "inappropriate" behavior toward his accusers. But he has denied many of their allegations and insists that he hasn't harassed anybody. In a recent e-mail message to dozens of faculty members and administrators on the Boulder campus, he denounced the pair as "two very unstable and wacky women [who] have apparently dedicated their lives to slandering and maligning me."

The two women, who requested anonymity and were identified in the previous Westword article as Sarah and Jane, claim to have been sexually accosted by Gamow in separate incidents that took place a decade apart. Sarah charges that in 1982, when she was a 21-year-old junior, Gamow offered her a ride home, then embraced and fondled her in his vehicle. In 1992, Jane, then a 17-year-old freshman, filed a formal harassment complaint against Gamow, claiming he'd caressed and kissed her and proposed a sexual liaison.

Gamow told Westword that his overture to Sarah consisted of nothing more than a "strong hug" and that he had no sexual intentions toward Jane whatsoever--even though he held her hand and kissed her. A panel that looked into Jane's complaint found that Gamow's behavior had prompted her to drop his class and had adversely affected "her academic performance and emotional state."

The most recent complaint stems from a meeting between Sarah and Gamow last summer that was arranged by CU's Ombuds Office, an informal entity for dispute resolution on campus. Now a graduate student, Sarah had sought an apology from Gamow over the 1982 incident. But in the course of defending his behavior, Sarah claims, Gamow mentioned that he currently had "eight romantic relationships" with students. After subsequently learning of Jane's experience with Gamow, Sarah decided to file a third-party complaint on behalf of the women Gamow was supposedly involved with.

A few weeks ago Gamow told Westword he'd never made any claims of having romantic relationships with students. But the harassment committee's report states that Gamow admitted to them that he'd used the term in his conversation with Sarah: "He explained that he was using 'romantic' in the 'European' sense, namely as meaning 'intimate but not sexual friendships.' He stated that he was not currently sexually involved with any students in the School of Engineering."

Indeed, Gamow insists he continues to have "romantic" relationships with male and female students. "I use the term 'romantic' maybe five times a day," he says now. "Robin Hood is romantic. The young Napoleon. Errol Flynn. It means unconventional and individualistic, fighting taboos. It's only in the Nineties that 'romantic' has come to have only a sexual meaning."

Ironically, Gamow's efforts to clarify to the committee what he meant by "romantic" were constrained by the university's own hush-hush policies regarding sexual-harassment matters. He urged the committee to call as a witness Tom Sebok, the ombudsman who was present at the meeting with Sarah as a neutral observer, in order to verify his version of the conversation. But Sebok declined to appear, citing the confidentiality of anything said by disputants in his office.

The investigation was also limited by CU's policy of not handling any complaint over an incident that occurred more than a year ago. Since Sarah and Jane could produce no current victims of Gamow's alleged harassment, the committee found no evidence that Gamow was violating the harassment policy.

At the same time, the committee found Sarah and Jane to be credible witnesses "and the allegations not to be intentionally false and malicious." And the panel was sufficiently disturbed by Gamow's admission concerning romantic relationships to "strongly suggest" that Gamow take another four hours of sexual-harassment training.

Ultimately, any disciplinary action is in the hands of Gamow's superiors. Gamow disputes the notion that the committee's recommendation is, in fact, a disciplinary measure, since such "routine" training is expected of all faculty. As he sees it, it's his accusers who should be disciplined; in a recent letter to the university's newspaper, the Silver and Gold Record, he reiterated his position that the women have engaged in "vicious, vulgar, unsubstantiated" allegations against him. He also threatened to sue his accusers.

Sarah says she's disappointed in the findings and considers the investigation inadequate, since the committee didn't even bother to talk to the women with whom Gamow supposedly has relationships. "If he's so blameless, there should have been no hesitation on his part to provide the names," she says.

She notes that Gamow was required to watch a sexual-harassment video as a result of the 1992 complaint; in her view, a recommendation of another four hours of training is "absolutely nothing in itself."

As for Gamow's e-mail denunciations and threats to sue, "I think it's clear this is retaliation," Sarah says. "But I have no plans to put in another six months of my life to get some trivial review and response. It demonstrates how far this university has to go.

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