The Touchy-Feely Approach

A sex-harassment case against a former chancellor breaks CU's code of silence.

A kiss is still a kiss. A sigh is just a sigh. And the allegations of sexual harassment leveled against a prominent educator at the University of Colorado continue to multiply as time goes by.

It's been two years since secretary Jennifer Miller filed a lawsuit against the CU Board of Regents and her former boss, James Corbridge, the chancellor of the Boulder campus from 1986 until 1994, claiming harassment and discrimination during the six years she worked in the "sexually charged atmosphere" of Corbridge's office. The case has been shrouded in an unusual cloak of secrecy, and a trial scheduled for December 8 was abruptly postponed last week while U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Sparr considers a defense motion for summary judgment; Corbridge's attorneys contend that Miller hasn't provided sufficient evidence of harassment within a narrowly defined time frame to proceed to trial. But a recent hearing on the suit has already led to a public airing of some of CU's most embarrassing dirty laundry.

Miller's suit raises questions not only about Corbridge's treatment of her but about his dealings with several other female university employees--including high-ranking administrators--during the years he supervised day-to-day operations of the Boulder campus and its ten colleges. It also offers an insider's look at the snarled sexual politics, conflicts of interest and alleged coverups at the top levels of the university's power structure.

The case is one of several costly, high-profile sexual-harassment lawsuits that have rocked the state's most politically correct public institution over the past two years ("Fear and Groping in Boulder," June 6, 1996). But it may be the most bitterly contested one of all; while most of the other cases have resulted in out-of-court settlements that prevent the litigants from discussing their claims, the Miller lawsuit has proceeded practically to the eve of trial with much of the discovery process sealed under protective orders of a federal court. In addition, the university has shelled out thousands of dollars from its insurance pool to hire private attorneys to represent Corbridge and other key witnesses.

The cone of silence descended shortly after excerpts from the deposition of former CU president Judith Albino, which dealt with rumors she'd heard about Corbridge's alleged womanizing, surfaced in local dailies last year. Federal Magistrate Judge Donald Abram decided to seal future discovery in order to shield from undue "annoyance and embarrassment" various women whom Miller alleged had had personal relationships with Corbridge that advanced their careers.

Yet some of the most intriguing elements of Miller's case, including claims by other women that they were harassed by Corbridge, have appeared in the public record anyway. Two weeks ago Judge Sparr rejected a defense request to close a pre-trial hearing at which much of the evidence was discussed, despite Corbridge attorney Thomas Rice's contention that the evidence amounted to "colorful rhetoric and hyped-up allegations" designed to subject his client to public ridicule.

Miller's complaint states that Corbridge asked her for dates and then harassed her after she let him know his advances were "unwelcome and inappropriate"; that the chancellor rewarded those who responded to his attentions with extravagant raises, promotions, travel and other benefits, all at university expense; and that he punished and humiliated Miller for rejecting him and ultimately drove her into therapy and out of a job. She took a medical leave of absence from her $42,000-a-year job two weeks after Corbridge stepped down as chancellor and hasn't worked since, while Corbridge returned to a tenured faculty position in the university's law school.

Through his attorney, Corbridge declined to comment to Westword, but in court filings, he's denied virtually all of Miller's allegations. Rice and university attorneys have argued that Miller has failed to provide any evidence that the chancellor engaged in sexual liaisons with any of his staff or that any of them, other than Miller, felt harassed by him. They also contend that Corbridge's alleged consensual relationships with other university employees didn't affect Miller, who may not have been aware of them and who received "handsome" raises herself. And since many of the alleged incidents Miller describes--everything from "unsolicited backrubs" to Corbridge's supposed penchant for touching and embracing his female staff, which Miller says prompted her to try to keep furniture between herself and the chancellor at all times--occurred as far back as 1988, the defense insists that her case exceeds the statute of limitations for harassment complaints.

Still, while the legal val-idity of Miller's claims are very much in dispute, it seems clear that Corbridge's touchy-feely management style did provoke comment and speculation in the chancellor's office--and may have led to some highly unusual job duties. Miller claims that she was expected to arrange dates for Corbridge with other women, to find jobs for women he found attractive and to chill wine for after-hours get-togethers in his office. She also claims she was assigned to assist in getting Corbridge's house ready for his 1992 wedding to Pauline Hale, director of CU-Boulder's public-relations office. Attorney Rice says Miller's claims amount to "gossip-mongering" and "taking a pebble of sand and turning it into a dune."

In affidavits and depositions, other witnesses have portrayed Corbridge as a Bob Packwood-like figure who had difficulty separating personal and professional relationships--and created uncomfortable situations for other CU officials who were supposed to enforce campus policies discouraging such behavior. Susan Hobson-Panico claims to have once been kissed on the cheek by the chancellor outside his office; at the time, Hobson-Panico headed the Ombuds Office, which handles sexual-harassment complaints on campus in a confidential setting. In order to follow university procedure for complaining about such an incident, Hobson-Panico would have had to report the unwelcome buss to herself. Later promoted by Corbridge to interim vice chancellor, Hobson-Panico eventually relayed her concerns to the university's legal office.

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