The Touchy-Feely Approach

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

Miller herself never complained of harassment to university officials, but her attorney, David Reese, says that's because she recognized the power of Corbridge's position and his strong support on CU's Board of Regents. "Can you imagine how intimidating it was for my client," Reese says, "to know that he got away with harassing his own ombudswoman?"

For various reasons, others didn't complain about Corbridge's behavior either. In an affidavit, CU law professor Mimi Wesson claims that the chancellor put his hand on her thigh under a table at a social gathering a few years ago. Wesson, whose specialty includes harassment law and who helped develop the university's policy on the subject, says she didn't make a fuss at the time because a student and her parents were sitting at the same table.

"Although I really wanted to tell the chancellor in no uncertain terms to get his hand off my thigh...I did not wish to cause a scene," Wesson states, adding that she maintains a "pleasant collegial relationship" with Corbridge.

Yet even when complaints did go through standard university channels, nothing came of them. One woman, a former staffer on the Boulder campus, claims to have had a five-year relationship with Corbridge that began as consensual but became more problematic as the months wore on.

"For six months it was a nice relationship, but it wasn't going forward," the woman, who asked that her name not be used, told Westword. "I spent four years trying to get out. It's really frightening trying to end a relationship with your supervisor's supervisor's supervisor."

Corbridge, she adds, was "persistent at getting what he wanted. He used every tactic he could think of. He was very good at it, in fact."

The woman has said she finally left a voice message for Corbridge telling him to leave her alone. She also turned over a copy of the message to the Ombuds Office. Months later, though, ombudsman Tom Seebok asked her permission to destroy the record of her complaint--an action that Miller's attorneys regard as a violation of university policy.

Corbridge attorney Rice maintains that such alleged relationships, even if they occurred, have no bearing on Miller's case. But Reese contends that other university employees who responded to Corbridge, and who Reese believes received promotions or higher budgets as a result, serve as "foils" to Miller's situation.

"All of these women put up with it," Reese argued at the recent hearing. "And all of these women were rewarded."

Corbridge left his post as chancellor in the summer of 1994, apparently after some prompting by then-president Albino, who'd heard secondhand reports of the chancellor being "overly familiar" with female employees, including a member of her own staff. "There were issues of concern about the image of the chancellor...and Jim's behavior toward women," Albino would later explain in a deposition. "I believed it would be best to make a change. We had this discussion, and he agreed that he would resign." (Rice denies that Albino ever raised harassment issues directly with his client.)

Reese says that the fact that Corbridge was able to continue as chancellor for so long, despite mounting concerns about his alleged conduct, is an indication that CU's internal procedures for dealing with sexual harassment, much revised in recent years, still don't work very well. The university's mania for confidentiality can, he suggests, benefit a harasser at the expense of victims, who may not be aware of similar complaints; and by the time a harassment case reaches the courtroom, CU is in the position of paying for outside counsel not only for the accused harasser but for other potential witnesses, giving the defense what Reese calls "leverage" over those witnesses.

Regardless of the outcome of Miller's lawsuit, the attorney says he and his client are determined to bring their concerns about the process to state legislators who oversee the university's budget and policies.

"The underlying problem needs to be remedied," he says. "What this case tells me is that the problem is so pervasive at CU that the victim will be attacked savagely for going up against the good-old-boy network. The process that's going on now is a real danger to everyone up there. The defense in this case is just to tear a decent woman to pieces."

The true cost of CU's efforts to defend faculty and administrators from harassment claims may never be known. In most cases, the strategy has been to buy the litigants' silence--and even when the university is compelled to provide information on a particular settlement, the figures provided may be misleading or incomplete.

Consider, for example, the recent settlement in the case of Kristine Larson, a professor in CU's aerospace engineering department who had objected to sexist postcards being posted at a federally funded research center housed at the university. Larson claimed that retaliation by her male superiors, along with inaction by officials such as Corbridge, transformed her relatively minor complaint into a major dispute over her performance evaluations, work assignments and prospects for tenure.

Three months ago, after more than two years of litigation and only weeks before the case was slated to go to trial, the parties reached an out-of-court settlement. Under the terms of the settlement, Larson can't discuss what she received, but CU spokeswoman Hale issued a statement announcing that Larson had voluntarily dismissed all claims in return for a $50,000 research grant and a light teaching load--one course per semester--for the 1997-98 academic year. Although a guarantee of tenure wasn't part of the package, Larson's acceptance of the deal clearly hinged on whether she was granted tenure, which she received a few weeks before the settlement was announced.

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