Fear and Groping in Boulder
Jennifer Miller had put up with all she was going to take. An employee of the University of Colorado for almost thirty years, she'd risen from the ranks of the typing pool to a high-profile, $42,000-a-year job on the administrative support staff. But they couldn't pay her enough to turn a blind eye to what she saw as sexual shenanigans and an abuse of raw power unfolding in her office on the Boulder campus--a situation that, by Miller's account, drove her into therapy and out of a job.
Last year her therapist encouraged Miller to write an "uncensored letter" to her ex-boss. It was an opportunity to vent her feelings, even though the letter wouldn't actually be sent. So she sat down at her computer and typed one last memo to the man she considered to be at the root of her unhappiness and many other problems at CU: James Corbridge, the chancellor of the Boulder campus from 1986 until 1994 and for twenty years one of the top administrators in higher education in the state.
It is time you knew how I have felt about you and your treatment of me and others...I was warned before I ever went to work for you that you had an eye for the women...I remember one time when you came back from California and you had met a woman [who] seemed to fascinate you and we began to call her endlessly for you. You would have me call her out of meetings and track her down because you wanted to talk to her. It was sickening to watch.
Then there were the coeds who would catch your eye and more than once I saw the disgusting way you would just stare at some blond young thing with your mouth half open and you would try to find a reason to go up to that young woman to strike up a conversation. You would always talk about how bright they were and perhaps I should create a job on your staff so that you could hire them. Sometimes I did try to create positions as you requested but the positions were always so vague...Foolish me. I tried to develop real job descriptions with real assignments, but that isn't what you were really interested in...Women knew you had power and the young ones were always mesmerized by you.
What seemed to distress Miller the most were what she called "the little flirtations" within the chancellor's office. There was the co-worker who "always came out so well" on raises and promotions and was allowed time off from work "to get her legs waxed, her hair cut, her nails done." Another woman drove Corbridge to the dry cleaner and the barber and stayed after work sipping wine with him in his office. The chancellor was openly affectionate with both of them, Miller wrote, while Miller was expected to chill the wine for after-hours get-togethers and to arrange dates for her boss:
I hated it and I should never have had to do it. I should have told you to get your own dates but I never understood what lines I could draw and still keep my job...I saved your ass and made you look good, and I furthered your standing many times. But I couldn't save you from yourself. You always had a strong tendency to think with your pants and not your head.
Last November Miller filed a lawsuit against Corbridge, current Chancellor Roderick Park and CU's Board of Regents. She claims that Corbridge created a "sexually charged atmosphere" in the office during the six years she worked for him; asked her for dates and harassed her after she let him know his advances were "unwelcome and inappropriate"; rewarded those who responded to his attentions with extravagant raises, promotions, travel and other benefits, all at university expense; and punished Miller by denying her professional advancement and unfairly reassigning job duties.
In court filings, CU officials including Corbridge have denied virtually all of Miller's allegations. Corbridge, who has returned to his faculty post as a tenured law professor, has suggested that his former assistant misinterpreted his efforts to offer her "the opportunity to have a glass of wine following working hours in order to further develop professional camaraderie." University attorneys have fought to keep details of the case secret, obtaining a gag order on the discovery process last month after excerpts from the deposition of former CU president Judith Albino, dealing with information she'd received about Corbridge's alleged womanizing, surfaced in the Rocky Mountain News.
"This relatively straightforward case of sexual harassment has evolved into a high profile case which has been sensationalized by the media," declared federal magistrate Donald Abram, in granting the gag order. "I've never seen a deposition like that of Judith Albino and misuse of the system as I've seen in this case. It's disgusting."
Sensational? You bet. Disgusting? Perhaps. But straightforward? Think again.
Miller's case is the latest in a series of high-profile lawsuits involving claims of sexual discrimination and harassment at CU. The complaints range from sexual favoritism and academic sabotage to egregious misuse of public funds; what they have in common, though, is an alleged pattern of retaliation and other improprieties by key university officials that tended to escalate the disputes rather than resolve them.
Several of the women involved say they turned to the courts only after becoming convinced that the administrators who were supposed to investigate their grievances were more interested in protecting the status quo--which, at CU, consists of a byzantine web of personal and professional relationships, brazen conflicts of interest and power-brokering.
For most of his three decades in Boulder, Corbridge has been one of the main players in the game, an award-winning teacher who moved quickly into administrative work. At one point, before the selection of Judith Albino, he was considered a serious contender for the job of CU president, and as chancellor, he was far more directly involved in the day-to-day operation of the Boulder campus and its ten colleges than Albino. He also had control over a discretionary budget for his office--over and above routine expenditures for salaries and other operating expenses--that reached as high as $300,000 a year. Miller's suit raises troubling questions about how those funds were used and about Corbridge's role in handling sexual-harassment complaints campus-wide.
"Obviously, CU has a real big problem," says Karen Ashmore, founder of a harassment-victims' support group in Boulder, half of whose membership consists of CU faculty, staff and students. "For some of these administrators to deal with this issue, they'd have to get rid of themselves."
University officials say they have "zero tolerance" for harassment, but their record on the matter has been mixed. Over the past three years CU has paid nearly a million dollars in settlements of discrimination and harassment lawsuits involving the Boulder campus, but few, if any, professors or administrators have been disciplined for any wrongdoing. (The exact number is difficult to determine, since campus officials decline to discuss specifics and past efforts at "punishment" have been ambiguous.)
In addition, the university has shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees from its insurance pool, including fees for private attorneys to defend Corbridge and other employees. Other complaints have been settled quietly by internal committees that have recommended that the university pay for counseling sessions or waive tuition charges for harassment victims.
Last fall Chancellor Park unveiled a long-awaited, tougher policy for dealing with harassment, and CU's new president, John Buechner, has vowed to crack down on offenders. Critics say the new policy is an improvement but lacks teeth, since the internal groups that investigate harassment have no power to enforce their own recommendations; disciplinary actions are left up to deans and other administrators. Yet since the policy was implemented, the number of formal complaints to the campus's Sexual Harassment Committee has risen dramatically, from eleven cases in three years to more than twenty cases in the past eight months.
"The old policy was really written to protect the university," says Susan Cherniack, a former CU professor and co-founder of Ashmore's support group. "The rise in the number of cases isn't an indication that everyone is suddenly crying wolf, but it shows how difficult it was to come forward before."
Miller, Corbridge and several other CU officials decline to talk to Westword. But interviews with other litigants and a review of court records and internal university documents indicate that protracted disputes involving harassment claims continue to fester at CU. The cases range from the controversy surrounding Corbridge's largess--including trips to Geneva, Toronto and other cities for one globe-trotting assistant, as well as big-ticket spending on raises for female support staff that would eventually be challenged by President Albino--to a four-year-old case involving a seventeen-year-old freshman and one of the most celebrated professors on the Boulder campus.
University officials' response to the surge of harassment complaints has been to deny the problem, buy off litigants and shrug off criticism. Requests for data and clarification on harassment issues have been met with delays, obfuscation and polite refusals to comment, with the usual proviso that the matters are "in litigation" and thus somehow immune from scrutiny (see related story, this page). And in several instances, the litigation has been resolved with a settlement that skirts the issue of guilt or exoneration of the people involved and prevents the parties from discussing their claims.
One day in June 1995, Sarah, a 34-year-old graduate student, stepped out of the confidential confines of CU's Ombuds Office, carrying with her a gnawing sense of unease. Her confrontation with the ghosts of her past had not gone at all the way she expected.
The Ombuds Office assists students, faculty and staff in informally resolving disputes. Sarah (who asked that her real name not be published) had used the process to arrange a meeting with Rustem Igor Gamow, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, mediated by ombudsman Tom Seebok. She wanted an apology from Gamow for something that had happened almost thirteen years earlier, and she got it. But something else said in that room had unsettled her, and she was beginning to wonder whether she'd really achieved her goal.
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."
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.
A decision by the investigating panel is expected this week. Jane says the panel told her they can't investigate the case the way Gamow's two accusers want, since it would be unethical for them to "comb the university" in search of current harassment victims. "I can understand, they wouldn't be neutral if they did that," Jane says. "The burden is on us to find these other women, but we don't know who's dropping his courses."
Having already been through four administrative proceedings as a result of the two women's complaints, Gamow has filed a counter-grievance of his own, accusing his accusers of pursuing a vendetta against him. He insists he's had no complaints from other students about his behavior and suggests there may be something more behind the current case than meets the eye.
"Would it be very politically incorrect to say 'money'?" he asks. "So far, the Boulder campus seems to be paying a lot of money for anybody who has threatened a suit."
Although he declines to discuss details, he says he suspects that the women may have been manipulated into filing charges against him by administrators he's feuded with for years. "Professors that fall out of favor are not only at the mercy of the engineering administration, but the entire legal establishment of the university," he says.
Despite the furor over past incidents, Gamow says he continues to meet with male and female students outside of his office--and, in some cases, off campus. A couple of weeks ago, he says, he invited a student to lunch at his house so he could feed his horse while they discussed her paper. He's had "probably fifty meals" with the same student, who was on one of his Nepal treks.
"When I came back from lunch," he says, "I was told, 'Haven't you learned your lesson, taking somebody home in your car?' Was that appropriate or not appropriate? It never entered my head that this student, who I know very well, could now come up and say she felt uncomfortable sitting in my kitchen with me cooking her lunch."
"You Can't Stop These Idiots"
Susan Cherniack didn't know anything about CU's way of handling harassment complaints when she arrived on campus in the fall of 1993. But by the end of her first year she'd run into enough roadblocks to file a grievance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. By the end of her second, having failed to get satisfaction from the EEOC, she'd filed a lawsuit branding the university's methods "confusing, ineffective, inadequate and ill-suited to remedy sexual-harassment issues in a timely or appropriate manner."
Cherniack had accepted a position on the faculty of CU's Oriental Languages and Literature Department, bringing with her impressive credentials as a professor at Smith College and a visiting scholar at Harvard. During the recruitment process, she says, she made the mistake of becoming intimately involved with her future boss--Paul Kroll, the chair of the department. By the time she started teaching at CU, she'd terminated the relationship, and Kroll had resumed a relationship with another female professor.
Kroll declines to comment, but in court filings, he's denied he ever had a sexual relationship with Cherniack. He's conceded, though, that he does have a "personal relationship" with another member of the department and that his ex-wife also teaches in OLL. At the time, no university policy prohibited relationships between faculty members and their department chairs; in fact, the new policy merely requires that department chairs notify their deans if they're involved with employees they're supposed to supervise and that they make "alternative arrangements to eliminate any potential conflicts of interest"--for example, recusing themselves from tenure decisions involving their paramours.
According to Cherniack's lawsuit, Kroll made life miserable for her at CU. Among other things, she charges that he unfairly criticized her classroom performance and professional behavior, gave her an unfavorable teaching evaluation despite the high marks she'd received from students, and discouraged students from enrolling in her classes. And when she went to Charles Middleton, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, for help, matters quickly got worse.
At the end of the fall 1993 semester, Cherniack says, Middleton promised to convene a committee of faculty peers to investigate the situation. Middleton has denied making any definite commitment; in any case, no committee was formed for months, despite the specific timetables CU officials are supposed to follow once a complaint is received.
Middleton never advised her of her options, Cherniack says, but decided to pursue the matter on his own, despite his "longstanding personal and professional relationship" with Kroll. "He seemed very eager to get hold of it," she says. "And after he changed his mind about convening a committee, he had complete control of it. While he sat on it, I couldn't go elsewhere."
What Cherniack didn't know at the time was the degree to which Middleton was in contact with Kroll about the dispute. Without telling her, the dean had sent a copy of her written grievance to Kroll only days after he'd received it. Cherniack claims the dean was actually advising Kroll on how to rebut her charges; Middleton has denied it.
Campus politics may also have hampered efforts to resolve the situation. Shortly after Cherniack put her complaint in writing, the so-called "coup" of 1994--a well-orchestrated effort by various deans and department chairs, including Middleton and Kroll, to demand President Albino's resignation--erupted on the campus. Sources close to the case believe that Middleton was so preoccupied by the intrigues and shock waves of the resignation drive that he couldn't afford to deal with Cherniack's complaint for months.
A formal investigation wasn't launched until the summer of 1994, shortly after Cherniack filed her EEOC complaint and left the country on a research trip to China. Such proceedings are supposed to take no more than thirty days; this one took seven months. One of the difficulties was the nature of Cherniack's case, which involved a claim of a consensual relationship followed by retaliation--a situation not specifically addressed by CU's old policy. Another was Cherniack's reluctance to cooperate with the committee that had been launched in her absence.
In apparent violation of university policy, hearings were commenced without Cherniack's consent, and she decided not to participate in what she viewed as a "kangaroo court." Consequently, the only witnesses presented at the hearings were called by Kroll. Although the committee's findings have never been made public, it seems likely that the results were favorable to Kroll, since the university subsequently provided Kroll with legal representation. Early in 1995 Cherniack received a letter from Chancellor Park informing her that, since Kroll had already stepped down as chair of the department, he considered the matter resolved.
Cherniack and her attorney didn't think so. Last fall CU settled her lawsuit against Kroll, Middleton and the Board of Regents for $180,000. The university also announced a "further investigation" of Kroll's actions.
The outcome of that investigation provided an even stranger twist to the case. As part of his settlement with the university, Kroll agreed to take a one-semester leave of absence without pay. Such leaves are not uncommon at CU, and university officials have carefully avoided characterizing the action as a suspension of Kroll.
In media interviews, Cherniack has described Kroll's leave of absence as a penalty, but his attorney has another interpretation. "Paul had been through two years of extremely aggravating attention," says Neal Cohen. "He believed it was in his best interest and that of the university's that there be a cooling-off period. To view the leave of absence as discipline would be entirely inaccurate."
In fact, nothing in the settlement suggests that Kroll was found guilty of any wrongdoing; it's merely a legal release of both sides, in which the university drops its claims against Kroll in return for his dropping grievances he'd filed against Middleton, various other CU officials and CU attorneys over the multiple investigations. Even the leave of absence is tempered by the fact that the university agreed to pay for Kroll's legal fees, including the services of three private attorneys--an amount well in excess of the $14,000 previously reported in the dailies.
Left unresolved by the settlement was one of Cherniack's most explosive charges, which she presented to Middleton and again in her lawsuit--that Kroll had "falsified documents" to secure tenure for a female professor with whom he was romantically involved. Kroll has denied the allegation, and Chancellor Park says he's unaware of any investigation into the matter. No one, it seems, ever bothered to look into the charge, either to confirm it or to exonerate the parties.
Settling the suit was a Pyrrhic victory, Cherniack figures, since one condition of the settlement is that she will no longer teach at CU. Although her settlement package includes a two-year research appointment to tide her over while job-hunting, "I have been banned from the university system," she says. "I didn't have the financial resources to continue the litigation, so they succeeded in breaking me. I know that I'll never be able to get a job at the kind of university I want to teach in. Once you go to court, you're branded a troublemaker."
Banishment was also the fate of Ann Boggiano, a Boulder psychology professor. In 1987 Boggiano received the department's only unanimous tenure recommendation in more than a decade, but her relationship with certain colleagues subsequently deteriorated. Five years ago, she says, she got into a wrangle over pay equity issues with two other members of her department that escalated into accusations of plagiarism, inter-ference with her research and attacks on her integrity. Like Cherniack, Boggiano attempted to deal with her grievances internally, through Middleton and the faculty's Privilege and Tenure committee. But then-vice-chancellor Bruce Eckstrand shut down the investigation after she filed a lawsuit, apparently on the advice of CU attorneys, even though no campus policy requires such a move.
"The frustrating part was that their investigation was taking so long it would have exceeded my statute of limitations for filing suit," Boggiano says. "I didn't have the option of not filing."
In 1994, after 26 hours of depositions, the university settled Boggiano's case, agreeing to pay her $85,000 up front and $30,000 a year tax-free for life. But none of the people named in her lawsuit--including Middleton, Corbridge, psychology chair John Werner and professor Charles Judd--were formally found to have committed any harassment or retaliation, and Boggiano was required to leave her job.
Although her total payoff could be in the million-dollar range, the outcome wasn't what Boggiano wanted. "Not at all," she says. "I didn't want to be on welfare. I did want and still want to teach undergrads. I have been trained for that. I loved teaching. But I had no other choice. My lawyers have to be paid something. They carried me for months, based on the strength of my case."
Boggiano has offered to forgo her yearly stipend in return for a position at another CU campus, but Cherniack isn't optimistic about her own chances. Shortly after her settlement last fall, she met with Chan-cellor Park to seek reconsideration of her dismissal.
"I asked him why he insisted on my resignation, since I was never accused of any wrongdoing," Cherniack recalls. "He told me it wasn't anything personal. He said--I'll never forget this--because I had filed a grievance, I had created an adversarial situation that could only be resolved by my departure. He told me, 'You can't stop these idiots from doing it.' His understanding was that sexual harassment was inevitable."
Park says he doesn't recall the remark. "What I probably said was that I can't control what people do, but I expect them to behave professionally," he says.
Named as a defendant in the Miller suit himself, Park says he's legally bound not to discuss the specifics of other cases, including Cherniack's. But he insists he's not reluctant to punish faculty or staff for stepping out of line; as vice chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, he succeeded in firing a tenured professor over a harassment issue. Such proceedings are difficult but not impossible, he says, even though cases that begin with consensual relationships between faculty members can be tough to sort out.
"Often in these cases, neither party is entirely innocent," he says.
Life Among the Geeks
All Kristine Larson wanted was a comfortable environment in which to teach and conduct her research. What she got was a one-way ticket to the Land That Time Forgot.
In 1990 Larson was hired as an associate professor in CU's aerospace-engineering department and as a researcher at the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research (CCAR), a federally funded research center housed in the university. A specialist in Global Positioning System satellites who'd worked at Harvard and at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Larson expected to play a major role in developing CU's own GPS program. Instead, she found a lot of her attention being devoted to picture postcards.
The cards, sent from former CCAR associates around the world, were posted on a hallway bulletin board, next to a chalkboard where students and faculty could write comments. The cards were a goofy tradition at the predominantly male center, and some were not in the best of taste--for example, one was simply a picture of a pair of breasts, sans head, legs, or arms. In addition, many of the chalkboard comments were, in Larson's view, "hostile to women in the sciences." One regular feature was a Letterman-like Top 10 list, such as, "Top 10 reasons students love CCAR: Money for nothing and chicks for free."
Larson had never seen anything like the postcards at other research institutions, and she complained to CCAR director George Born that they didn't belong in a public hallway. As the only female professor at CCAR, she felt uncomfortable--not only for herself, she explained, but for students.
"There were so few women students--only one woman grad student, in fact--and it just seemed to me they should try a little harder to make a better atmosphere," Larson says.
But Born was loath to monkey with tradition. After all, other people liked the postcards and comments. In fact, several of the cards were addressed to his administrative assistant, Carol Leslie, who was soon to become his wife. In the lawsuit she eventually filed, Larson claims that Leslie "enjoyed the sexual atmosphere, the postcards and other displays" and "exhibited outward hostility" toward her in the wake of her complaints, to the point of refusing to say hello. (Leslie, who no longer works at CCAR, has denied any retaliation.)
Larson persisted in her protests to a variety of officials, from Born to her department chair to an associate dean, with little effect. She also began to take action herself, removing postcards that offended her as well as a racy poster and instructions for collecting sperm samples that had been posted in a unisex bathroom. Soon she became an object of chalkboard humor herself, as in "Top 10 reasons Kristine Larson doesn't approve of the board."
Although CCAR officials did make efforts to tone down the displays, Larson says her stance led to several confrontations with Born--and to her "expulsion" from the research center. In court filings, Born has insisted that Larson wasn't kicked out but chose to leave. In any event, Larson's departure didn't end the dispute; instead, she says, both Born and her department chair, Robert Culp (who was also assistant director of CCAR), began to retaliate against her for filing a complaint with the EEOC over her treatment.
Among other things, the lawsuit claims that Culp arbitrarily downgraded her performance evaluations and moved her office away from other active research faculty to another part of the building populated by soon-to-retire professors. Among aerospace-engineering students, the area was known as the Land That Time Forgot. During the same period, Born made calls to the Jet Propulsion Lab and other places Larson had worked, asking if she had been a "troublemaker"--calls Larson regards as damaging to her career and reputation.
By late 1992 Larson was firing off pleas for help to Dean Seebass, Chancellor Corbridge and President Albino. Corbridge never responded; Seebass and Albino told her to take her complaints to the EEOC. Eventually a faculty committee found that one of Larson's negative evaluations was based in part on a class she didn't even teach, but Larson charges that Culp and Seebass refused to change the evaluation. Larson managed to get her 1992 evaluation raised only after two years of protest, and she is still in the process of appealing her 1994 rating.
"All of these complaints could have been settled by a responsible dean," Larson says now. "You can have conflicts at a department level--these were postcards, for God's sake. It shouldn't have escalated to retaliation."
The problem, as she sees it, lies in the patronage system among powerful deans and prominent researchers and professors at CU. "My experience has been that these men give each other good evaluations and big raises," she explains. "The university talks about how everybody only gets 3 percent raises--what they're not telling you is that they give some people zero raises and others much more. Most of the time I was filing grievances against Bob Culp, he was getting 7 to 8 percent raises. Everyone I'm suing makes over $120,000 a year."
Born and Culp have steadfastly denied any harassment campaign against her, but Larson says she continues to suffer retaliation even as her case heads to trial in the fall. In 1994 she discovered that another professor, Robert Leben, had made a copy of her e-mail files and turned them over to Culp--months before her lawsuit was filed.
"It was wrong to take it," Larson insists. "But Bob Culp distributed it, and university attorneys hid it in their file cabinets until they were forced by the federal court to turn it over. If they wanted it, they should have got a subpoena."
Last winter a university investigation into the incident offered the opinion that Leben's actions were "unethical and indefensible" and that Culp's "tacit approval of violations" of campus computing policy "must not be tolerated." Leben recently received a written reprimand from current engineering dean Ross Corotis. An inquiry into Culp's alleged distribution of the material is continuing, but Corotis recently instructed the two individuals charged with the task to "restrict your report to the facts" and to not interview Culp.
Whether Larson will win her suit--or keep her job--is uncertain, but the case has raised questions about the university's commitment to avoiding obvious conflicts of interest. Former dean Seebass, a named defendant in the suit, is now the chair of aerospace engineering and responsible for evaluating Larson's performance; Larson's objections to being evaluated by a man she's suing haven't altered the situation. "It's frustrating," she says. "These people will decide whether I get tenure, what kind of raise I can get."
Recently, the university issued a press release through its Silver & Gold Record that found its way onto the bulletin boards at CCAR. The statement claimed that many facts in Larson's complaint were "distorted," but CU's rebuttal contained a few distortions of its own, including the claim that the EEOC had conducted "a thorough and complete investigation" of the matter and found no evidence of harassment or retaliation. In fact, Larson has a letter from the EEOC conceding errors in its investigation.
The university's statement was released by CU public-relations director Pauline Hale, who is married to James Corbridge, who is also a named defendant in Larson's suit.
Meanwhile, Back at Party Central...
One of Jennifer Miller's ongoing beefs with her boss, it seems, had to do with scheduling appointments. Her "uncensored letter," now a part of the court record, claims that important meetings and decisions were often left hanging because Chancellor Corbridge had decided that "it was time for a haircut, or that you wanted to play snooker at the University Club at lunch instead of having the business meeting on the schedule, or you wanted to play golf, or you wanted to have drinks at The James instead of what was on the calendar."
Sources in the administration confirm that Corbridge was often difficult to reach and that his office seemed to shut down at five o'clock sharp, with phones left ringing unanswered. But the chancellor was a busy man, and his frequent absences from the office didn't mean he was neglecting his duties.
In addition to supervising the operations of the Boulder campus, Corbridge was responsible for promoting the university's interests in a variety of ways: traveling to Big Eight meetings, hosting visiting dignitaries, golfing with potential big donors and so on. He played a key role in the 1994 expansion of the Big Eight Conference into the Big Twelve and spearheaded task forces dealing with diversity, pay equity and other burning issues on campus. Some sources suggest that Corbridge was one of the greatest friends women had in CU's administration.
Miller's claim, though, rests on the notion that Corbridge was a greater friend to some women than to others, particularly in his own office.
Speculation about the nature of Corbridge's relationships with employees seems to have been a favorite topic of gossip among CU insiders, yet even Miller professes not to know the truth of the matter. "I could never figure out what was going on because I didn't want to know," she wrote in her letter to the therapist. But even if all the "flirtations" Miller described--"the standing so close together, the hugs, the looks"--were entirely innocent, something was clearly out of kilter in the chancellor's office. Budget documents indicate that Corbridge did provide exceptional perks and travel opportunities to at least one female employee who still works there. His office also spent lavishly on flowers, entertainment and travel at a time when the campus was supposedly undergoing a belt-tightening because of declining enrollment.
Even by the standards of a large public institution, the chancellor's expenditures on club memberships and entertainment (including hefty bills from Liquor Mart for alcohol served at parties and receptions) were at the high end of the scale. Although some of the expenses fell under Corbridge's regular operating budget, others were paid out of the chancellor's discretionary fund, a pool of cash available for conferences, official functions, travel and other forms of "academic enhancement."
Similar discretionary funds at a departmental and college level were the subject of a state audit last year, after it was revealed that, under Dean Middleton, the College of Arts and Sciences had entered into a series of "side letter" agreements offering additional compensation for certain academic chairs, in violation of university policy. But the chancellor's fund has escaped any outside scrutiny, even though the fund balance ranged from zero to $300,000 during the Corbridge years, with annual outlays as high as $143,000.
Many of the expenses in the chancellor's office were clearly legitimate, but other items managed to raise officials' eyebrows on occasion--such as the soaring salary of Corbridge assistant Mary Jo White, the woman whom Miller claimed had been allowed time off from work for manicures and haircuts.
White was a $33,000-a-year assistant at the time Miller started working in the chancellor's office. Today White's salary is $66,000--a 100 percent increase in eight years, although her job title remains the same.
What merited such advancement? When quizzed on the matter, Corbridge has told people that White was "valuable" to him. So valuable that, when White decided to take time off to go to law school, Corbridge not only wrote her a letter of recommendation, he arranged for an interim part-time job for her in his office--a position that didn't have to go through the usual notices and hiring procedures, because it was temporary.
So valuable that, when White finished law school, Corbridge hired her back in his office, at a substantially higher salary--because, after all, she'd gone to law school.
So valuable that, when White requested reimbursement to attend a United Nations training seminar for "international negotiators" in Switzerland, a dispute resolution conference in Canada and a meeting of Big Eight presidents in Kansas City--all in the same month--Corbridge approved each and every expense.
Several times, White accompanied Corbridge to Big Eight meetings. Other administrators thought it odd that Corbridge would bring an assistant to such gatherings when other chancellors and even university presidents seemed to manage just fine without one.
Miller's suit alleges that, after White completed law school in 1993, Corbridge attempted to hire her back at $60,000 a year as his executive assistant. Records indicate that White actually returned full-time at $58,000 a year and that she also was designated as the recipient of more than $40,000 in salary, benefits, travel and "operating expenses" from the chancellor's discretionary fund in the 1993-94 fiscal year. It's not clear from the budget documents what portion of those funds were actually received by White or how they were used, and university officials have declined to clarify the matter, citing pending litigation.
White, who still works in the chancellor's office, declined a request for an interview. Her current boss, Rod Park, also declined to comment on the case but has praised White as a highly competent staffer. In court filings, Corbridge has defended his activities and those of his staff as legitimate business expenses. Yet it's unclear how trips to Geneva, UN training sessions and law school relate to White's duties in the chancellor's office; her job description doesn't list a law degree as a requirement.
Corbridge's actions were rarely challenged by other administrators, and then only indirectly. For much of her tenure, Judith Albino had so many other battles to fight--the insurrection of the deans, negative publicity about her staffing arrangements, a deteriorating relationship with faculty and some regents--that the chancellor's office seems to have escaped her notice. According to the excerpts from Albino's deposition that were leaked to the media, CU's president didn't start raising questions about Corbridge's behavior until one of her own staffers complained of unwanted attentions from the chancellor. But even then, no written complaint ensued; one of Albino's assistants went to another administrator about the situation, who promised to speak with Corbridge about it. According to other sources, Albino brought the matter up with members of the Board of Regents during the summer of 1993 and met with an angry response from Corbridge supporters on the board.
Corbridge stepped down as chancellor in the summer of 1994. Miller's lawsuit claims that she continued to experience harassment from Chancellor Park, that White took over many of her duties in the office, and that she suffered such severe depression she had to take a medical leave of absence. Her attorney, Lynn Palma, has charged that university officials improperly destroyed records that might have supported Miller's claims--including seven years of the chancellor's scheduling calendars and some sexual-harassment records--but university officials have insisted that all records disposal was done according to policy.
CU attorneys have sought to restrict the scope of Palma's inquiry into Corbridge's behavior, noting that Albino's deposition is full of rumors and hearsay about eight women, several of whom didn't even work in Corbridge's office. "There is absolutely no effort to distinguish between allegations of workplace harassment versus rumors of consensual relationships outside of the workplace environment," protested Corbridge attorney Thomas Rice.
The Siege Mentality
At the moment, CU is experiencing its greatest internal shakeup in more than a decade. Last fall former president Albino accepted a six-figure incentive package from the regents to step down from her post a year early; she's now winding down her CU career as a member of the Health Sciences Center faculty while job-hunting elsewhere. Having been thwarted in their attempts to shield the search process from public scrutiny, last month the regents confirmed that interim president John Buechner would stay on as her successor. Buechner, a career CU insider for 33 years, was the only candidate interviewed for the job.
Dean Middleton is on his way to a vice-chancellor post in Ohio; at commencement last month he received an award for his many years of distinguished service to CU. Chancellor Park has one year left on his contract before he'll step down, too. Other administrators who played key roles in the stormy Albino years have retired, moved on to shinier posts elsewhere, decided to run for Congress, or, like Corbridge, eased back into the warm embrace of tenured academia.
Still, the changing of the guard hasn't magically altered the climate of strife at CU. At least four major campus harassment and discrimination lawsuits, including the Miller and Larson cases, are expected to go to trial in the next year or so. Two weeks ago, in one of his final acts as dean, Middleton announced that CU was placing its entire Fine Arts department in "receivership" under the acting control of an outside chair; supposedly, the entire department has been so rocked by claims of sexism and conflicts of interest among faculty that only an outsider could assume the helm. The legacy of the previous administration--a time of hijinks and low intrigue, power plays and payoffs--continues.
Some observers are optimistic about the new harassment policy's ability to improve matters. With its strict reporting deadlines and flow charts illustrating how complaints are supposed to be handled, it leaves little room for the kinds of delays and uncertainties that have been the hallmark of past cases.
"The real issue is being able to resolve these cases in a timely fashion," says Susan Kirk, the only woman on the nine-member Board of Regents. "The process just takes too long, especially for the victim, but also for the respondent. What people don't understand is that there are certain procedures that need to be followed."
Critics of the new policy, though, wonder if it will really have much of an impact. They point out that its strict reporting requirements leave no room for an "off-the-record" conversation with an administrator about a possible harassment situation and thus may encourage more protracted investigations rather than speedier, informal resolutions. The policy also puts more pressure on supervisors and faculty chairs to inform on those they suspect of harassment--driving the level of responsibility downward, perhaps, and leaving top administrators less accountable than ever for what happens on their watch.
But then, as Susan Cherniack points out, the policy is "only a piece of paper." It's execution that counts, and both Cherniack and her support-group co-founder, Karen Ashmore, question CU's commitment to rooting out offenders.
"They have no incentive to do it on their own," says Ashmore. "It's going to be the taxpayers and the legislators who are going to force them to get their act together."
But if anything moves slower than a harassment complaint inside the state's leading public university, it's probably a politician responding to the problem. In the past session members of the Colorado General Assembly made a lot of noise about Albino's golden parachute package, the regents' efforts to keep the presidential search a closed-door affair, the costly harassment settlements and related CU follies such as a short-lived attempt to raise student fees to help defray the expense of the harassment suits. Inquiries were made, protests lodged, investigations vowed.
The result? Legislators were so steamed at CU that they managed to withhold $5,000 from the university's billion-dollar budget, with the express intent that the money be deducted from the Board of Regents' travel allowance.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Supermax Censorship Claimed by Prison Legal News
University of Denver Pioneers Volleyball vs. University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks Women's VolleyballSun., Oct. 11, 2:00pm
Fri., Oct. 16, 12:00am
Fri., Oct. 16, 7:00pm
Fri., Oct. 16, 7:00pm
- How Kim Kovinchick & Wenston Williams Were Busted for Knifepoint Uber Robbery
- Marijuana Attorney Rob Corry Hits Pot Shops With Class-Action Pesticides Suit