Longform

Fear and Groping in Boulder

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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.

The situation has rattled students, ruined careers, and left the taxpayers to foot the bill. Any way you look at it, CU's ongoing course in sex education is proving to be an expensive lesson.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast