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Fear and Groping in Boulder

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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.

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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