Longform

Fear and Groping in Boulder

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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.

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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