Longform

Fear and Groping in Boulder

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"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.

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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