Longform

Fear and Groping in Boulder

Page 9 of 12

"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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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