The Smutty Professor

The University of Colorado wants you to know that it "remains committed to promoting and maintaining an environment free from sexual harassment."

CU is so committed, in fact, that in 2004 it fired Igor Gamow, a controversial professor and inventor who'd been a fixture on the Boulder campus for nearly thirty years -- and had been a magnet for harassment complaints stemming from a series of incidents involving female staff and students stretching back to the 1980s.

Unfortunately, the move came a decade or more too late for women who say they were subject to unwanted attentions and even assaults by Gamow. On Thursday, a federal jury awarded $285,000 in damages to one of those women, Dana Ruehlman, who'd sued the university for failing to terminate Gamow after others had complained about him in 1992 and 1996.

After the verdict was read, a tearful Ruehlman embraced Gretchen Hume, who'd tried to get the university to fire the professor ten years ago. Hume had first met Gamow when she was an undergraduate engineering student in 1982. She claims he groped and assaulted her in Chautauqua Park one night shortly after they met; Gamow has always denied the accusation, while admitting that the encounter had a "romantic component." As first reported in Westword, Hume subsequently found other women with similar stories and pressured the university to investigate Gamow's conduct ("Fear and Groping in Boulder," June 6, 1996).

"If the university had taken action in response to Gretchen's complaint, I wouldn't have had to go through what I did," says Ruehlman. "And when I went to the university to give them my information, they used it against me. They weren't trying to help me. They were trying to protect their own asses."

Now seventy, Gamow has one of the best-known names on the Boulder campus. His father, physicist George Gamow, was one of the early proponents of the "big bang" theory of the origin of the universe and a pioneer in DNA research; CU's Gamow Tower is named after him. A biologist by training and a former dancer in the National Ballet, Igor joined his father on the faculty in 1968, shortly before George's death.

The younger Gamow cut a dashing figure on campus from the start. He rode a motorcycle by day and an Arabian stallion named Pegasus at night. He supervised off-campus programs in Nepal, ran an altitude laboratory known as the BAT Lab and collaborated with students on inventions ranging from a running shoe to the Gamow Bag, a device for treating high-altitude sickness.

But over time there were a series of reports concerning Gamow's allegedly inappropriate relationships with undergraduate students; one first-year female said he kissed and caressed her and proposed that they engage in a "mind meld." Gamow admitted the kiss to Westword but denied making any sexual advances. Yes, he'd claimed to have "romantic" relationships with students, but only in "the European sense." He was the victim of a vendetta, he said.

In 1993 Ruehlman, then a thirty-year-old veterinarian, was hired as an assistant in Gamow's lab. In court she testified that he made increasingly unwelcome advances toward her over the next two years and raped her on Valentine's Day 1995. Dozens of other sexual assaults followed, she insisted, although she didn't report any of them to authorities -- until she filed a harassment complaint against Gamow in 2000.

Ruehlman's own attorney, George Johnson, called Gamow to the stand to give his version of the relationship. Gamow described Ruehlman as a dear friend who had helped him with back problems (by manipulating his spine) and with impotence (by masturbating him and providing him with porn). It was all consensual and therapeutic in nature, he said. It was "fairly normal" for him to seek such services from a friendly female employee, he explained; after all, Ruehlman had extensive training in animal husbandry.

"He was our case," says Johnson. "The jury got to see who he was."

The jury didn't know that the university's own sexual harassment committee had found Gamow guilty of harassing Ruehlman. They didn't hear about any of the prior complaints, either; shortly before trial, Hume and other "prior act" witnesses were barred from testifying. But hearing from Gamow himself was evidently good enough. The panel was out only a few hours before returning a verdict in Ruehlman's favor.

Johnson believes the case highlights an ongoing conflict of interest in CU's much-criticized, much-revised sexual harassment policy. The same attorneys who oversee the university's harassment prevention efforts also are charged with defending CU from lawsuits -- which put them in the untenable position of denying that Gamow had harassed Ruehlman, even though the university had already found him guilty of harassment and fired him.

"They fought us every step of the way," Johnson sighs. "They took the usual CU approach -- they lied, they stonewalled, they attacked the victim. It was hard on Dana and very time-consuming for me. But the truth will come out occasionally, even at CU."

Gamow could not be reached for comment on the verdict; he is now suing the university over his termination. CU's press office issued a terse three-sentence statement, affirming its commitment to fight sexual harassment and expressing its disappointment with the verdict.

Ruehlman now works as an instructor in physiology at CU. She says she tried to negotiate a settlement through various means short of going to trial, but received no serious offer from the university and mostly scorn from many colleagues. "I've had people I've known all my life turn their backs on me," she says.

For Hume, the jury's decision was a long time coming. "For many years, I believed if we could just get the story told to people with common sense and common decency, they'd do the right thing," she says. "The decision would be made against the university."

Johnson says he'd like to help CU's efforts to maintain an environment free of sexual harassment. "Their actions in this case are a classic example of how not to do it," he notes. — Alan Prendergast

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun