UB campus still torn over outcome of sexual harassment case

April 07, 1992|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

He was a tenured faculty member of the University of Baltimore Law School. She was his student. She said that he made comments about nudity and her body.

She filed a complaint of sexual harassment, the first such complaint ever lodged against a professor at the law school.

A hearing examiner found the teacher's behavior inappropriate but concluded that his actions did not violate the school's policy on the issue.

The examiner's ruling last fall touched off a campus debate that has raged since. It sparked an outcry from student bar association members, which resulted in the professor being disciplined.

The student body -- and some faculty -- then split on whether the punishment went too far or not far enough.

A review of the university's 5-year-old sexual harassment policy is under way. The faculty adopted a "conflict of interest" resolution in its bylaws restricting sexual relation ships between teachers and students.

"The school goes through what a society does and we're trying to educate ourselves," said Michael Meyerson, one of the law school professors to whom students have been directed if they have complaints about sexual harassment. "There is a strong commitment that harassment is wrong and people should not be hurt. The question is always how best to deal with it."

"Anytime there is a controversy that affects any community, the more discussion of it there is, the better," said Barbara Mello, a professor at the law school since 1979 and a former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Ms. Mello, whose constitutional law class became a forum for discussion on the issue recently, said the scope of debate has broadened to include related issues such as gender bias and it has served to raised the "consciousness" within the university at large.

"I think that's a good thing," said Ms. Mello. "It's made some people more aware than they were before of the anger of women who have felt in the past, 'We pretty much had to laugh or not react to these kinds of comments.' "

The complaint was filed last August. The names of the student and the professor have been withheld to protect the student's identity.

Several sources familiar with the case said that the professor spoke of nudity and the student's body in comments made to the student and to other students about her. Although the professor never propositioned the student, he persisted in talking to her outside of class despite the student's reluctance to do so, the sources said.

The university's vice president for student and academic services, Dennis Peletier, reviewed the woman's complaint, determined there was "reasonable cause" to believe a violation of the school's policy occurred and a hearing was held Sept. 19. The hearing was closed at the request of the parties. A decision was issued within two weeks.

While the hearing officer -- a private attorney from outside the university -- concluded that one or two comments made by the professor were "patently offensive," he found that the professor's behavior was not sexual harassment as defined by the school policy, specifically that it did not "unreasonably" interfere with the student's work or create an "intimidating, hostile or offensive environment for work or learning."

The student did not receive a poor grade in the professor's class. She did make an effort to steer clear of him, however.

Lawrence Katz, the school's dean, received complaints from students who said the decision suggested that the administration was willing to tolerate some level of sexual harassment. In a school of about 1,000 students, where nearly 48 percent are women, the wrong message was being sent, they felt.

"It was important to get the message out that, 'Hey, you can't do this; this is an issue that we take seriously,' " said Dianne Pasternak, the president of the Student Bar Association. "It needed to be a message from the dean of the law school."

After meetings with Dean Katz and two other administrators, an unusual, confidential agreement was forged.

The accused teacher, although cleared of the formal charges, was barred from teaching in the spring and required to perform administrative duties for his $35,000 semester salary. He would teach a summer course for free and seek counseling. A critical letter -- uncontested by the professor -- would be placed in the teacher's file. The student, in turn, agreed not to sue the school or the teacher. Dean Katz agreed to share his feelings on sexual harassment with the law school community and host a seminar on the issue at which faculty were required to attend.

xTC Dean Katz said a small group of students wanted him to take stronger measures against the professor. "What our students are forgetting," he added, "and this is what is distressing, there was a formal legal procedure in accordance with university policy. There was a formal hearing held and a determination made by a fact-finder."

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