The quiet complaints: Sexual harassment at the University of Minnesota

Print

One by one, fewer than a dozen individuals trickled into the east committee room on the top floor of McNamara Alumni Center. They sat down, separated by chairs, sometimes entire rows, and shared an uncomfortable quiet. 


Only 20 University of Minnesota employees had registered for the Sexual Harassment Awareness and Prevention workshop that drizzly Tuesday afternoon, and half actually attended. The facilitator stood at the front explaining policies, providing hypothetical scenarios and answering questions about a topic many have identified with in anonymous surveys, but few have reported.


Over the past five years, the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action has recorded 123 complaints of sexual harassment.


Of those, 26 cases were investigated formally and 24 were solved through informal methods. These incidents are categorized based on the severity of the allegations, the willingness of the individuals involved and the availability of alternative avenues for resolution.


EOAA consultants know the main reason people don’t report harassment is because they’re embarrassed.


Two University researchers worked on a 2009 study that found that individuals are often targeted for harassment based on the likelihood they’ll report it. While the study found 25 percent of people have experienced sexual harassment, only a third of those who felt they had been harassed chose to report it.


The University looks into every allegation of sexual harassment, and those with more serious allegations are handled according to a strict procedure. Due in part to victims’ reluctance, most complaints never reach the investigation stage.


The last straw: Reporting harassment


In 2006, a University employee received a letter from a co-worker she’d asked never to contact her again. For nearly two years, she had tried to handle the situation on her own, but the letter that arrived after an 18-month silence made her realize her own efforts weren’t enough.


As a result of the ensuing investigation, David Brown was terminated from the University because it was determined that he did not “grasp the concepts of sexual harassment despite being trained twice,” according to the investigator’s report.


In August 2004, Brown sent an e-mail to another employee, in which he unloaded a series of insults against her, her friends and her boyfriend. The e-mail seemed to have been brought on by an earlier encounter during which she firmly told Brown she didn’t have time to talk, according to the report.


Two months later, Brown wrote a friendlier e-mail that made no mention of his previous behavior.


Another e-mail from October 2004 communicated Brown’s disbelief that she liked him. According to the report, “This supports [her] belief and allegation that [Brown’s] unwanted attention was geared towards securing a personal relationship, which she declined.”


At the start of January 2005, Brown sent “Christmas and birthday gifts, a four-page letter, a DVD movie entitled ‘Fools Rush In’ and a teddy bear,” the report stated. The victim swiftly returned the items with a note that boldly directed Brown never to contact her again in any way.


Nearly 18 months later, she received a letter from Brown at her home requesting that she contact him.


That was the last straw. The victim reported the two years worth of harassment to her supervisor, who brought it straight to EOAA.


EOAA Director Kim Boyd said her office is often the last stop in a person’s attempt to overcome unwanted attention from someone at work.


Heather McLaughlin, a sociology doctoral student and co-author of the 2009 study, said victims of sexual harassment often wait to report the incident until they have exhausted strategies on their own, like ignoring, avoiding or confronting the harasser. The researchers concluded that individuals in supportive work environments are more likely to come forward with complaints.


Richard Portnoy, chief administrative officer in the epidemiology and community health department, handled the issue that arose in 2006 by reporting it to EOAA as soon as it was brought to his attention.


In his 13 years in the department, this was only the second time someone had come forward about sexual harassment. The first incident involved the same man. In the 2006 case, the incident was investigated, witnesses were brought in and the facts were enough to terminate the respondent’s employment.


The entire process took several months to complete. Boyd said lengthy and invasive investigations such as this potentially disrupt the work environment further, which is one of the reasons EOAA seeks alternatives to formal investigations.


Portnoy said he thought the process was handled with the rights of both the accused and the accuser in mind.


“This did not become all kinds of rumors that were going around the department,” he said. “You never like to see this occur, but we understood that both parties on both sides needed to be protected in the process.”


A complex situation


Tim Livingston maintains his innocence of the sexual harassment allegations made against him last summer.


According to University documents, Livingston told a woman he worked with “that he might need to look for another job because he thinks about her too much and dreams about what their kids would look like” and in May 2009 asked her to perform a sex act with him and another woman. Livingston denies both of these allegations.


Comments he made on her clothing made the victim feel self-conscious. A time when he looked her up and down and smiled made her feel violated, according to the report.


Livingston claimed that the majority of the charges against him were untrue and never presented to him during the investigation. He said when he heard the assertion that he had, while out to lunch, propositioned a sex act, he “vehemently denied” it.


Though the victim and a number of witnesses told an EOAA consultant that Livingston frequently crossed professional boundaries in conversation or action, Livingston said he and his co-worker were friends. He said she never expressed discomfort with the things he said to her.


Livingston said he contacted an attorney once he received the letter outlining the conclusions of the investigations. The lawyer said it would cost thousands of dollars to challenge the outcome – a challenge that would rely upon the word of each party.


“[The EOAA] told me, ‘Sorry, we don’t have an appeals process,’ which kind of infers that they’re infallible,” Livingston said.


He said he now worries his opportunity for advancement in his job will be hurt.


“I don’t think I’ve been treated fairly, to tell you the truth,” Livingston said.


Boyd said the investigative process allowed Livingston the chance to hear the accusations made against him. She said he protested against the conclusion of the case, but EOAA stood by its findings.