The Quiet Complaints: Sexual harassment at the U

One-fifth of complaints made in the past five years were formally investigated.
March 28, 2010

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.
During each case, Julie Sweitzer, EOAA director from 1998 to 2006, said the consultant has to “gather enough information to believe [he or she] knew what was happening.”
“You’re always making decisions based on the totality of the facts we had at the time,” Sweitzer said. “Every situation is very complex.”
Changing the rules of the game
The dated phrase “boys will be boys” no longer suffices when cases of sexual harassment arise.
Sociology professor Phyllis Moen said that in the 1960s and 1970s, women who entered the workplace dealt with sexual harassment as unavoidable office culture — workplaces ruled by men.
Back then, she said, sexual harassment was treated as a private issue. Women could make it clear they weren’t interested, but often it was seen as “this is the way men are,” Moen said.
As someone who’s been in higher education for more than 30 years, Moen said, “When I first started, there was a lot of locker room-type of joking. Because there were so few women as professors, they either smiled or laughed along with it because that’s all they could do.”
Now, more and more companies have written policies that bring harassment to the surface. A 1991 survey conducted by the American Management Association found that 75 percent of the member companies it surveyed had policies in place to handle sexual harassment.
Simultaneously, Moen said men working now have a better grasp of acceptable behavior.
“The rules of the game have really changed,” Moen said.
In 1972, the University opened EOAA to handle complaints of discrimination and sexual harassment between University employees and between students and employees. Three consultants handle the complaints by conducting investigations or hosting mediations.
The University adopted a formal sexual harassment policy in 1998. It defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and/or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” that are made a condition of professional or academic advancement or that interfere with a person’s ability to work.
Federal law requires the University follow up with every complaint of sexual harassment and discrimination of which they are aware, University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said.
Under federal law, individuals can seek compensation if it’s found that the University did not adequately handle his or her case. This has only occurred twice in the past five years, according to University data.
“The law doesn’t require that we investigate every allegation; it requires that we follow up,” Rotenberg said. “Oftentimes there are things that the University can do for an employee or a student that doesn’t require a formal investigation.”
When a case comes before EOAA, Boyd said she first evaluates whether the incident could be resolved without conducting a formal investigation.
“It’s not necessarily the best thing to do a formal investigation. If they can resolve [it] internally, it’s sometimes better to do that,” Boyd said. “Especially in sexual harassment, it isn’t always helpful to the environment to have us interviewing and investigating if we can do it another way.”
Defining the terms
which examined the course of action often taken by victims of sexual harassment, researchers found that varying tolerance levels pose a challenge to tracking sexual harassment.
In questions exploring specific behavior, 36 percent of those surveyed said they’d experienced offensive joking while at work. Forty-two percent responded “yes” to being asked questions about their private lives.
Of the 25 percent that actually considered these experiences harassment, a little more than a third said they reported the behavior to a supervisor. A similar proportion said they talked about the situation with a co-worker.
“There’s a discrepancy between the number of people who experience certain behaviors that we would call sexual harassment … and the number of people who actually label their experience as sexual harassment,” McLaughlin said.
This discrepancy makes coming forward difficult for some workers who want the behavior to stop because they are often told there is no real issue, McLaughlin said.
When asked by The Minnesota Daily, several men and women working at the University said they have not experienced or seen sexual harassment happening around them.
“I don’t think that I have experienced that,” said Tanya Baxter, a physical therapist who has worked at the University for 37 years.
One respondent, Jenna Baumgartner, said an experience she had with a co-worker could have been considered harassment but at the time she did not take it as such. She said it depends on a person’s comfort level.
Baumgartner said the incident was with an older co-worker who may not have realized his actions were questionable.
She said this co-worker may have been lonely and this was his way of showing affection and may have gone too far.
“I didn’t take it personally as harassment, but the next person may have,” she said.
Undisputed or unproven
In February last year, Boyd received a call from the department of psychiatry about a case of sexual harassment they were trying to resolve. The department’s human resources staff had already conducted an initial investigation, and the accused wasn’t disputing the facts.
But the facts were serious.
“[The complainant] was pretty upset. She called and we talked quite a bit during the process,” Boyd said.
The case lacked witnesses, but because the respondent — accused of making inappropriate comments and subjecting the complainant to the recount, in explicit detail, of a dream he had about her — wasn’t arguing the details, outside corroboration wasn’t necessary.
In a typical case, the investigator relies on the observations of witnesses. Sometimes people experiencing the harassment think to keep a record of their interactions. Suggestive or threatening e-mails can help tell the story and provide support for one party or the other. In the absence of witnesses, the EOAA consultant has to rely on “he said, she said.”
Over the past five years, 10 complaints have undergone investigation by EOAA and have closed without finding a policy violation.
Even without a clear violation, Boyd said EOAA may recommend the unit participate in a training workshop. Sometimes nothing is proven, but something is there.


Duluth response to sexual harassment questioned
A letter dated July 15, 2009, told Rod Raymond something he already knew: “You have been accused of sexual harassment.”
Two complaints by female employees prompted the investigation in April 2009. They accused University of Minnesota Duluth campus life fitness and wellness director of engaging in “sexually suggestive behaviors” and making “uninvited sexual overtures.”
After these initial accusations, Raymond told investigators that one woman may have “rejected [his] need to move in on some energy.”
Deborah Petersen-Perlman, the director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action in Duluth and the case investigator, interviewed Raymond, both complainants and 16 witnesses. She concluded Raymond was responsible for creating “a hostile work environment due to sexual harassment,” according to the report.
The findings raised concern that Raymond’s actions pointed to a pattern that, in addition to the five women who came forward through the investigation, included others who hadn’t filed complaints.
According to the report, Raymond demonstrated no understanding for the implications of his behavior. At its conclusion, Peterson-Perlman recommended Raymond be terminated from his position at the Duluth campus.
The recommendation was not followed.
Instead, Raymond completed a Prevention of Sexual Harassment workshop, another training tool online and agreed to a number of terms that would limit his interactions with female employees.
Paul Egtvedt, Raymond’s attorney, declined to comment on his client’s behalf.
The incident was reported in Duluth last October when one of the victims told The UMD Statesman that she believed the university was “overlooking the severity of the issue.”
Raymond is currently under a second sexual harassment investigation. Duluth officials declined to comment because the issue involves personnel and because the investigation is ongoing.
Kim Boyd, director of EOAA at the University’s Twin Cities campus — the office that handles sexual harassment claims among staff members — said she has never had a case where a department did not follow an investigator’s recommendations.
When the investigator recommends termination, Boyd said he or she has had a conversation with the supervisor, so the outcome isn’t unexpected.
“When serious disciplinary action needs to be taken, I would be surprised if the supervisor didn’t follow the recommendation,” she said.

—Taryn Wobbema is a senior staff reporter.

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