November 20, 2005 in City

Harassment suit shakes up WSU

By The Spokesman-Review
 

PULLMAN – The sexual harassment case of Bernardo Gallegos began with wine and candlelight, after hours, at his home – just a distinguished professor and a married student who says she resisted his advances.

Now it’s playing out loudly all over the Palouse, with a lawsuit against Gallegos and Washington State University, a series of articles in the campus newspaper, and a pledge last week from the provost that WSU would strengthen its policies on sexual harassment.

The idea of professors who pursue students is a campus cliché, but it’s hard to say how widespread it is. WSU has received four complaints of sexual harassment since January, though it’s believed to be underreported everywhere.

The National Coalition for Women and Girls has said 30 percent of undergraduates and 40 percent of grad students have been sexually harassed, verbally or physically – though those figures would include harassment by anyone, not just professors.

The head of WSU’s Center for Human Rights said the furor may serve as a good reminder that sexual harassment remains a real form of discrimination on campuses, though many universities adopted more stringent policies in the 1980s and 1990s, when it first gained widespread prominence.

“People may get lax, may get inattentive,” said Raul Sanchez, who oversees the university’s Center for Human Rights, the agency that investigates harassment complaints. “I think all of this probably is making everybody sit up straight and pay attention.”

All this comes as college officials nationwide are seeing sexual harassment become the No. 1 basis for liability claims – surpassing “slips and falls,” a risk management consultant told officials at a conference in October, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages. But the woman who filed it has also been consistent in asking the university to begin termination proceedings for Gallegos, a prominent hire for WSU in 2004 who earns about $130,000 a year, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

Robert Bates, WSU’s provost and chief administrator for the Pullman campus, issued a two-page statement Tuesday that did not address the Gallegos case directly, but said the university would review its policy against sexual harassment.

“I feel that it must be strengthened in several specific ways,” he wrote. “For example, the policy should be amended to more clearly prohibit employees from engaging in or attempting to initiate an amorous relationship with those over whom they have any level of supervision.”

He also called on victims to come forward and report harassment, and emphasized that “this institution will not tolerate discrimination of any kind, including sexual harassment.”

But that’s what the school stands accused of doing. Christina Garcia, the graduate student suing the school, says Gallegos has faced no significant punishment, despite the fact that the school’s own report says he violated university policy.

“WSU’s failure to take formal disciplinary action against Gallegos or otherwise publicly condemn his behavior indicates a tolerance for sexual harassment that increases the risk of sexual harassment in the future,” the suit says.

An after-hours meeting

Garcia, a married graduate student in the College of Education, complained to the Center for Human Rights this spring that Gallegos had made sexual advances tied to helping Garcia with her education – a case of “quid pro quo” sexual harassment, she says in her lawsuit.

In her suit and complaint to the university, Garcia says Gallegos invited her to his house Feb. 1 in the midst of a meeting on academic matters, and she went with him. At his home, he drank a couple glasses of wine and told her he was attracted to her and that he would help her as a graduate student in return for sexual favors, “which was very offensive and objectionable to Garcia,” the suit states. He touched her twice – on the face and on the hand, the complaint says.

The school’s investigation found that Gallegos violated university policy by applying subtle pressure for a personal relationship, touching her unnecessarily and failing to maintain standards of professional conduct.

In his statement to investigators, included in an extensive public records file, Gallegos acknowledged that he and Garcia had gone to his home, but denied the substance of the accusations. Gallegos didn’t respond last week to a message seeking comment.

The April 1 investigative report said investigators found her account credible – and his denials “not credible and not convincing” – and recommended he be punished.

Gallegos’ boss, College of Education Dean Judy Mitchell, sent him a registered letter Aug. 29 telling him that he should seek outside counseling “regarding appropriate conduct under WSU policies.” The letter was released to The Spokesman-Review as part of the 355-page case file.

Guy Nelson, Garcia’s attorney, said that appears to be the extent of the disciplinary action taken against Gallegos. Garcia filed suit Nov. 2 in Whitman County court.

“I think it was a very weak response to the facts and conclusions and recommendations of the (university’s) report,” Nelson said. “It has always been Christina Garcia’s goal in this case to get WSU to take appropriate action, which she feels are proceedings to terminate Gallegos.”

‘A qualified yes’

The story came to light on campus during a series of stories published since late October in the campus newspaper, the Evergreen.

The College of Education held a series of discussions with faculty and students. The president of the Graduate and Professional Student Association, DaVina Hoyt, told the Evergreen, “Students aren’t feeling safe in the College of Education.”

In an interview Friday, Mitchell said she had held three meetings on the subject with students and staff and tried to clarify the university’s position on sexual harassment and answer questions.

She acknowledged that Gallegos had received a 4 percent raise this year but noted that it came amid raises for everyone in the college, and it took place before the human rights report was issued. She said the matrix for awarding salary increases would not have included the discrimination finding in any case.

“It’s all performance, based on your academic responsibilities,” she said.

Like other administrators, Mitchell said she couldn’t discuss the case in detail, but she said neither WSU nor the College of Education is soft on sexual harassment.

“Everyone has rights in these situations, and part of my job is to make sure everybody’s rights are respected and honored,” she said. “That means both the accuser and the accused in these kinds of situations.”

Determining what actions, if any, have been taken against Gallegos is difficult. Mitchell’s letter to Gallegos in August mentioned that he had been advised to avoid Garcia and any other contact with students that fell outside the bounds of professional behavior, and that he had done so. But WSU Provost Bates was quoted in the Evergreen on Nov. 1 saying the case remained under investigation.

Bates, who could not be reached Thursday or Friday, sent his statement on the matter to the campus community Tuesday. Bates said he was writing to emphasize that “this institution will not tolerate discrimination of any kind, including sexual harassment.”

He also called on victims to come forward and report the incidents and promised the school wouldn’t tolerate retaliation for that.

He wrote that the school will act on “proven” claims of harassment, of a nature to “deter future offenses,” including the termination of tenured faculty – a process that can be difficult and time-consuming. In other cases, faculty members may be reprimanded and required to attend training.

Sanchez, director of the Center for Human Rights, said he could not comment specifically on the Gallegos case. But when he was asked whether the university was “walking the walk” with regard to Bates’ statement, he said, “In short, yes. But it’s probably a qualified yes.”

Sanchez said people sometimes treat sexual harassment as more nebulous or doubtful than other forms of discrimination, and sometimes take it less seriously or blame the victim. He also said that although the “formal complaints are not so numerous,” he’s sure they don’t reflect the whole problem at WSU.

“I know there are more out there,” he said. “I know sexual harassment is underreported. But is it rampant? I don’t think so.”


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email