U-Wisconsin Grapples With a Sex Case that Strikes a Racial Nerve - Higher Education

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U-Wisconsin Grapples With a Sex Case that Strikes a Racial Nerve

by Christina Asquith

MADISON, Wisc.

Paul Barrows, the beleaguered University of Wisconsin administrator accused in 2003 of sexual harassment, just wants his embarrassing case to end.

After two years of negative headlines invoking race, politics, university spending, and indecent relations, one would think that the university administration would like it to end, too.

But last week there was no end in site.

The University of Wisconsin provost sent Barrows a “letter of council” chastising him for “inappropriate actions against two students.” Barrows, who has long maintained his innocence and been cleared once by a university-appointed committee, is appealing the letter and has already filed a slew of lawsuits against the university.

“I will take this as far as I need to clear my reputation and hold those accountable for what they’ve done to me and to get fairness and justice,” Barrows said.

Provost Patrick Farrell, who sent the letter, was not reachable for comment. Karen Al-Ashkar, who chaired the Appeals committee for the university, said that issuing a “letter of council” fell within the rights of the provost’s office. 

The case, which has dominated university news for more than two years, has blown like a hurricane across campus, tarnishing all those drawn in. In addition to the lawsuits, the case has drawn accusations of poor leadership against the president, caused an uproar from the general public over administration salaries and dragged through the mud the two girls who complained that Barrow’s harassed them.

Some say that diversity initiatives have also taken a hit, in a university where Blacks make up less than 3 percent of the student body. Nationwide, Wisconsin has the lowest high school graduation rate for Blacks at 41 percent. Most credit Barrow, who is Black, for taking the lead on campus for recruiting and retaining minority students.

“There are so few African-Americans and we need an advocate and someone to help us navigate, and Paul was masterful at that,” said Sherrill Sellers, assistant professor, school of social work. “We’re managing for the students, but it was a loss for the faculty.”

The storm began in late 2003, when Barrows, who was then-vice chancellor for student affairs and the university’s main diversity officer, was accused by then-dean of students Luoluo Hong in a memo of sexually harassing an adult graduate student.  Months later, Hong made more accusations against Barrows on behalf of students. Hong’s memo described Barrows behavior towards a graduate student as showing  “extreme level of dismay, disgust and disappointment.” Barrows received a letter of reprimand. He was demoted, and his pay has been since cut by roughly 62 percent. The position of diversity officer — once a powerful position under Barrows — has been broken apart and diluted, according to Michael Thornton, a professor in the department of Afro-American studies. 

None of the women has ever filed a formal complaint of harassment. Barrows admitted to a relationship with a 40-year-old graduate student, but the appeals committee said that did not constitute sexual harassment. An Academic Staff Appeals Committee found in April 2006 that there was not enough evidence to officially reprimand Barrows for sexual harassment of the other two women.

However, the appeals committee was only an advisory position to the provost.

Last week, provost Farrell indicated that he had agreed to accept the committee’s recommendation and remove the letter of reprimand, but he replaced it with a letter of council, which stated to Barrows:

           

“Your behavior. . .is unacceptable and can’t be tolerated, even if it does not rise to the level of sexual harassment.” 

Barrows says the spirit of the letter was just as insulting as the reprimand, and branded him as guilty.

The case has dominated the headlines in Madison, with Barrows being tried in the public court of opinion, with a divided verdict. Some state legislators had called for Barrows’ firing. Last month, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial found in Barrow’s favor, calling the case “overblown;” and other newspaper reports have indicated that few involved in the scandal have gone unscathed.

“This is a tempest in a tea pot,” said Al-Ashkar, adding “It’s not that to Mr. Barrows. It’s his life and it’s a big thing to him.”

Some say Barrows’ position as diversity officer has fueled fire against him among those in Wisconsin who oppose affirmative action and any mention of race in the applications process.

“There are people who put pressure on the university to make sure we are not highlighting race,” said Michael Thornton, professor in the department of Afro-American studies. “The Barrows case played into this.”

-Christina Asquith
 

Reader comments on this story:
“End it”
It appears that a number of persons have a personl ax to grind. There should be a level of professionalism and general respect to allow the committee’s decision to suffice. It appears that someone has to include their feelings into this person’s folder. Are they trying to destroy him professionally? Accept he has been demoted, salary reduced and publically humiliated lesson learned, END IT!
-C. Johnson



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