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

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

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

But after two years of negative headlines invoking race, politics, university spending and indecent relations, there is still no end in sight.
UW Provost Patrick Farrell sent Barrows a “letter of council” late last month chastising him for “inappropriate actions against two students.” Barrows, who has long maintained his innocence and has 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 says.

Karen Al-Ashkar, who chaired the appeals committee for the university, says that issuing the letter of council fell within the rights of the provost’s office. 

In addition to the lawsuits, the case has drawn accusations of poor leadership against UW’s president, caused an uproar from the general public over administration salaries and tainted the reputations of the two women who complained that Barrows 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. Wisconsin has the lowest high school graduation rate for Blacks of any state, graduating just 41 percent of its Black students, according to a 2002 report by the Manhattan Institute. 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,” says Dr. Sherrill Sellers, assistant professor, school of social work. “We’re managing for the students, but it was a loss for the faculty.”

In late 2003, Barrows, 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 women. Barrows received a letter of reprimand, was demoted and his pay was cut by roughly 62 percent.

None of the women has ever filed a formal harassment complaint. The appeals committee said Barrows’ admitted relationship with a 40-year-old graduate student 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 any of the women.

Farrell agreed to accept the committee’s recommendation and remove the letter of reprimand, but he replaced it with a letter of council, which stated that Barrows’ behavior was “unacceptable and can’t be tolerated.”  

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

— By Christina Asquith

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