Western Oregon University settles lawsuit

MONMOUTH -- A former Western Oregon University student has agreed to a settlement with the state of Oregon in her sexual harassment case against the college and one of its professors.

Rosemary Garcia will receive $65,000 in exchange for dropping her $12.6 million lawsuit against the institution and Gary Welander, who teaches in the school's education department, said Martin Dolan, her Portland lawyer, last Thursday.

Department of Justice spokesman Kevin Neely also confirmed the settlement.

The suit, filed in mid-January, stated that Welander offered to mentor Garcia and guide her studies in exchange for a sexual relationship. It charged that the university failed to address the situation, despite having actual knowledge of a "pattern and practice of sexual harassment and sex discrimination" by Welander.

Garcia's health -- she is undergoing treatment for cancer -- was one of the reasons for the settlement, Dolan said. The state had offered $65,000 to Garcia last year before withdrawing the amount in December.

"The money is one thing, but it's a drop in the bucket," Dolan said. "The main goal is to get the university to step up in future instances between professors and women.

"I have every reason to believe (Western) is going to create a harassment-free environment."

Welander has been on medical leave since December. He did not return phone calls made to his office and home for comment by press time.

WOU President Philip Conn had said last month that he disagreed with claims that the university's administration had been unresponsive to the situation, and that he personally opposed a settlement. But he said "the authority to make that decision rests elsewhere."

"I told (the Department of Justice) that I had reservations about it," Conn said last Friday. "I felt it was important to let the various people involved in the matter speak to their own behavior, whether it was university officers and the way the investigation was conducted or the faculty member who'd been accused."

A memorandum to Conn from the DOJ trial counsel dated Jan. 26 outlined the need for a resolution because of the financial risk associated with the lawsuit, and that "the case truly becomes much more difficult when we look at the case the university has already made against Mr. Welander."

Garcia was a student at Western from 2002 to 2004, and worked for Welander in the education department's front office. The suit stated that Welander showed an "intense interest" in Garcia and that he suggested a relationship in exchange for guiding her academic career.

Western officials, after learning of the relationship in April 2003, told Welander that Garcia shouldn't be in his classes. In response, the suit said, Welander created a special class for her, providing all her materials and instruction. Garcia filed a complaint with Western in April 2004.

Peter Courtney, a professor and academic adviser at the university and the president of the Oregon Senate, had also been named in the suit, for failing to take disciplinary measures against Welander during other harassment related-incidents.

Courtney had said he wasn't in a position to address Garcia's situation when it occurred. Neely said that Courtney was removed as a defendant in the case before the settlement was reached because it was shown that he wasn't involved.

The college has received widespread media attention during the past month because of the lawsuit. Stories in the Statesman Journal newspaper quoted former Western professors claiming school leaders have created an environment that discourages students from speaking out about harassment.

The Statesman Journal also reported last week that Welander was convicted in 1978 of sexually abusing a pre-teen female student while he was teacher at a Portland elementary school.

Conn said that he learned of the conviction in December during the school's own internal investigation of Welander, which began after Garcia filed her complaint in April 2004.

Welander was hired at Western during the early 1980s and is a tenured member of the faculty. Conn said if somebody lied on an application about a crime, the college might have grounds for action.

"But I don't think now you can automatically dismiss somebody for something that occurred years ago, for something he's paid dues for," he said.

Conn said Western finished its investigation of Welander early last week. Welander will not teach for the remainder of the school year, he said. Conn declined to discuss the findings of the investigation or say if Welander would keep his job.

George Pernsteiner, acting chancellor of the Oregon University System (OUS), said Friday that he has asked Conn and WOU Vice-Provost Jem Spectar to conduct an assessment of the college's official procedures regarding sexual harassment and relationships between professors and students.

He said OUS should have the report this spring, so policy changes, if necessary, could be put in place before the 2005-06 school year.

"My hope is that the perception and reality on campus is that this is a community that supports a safe environment and a system that's fair," Pernsteiner said.

Conn said the university has been revising and updating its harassment guidelines for the last two years. He said he hoped the recent publicity would spur everyone on campus to be more cognizant and aware of harassment.


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