MONMOUTH -- Western Oregon University and one of its professors have been hit with a $12.5 million sexual harassment lawsuit.
Former graduate student and employee Rosemary Garcia filed a suit two weeks ago in Portland District Court, alleging Gary Welander, a professor in the college's department of education, offered to mentor her and guide her studies in exchange for a sexual relationship.
The university is accused of failing to address the situation, despite having actual knowledge of a "pattern and practice of sexual harassment and sex discrimination" by Welander, the suit says.
Western speech professor and academic advisor Peter Courtney, who is also the president of the Oregon senate, is named in the lawsuit as a defendant for failure to take disciplinary steps regarding harassment by Welander.
Garcia is undergoing cancer treatment and wasn't available for comment, said Martin Dolan, her Portland-based attorney.
Welander went on medical leave in December. He has taught courses at Western for the past 15 years. He was asked by his department peers to step down as chairman of the school's Teacher Education Division after Garcia filed a complaint against him last spring.
Welander declined to comment about the lawsuit but said he was meeting with Western officials and may tell "the other side" of the story in the future.
WOU President Philip Conn said the university's human resources department handles complaints of improper behavior and that he had heard nothing specific concerning Welander since arriving at Western two years ago.
He said the school has conducted its own internal investigation into Welander since April 2004, and that Welander's employment status is "under review."
"We are addressing the complaint in a straightforward and appropriate way," Conn said. He said claims that Western is indifferent in acting against sexual harassment are "completely untrue."
"My contention is that the university has done no wrong," he said. "I totally disagree with the claim that the administration has been callous or unresponsive to the situation."
Garcia was a student at Western from 2002 to 2004, and worked for Welander in the education department's front office.
According to the suit, Welander showed an "intense interest" in Garcia. It says he often visited her in the front office, initiated physical contact in the form of hugging and asked intimate personal questions.
The lawsuit says Welander began taking Garcia to lunch in October 2002, then suggested he help advance her academic career in exchange for a relationship.
Western officials, after learning of the relationship in April 2003, told Welander that Garcia shouldn't be in his classes. In response, the suit says, Welander created a special class for her, providing all her materials and instruction. Garcia filed a complaint with Western in April of 2004.
In naming Courtney as a defendant, the suit refers to him as an assistant to the president, though Conn said Courtney hasn't served in that position since Conn came to Western. Courtney said he learned of the lawsuit as he was meeting with new members of the Oregon Senate two weeks ago.
He said in a phone interview that the claims against him are without merit.
"As far as I know, I have never met Mrs. Garcia," he read from a written statement. "I was never personally made aware of concerns she had relating to her education or work at Western Oregon University.
"During the time in question, I was on medical leave or on legislative leave from the university and didn't hold any position where I would have been responsible for her concerns, had I known them."
Dolan said that Courtney's role in the suit extends back to his time as an affirmative action officer for the school a few years ago.
Courtney's attorney, Paula Barran, said that her client hasn't served in a position that would allow him to investigate sexual harassment claims since September 2001. A motion will be filed to have his name removed from the suit, Barran said.
But Dolan said Courtney has received complaints from other students about Welander in the past and that no action was taken. He cited a letter signed by former Western student Beth Reid in which Reid details an incident where Welander asked her for "a quickie" in exchange for signing a form to drop his class.
Though the letter is dated Feb. 13, 2002, there is no indication in the letter of when the incident occurred.
Reid wrote that Courtney was indifferent and abrasive about her situation when she asked him to address the complaint, so she then met with then-President Betty Youngblood.
Reid wrote that Courtney denied statements he made during their meeting, and that no action was taken. Reid did not pursue the matter.
In 2001, the Oregon University System and a Western student reached a $110,000 settlement over another sexual harassment incident involving a different professor. Dolan said Courtney did not follow the terms of that settlement, which stated that the affirmative action officer would investigate and present a written report to the president of the college.
"He was in a position to make sure other women weren't affected by harassment, and Garcia was," Dolan said, adding, "The fact that he never met Mrs. Garcia doesn't change our opinion of his responsibility."
When asked if the letter from Reid was true, Courtney's staff provided the following statement:
"Whenever I received a complaint, I never failed to take the appropriate steps. I investigated each complaint I received thoroughly and always took the appropriate action."
Barran said that Courtney is not allowed to discuss individual claims he handled as an affirmative action officer outside of the scope of the university.
Conn said the negative attention from the current lawsuit and the new information shed on the 2001 settlement could be potentially harmful to Western.
"We hope to show people that we're doing our best in dealing with complaints in a respectful manner," he said.
Stories about Garcia's lawsuit were first reported by the Statesman Journal newspaper.