Astronomer Claims School Leak Defamed Him

By Jamie Ross

PHOENIX (CN) – A former professor sued the University of Arizona, claiming it improperly disclosed a confidential, defamatory investigation of sexual harassment allegations, which was published by a California congresswoman.

Timothy Slater, endowed chair of science education for the University of Wyoming, sued the Arizona Board of Regents in Maricopa County Court on Nov. 9. The board governs Arizona’s three public universities.

Slater started working for the University of Arizona in 2001, hired to create a degree program for high school science teachers. He gained tenure in 2004.

That year the University of Arizona’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office began investigating sexual harassment and retaliation claims against him. The results were compiled in a confidential report in 2005, which included interviews with at least 10 witnesses who claimed to have experienced “sexually charged conduct” in the school’s College of Astronomy.

The University of Arizona has a renowned astronomy department.

timothy-slaterSlater says he has written two widely used astronomy textbooks, and published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles. “He is also widely recognized for helping more women earn Ph.D.’s in astronomy and astronomy education — a largely male dominated field — than any other professor in his age group,” he says in the complaint.

He says he was interviewed for the investigation, and was told it would remain confidential. He says the report is full of inaccurate statements, including that he gave a graduate student a vibrator or chocolate handcuffs.

“Dr. Slater’s then wife (now ex-wife) gave a vibrator to her longtime close friend and roommate who was a graduate student, who in turn gave back chocolate handcuffs,” according to the complaint. “Dr. Slater was not involved in that exchange, and such an exchange of gifts between female close friends was in no way any form of sexual harassment.”

He says the report also falsely states that he made a joke about installing cameras in his home to watch people having sex. No cameras were ever installed, Slater says.

The allegation in the report that he told one witness “that he has considered inviting her to swim over the weekend, but knew she would bring her bathing suit, so decided against it” is false, he says. As are the claims that he told her “she would teach better if she did not wear underwear,” tried to grab her underwear and said, “You’d look a whole lot better without these on,” and invited her to a strip club.

Slater also denies allegations in the report that he acknowledged to the same witness that he sexually harassed women, and that he threatened her employment.

Slater left the University of Arizona for the University of Wyoming in 2008.

Two years later, the University of Arizona received a public records request for documents on investigations of Slater.

Slater says the school disclosed a copy of the confidential report in response, then realized it sent the report in violation of Arizona public records laws and the Arizona Administrative Code.

In an email to Courthouse News, Slater’s attorney Kraig Marton said the university should be held liable for its wrongdoing.

“The university broke the law and its own rules by releasing a report that was inaccurate and which was supposed to be confidential,” Marton wrote.

Under Arizona Administrative Code, “it is unlawful for the state to release certain employee personnel records to the public,” the complaint states.

And, the Arizona Board of Regents’ Policy Manual “states that when the University receives a public records request for an employee’s personnel records, it may only provide basic information such as name, dates of employment, salary, and those records ‘that are reasonably necessary to maintain an accurate knowledge of employee disciplinary actions,’” according to the complaint.

In January, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., read part of the report on the House floor, resulting in an onslaught of news stories about Slater, in The Washington Post, New York Times and Science Magazine.

“This report was sealed for over a decade while Dr. Slater went on with his career,” Speier told the House in January. “His example shows why so few women continue careers in science and engineering. Some universities protect predatory professors with slaps on the wrist and secrecy, just like the Catholic Church sheltered child-molesting priests for many decades.”

Attorney Marton wrote in the email that Slater felt “outrage, disgust and embarrassment” upon learning that Speier publicized the report.

“Dr. Slater first learned that the report had been released after Rep. Speier spoke about it and her words were publicized,” Marton said in the email.

In a blog post of October 2015, Slater acknowledged that he had violated the university’s sexual harassment policy “by allowing a hostile work environment to exist that was characterized by sexual joking, banter, and innuendo that was both welcome and unwelcome, solicited, and unsolicited.”

Slater said he participated in formal sexual harassment training after the violation, and it worked. “I now continuously educate my graduate students — male and female — about sexual harassment and how to be sure it doesn’t happen, how to avoid being a victim, and how to report it when it is observed,” Slater wrote.

Marton said Slater’s acknowledged violation was for conduct different than what was publicized in the report.

“He was not disciplined for that conduct, but did take some training to address it. There has never been any other allegation against him, either before or since then,” Marton said in the email.

In Slater’s post, he wrote that the University of Arizona found in 2006 that he had not committed any sexual harassment. And an inquiry by the University of Wyoming in 2008 found that he was “not found guilty of any violations” since the 2004 investigation.

Slater says in the lawsuit the UA’s distribution of the report has seriously damaged his reputation and career, and kept him from becoming a dean or university vice president.

Since the report’s release, he adds, he has lost several speaking engagements and his book sales have decreased.

Speier sponsored the “Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act” in September. It would require colleges and universities to notify federal agencies when professors are found to have committed commit sexual harassment or assault.

Six people who say they witnessed or experienced harassment by Slater at the University of Arizona issued a letter of support after Speier announced her bill.

“Those of us who were subjected to Timothy Slater’s actions can testify that there are serious repercussions,” the letter states. “Several of his students were forced to change majors, departments, and colleges in order to escape the harassment.”

Slater damages defamation, false light, negligence, emotional distress and public disclosure of private information.

A spokesman for the University of Arizona had not seen the lawsuit and declined to comment.

Attorney Marton is with Jaburg & Wilk, in Phoenix.

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