85-year-old professor accused of sexual harassment battling KU and its policies in court

Zamir Bavel, professor of Information Processing Studies at KU, pictured in 2014.

Strong Hall, Kansas University

Three and a half years after a student accused him of groping her during a study session, a longtime Kansas University professor is still fighting KU in court.

Zamir Bavel, 85, says KU violated his rights by denying him a hearing before finding him guilty of sexual harassment. He sued KU in Douglas County District Court, lost, appealed, and is now waiting on the Kansas Court of Appeals to consider his case.

KU says the rules that applied in Bavel’s case don’t specify that hearings must be formal. The university contends Bavel was given other opportunities to be heard and that a trial-like hearing wasn’t needed to determine his guilt and punish him.

Navigating KU’s complaint and resolution guidelines proves no easy task — court documents in Bavel’s case roam over at least four sets of rules governing multiple university bodies, offices and administrators.

Even though Douglas County Judge Robert Fairchild sided with KU, he wrote this when he denied Bavel’s request to reconsider the case:

“Frankly, the court found it to be extremely difficult to wade through all of the various policies and rules to find the ones that apply. Even then, at times one provision seems to contradict another provision. The University could benefit from rewriting and reorganizing all of these rules and regulations to make them more cohesive and hopefully more succinct.”

Bavel said KU’s process of handling sexual harassment complaints is badly flawed and needs thorough revision.

After finding Bavel guilty, KU suspended him two weeks without pay, denied him a raise for the next year and ordered him to take sexual harassment training.

Bavel also was harmed by “agonizing over being trapped with no one listening, emotional pain and suffering at the accusation and its handling, the threat of being fired, and the damage to my name and reputation,” he wrote in a document submitted to the court. “No one is naive enough to think confidentiality can be preserved with more than 15 people in the loop, and the complaining student, her friends and her friends’ friends.”

‘I’ll fight it’

A native of Israel, Bavel came to KU in 1968 and was originally part of the computer science department.

Now he is a professor of Information Processing Studies (and the only person at KU who teaches the subject) in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. This semester he’s teaching Intro to Symbolic Logic and Intro to the Theory of Computing.

Bavel said he’s always made it a priority to give students all the help they need and encourages them to call, text or email anytime. Outside his office hours in Snow Hall, Bavel said he’s met individuals and small groups of students for study sessions at Perkins Restaurant for years.

“Just about the greatest joy I have is when I see the lights come out of the eyes of the students — they got it,” he said.

Bavel said the lawsuit against KU has come at great personal expense. In the suit he requests that the court reverse KU’s actions against him and order the university to conduct a new investigation into his case.

“When I’m guilty of whatever I’m accused of I just take it,” Bavel said. “When I’m not guilty, I’ll fight it.”

Harassment accusation

In May 2011, the student complained to KU that Bavel sexually harassed her a month earlier during an off-campus study session.

According to KU’s appeals court brief:

The student told Steve Ramirez, KU’s Title IX coordinator at the time, that Bavel sat very close to her, rubbed her knee, placed his arm around her and rubbed her shoulder. This made her uncomfortable, but she didn’t know what to do and did not say anything.

After a friend who was with her left the study session, the student leaned over to pick up her backpack and Bavel grabbed her breast and pulled her up toward him until they were face to face.

The next day Bavel sent the student an email that said, “Please tell me if I misinterpreted, if I assumed too much.” A few days later, he emailed, “From your lack of answer and your demeanor (the Mona Lisa smile is almost gone), I gather that I did, indeed, misinterpret. I apologize. Please erase.”

Bavel claims the student set up the encounter and lied about him touching her, perhaps, he says, because she had an obsession with him and felt scorned when he did not reciprocate.

He contends:

The student stared at him throughout the semester in a way that made him think she had a fixation, which he found disconcerting and especially strange since he is so old.

He had helped the student before in his office and at Perkins. She always sat across the table (Bavel said he reads and writes upside down), but this time asked to sit next to him. She also brought a friend who was top in the class and did not need tutoring, possibly, Bavel claims, to act as a witness.

Bavel outlines these explanations and more in a 26-page addendum submitted to the court.

The document also includes medical records Bavel says show arthritis, fused neck vertebrae and degenerated lumbar discs make it physically impossible for him to move in the way the student described.

Bavel said he felt uncomfortable when the student sat so close to him at Perkins but didn’t want to leave and turn away a student who needed help. He argues the emails were an attempt to put the student at ease without hurting her feelings after rejecting her advances. He contends “please erase” was “computerese” for forget the whole thing.

What’s a hearing?

At issue in court is KU’s rules and hearing process, not sexual harassment.

But Bavel believes he would have been exonerated if KU had given him the opportunity to hear exactly what he was accused of and respond in detail as he did in the court addendum.

According to KU, Ramirez met with Bavel, gave him written notice that there was an investigation against him, received in-person and written communications from Bavel and interviewed the student’s friend and another professor she told about the sexual harassment. Ramirez found Bavel guilty of sexual harassment and shared his investigation report with the CLAS dean. Ramirez, the dean, the provost and the chancellor all agreed on discipline for Bavel.

Administrators noted that in an uncomfortable situation — even if initiated by a student — faculty members are responsible for ensuring interactions remain appropriate, according to KU’s court brief.

“Professor Bavel suggests that the responsibility lies with students to speak up; however, it is the responsibility of university employees to speak up to eliminate situations that could be perceived as harassing, particularly in circumstances that might be interpreted as exploitation of the power differential between professor and student.”

Bavel requested a hearing from the Faculty Rights Board — which had information from KU about the investigation and additional information from Bavel — but the board denied his request.

KU did follow its prescribed procedures, the university asserts in its brief to the appeals court.

Even though Bavel cited provisions from multiple university rules, KU says its Faculty Rights Board Procedures are the most relevant. Granting in-person hearings is at that board’s discretion.

“‘Hearing’ does not mean a formal adversarial evidentiary proceeding,” KU’s brief says. “Instead, the University’s use of the term ‘hearing’ expresses the fundamental due process concept of notice and an opportunity to be heard.”

Complex rules

Bavel’s case is one of numerous KU decisions to be challenged in court.

About three to five lawsuits a year are filed requesting judicial review of decisions at the Lawrence campus, KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said.

Curtis Barnhill, Bavel’s attorney, said he’s represented teachers and students in about half a dozen lawsuits against KU, most dealing with fairness of the hearing process.

Barnhill called KU’s rules and regulations a “morass.”

In the academic setting, providing justice to victims clashes with fairness and due process for the accused, he said. He said Bavel’s case shows why it’s especially problematic for universities to investigate even more grave complaints such as sexual assault.

“The university has a hard enough time providing proper due process — and determining what even the process is — in cases that do not rise to the level of a crime, let alone how do they do it in cases that rise to a crime?” Barnhill said. “It’s a serious concern.”

KU has made efforts to streamline the rules Judge Fairchild criticized in January, Barcomb-Peterson said.

Since 2012, KU’s Faculty Governance has been working on revising the Faculty Code of Rights, Responsibilities and Conduct. The university also has created a sexual harassment procedure document.

Barcomb-Peterson said KU continually evaluates and amends policies in response to changes in federal and state law and to improve clarity.

“This case demonstrates that the university takes seriously every allegation of sexual harassment, and it investigates and takes appropriate disciplinary action when the allegations are substantiated,” Barcomb-Peterson said. “The District Court’s decision denying Professor Bavel’s claims confirms that KU acted properly by concluding he had engaged in sexual harassment and punishing him.”