Response to complaints questioned

Dealing with the death of a spouse is a painful business, as Sandra Pierce knows well. After she lost her husband, the then-UAA student found a kindred spirit in one of her professors who had lost his spouse several years before. The pair met once over coffee to discuss the effect the loss had on their children, and Pierce, 32, thought she had done a good deed in helping him cope.

When he began unexpectedly calling her at home, she began to wonder if she had done the right thing after all.

“This was clearly a route I did not want to go with this man,” Pierce said. “All his contacts were in regards to asking me out again.”

After he started asking her out in front of her classmates and commenting on her appearance, she filed a complaint with UAA’s Campus Diversity and Compliance office.

And she waited. More than a year and a half later, Pierce said she still hasn’t seen a resolution.

The office, headed by Chairita Franklin, serves to ensure discrimination and harassment complaints from students, faculty and staff are handled impartially by the university.

Pierce, however, thinks her complaint was not dealt with fairly. She is not alone.

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John Mun, former director of Curriculum Advising and Program Planning at UAA, also thinks he did not get an even-handed response from the office.

“It’s more to protect the university than to fairly resolve issues,” he said.

Mun had salary issues with UAA, which he thought were racially and religiously motivated, and when he thought it was clear his chain of command was not going to address the problem, he filed a complaint with the office. After two years of waiting, Mun said the office determined he had no case.

“Chairita’s conclusion was a joke,” he said. “Other than me, she did not interview one other minority despite it being a discrimination case.”

Mun has filed his complaint in Alaska Superior Court and is awaiting his court date in February. Mun said the school made a final attempt to get the case dismissed in June, and the motion failed.

“Why did the court allow the case to go on, yet her office found nothing substantial?” he asked.

Donna Behjatnia, a former UAA faculty member, had a different problem with UAA’s compliance office. She was asked to testify as a witness concerning another faculty member’s complaint, but said she was never asked to file a written statement.

“Chairita called me to give testimony over the phone,” Behjatnia said. “When the [complainant] showed me the report, I was misquoted, and my statement was wrong. I thought it was not fair, and I wish they had asked me to put my statement in writing.”

Behjatnia said there were several inaccuracies in her statement, one of which involved changing the phrase “anti-Christ” to “a negative assessment of their working relationship.”

“I suspect that my statement was watered down to avoid raising the specter of religious discrimination along with the other charges of discrimination,” Behjatnia said. ”At any rate, diluting my statement was inaccurate and placing [the accused] in a more favorable light was unfair.”

Jean Crews, a former UAF staff member, encountered problems with her witnesses not being interviewed, as did a faculty member at Mat-Su College, who asked not to be named.

Crews said she filed a complaint with UAF’s compliance officer, Earlina Bowden, and gave a list of nearly 20 witnesses dealing with her discrimination case. After three months, the office ruled against Crews.

“No one I knew had even been interviewed,” she said. “Bowden told me that she didn’t need to interview anyone, that she had talked to the parties involved and it was clear they didn’t do it.”

Crews said a major problem with the system is that the university’s decision process can take longer than the state statute of limitations for filing charges.

“It’s a very short time frame, and by the time you wait for the university to decide, the timeline [for taking the case to the Human Rights Commission] has expired,” she said.

Bowden, director of the Equal Opportunity Office at UAF, wrote in an e-mail response that she does discuss other avenues an individual can take when filing a complaint.

The policies for handling discrimination complaints are instituted across the UA system.

“I explain the options they have to resolve their issues, internal and external,” Bowden wrote. ”I may also identify the time frames of the grievance process since it does have specific and short time frames depending on the circumstances-Realistically, I can’t remember exactly what I have said in each of the complaints I have investigated since 1996.”

Bowden would not comment on her contact with Crews’ witnesses.

“If in those reviews it is determined that I need to expand my interviews, gather more facts, I do that before I issue my findings,” she said. “If it is determined that the investigation was done correctly and no further interviews are necessary, I issue my findings.”

Paula Haley, executive director of the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, said people have two years to bring their cases to court or 180 days from the time a person knows or should have reasonably known about an instance of discrimination to bring the case to the commission.

“I don’t believe there is any regulation for an entity to disclose the limitations enforced by [government] regulations,” she said, “but it would be nice.”

Chairita Franklin, UAA’s Diversity and Compliance director, said because all cases handled by her office are confidential, she is unable to comment on specific incidents.

“Ultimately, the policies that we have are to protect the individuals and the institution,” Franklin said.

She receives 25 to 35 informal complaints each year, which do not involve an investigative process. The informal process alerts alleged offenders of the effect their conduct has on others and is meant to resolve the issue through communication.

“We encourage them to go through the informal process, but there is no absolute regulation,” Franklin said.

It is up to the complainants to file a formal complaint if they are unsatisfied with the outcome of the informal process, Franklin said.

Few do, according to Franklin’s figures. She said in fiscal years 2003 and 2004, there were 12 formal complaints. Formal complaints have no specific time limit for completion but take an average of two or three months to process, Franklin said.

“I have not found illegal discrimination in any of these cases,” she said, adding there may have been some instances of inappropriate conduct.

Franklin said in the event either inappropriate conduct or illegal discrimination is found, she consults with Human Resource Services and management to determine what degree of punishment, if any, is applicable.

If complainants are not satisfied with her decision, they have the option of appealing to the chancellor, then to the president of the University of Alaska.

Franklin said she informs people of other options, such as filing a claim with the Alaska Human Rights Commission, when they initially file a claim. The university’s internal process is an independent one, and UAA does not file internal complaints with government agencies.

“I may not tell [the complainants] the specific statute of limitations, but I tell them there are time lines associated with filing,” she said.

She is not required to, according to university regulations. Nor is she required to collect written statements from witnesses, which means she can interview them over the phone, as in Donna Behjatnia’s case.

“Witnesses are not required to put testimony in writing,” she said.

She is also not required to collect testimony from all of a person’s witnesses, according to university regulations.

“I always consult with legal council when I’m determining the preponderance of evidence to support my findings,” she said. “I can’t recall whether all of the witnesses are always interviewed.”

Franklin said she couldn’t confirm or deny any of the above complaints, citing that she was bound by confidentiality, but said the chancellor’s independent boards have never reversed her decision when a case has been appealed.

“The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has not overturned any of my decisions either,” she said.

Franklin reports directly to Chancellor Elaine Maimon, and The Northern Light was unable to get a comment from the chancellor after numerous attempts.

Megan Olson, assistant vice chancellor for university relations, said the university is in full compliance with the law.

“The board of regents’ policy and regulations both adhere to the federal standards,” she said.