Wrong Call on Harassment?

Professor found guilty of sexual harassment will return to San Jose State this month to teach trauma counseling. Students plan to protest.

August 18, 2017
 
Lewis Aptekar

More and more institutions are taking a zero-tolerance approach to harassment by faculty members. So some at San Jose State University are wondering why the university is welcoming back to campus a professor found guilty of repeatedly asking a graduate student to date him. An additional complaint was lodged against the professor in 2014.

The professor, Lewis Aptekar, is scheduled to teach two classes this fall in the graduate program in counseling education: one on research methods and -- ironically, say his critics -- one on trauma counseling and crisis intervention. He’s also slated for advising, admissions and curricular duties.

An earlier investigation by The Mercury News found that Aptekar remained chair of his department for five months after he was found to have harassed his student, by asking her repeatedly in class whether she was single and inviting her on dates (the investigation reportedly turned up allegations that he’d done the same to another student, in 2013, asking her to come to his office for “personal counseling”). Aptekar was put on paid leave in 2016, after the newspaper began its investigation.

Aptekar did not respond to a request for comment. The university said in a statement this week that it “thoroughly investigates allegations of employee misconduct” and takes action based on “what the facts tell us.”

San Jose State said it investigated two separate complaints, from 2014 and 2015, respectively, of sexual harassment against Aptekar. The more recent case came to light first, it said, and the allegations were substantiated -- resulting in a two-week suspension without pay and mandatory diversity training for Aptekar. He also stepped down as chair, the university said.

Aptekar was later placed on leave as the 2014 complaint was investigated, but the allegations were not substantiated and no appeals were filed, according to San Jose State. Thus, “Aptekar’s administrative leave has been lifted,” the university said, though he will not be serving as an adviser to students and has “elected a reduced workload as a first step toward retirement.” (He’ll still be involved in advising efforts, including an all-student advising meeting, according to a department memo, however.)

Elisa Stewart, Aptekar’s lawyer, previously told The Mercury News that Aptekar “has based his career on educating students to be excellent education counselors” and that he felt “vindicated" by the university’s investigation.

Others on campus aren’t so happy about Aptekar's return. Valerie Lamb, a student in the department, said via email that "we are all very infuriated with the situation." A protest is being planned.

One of Aptekar's department colleagues, Jason Laker, has sued San Jose State, alleging a cover-up of claims against Aptekar.

“They should not have allowed him back on campus,” Laker said in an interview. “And the irony is that now he’s teaching a counselor-education course in trauma counseling -- is this comedy?”

Laker said he was approached by a student in 2015 who alleged that Aptekar had harassed her, and he helped her launch a complaint. He says he was called a liar and otherwise retaliated against by colleagues involved in the case for his efforts, and so filed his own lawsuit -- but only after trying to resolve the issue internally, he said.

“I’ve spent 25 years in higher ed and never sued anybody,” Laker said. “I tried to meet with the president and provost, and at this point, excuse my French, I’m sort of out of fucks.”

Laker’s suit alleges that the university knew about the 2014 complaint prior to the 2015 case, but failed to investigate it -- or use it as evidence in the later case. The university has said administrators did not know about an earlier complaint by students. But a complaint was in fact filed by an associate dean on behalf of two students who wished to remain anonymous.

The university said it does not comment on pending litigation.

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