In the remote Alaskan arctic, Stephanie Jenkins felt cornered.
The 29-year-old woman and her academic mentor, Ted Swem, had rappelled down a cliff to a narrow ledge overlooking the Colville River where she could swab the mouth of a peregrine falcon as part of her Ph.D. research at the University of Minnesota.
Swem, 56, began to talk about what it would be like to kiss her.
“I couldn’t go anywhere,” Jenkins said. “It frightened me.”
The 2011 incident is one of a series recounted in a sexual harassment lawsuit against the university, which is scheduled to go to trial in federal court Nov. 2.
Jenkins eventually quit the Ph.D. project and left the university.
Swem denies he sexually harassed her, and the U says Swem was not a university employee, but U.S. District Judge John Tunheim this month rejected a motion to dismiss the suit. Tunheim did toss out claims against Jenkins’ faculty adviser, whom the suit accuses of failing to protect Jenkins after she disclosed Swem’s behavior.
Bill Donohue, general counsel at the University of Minnesota, said the university has no responsibility for the alleged sexual harassment.
Swem “is not our employee, he is a federal government employee and once the university got notice that there was questionable behavior, we acted quickly and promptly,” Donohue said.
The university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action concluded in 2012 “that Mr. Swem’s continued expression of interest in Ms. Jenkins, along with other conduct he acknowledged, crossed boundaries and violated the university’s sexual harassment policy.”
Tunheim said Swem’s role needs to be sorted out by a jury.
“Through both control of Jenkins’ dissertation data and a potential role on her dissertation committee, Swem had the ability to take action that could directly affect the conditions of Jenkins’ employment,” Tunheim wrote.
The suit comes as the University of Minnesota system faces other complaints involving the treatment of women — the resignation of athletic director Norwood Teague in a sexual-harassment scandal, and the lawsuit filed by three former women coaches at the University of Minnesota Duluth claiming discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.
A foremost expert
Swem is the endangered-species branch chief at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the nation’s foremost expert on the falcons of that region.
Jenkins was selected from a pool of more than 50 applicants for the Ph.D. study of peregrine falcons in Alaska. She said in an interview that she wanted to become a raptor biologist and was “passionate” about the project.
She and Swem were dropped off by plane in “one of the most remote field locations of arctic Alaska,” according to court documents. One trip in June 2011 lasted 17 days. A second the following month lasted two weeks.
Jenkins’ job was to assist Swem in creating a database on the peregrine falcon population.
During two field trips to Alaska, Jenkins said Swem made “pervasive sex jokes,” told sexually explicit stories and photographed her clothed buttocks.
“He asked me numerous times to be in a relationship with me,” she said.
Swem’s attorney, Thomas Hayes of Milwaukee, declined to comment this week. In court documents, Swem acknowledged making numerous remarks, including the comments about kissing her, but said he continued because of “ambiguous signals he had received from her statements and conduct.”
Swem claimed in court documents that Jenkins laughed at his sex jokes; she said that she laughed because she did not want to offend a man who had influence over her career.
According to court documents, Swem justified his continued romantic approaches, despite her statements she was not interested, because at one point Jenkins told him something to the effect that if Swem were 25 years younger, she would have been “all over him.” Her lawyer, Joe Larson, said her remark was “an attempt at humor” to deflect Swem’s advances and she regretted she said it.
Swem acknowledged he photographed Jenkins, but “he did not intend to compose a picture to be a photograph of her rear end” and he deleted it.
Quitting the U
Jenkins quit the Ph.D project in January 2012, a month before the university equal opportunity office concluded that she was sexually harassed. Her resignation letter cited “unresolved workplace and ethical issues relating to [her] research project,” but did not mention Swem or harassment.
She said in an interview with the Star Tribune that she was devastated. “I resigned because I finally had the courage to tell my adviser what was happening. I was so afraid I would lose my job. I resigned because my advisers would not do anything,” she says.
The university denied Swem had any say over her Ph.D. research.
Three months after the second trip, Jenkins reported Swem’s behavior to her adviser, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey who is an adjunct professor at the university.
Jenkins felt uncomfortable working with Swem at the U and argued in court papers that the university did not act quickly enough to remedy the situation.
Tunheim concluded that the U was not indifferent to her complaints, but he denied the U’s motion for summary judgment.
However, Tunheim found that “because a genuine issue of material fact remains as to whether Swem affected the conditions of Jenkins’ employment … for which the university may be vicariously liable, the court will deny the University’s motion for summary judgment as to the … hostile work environment claim.”
He also said there was “a genuine issue of material fact … as to whether the University took sufficient action to remedy the situation once Jenkins complained.”
Jenkins is now a senior watershed analyst for the state of Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality, working out of Boise.
“I have had to move to a different field of ecology,” she said in an interview. Leaving the Ph.D. project at the U “changed my career direction entirely.”
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224