Erulkar Testifies in Harassment Suit Against MIT, Sloan's DeanBy Brian Rosenberg
Editor in Chief
Marina R. Erulkar SM '92 is expected to testify in court today that Professor of Management Gabriel R. Bitran kissed her three times while she worked in his office as an administrative assistant. Erulkar began her testimony yesterday, the fourth day of her sexual harassment suit against Bitran and MIT.
Erulkar claims that Bitran sexually harassed her, both by kissing her and by excessively probing into her personal life. She also claims that MIT is responsible for Bitran's actions and alleges that the Institute failed to properly handle her complaint.
In her suit, Erulkar seeks both compensatory and punitive damages. Under state law, however, she can not sue for a specific amount. Instead, the jury will determine whether and in what amount damages should be awarded. A decision is expected later this week.
Judge Elizabeth Butler is presiding over the trial, which is being argued at Middlesex County Superior Court.
Kisses not disputed
All parties agree that Bitran kissed Erulkar while he was her boss. At issue, however, is the frequency and manner of the kisses.
"The discrepancy in testimony concerns both when the exchanges took place . . . and whether [the kisses] were unilaterally given or were an exchange," said John Kahn, Bitran's attorney.
Last week, Bitran testified that he kissed her three times and that the kisses were friendly, instantaneous, and took place with closed lips and no other bodily contact.
Bitran also testified that each of the three times he kissed her was a "special occasion." The first of these was Dec. 29, 1989, the last day of work before the New Year. The other two were on Jan. 29, her birthday, and in March, when she found out she had been admitted to the master's degree program at Sloan.
Erulkar is expected to give a different account of the kisses today. Her attorney, Barbara Johnson, said Erulkar will testify that the second and third kisses took place later than Bitran recalls, and that they were not associated with any notable occasion.
However, Bitran's attorney said "it is not clear from [Erulkar's] deposition whether she is sure" about any kiss beyond the first.
Erulkar is also expected to testify that she explicitly told Bitran that his behavior was unacceptable and that she considered it sexual harassment.
Erulkar worked for Bitran
Erulkar began working in Bitran's office as a temporary secretarial employee in the middle of 1988. She became a full-time administrative assistant in July 1989, working for Bitran, Area Administrator Kim C. LePage, and as an accountant for a small fund.
Erulkar testified yesterday that at work, she spent about 85 percent of her time with Bitran. She also said she often worked at the office from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. three days a week and from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday.
Bitran testified last week that he and Erulkar enjoyed a close working relationship. He praised her professional ability, saying she was very talented and had great potential.
Erulkar also said Bitran insisted that she share information about her personal life because of the long hours they spent working together, but she said she put off discussing it until the fall of 1989. She then told him that her sister had been ill recently and that this illness did not affect her work, and that her personal life therefore had no bearing on her work and should not be discussed.
Erulkar soon became interested in entering the master's program at Sloan, and Bitran advised her on what classes to take. He also gave her sample corporate case analyses to perform as an example of the type of work she would be required to do in the program.
Rowe forced to testify
Special Assistant to the President Mary P. Rowe, who serves as an ombudsman at MIT, testified that Erulkar and LePage came to her office to discuss the situation. Rowe also said she told the pair that her position as an adjunct professor in Sloan could cause a conflict of interest, and that as a result she could not serve as an ombudsman in the case. However, Rowe said she told them she would still describe the various options available to Erulkar.
Rowe also testified about the procedure for handling complaints within MIT and gave general information on the number and kinds of complaints she and fellow ombudsman Clarence G. Williams handle.
Rowe's testimony was surrounded by the issue of whether she would testify about the specifics of this case. As an ombudsman, Rowe has in the past asserted a judicial privilege not to testify because her position requires extreme confidentiality. In her nearly 20 years as ombudsman, this is the first time she has been forced to testify in court.'
"It has always been important both to Dr. Rowe and to MIT to have a place where strict confidentiality is maintained," said Carl Valvo, Rowe's personal attorney. Valvo said Judge Butler "expressed her sympathy with Dr. Rowe's concerns as an ombudsman," but because the ombudsman's privilege has not been recognized in Massachusetts, Rowe was compelled to testify.
"There are several reasons I didn't want to testify," Rowe said during a recess. "First, my testifying erodes the appearance of maintaining confidentiality in my office. Second, if my testimony is used against the plaintiff, no one is going to come see me anymore. Third, I can serve as a neutral party in disputes within MIT, but in an external situation such as this, it's much harder because I am a paid employee of MIT," she said.
Poster causes concern
When the case began last week, all lawyers in the case were concerned about the possible reaction to flyers that appeared on campus. The flyers advertised "The Case of the Kissing Professor" and gave the times and location of the trial.
"The trial is public, but we were a little fearful of a demonstration of some sort," Johnson said. The trial proceeded without incident last week, however.
Steve Cooke and Doug Wyatt, members of the Alternative News Collective, contributed to the reporting of this story.