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Erulkar Describes Professor's Behavior in Harassment Trial

By Brian Rosenberg
Editor in Chief

The harassment suit against Professor of Management Gabriel R. Bitran and MIT continued this week as Marina R. Erulkar SM '92 gave her account of Bitran's alleged harassing behavior toward her. Erulkar also described the aftermath of his actions, including MIT's handling of her complaint, in Middlesex Superior Court.

Though a decision had been expected this week, the length of Erulkar's testimony caused that estimate to be moved to early next week.

Erulkar's testimony focused on two forms of harassment by Bitran: three separate incidents in which he kissed her and his repeated inquiries into her personal life.

The first incidence of kissing occurred on Dec. 29, 1989, the last day of work before the New Year's holiday, Erulkar said. The kiss left her "completely shocked... I felt numb... like I couldn't move, but I wanted to get out of there," she said.

Bitran then kissed her a second time, Erulkar testified, contradicting Bitran's earlier testimony, in which he said he kissed her just once. She said she stepped back and left the office to get her coat. She returned and he then drove her home, an arrangement that began a few months earlier and had become regular by that time.

Erulkar testified that she was deeply upset by Bitran's actions. "I went to my room and sat numbly... My roommates invited me to a New Year's Eve party, but I didn't go because I thought it would be glaringly obvious to everyone there that something was wrong," she said.

She testified further that when she returned to work on Jan. 2, 1990, Bitran said he was confused because his feelings for her were becoming romantic, and he had kissed her because he felt she had returned his feelings. She told Bitran his behavior was unwelcome and should not be repeated, and that she did not return his feelings in any way.

Bitran replied that he had misunderstood her reactions, she said. He added that his feelings were his problem and that he would take care of them. About six weeks later, Erulkar testified, Bitran told her he had worked through his feelings and that the problem was over.

Bitran kissed her again a few weeks later, in early March, Erulkar testified. She said, however, that she is unsure of the exact date because she has "blocked" the details of the incident from her memory. "All I can remember is being scared," she said.

Erulkar said Bitran explained to the day after this second incident that his actions were impulses, that he "couldn't predict when he would do these things." He suggested that they work fewer hours together to reduce the likelihood that a similar event happen again, she said.

The pair worked fewer hours together for a few weeks, until Bitran told Erulkar that his productivity had dropped and asked if she would consider working more hours with him again, she testified. "I assumed this meant there would be no further problems," and they began to work more hours together, she said.

The last kiss came in late April or early May, Erulkar said. She testified that she was sitting and writing on a notepad when Bitran stooped down and kissed her. "He pressed his lips against mine and exhaled," she said.

Erulkar also said Bitran leaned toward her in a similar situation in late May, and she assumed he was trying to kiss her. She testified that he said he believed her willingness to work with him constituted acceptance of his behavior, and she replied that his behavior had never been acceptable.

Bitran probed personal life

Erulkar testified that throughout this time, Bitran questioned her about her personal life, which made her very uncomfortable. He asked about her boyfriend, her family, and her finances, she said. He also inquired about her health, including questions about an ovarian cyst she developed.

She soon made it her policy not to answer his questions. He said he could not work with her if she continued to be so "distant and mysterious," Erulkar testified. He also said he just wanted what was best for her, she said.

During cross-examination, Erulkar said that she had told Bitran earlier that there was a history of cancer in her family. She also said he may have told her to be careful of this because of her cyst.

`Ready to face the world'

Erulkar testified that on June 5, Professor Bitran said he thought he had done nothing wrong and that he was "ready to face the world with what he had done." He suggested that they tell Area Administrator Kim C. LePage together, she said.

Erulkar instead went to LePage herself, and the two decided to call Special Assistant to the President Mary P. Rowe. Rowe, LePage, and Erulkar discussed Erulkar's options, and Erulkar decided to speak to Lester C. Thurow, dean of the Sloan School of Management.

She met with Thurow twice, once to inform him of the situation and a second time to learn the results of Thurow's meeting with Bitran. Erulkar testified that at this second meeting, Thurow said Bitran thought of her as a daughter and suggested that she return to work with him after he had gone through a series of counseling sessions. She said she did not know whether those sessions ever occurred.

Rowe and Erulkar both testified that Rowe told Erulkar she did not have to return to work if she did not want to. Erulkar said she returned for one day to clean out her desk.

Erulkar began seeing a psychiatrist in July 1990, and switched to a second doctor in late August, according to her testimony and payment receipts. Erulkar testified that MIT paid for between two and three months of this care. After this, she spent her own money and borrowed money from her mother to pay for visits until March 1991, when she could no longer afford the treatment.

The second psychiatrist, Dr. Sharon Lenhardt, testified that she diagnosed Erulkar as a victim of post-traumatic stress syndrome, which she described as "the symptoms of exposure to stress above an individual's norm."

MIT's attorneys focused on these visits and Marina's other medical expenses in cross-examination because Erulkar stated on an MIT loan application that she had spent $15,000 on medical expenses in the period July 1990-June 1991. Erulkar admitted that she did not actually spend that much, but said she had misrepresented the truth on the form so she could pay for her psychiatric visits. She added that she is "not ashamed at anything I did to get the treatment I needed."

Attorney Robert Sullivan attempted to show that Erulkar had threatened Bitran about what could happen to his career if she told someone about his actions, but Erulkar denied the charge. She would admit only that she told her psychiatrist she thought Bitran should be prohibited from advising female students for a period of time while he received counseling.

Sullivan also asked whether Erulkar could assign a monetary value to the loss of the work she was performing with Bitran. She said she could not, both because the major projects she was working on were never completed, and because she has no expertise with such estimates.

Karen Kaplan contributed to the reporting of this story.