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Students Protest Outcome of Sexual Harassment Trial

By Brian Rosenberg
Editor in Chief

Seven people entered a Sloan School of Management class taught by Professor of Management Gabriel R. Bitran yesterday to protest the outcome of a recently concluded sexual harassment suit brought against Bitran and MIT. The seven carried posters with statements Bitran and others made in connection with the suit, which was brought by former employee Marina R. Erulkar SM '92.

The trial ended Nov. 3 when the jury ruled that Bitran had not sexually harassed Erulkar.

"As the situation stands right now, [Bitran] hasn't been punished. He needs to know that he can't get away with what he did," said Kyra Raphaelidis '94, one of the protesters. The protest was intended "also to let other harassers know that their behavior will not be tolerated," she added.

"Our main purpose is to raise awareness," said Jennifer E. Carson '94, another protester.

At around 9:20 a.m., the group entered room E51-311, where Bitran was teaching Operations Management in the Service Industry (15.768), and filed to the back of the room. One protester, Sasi K. Digavalli G, took a seat in the second tier. He later got up when a student in the class asked him for the seat.

The protesters held up their posters in silence. "I could not control my reflexes," read one, referring to Bitran's testimony about why he kissed Erulkar. Another quoted Sloan Dean Lester C. Thurow as describing Bitran's actions as "normal Latin friendliness." The other posters carried similar messages.

Bitran asked the group to leave, saying that they had made their point and that there was no point to disturbing the class further. After he asked them a second time, an unidentified student announced that he was leaving the class to find an administrator to remove the protesters. "I'm paying too much money for my class to be interrupted like this," he said as he left the room. The approximately 40 other students in the class broke into applause at this remark.

Bitran then decided to continue the class. "I am here to teach and you are here to learn, so let's do our jobs," he said, to more applause from the class. About 20 minutes later, the student returned with a Sloan administrator, who held a brief conference with Bitran outside the room. Bitran returned and the class continued without incident for 10 more minutes, when the protesters left.

Two Campus Police officers were waiting outside the door, and two more arrived a few minutes later. Officers Sanders and Lewis asked the emerging protesters if they were MIT students, then asked for their names or their MIT identification. All seven claimed to not have their MIT IDs on their person, but Digavalla produced a driver's license. The others refused to give their names unless they were "legally obligated to do so."

Lt. Cappucci then informed them that if they could not produce any identification and refused to give their names, they could be arrested for trespassing, since they were on private property. He also said their interruption of the class was "an illegal activity."

After a few minutes of standoff in which the protesters continued to withhold their names, Cappucci released them. "I think arresting them would have been counter-productive and created more of a disturbance," he said.

"We've seen their faces, so if something like this happens again and they're involved, we can say, `We've spoken to you about this before,'" he added.

Students in the class were critical of the protesters' actions. "I didn't realize we were so close to Salem. . . . This kind of vigilante justice is truly ugly," said Christopher P. Bolster G, referring to the Salem witch trials of colonial times.

"I think it is unfair for them to impose this sort of thing on the students," said Mui-fong Goh G.

Protester Ranganathan Krishnan G said that protesting in the class was "the most direct means of confronting the person who created the problem."

Corrie Lathan G, another protester, said the event was "absolutely a success. It's just one signal in a broader plan to show MIT that harassment will not be tolerated."

Lathan would not discuss the possibility of future protests in Bitran's classes, but she did say she wants to "continue the pressure on Bitran and on the MIT administration."

Later in the day, Bitran said "I feel that people are free to express themselves as long as they do not violate the rights of the other students to be taught in the class."