Holtzman lawsuit spans both semesters
Issue News Back Next


Holtzman lawsuit spans both semesters

Holtzman resigns in May after filing suit in September

by Sara Foss

Oberlin found itself wrapped up in complicated legal negotiations, internal procedures and courtroom exchanges when Associate Professor of Neuroscience David Holtzman filed a $1 million lawsuit against the College in U.S. District Court in Cleveland in September.

He also filed complaints of misconduct against Neuroscience Program Director Catherine McCormick, former acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences James Helm and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Clayton Koppes with the Professional Conduct Review Committee (PCRC).

Koppes also filed a complaint of misconduct against Holtzman with the PCRC.

The PCRC reviewed the Koppes and Holtzman complaints together(see related story below).

In late April Holtzman agreed to resign, ending both the federal court proceedings and the College processes. In an agreement worked out between Holtzman's lawyer, Kirk Perry, and College attorney Michael Frantz, Holtzman dropped all the charges he filed against the College, federal and internal. The College also dropped its charges against Holtzman.

The suit charged that Holtzman was denied equal treatment as an Oberlin College employee because he is Hispanic-American. In the lawsuit, Holtzman says that the alleged discriminatory behavior "first manifested on or about May of 1996 when plaintiff was approached and asked to resign."

Three hearings on Holtzman's request for a preliminary injunction were held, though no decision was ever rendered. A preliminary injunction would have enabled Holtzman to continue teaching. In September Holtzman filed a request for a temporary restraining order which was denied. The restraining order would have allowed Holtzman to teach classes without interference from the College. Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. wrote, "The plaintiff did not demonstrate that he was likely to succeed on the merits of his claim, or that the harm he faced was irreparable."

In April, shortly before he resigned, Holtzman filed a second request for a preliminary injunction in Cleveland, charging that the internal College processes had not been followed correctly. This second request was denied. If granted, it would have prevented internal College processes from moving forward.

Holtzman filed his lawsuit following cancellation of his courseload for the semester after complaints of alleged inappropriate physical misconduct, inappropriate sexual misconduct, inappropriate sexual conversation and drug use filed by students and faculty were reviewed by the College Faculty Council (CFC) and the General Faculty Council (GFC) over the summer. Though the GFC voted to suspend Holtzman, President Nancy Dye granted Holtzman a paid leave at his request, and he continued working at the College, pending investigation by the Professional Conduct Review Committee (PCRC).

Though complaints had been voiced about Holtzman's conduct since he arrived in Oberlin, the only formal complaint ever filed against Holtzman under Oberlin's sexual offense policy was filed by Christine Hart, in animal caretaker, in 1992. Hart later with withdrew her complaint.

Neuroscience Program Director Catherine McCormick met with students who said Holtzman harassed them between 1992 and 1996. In the spring of 1996 Camille Mitchell, sexual offense policy administrator, conducted an investigation of Holtzman's alleged sexual offense policy violations. Since those who claimed Holtzman harassed them were unwilling to come forward and file complaints with their names attached to them, Mitchell found no reason to initiate a formal Sexual Offense Review Committee (SORC) hearing, and submitted a report to then acting dean James Helm, who began his own investigation at that time.

In May 1996 Holtzman, as an untenured faculty member in a continuing position, received a positive evaluation from CFC. The letter to Holtzman stated: "We especially congratulate you on your strong research program and the involvement of students in it. We do expect you to address your department's concerns regarding your interactions with students." Throughout his career at Oberlin Holtzman received merit pay increases and favorable reviews.

Mitchell also spoke to students about Holtzman's conduct. One student, who wished to remain anonymous, said that she filed a page-long report last fall with Mitchell, alleging that Holtzman had sexually harassed her, often visiting her place of employment drunk and repeatedly asking her out on dates.

This student said that she told Mitchell she did not want Holtzman to lose his job and agreed to keep her report on file as a back-up, to use if other cases arose.

One student testified, when delivering a sworn affidavit, that, "In the parking lot of one of the bars, Professor Holtzman offered us marijuna and smoked it himself. Afterwards, we went to his apartment where [Holtzman] smoked more marijuana. While at his apartment, Mr. Holtzman touched me inappropriately in front of everyone. I did not consent to his touch and felt uncomfortable by it."

In September Holtzman attended the sections of Neuroscience he was supposed to teach, but the classes were postponed as a result of his presence. Holtzman said he was never officially informed that he was not teaching.

Rather than suspend Holtzman, Dye placed him on paid-leave, agreeing not to levy the suspension if Holtzman agreed not to attend class.

Holtzman said that his classes were cancelled without his consent and his advisees were taken away without his consent.

College officials maintained all along that this was not true. Koppes said in September that normal procedures were followed in Holtzman's situation. "The College procedures call for informal attempts to resolve these kinds of situations," Koppes said. "Informal methods were pursued over the course of several months because we believed these would be helpful to Mr. Holtzman as well as to the College. When these informal methods failed, we moved into a new situation."

Koppes said, "He was notified [that his teaching would be cancelled] during the informal process.

All parties are relieved that the legal battle is over. "It is a good and appropriate resoluation and I'm pleased we were able to do it," Dye said.

Holtzman said, "My family and I are very happy about the settlement."

The settlement states that Holtzman will receive the rest of his salary and benefits through August, the date when he officially severs ties with the College. As part of the agreement it was also decided which neuroscience equipment belongs to Holtzman and which to the College. Because Holtzman is a federal grant recipient, the College has to make sure it complies with federal laws governing grant money, Frantz said.


Copyright © 1997, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 125, Number 25, May 23, 1997

Contact Review webmaster with suggestions or comments at ocreview@www.oberlin.edu.
Contact Review editorial staff at oreview@oberlin.edu.