Tufts professor accused of sexual harassment

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Suzanne Young, a former lecturer and researcher at Tufts, filed a lawsuit on Dec. 11 in Middlesex Superior Court accusing Associate Professor Samuel Kounaves of sexual harassment.

Young’s suit also lists Tufts as a defendant, claiming that the university “should have known of the harassment, yet took no reasonable steps to prevent it.”

The suit alleges that Kounaves engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior while working with Young from 2005 to 2008 on NASA’s Phoenix Mars mission to investigate the possibility of life on Mars.

Kounaves, 61, was one of the mission’s leaders and in 2005 hired Young, 42, who had been lecturing at Tufts, to work for him as a research associate on the Phoenix Science Team.

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Young’s complaint alleges that over the course of her employment, Kounaves repeatedly requested sexual favors and implied that Young’s compliance would improve her employment prospects.

Among the allegations in the lawsuit is that Kounaves made a number of sexist comments to Young, including the statement that “a woman wears makeup to indicate that she ‘wants sex'” and the accusation that she had had an affair with her graduate research advisor.

The complaint also states that on business trips, Kounaves would visit Young’s room privately and ask Young to come to his room under the pretext of looking at data. It says that “he has gone so far as to stand outside her door while she bathes.”

Kounaves declined to comment except to say in an e-mail that Young’s allegations are all untrue. His attorney, Geoffrey Bok, expressed his belief that his client would be cleared.

“The allegations against Professor Kounaves are totally without merit and have no basis in fact,” Bok said in an e-mail to the Daily. “It is tragic that such a dedicated researcher and scholar can be defamed by a disgruntled former employee of Tufts University. I am confident that Ms. Young’s lawsuit will be dismissed by the Court.”

Bok did not respond to additional questions.

Young in September 2008 first complained about Kounaves’ behavior to the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO), which conducted an investigation and concluded that Kounaves was not guilty of violating university policy.

Young’s complaint accuses the OEO of conducting a “sham investigation” which ignored eyewitness testimony. It claims that Tufts “ultimately refused to take meaningful steps to rectify the situation.”

“We believe that Tufts’ response was utterly inappropriate and instead of properly investigating Young’s reports of impropriety, they found no wrongdoing,” David Belfort, Young’s attorney, told the Daily.

Director of Public Relations Kim Thurler stressed that the university’s initial investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing. “We take any allegations very seriously,” she said. “That investigation found no violation of the university’s sexual harassment policy.”

The suit further accuses the university of terminating Young’s employment following her complaint, citing the fact that she was not invited back to teach at Tufts in the spring of 2009.

“She taught there for five years. Why, after this, is she not re-engaged?” Belfort said. “That’s called retaliation. You cannot retaliate, whether her complaint is legitimate or not.”

Thurler, however, has said in previous reports that Young’s contract was not renewed because grants funding her work had expired. She emphasized that Tufts is dedicated to creating a comfortable workplace for its community.

“It is important to keep in mind that Tufts is fully committed to ensuring that we offer a workplace and educational environment that is supportive and respectful of all members of our community,” Thurler said.

An OEO representative, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, said that although the OEO takes the steps necessary to rectify harassment and the process generally works, occasionally an individual seeks legal action that the OEO cannot provide.

The suit states that at least three other women have previously complained about Kounaves. These women may become witnesses if they wish to participate in the trial and the court allows them to testify.

According to Belfort, one of these women in 1996 filed a restraining order against Kounaves, who was ordered to refrain from abuse and to stay away from the victim and her workplace.

Young had previously filed her complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and the Employment Opportunity Commission in May 2009, but decided to move her complaint to court. She declined to comment for this article on the advice of her attorney.

The counsel for Young and Kounaves are currently exchanging information. Kounaves’ attorney intends to file a response to Young’s allegations later this month, and the case will be brought to court if the parties do not reach a settlement.

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