Bearman lawsuit creates chilly climate for future

Michelle Canipe, a former instructional librarian at Washburn’s Mabee Library brought a civil lawsuit against Alan Bearman, dean of libraries. The case was settled out of court March 11. The way the case was handled has potential lingering side effects. Washburn acted in a way that seemed focused on saving face in a method that contributes to a chilly climate for any employee who would consider voicing concerns. 

This criticism of the way harassment is handled applies to institutions in general, not strictly to Washburn. Harassment is an extremely sensitive issue that is complicated by individuals feeling afraid to speak out. It is imperative that when an employee makes an accusation, it is handled in such a way that promotes the idea that employees should have no fear of retribution for stepping forward. 

It is understandable that an institution such as Washburn is concerned with their reputation, but there is more than one way to save face in a situation that could tarnish reputations. 

Declining comments, settling out of court and coming to the defense of the accused may be an attempt to make the issue go away and maintain appearances, but it is unlikely that such an issue will ever simply go away. This method may not be ideal because it makes the institution look callused and unsympathetic to the individual(s) raising concerns and could contribute to a climate where future victims feel they should not speak out. 

If Washburn had made a statement that they take all accusations of harassment seriously and will investigate the issue fully, would their reputation be damaged? In such a case, if the accused were found not guilty upon investigation of the claims, a statement of apology for the stress and inconvenience could be issued, while reiterating the idea that the institution will treat all claims with sensitivity. 

If the accusations proved true, the institution would be seen as working to create a safer working environment. This sort of approach could preserve the reputation of the institution without discouraging concerned employees from speaking out. 

If employees are made to feel like they cannot voice concerns or speak out about what they perceive to be a hostile work environment, then a very serious problem has occurred. Washburn University has made many efforts to make the campus a safe environment, including the Safe Zone program, but it is necessary to be critical of any actions that are contradictory to creating an environment where everyone feels safe. 

This concern is very real at Washburn University, as evident with the Bearman lawsuit. Canipe was very vocal about a culture of feeling powerless in a hostile work environment. No employee should ever be afraid to talk about feeling uncomfortable in the workplace.

Reporters for the Washburn Review have run into problems in getting information about the work environment at the library. Employees have voiced concerns about retaliation from the administration if they say something unfavorable. 

Living or working in fear is unacceptable and it is not part of Washburn’s mission. The reality is there are employees who are in fear. Technology Consultant Farhan Makda did not press charges or talk to the police after a physical confrontation with Bearman for fear of losing his job. Canipe spoke out against the culture of being afraid to speak out. 

Regardless of how this should be put into practice, there is a need for actions that reassure concerned individuals that they should not be afraid to voice concerns. Washburn employees should feel that the institution would protect them even if the complaints are against an employee in a position of authority. 

Harassment allegations are a very serious and sensitive matter. It is necessary to ensure that all parties involved are treated with respect. Individuals caught in the middle of a harassment lawsuit can be made uncomfortable and individuals concerned can have their reputations damaged even if the allegations are untrue. This makes dealing with such issues a nearly impossible task, but it can never be acceptable for individuals to have a fear of speaking out if the concern is real. 

The problems are bigger than any one lawsuit and are of concern regardless of the validity of any one case. The issue here is no longer the Bearman lawsuit, which has been settled since March. 

The issue is what needs to be done to ensure that every student and employee feels protected by the university. The concern is not simply limited to Washburn or to other universities. It is a problem that needs to be addressed to ensure that institutions maintain a climate where all can feel secure.