A federal jury delivered a split decision in a former University of Minnesota Ph.D. candidate’s lawsuit against the university and an academic mentor whose unwanted sexual advances she said made her feel cornered during research trips in the remote Alaskan wilderness.
Jurors ruled in favor of Stephanie Jenkins on Thursday in her sexual harassment suit against Ted Swem, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist who accompanied Jenkins on a pair of 2011 trips to study peregrine falcons.
But the jury did not award any monetary damages and sided with the university over allegations that it fostered a hostile work environment.
After the verdict, an attorney for Jenkins, Joe Larson, expressed mixed feelings and said his client “never wavered from her conviction that the purpose of this lawsuit was to call attention to the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace” and “prevent other women from having to endure the same harassment” Jenkins experienced.
Timothy Pramas, an attorney representing the University of Minnesota, said the university was “glad to put these allegations behind us. The University takes sexual harassment issues seriously and we acted promptly once [Jenkins] reported her concerns to us.”
Swem’s attorney could not immediately be reached for comment.
During testimony earlier this month, Jenkins told jurors how an “opportunity of a lifetime” devolved into her sleeping with a hunting knife and considering whether to risk her Ph.D. by abruptly calling an end to the 2011 trip. Jenkins, who was 29 at the time of the trip, said the 56-year-old Swem made sexually explicit jokes throughout the trip, took photos of her backside and repeatedly discussed his interest in a relationship with her over her objections.
“I realized his viewpoint of me was not as a scientist but as a sex object,” Jenkins told jurors last week.
“I hated that … because I worked so hard. I was a driven person, a motivated person and I wanted that stupid job. That’s where my career was going. … Because he wanted to sleep with someone who was 29 and in a remote area, he wanted to screw that up and it was of no consequence to him.”
Jenkins said she feared that reporting Swem would compromise her job at the university and her future as a researcher in Alaska, where she was in line to replace Swem. She said Swem continued his advances when the two shared an office the following semester in Minnesota, and she reported his actions in November 2011.
U.S. District Judge John Tunheim previously refused to dismiss the suit in 2015 when Swem denied the sexual harassment claims and the university pointed out that he was not an employee. Tunheim instructed jurors this week that they had to determine whether the university “failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action to end the harassment” once Jenkins reported her concerns.
Jenkins filed the lawsuit in 2013 after she resigned from the university and was diagnosed with PTSD, depression and anxiety, according to her trial brief. Jenkins now works as a water quality standards scientist at the Department of Environmental Quality in Idaho and is looking into other Ph.D. programs.