Last month, the dean of Lewis&Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling announced he would resign at the end of the 2007-2008 school year after five years in that position.
In an interview with WW , Peter Cookson said he wanted to commit more time to his family and writing projects. Among other things, Cookson is the president of the board of directors of the Portland Schools Foundation, a powerful nonprofit group with ties to the City of Portland and Portland Public Schools.
WW' s review of hundreds of pages of public documents suggests Cookson's resignation may not have been his decision.
An out-of-court settlement reached on April 19 stems from allegations by Cookson's former assistant, Vanessa Fawbush, that from February 2005 until Sept. 12, 2005, Cookson made sexual advances toward her, harassed her and created a hostile work environment. Fawbush alleges Cookson told her he wanted her to have his baby. Cookson says what transpired was "just a weird situation."
The out-of-court settlement (for an undisclosed sum) prohibits both Fawbush, 37, and Cookson, 64, from talking in detail. At the same time, Cookson did tell WW that the lawsuit "has nothing to do with" his announced resignation. Meanwhile, Fawbush's lawyer, Robert Callahan, is careful to adhere to the confidentiality of the settlement.
"In the perfect world, the facts would rebut Dr. Cookson's innuendos," Callahan says. "In the legal world, the constraints placed on Ms. Fawbush prevent her from commenting publicly."
Separate from the lawsuit (and prior to it), Lewis&Clark hired an investigator to look into the allegations, which Fawbush reported to the human resources department on Sept. 12, 2005.
Seven days later, on Sept. 19, the college's investigator wrote, "There is significant evidence of the dean's actions, comments and behaviors being intimidating to Ms. Fawbush and causing her personal concern and stress." On the same day, the college gave Cookson a disciplinary memo.
"Recognizing that there are substantiated findings of violation of the [college's harassment] policy, the college may wish to consider this a matter of such serious degree, that it would serve both the interests of the college and the individual if this individual resigned from his post," Anna Sestrich, the investigator, wrote.
Notably, Sestrich did not recommend firing Cookson. Thomas Hochstettler, president of Lewis&Clark, did not respond to two requests for comment. David Ellis, general counsel for the college, says Cookson is "leaving of his own free will."
Fawbush's lawyer says Fawbush considered Cookson a mentor. But her relationship with her boss was abused, he says. "The strong emotion that you express to me in words and in writing makes me uncomfortable because I don't know how to respond and you seem to be getting more angry with me more and more often," Fawbush wrote to Cookson in an office email on Sept. 9, 2005.
Following the complaint, Fawbush requested a job transfer and was reassigned to a new position at the college. In August 2006, she filed a new complaint against the college with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, alleging that her career had suffered as a result of the transfer, while there had been "no outward effect apparent on Dr. Cookson."
The bureau closed the complaint in February 2007, finding that Fawbush did not have a case against the college. Yet, "her allegations against Dr. Cookson were substantiated," Amy Klare, a bureau manager told WW .
Documents filed with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries include a number of handwritten letters from Cookson to Fawbush. They are alternately romantic and unsettling. He calls her "pooh-bear," tells her he loves her, gives her gifts and, on one occasion, encloses $200 in cash.
In one he writes:
Dear Vanessa, There is a place in my heart for you that will never leave. I hope we can find a way to be in rhythm with each other because the Gods have asked us to create together, to love together and to change the world together. Be well, my beloved. Peter In another he writes that Fawbush, who is white, cannot expect a "genuine" relationship with her black boyfriend. "For you or any of us to understand the psychology and hidden desires of a 27 year old black man is difficult perhaps impossible at the deepest level," Cookson writes. "I do know that most of [the] time the pursuit of white women is an expression of race and not a genuine romance."
Cookson will remain on the graduate school's faculty after he steps down from his post as dean in June 2008. As of Tuesday, Sept. 4, Cookson's name was still listed on the college's website as a "contact person" for reporting incidents of sexual harassment.