Editor’s note: This piece was originally submitted to, and published by, the Gunnison Country Times in January 2022.
Recent reporting by the Gunnison Country Times (GCT) highlighted the case against Dr. Duane Vandenbusche, a distinguished Western history professor of 60 years who has maintained a large community and statewide profile.
The March 2020 incident, which allegedly included sexist and derogatory comments towards a female Western employee, reportedly also involved Vandenbusche slapping the woman twice and forcing her to hug him.
As reported by the GCT, the woman involved in the incident alleges that Vandebusche has a history of making misogynist remarks towards her that spanned several years. Vandebusche pled guilty to the harassment charge on Dec. 15, receiving a plea deal which will keep him out of prison and drop the more severe assault charge (which carries a maximum of 18 months jail time).
His punishment includes a year-long probationary period, the coverage of court costs (less than $250), fewer than 50 hours of required community service, and the completion of a sexual harassment course. Should he complete these terms adequately, the harassment charge will be dismissed, and the court case sealed.
Legal matters aside, Vandenbusche’s resignation was finally called for by Interim President Nancy Chisholm after the court appearance and guilty plea, and officially announced in an all-campus email from President Chisholm on Dec. 17. The grievance report filed by the injured party was received by Western’s Human Resources Department in mid-January 2021, and a police report was later filed in mid-February.
Yet, Vandenbusche remained in the classroom during the spring of 2021 and through the recently completed fall semester (teaching a half-load), even after charges were filed in May 2021 and the 83-year-old Vandenbuche appeared in court in August 2021.
As mentioned in the GCT, Vandenbusche also acted as a critical component of the “Elevate Western” fundraising campaign and played a large role in the October Homecoming festivities.
The whole Vandenbusche saga raises a number of questions, beginning with why Vandenbusche was not suspended during the course of the legal proceedings. Was it his reputation and status within WCU and amongst the greater Gunnison Valley that sheltered him from more immediate consequences?
What message is the university sending to Western donors that a key person in the fundraising campaign was actively under legal investigation for harassment and assault, and yet was allowed to continue teaching on campus and serve as the face of a multimillion dollar donor campaign?
Let’s set aside the financial concerns to focus on the most important matter: safety. With the decision not to suspend Vandenbusche during the legal and investigation process, it is clear that the reputation of a long-tenured professor with deep-seated community ties and connections was prioritized over the immediate safety and well-being of students and other faculty and staff at Western. What are parents of young students, particularly women, to think of the Vandenbusche case should they stumble across it online?
In keeping Vandenbusche in the classroom, Western administrators failed in their duty to protect WCU’s community, and the university’s broader reputation, against someone credibly accused of assault, sexual harassment, and repeated instances of gender-based discrimination, including incidents in front of witnesses.
Students, parents, and other interested parties should not be initially hearing of such a serious incident from their local newspaper nearly a full calendar year after it was first reported, and more than 20 months after it initially occurred.
Western must do better moving forward to rapidly respond to allegations on this scale with swift and meaningful actions. This should include issuing suspensions amidst thorough internal investigations and sending clear communications outlining both process and consequences to students, faculty, staff, and the broader Western community.
Any student who felt their safety, mental health, or grades were impacted by any professor or staff member’s behavior due to discrimination on the basis of sex are entitled to file a Title IX complaint by contacting the Title IX office or accessing the reporting form online.