Education

Ex-UM grad student accuses biz school tenured professor of sexual harassment in lawsuit

The history of sexual harassment in America: five things to know

Just like many movements for equal rights in America, the path for women to seek recourse from sexual harassment has been through the courts. But grassroots activism in the 1970s opened the space for a nationwide conversation, and the Civil Right
Up Next
Just like many movements for equal rights in America, the path for women to seek recourse from sexual harassment has been through the courts. But grassroots activism in the 1970s opened the space for a nationwide conversation, and the Civil Right

Ana Kono was living a full life in Los Angeles as an entertainment marketing executive with a young family, but she yearned to realize an even bigger dream: to be a college professor.

She moved with her daughter across country to pursue a Ph.D. in marketing from the University of Miami, while her husband stayed on the West Coast.

But in a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Kono accuses her doctoral adviser, UM marketing professor Juliano Laran, of repeatedly sexually harassing her and threatening that “he would make sure [her] career would be over before it even began” if she switched to another Ph.D. adviser. The suit says Laran frequently made her uncomfortable by telling sexually fraught stories in front of her and other graduate students and often referring to her as a “boring mom.”

Kono, who attended UM’s graduate marketing program from 2014 to 2017, says she was eventually forced to leave the university because Laran blocked her goal to complete a dissertation while the university protected the well-regarded professor instead of her.

Kono’s suit, filed as a Title IX action in Miami federal court, accuses Laran of discriminating against her based on her sex and age, but also claims the university, its business school and UM board of trustees failed to provide a safe educational environment in violation of her constitutional rights. The suit claims Laran, who attained tenure at UM in 2015 and is the marketing doctoral program coordinator, has harassed other female graduate students but never been punished — even through UM faculty knew about the alleged misbehavior.

Kono, 45, is seeking unspecified damages for “severe mental and emotional distress and humiliation.”

After conducting an internal investigation, UM declined to comment about the merits of Kono’s allegations against Laran, who received his Ph.D. in marketing from the University of Florida a decade ago. Instead, UM’s attorney, Eric Isicoff, said Kono, who received her bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and earned an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, was unable to complete her doctoral degree in marketing at UM.

“She was dismissed because of her academic performance,” Isicoff told the Miami Herald. “The university stands behind that decision.” Laran’s lawyer, Christopher Brown, said in a statement that Kono’s allegations are “untrue.”

“Ms. Kono left the marketing Ph.D. program at the University of Miami because, unfortunately, she proved to be a poor academic,” Brown said. “She was unable to satisfy the requirements for successful completion of a Ph.D. program, including coming up with good research ideas and forming a dissertation committee.”

“And this is not just Dr. Laran’s opinion,” he said. “Ms. Kono attempted to work with several marketing professors, including one from outside the university, and all of them concurred on her deficiencies as a student.”

Kono was kicked out of UM’s doctoral marketing program in the summer of 2017. She moved back to Los Angeles, rejoined her husband and continued to raise their 11-year-old daughter. Kono’s painful experience at UM under Laran’s guidance left her devastated and in need of psychological counseling, according to the suit.

Her attorney, Donald Hayden, said UM put the school’s reputation above all else.

“The University of Miami, as they like to say, is ‘all about the U,’ and building their reputation and building the reputation of their marketing department through a professor who was quite prolific,” Hayden said in an interview. “Unfortunately, they emphasized this over ensuring a safe and thriving educational environment for their students.”

Kono said UM breeds a culture of sweeping sexual harassment complaints under the rug. She is one of several students who have complained about Laran’s behavior, but he is never held accountable, according to the complaint.

“As women, if we don’t do this, it’s not going to get fixed,” Kono said about her motivation to sue Laran and UM. “It’s not going to get addressed.”

Kono got the inspiration to be a college professor while she was working as a teaching assistant at Wharton while pursuing her MBA. Her plan was to work in the marketing industry for a few years and return to academia. She ended up working for more than a decade with Disney, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox and an independent film company.

In 2014, she began scouting out different Ph.D. marketing programs and consulted a former mentor at Wharton, who recommended UM as long she could work with Laran because of his research in consumer behavior, the suit says. Laran has received generally positive reviews on the student-review website, RateMyProfessors.com

Kono accepted the university’s offer to enter its relatively new marketing program and began her studies in the fall. She also enrolled her daughter in a local elementary school.

During the first year, Kono first sensed something wasn’t quite right when Laran proposed a research project “measuring a person’s attractiveness and determining how willing someone was to go out on a date with them,” the suit says. Kono said she and other Ph.D. candidates in the marketing program were skeptical. The project lasted only six months, she said.

In the spring semester of 2015, Laran organized a social outing during a two-day networking event featuring distinguished marketing professors from other universities. At dinner, the suit says, Laran approached the doctoral students “visibly intoxicated,” and proceeded to tell a story about his time as a UF graduate student.

“He recounted in graphic detail a night when he found himself at a stranger’s home and witnessed a couple, after getting high from cocaine, having sexual intercourse in front of him with the intention that he watch,” according to the suit. Kono, the only female among the group of students, said she felt “extremely uncomfortable,” while “the other students were hanging on to every word Dr. Laran was saying.”

She experienced even greater discomfort when the marketing professor asked her “to share her wild stories,” as he commented that she must have some because of her age and her Brazilian heritage, the suit says.

During a cab ride with Kono and other students, Laran insinuated that high-achieving female Ph.D. candidates attained success “by socializing with faculty at bars” and earning job security “by sleeping with influential faculty,” according to the complaint.

Over time, Kono said she tried to communicate with Laran mostly by email to avoid any more uncomfortable situations. But, academically, she grew frustrated with the professor because he rejected so many of her ideas. She eventually informed him by email that she wanted to drop him as a Ph.D. adviser and work with another professor.

According to the suit, Laran lashed out at her and threatened her academic career.

Kono said she was forced to endure two more years at UM under Laran as she tried to salvage her dream to earn a marketing Ph.D. But to reach that goal, she had to complete her dissertation. She submitted a proposal and tried to arrange a dissertation panel of three professors without Laran as the chair. In retaliation, Kono said, the marketing professor blocked her effort entirely.

The same faculty members told her that, while they were aware of Laran’s behavior toward her and other female students, their hands were tied because of his power, the suit says.

Kono was then dismissed from UM’s Ph.D. marketing program because she could not meet the third-year dissertation requirement. UM began a Title IX investigation into the sexual harassment claims against Laran after Kono’s dismissal and other complaints from students. Kono said she recalled an investigator telling her, “You’re not the only one.”

“I honestly believe he gets a thrill out of minimizing other people, especially women because he believes that women are inferior to men,” Kono told the Herald.

In a statement, Laran’s attorney said his client meant no harm to Kono.

“Contrary to what Ms. Kono has alleged, Dr. Laran bears no ill-will of any kind toward Ms. Kono and certainly never intended to cause her ‘emotional distress’ as she claims,” the statement says. “Indeed, he attempted to help her find a job when she left the program. It is unfortunate that now — almost two years after leaving the University — she has decided to file this lawsuit.”

Powerful men continue to be accused of sexual harassment and assaults, and have been responding by accepting, hedging or dodging the allegations.

  Comments