A Harsh Silence

BRASS TACKS

FIVE YEARS AGO, while Carol Trowbridge was working in her first-floor apartment early in the morning a man gained entrance to her building. Another man rang the buzzer to her apartment from the front lobby, but because there was no working intercom, Trowbridge opened the door to see who was calling.

When she stepped outside, the first intruder grabbed her. Next, he let his companion in the front door, and then they forced Trowbridge back into the apartment. There the two men sexually assaulted her and stole her belongings.

Trowbridge's apartment building was 122 Mt. Auburn St.--the Craigie Arms; her landlord was Harvard; and she could have been any one of a thousand tenants who live in University-owned properties.

After one of her two assailants was convicted on criminal charges (the other man charged in the case jumped bail) Trowbridge filed a $1.2 million suit against Harvard, claiming that 'woefully inadequate" security allowed the attackers to enter the apartment building and assault her. A walk around the building showed that the 60-unit building lacked locks on the outside doors and a standard intercom system.

The Trowbridge assault and its aftermath mobilized Harvard's tenants in the Craigie Arms, who began to suspect that the University had little intention to rent them their apartments over the long term. The building's residents discovered several apartments stripped of appliances and fixtures. Even toilets were missing. Heaps of garbage accumulated in certain units which the University purposefully kept vacant in a city with fewer than three percent of its rental apartments vacant.

If Trowbridge's suit had gone to a jury, observers say there is little doubt that the courts would have sided with her, finding Harvard at fault. Unfortunately--for Harvard tenants, certainly, but ultimately for the University as well--the Carol Trowbridge story will never be told because both parties agreed to confidentiality as part of a recent out of court settlement.

What happened to Carol Trowbridge reveals so much about why Harvard as a landlord needs an all too cozy relationship with the University's legal counsel. To keep Trowbridge silent and her story under wraps, Harvard lawyers drafted a contractual agreement whereby the plaintiff and the defendant could never ever say another word about the events at 122 Mt. Auburn.

Carol Trowbridge, in her only statement on the case, said she couldn't even tell the outcome of the suit to her own mother.

TODAY, ONE question haunts most people familiar with the case: who was actually protected by the gag rule?

John Shattuck, a former ACLU lawyer and the University's vice president for government and community affairs, said that confidentiality rules for rape and assault cases are not unusual. Although saying he was not familiar with the details of this case in particular, Shattuck said such agreements are used to protect the rights of victims involved.

But the University's unofficial argument--top administrators declined comment on the whole case--falls flat given the fact that Carol Trowbridge has already endured a public trial which brought all the names and circumstances out in the open.

Obviously, Carol Trowbridge--with one case already splashed across newspaper headlines--had no stake in agreeing to stay quiet. She had suffered through the emotionally draining trauma of the assault and a criminal trial, but when she was faced with the prospect of a prolonged legal battle with the Goliath of the Square's landlords, she threw in the towel.

Harvard, by contrast, has at least one clear motive for gagging all parties to the Trowbridge case. By paying Trowbridge an unknown sum, Harvard bought itself protection against a group of potentially troublesome tenants at the Craigie Arms.

Actually, Harvard has had a fair amount of practice at silencing unruly tenants. Tenant activists can document at least three cases since 1979 in which Harvard's legal counsels have negotiated to silence angry tenants with money or binding confidentiality agreements. The group of tenants at the Craigie Arms, for example, settled their dispute with Harvard, but signed a perfectly legal agreement which prevented them from speaking at public fora against their landlord, according to one community activist.

If there wasn't some truth to allegations of poor maintenance and lax security precautions, then surely the University wouldn't work to cover them up.

Harvard never even conducted an in-house investigation of what a Cambridge rent control hearing examiner in 1982 called these "terror tactics of eviction." Not one formal admission of negligence from any official at Harvard Real Estate (HRE), Inc., the University's semi-autonomous property management firm, came out of the Trowbridge or Craigie affairs.

Ask HRE President Sally H. Zeckhauser, who recently explained what happened at the Craigie Arms with surprising candor. After the University finally sold the controversial apartment building to a developer for a mere $550,000 in September, Zeckhauser suggested that Harvard neglected its responsibility as a landlord because the University did not know what to do with the pivotal site occupied by the Craigie Arms, located right next to the Charles Square complex and other luxury development in the area.

Apparently, HRE failed to maintain the flats that Trowbridge and her neighbors occupied out of concern that aging, low-to middle-income apartments might devalue University Place, a $25 million Harvard development, and scare away potential customers.

FOR CAROL TROWBRIDGE, who has since married and changed her name, the Craigie experience must still hang over her like a silent specter. There may not be any more court proceedings or painful testimony. But the psychological impact of bearing this memory and not being able to speak about her sexual assault to anyone must be devastating.

For the University community, however, Harvard's policy of settling civil negligence lawsuits out of court must be examined. Ultimately Harvard damages itself by behaving this way. Harvard is trapped in a holding action, waiting for another tenant to sue, instead of ensuring that the University's tenants get the same protection and services that its students take as a matter of course.

As one observer noted three years ago, Harvard's real estate policy "resembles that of any successful conglomerate. Grab the bucks while you can, and don't lose sleep over anything--or anyone--that gets in the way."

As long as Harvard believes it cheaper to pay people off--and gag them--instead of behaving as a responsible landlord, Harvard's tenants will run the risk of becoming, indirectly at least, Harvard's victims.