The prominent Boston University music professor accused of sexually harassing two of his students intended affection, not harm, when he touched and kissed the women, the university’s lawyer argued in court Wednesday.
The lawyer said Eric Ruske, an internationally recognized French horn player, did not mean to cause the women emotional distress, and that assault and battery accusations against him were unfounded.
“Ruske’s intent was intimacy, it was not to cause harm,” said Lawrence S. Elswit, an in-house attorney who is defending BU and Ruske in the civil lawsuit, which was filed in April.
Elswit said the university should not be held responsible for the alleged harassment because it had no concrete knowledge that Ruske had a reputation for inappropriate advances until the women reported his actions to school officials.
But a lawyer for the two women said Ruske’s actions amounted to sexual harassment, no matter what his intentions.
“It’s not about whether or not Ruske intended to harm the plaintiffs,” Sara Burns said. “It’s about whether or not he intended the act of touching, which he did.”
The arguments came at a federal court hearing in Boston on a motion filed by university attorneys to dismiss half of the 10 charges against Ruske.
The women, Erin Shyr and Maria Currie, accuse Ruske of harassing them in person and by e-mail and text messages, including asking for photos of them. Ruske allegedly harassed Currie in 2013, then Shyr the following year, at the university’s College of Fine Arts.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and attorney’s fees.
Margaret Paget, a Massachusetts attorney who specializes in employment law and also advises colleges on investigating reports of sexual assault, said the university’s assertion that his alleged harassment was not meant to be harmful was unusual.
“It’s a risky approach to try to minimize the conduct, given the greater social context we find ourselves in today, when there’s been so much focus on sexual misconduct at colleges and universities,” she said.
It is also unusual for an employer to represent an employee accused of sexual harassment, she said.
A university spokesman said BU is defending Ruske because the charges against him and the university are “interwoven.”
“The university stands by the manner in which it investigated and resolved the complaints against Prof. Ruske, and its representation of him is consistent with its obligations under university bylaws,” Colin Riley, the spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.
Ruske has played with top orchestras around the country and won international horn competitions. He has taught at BU since 1990, and was about 50 years old when he taught the two students, according to their lawsuit.
Ruske had a reputation for making “offensive, vulgar, and sexually charged statements to students,” which women found offensive, the lawsuit contended.
In one meeting with Currie, Ruske compared her trumpet performance to sex, saying that listening to her play made him feel as if they were having intercourse, the suit alleged.
When Currie told Ruske she would have a recital the following semester, he texted that “the last thing you need is some creepy old guy in the front row,” according to the complaint.
“You can always send pix,” he allegedly wrote.
Both women appeared in court Wednesday, as did Ruske. His lawyers declined to comment.
After the hearing, the women said their former professor made inappropriate advances on many occasions. He apologized each time but then would do it again anyway, they said.
“If you said sorry and did it again, the intent is to harm,” said Currie, who left BU to study music at the New England Conservatory.
The argument over Ruske’s intention when he allegedly touched the women and kissed one on the cheek came in response to their lawyers’ assertion that the contact should be considered assault and battery.
Burns said Ruske knew his actions were inappropriate, and that university employees were aware of his reputation but did not act.
US District Court Judge Denise Casper is expected to rule on the motion in the coming months.
The women also accuse BU of failing to protect them under the federal law known as Title IX, which governs how universities must respond to sexual assault claims. The US Department of Education has 275 open investigations at 214 colleges and universities, including BU, into the schools’ handling of sexual violence investigations.
BU has been under investigation since 2013.
“You would think and you would hope that since then BU has followed all of the policies and protections required under Title IX,” said Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston.