By Frank Kineavy
Academia giant University of California-Berkeley has a deep-seated sexual harassment problem embedded in its higher administration. Over the past five years, at least 19 UC-Berkeley employees have violated the university’s sexual harassment policy, resulting in resignation. A series of documents spanning from January 2011 to October 2015 recently released by the university shows terminations, resignations and text message transcripts regarding sexual harassment investigations.
In the past year alone, a vice chancellor, a prominent astronomer and a provost have all resigned from the university following public outrage over UC-Berkeley’s response to harassment claims, as outsiders accused the school of protecting its staff over aiding the potential victims. Among those victims is Tyann Sorrell, former assistant to the dean of School of Law at UC-Berkeley.
On July 7, 2015, Dean Sujit Choudhry was found guilty of violating the university’s sexual misconduct policy. His behavior included unwelcome hugging, kissing and touching directed at his assistant, Sorrell, who made the initial accusation in March 2015. A 41-year-old mother of five, Sorrell claims that Choudhry’s abuse “was a near daily occurrence.” Provost Claude Steele decided the dean’s initial sanctions: a 10 percent salary cut for one year, mandatory workplace behavior coaching and a letter of apology. Steele issued Sorrell paid administrative leave, which she is still on.
It wasn’t until March 8, 2016, when news broke out that Sorrell was suing her former boss and the UC Board of Regents, surprising not only faculty and students, but also president of the University of California system, Janet Napolitano, who found out about the pending legal case through the media. Choudhry resigned within 48 hours of the news that he was being sued for sexual harassment, assault and battery, among other allegations. Court papers describe the reaction to the dean’s actions: “Choudhry’s conduct made plaintiff feel disgusted, humiliated, exposed, and dirty.”
Choudhry resigned from his position at the law school but will continue to hold his title as a tenured law professor. “I took this step because the pending lawsuit, against the university and me, appears to have become a distraction for the law school, the university, and our community, an outcome I had hoped could be avoided,” he said in a statement. Choudhry’s lawyer defended the 45-year-old professor, stating although his actions “were found to have violated Berkeley’s misconduct policy, they do not constitute sexual harassment, let alone assault or battery.”
With a bad reputation for responses to sexual harassment claims, the University of California has taken many steps to eliminating this huge harassment problem. Heading the fight against these issues, Napolitano has constantly instilled new protocol in response to the escalating situation.
In a statement from the school, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Provost Claude Steele said that Choudhry’s resignation does not “bring this matter and broader, related issues to a close” and acknowledged that the school did not act quickly enough.
“It is clear, as we heard during our meeting with law school faculty this morning, that the initial decision not to remove the dean from his position is the subject of legitimate criticism,” the statement read. “We can and must do better as a campus administration. We must move in the direction of stronger sanctions, and in doing this we want and need the broad input of the campus community.”
In the spring of 2013, a former UC-Berkeley administrator accused Vice Chancellor Graham Fleming, a $400,000-a-year head of research, of repeated sexual harassment. A year after the accuser’s deposition, Napolitano hired an independent investigator to look into the allegations against Fleming.
Around the same time, 31 current and former students filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, claiming that the university violated Title IX, a legislation initially enacted by former President Richard Nixon in 1972, which prohibits gender discrimination. The students also cited the Clery Act, claiming the school hadn’t been accurately reporting incidents related to sexual misconduct. Napolitano answered the students’ claims with an expansion of policies against sexual and domestic violence, stalking and harassment.
Berkeley has appeared on a Department of Education list of 55 universities under Title IX investigation, which was answered by Napolitano with the formation of the Task Force on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence and Assault.
In response to the lawsuit against Choudhry, Napolitano called for further discipline in late March 2016, initializing additional investigation against him for possible violations of the faculty code of conduct. Trial dates are to be determined.