UC officials defend Claude Steele’s appointment to law school faculty amid controversy

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Michael Drummond/File

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On Friday, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and UC President Janet Napolitano defended the executive vice chancellor and provost’s appointment to the UC Berkeley School of Law faculty, in light of questions regarding a possible conflict of interest.

In May, Claude Steele received a nomination to the Berkeley Law faculty from former dean Sujit Choudhry, while a sexual harassment investigation of Choudhry was underway.

“I would like to address the speculation that Executive Vice Chancellor & Provost Claude Steele gave Law Dean Sujit Choudhry lighter sanctions in his sexual harassment case in return for a faculty appointment in the Law School,” said Dirks in a statement Friday. “This is absolutely untrue.”

Steele was nominated via email at the request of Choudhry on May 29, about two months before an Office for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment investigation concluded that Choudhry had violated the university’s sexual harassment policies.

In a Tuesday statement, Steele recused himself from the search for an interim Berkeley Law dean and declined his appointment to the law school.

Steele was responsible for determining Choudhry’s punishment, which consisted of a one-year 10 percent salary reduction, counseling and a written apology to the victim, his executive assistant Tyann Sorrell. Sorrell is now suing Choudhry and the UC Board of Regents.

Sorrell’s lawsuit alleges that Steele told her that while he had considered terminating Choudhry, he decided not to because “it would ruin the Dean’s career.”

On May 12, Choudhry gave a statement to OPHD investigators admitting to hugging her and kissing her on multiple occasions. Less than three weeks later, Choudhry nominated Steele to the law faculty via email.

Fifteen days after the nomination, the Berkeley Law faculty finished the voting process via email, unanimously granting Steele a faculty position.

When OPHD concluded its investigation July 7, it forwarded the investigation report to Steele for further review under the faculty code of conduct. Soon after, Steele sanctioned Choudhry.

“Once (Steele) had asked for those (faculty) benefits through Choudhry, it became a conflict for him to have any involvement,” said Berkeley Law lecturer Barbara Bryant.

Choudhry denies any connection between the OPHD investigation and Steele’s appointment to the law school, said Choudhry’s lawyer Naomi Rustomjee in an email.

According to the UC sexual violence and sexual harassment policy, the university will protect the privacy of individuals involved in a report of prohibited conduct.

“But I would also add that the university cannot generally control what information individuals, including witnesses, might choose to disclose,” said campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore in an email.

Rustomjee also said that the idea of appointing Steele to the law faculty was raised initially in summer 2014. The idea to appoint Steele was Dirks’ idea, according to a Friday statement from Dirks.

“Steele’s interdisciplinary work in social psychology is being increasingly used in legal theory and practice, which is why I suggested that he have an appointment in the Law School,” the statement said.

While he regretted Steele’s resignation from the Berkeley Law faculty, Dirks said in the statement that he felt it was a “necessary step towards ensuring the stability of the school in the wake of the Choudhry investigation.”

Steele’s appointment was a 0 percent appointment, meaning that he would teach no classes and receive no pay.

In a Thursday statement, the associate deans of Berkeley Law said that Steele’s resignation was in the best interest of the law school. They defended appointing Steele, however, citing that many faculty members hold appointments in multiple departments. Steele currently holds appointments in the campus’s psychology department and the Graduate School of Education.

According to the statement, Berkeley Law faculty did not know that OPHD was investigating Choudhry at the time of the appointment.

A psychologist by education, Steele has never held a position at a school of law. He has held positions at multiple universities as a psychology professor before assuming the position of UC Berkeley’s provost in 2014.

“Steele is an eminent scholar and the relevance of his path-breaking interdisciplinary work … to legal issues made him a valuable addition to the law school faculty,” said UC President Janet Napolitano in a Friday statement.

A law degree is not a prerequisite for a faculty appointment in the law school, said Berkeley Law spokesperson Susan Gluss.

“We have social scientists on staff, economists on staff. …We believe in a multidisciplinary approach to education,” Gluss said. “It’s more common to have a law degree, but there are a number of faculty who do not.”

On Tuesday, before Steele’s recusal and Berkeley Law faculty resignation, the Boalt Hall Student Association released a survey from nearly 400 Berkeley Law students, 30 percent of whom thought Steele should resign as executive vice chancellor and provost and as a Berkeley Law faculty member.

Napolitano said in her statement that to ensure that there is no perception of conflict in future cases, she has created a new systemwide peer review committee. The committee will review and make final decisions on the sanctions of any cases where there are substantiated violations of UC sexual violence and harassment policy involving senior university leaders.

Austin Weinstein covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @aweinstein5.

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  • s randall

    Given what’s in the story, the recusal makes no sense. What’s the conflict of interest problem in the search for a *new* interim dean?

    One can only speculate that there is something going on with the candidates for the interim position and with Steele that could present a conflict of interest. Could it be that one or more of the candidates complained to Steele or someone else about Choudhry, or the way things were handled? There’s likely more to this story than is widely known. At least for now.