Mutual respect must inform any solution

The recent spate of cases of sexual harassment and assault at UC Berkeley and the public controversy generated by our handling of these cases rightly compel us to take a hard look at ourselves as a community. For this reason, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks asked me to serve as “Interim Campus Lead” in a campuswide effort to improve and strengthen our ability to prevent these forms of abuse, to provide the right care to those who suffer from them, to quickly and effectively adjudicate complaints and to hold those who engage in these destructive behaviors accountable.

I am honored by this responsibility, but it will need to be the shared responsibility of all of us if we are to succeed. The majority of survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault on this campus, and in our society more generally, are women and minorities (both ethno-racial and sexual), but these destructive behaviors are injurious to all of us  — including to those who perpetrate them. The presence of this scourge in our community and our failures in confronting it openly diminish all of us, no matter what our role on campus. There are no ethical safe-zones with respect to this issue, even for those who take their physical safety and their social privileges for granted.

As the chancellor announced, we will be taking a series of immediate actions to redress resource deficits in the programs that provide care and support to survivors, and for those who do the difficult work of investigating and adjudicating complaints. We will also be sponsoring events to raise awareness and understanding. We are forming a group of committees — of faculty and staff, of graduate students and undergraduate students, and of eminent external advisers including the past presidents of Brown University and the University of Michigan, as well as the current dean of the Yale School of Law. I will co-chair these committees with one of our former provosts, Carol Christ, and I am grateful for her partnership. We will be reporting out early in the fall semester.

But most importantly, we all need to take a deeper look at ourselves, because the issues facing us are not just issues of best practices, better resourcing and improved training, procedures, and sanctions.

Incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault are not unique to the UC Berkeley campus or to college and university campuses. But there is something deeper about the difficulty in dealing with this problem at UC Berkeley than might be found elsewhere, and it is high time we faced up to this.

We have a very easy time talking about freedom on this campus. It is a personal and public value — it might even be the only one — that is shared across our entire political and social spectrum. It is our moral bedrock and we are rightly proud of our reputation for the freedom of speech enjoyed by our students and the academic freedom cherished by our faculty. Freedom and UC Berkeley are almost synonyms.

But if we are to change the culture that too often tolerates or simply turns a blind eye away from abusive and disrespectful behavior, we need to find a way to draw a bright line between freedom and impunity.

Let’s be honest. Freedom is great, but we have a very hard time talking about any other public values at UC Berkeley — like respect. But if we are going to succeed in producing a campus environment in which every one of our members can enjoy the personal safety and social dignity that are preconditions for freedom, we are going to have to learn how to embrace the virtue of respect for those who are different and of those with whom we disagree.

Without respect, the Free Speech Movement becomes the Filthy Speech Movement. Free love becomes harassment and even assault. UC Berkeley needs to find a way to stand up more firmly and more forcefully for the virtue of putting limits on our own behavior so that the opportunities that freedom affords are a privilege of every member of our community, and not just those of the most privileged members of our community.

I grew up here, and as a Berkeley High School student in the early 1970s, I used to spend evenings studying at a cafe on Hearst Street, right below Euclid: the Cafe Espresso (fondly called “the Depresso” by its denizens). One evening, a slightly deranged middle-aged man came into the cafe and meandered from table to table, disrupting conversations, chess games and people buried in their books and pocket calculators. The cafe owner, taking in the scene, finally came out from behind the counter and said to the gentleman: “This is Berkeley. It is perfectly OK to be crazy. But it is not OK to be anti-social. I am afraid I am going to have to ask you to leave.”

Freedom: “yes”; lack of respect for others: “no.”
There is much we can, and will do in the coming months to improve our processes and procedures for handling individual cases of sexual harassment and assault, but the real change will happen when each of us takes personal ownership of our campus honor code: “As a member of the Berkeley community, I act with honesty, integrity and respect for others.” It is time to recover our moral equilibrium.

Carla Hesse is the interim lead on UC Berkeley’s response to sexual harassment and assault claims.

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