A letter to the community from Claude Steele

A lawsuit filed against UC Berkeley on March 8, 2016, alleged that the sanctions imposed on the UC Berkeley School of Law dean for violating the university’s sexual harassment policy were only a “slap on the wrist” that protected the dean’s career while ignoring career consequences for the survivor. As the university’s executive vice chancellor and provost at the time, I was the university officer to whom this dean formally reported, and, in this capacity, I, and my office, developed the dean’s sanctions in this case.

The media put this suit in the context of several other high profile sexual harassment cases at UC Berkeley that were also seen as involving light sanctions for higher status violators (faculty and administrators). I was directly involved in only the law school case and thus can speak only to it — my focus in these remarks. If we are to improve this area of university life, it is important to examine our experiences with these challenges — how we feel about them, how we judge ourselves and what we have learned from them. This is the spirit in which I write.

When a Title IX investigation determined that the dean violated the university’s sexual harassment policy, (his violations happened in the workplace in relation to his female executive assistant, the survivor in this case) my staff and I reviewed the case thoroughly. We then carefully developed and imposed on the dean — following standard procedures, precedents and advice from legal counsel — a set of sanctions in a strongly worded letter: a 10 percent pay reduction, mandatory counseling at his own expense, monitoring in the workplace under the threat of losing his deanship and a written apology to the victim. But looking back now — with reflection and being much affected by others’ reactions to these sanctions — I understand why, in the view of many, they fell short.

Women and men have an equal right to fair and just treatment in the workplace and in school. It is a civil right. Sexual harassment violates that right. Remedies, then, as much as possible, are meant to restore fair and just treatment to the survivor of harassment — minimizing the costs for having made a complaint, sanctioning the violator in ways that deliver justice for his or her transgressions, protecting the complainant against retaliation and supporting a safe work environment.

In the law school case, after having learned of the complainant’s understandable desire to leave the workplace for self care once she had filed a complaint, the university helped her with continued full pay, career counseling and multiple information sessions and interviews for comparable jobs on campus. But the dean, while sanctioned in line with standing precedent, was not removed from his deanship either permanently or temporarily — sanctions that were available in this decision. By this time — the point at which the dean was sanctioned — the complainant had been absent from the law school for four months and may or may not have wanted to return. But the dean’s continued presence there had to have made returning — and reengaging the old power dynamic — less desirable, perhaps impossible.

This resolution, then, wound up protecting the dean’s career without equally protecting the complainant’s career. The sanctions imposed on the dean may have been adequately calibrated to my office’s judgment of the severity of his behavior. But the principle of women and men being treated with equal fairness in the workplace — inherent in Title IX law — would require that the complainant be able to resume her job and career with no cost for having made the complaint. Docking the dean’s pay wouldn’t help that. Helping her resume her career could only have been done by removing the dean from his deanship for a long enough time to give the complainant a chance to resume work in a less threatening environment. For my role in not doing this, and for the turmoil it caused the complainant and contributed to on campus, I am most regretful.

From my experience with this case, several possible lessons are worth noting.

First is the bureaucratic, institutional distance that can grow between the decision makers and the people involved. By the time this case got to me, four months had passed since the initial complaint was filed, an investigation had happened, a strategy for support for the complainant had been developed, information had been abstracted and abstracted again and procedures, precedent and regulations had been invoked. This is, of course, endemic to legal processing — and sometimes to the good of avoiding emotion and bias. But in the midst of such processing, the actual experience of the people involved can get dim. I believe the process could benefit from opportunities to speak with both the complainant and the respondent, or at least see something like a victim impact statement at the point of developing remedies.

Second, we lacked an institutionally representative panel with which sanctions could be developed — with staff membership as well as faculty membership. The key is to get multiple perspectives on how fair and effective a proposed set of sanctions is understood to be. In this regard, I endorse the emerging practice in the UC system of using a “peer panel” to participate in sanction setting. The systemwide peer panel is to be used only for cases in which the violators are top administrators (the Senior Management Group). UC Berkeley is developing a similar panel whose jurisdiction would include administrators in all other leadership positions (e.g., department chairs, institute directors, etc.).

Third, it is important to keep in mind that fair and just treatment of men and women in the workplace or classroom is not the same thing as carefully following regulations and procedures. Fair and just treatment is a higher standard, and in adjudications — as in the larger campus culture — this higher standard has to be the goal. And here is where we have to do better — something that our campus, in recent statements, in recent actions and in recent investments has made an unconditional commitment to doing.

My larger message though is that sexual harassment and violence remain major problems in our society and institutions of higher education — and that even one incidence of these behaviors is one too many. “Zero incidence” has to be the standard to which we hold ourselves, and this goal will require more than just greater attention to sanctions. It will require attention to our entire campus culture around these issues, including related phenomena such as bullying, and other forms of subordination. And it will require reinforcing, developing and investing in our ecology of programs and supports that address these issues — prevention efforts, the quality and timeliness of investigations, support for survivors going through the experience and so on. Going forward, these efforts are likely to be the most important things we can do to achieve the gender-fair campus culture we aspire to.

Yet, too many people have seen sexual harassment swept under the rug on their campuses with sanctions that don’t seem to meet a standard of justice or that don’t meet the needs of survivors. This is why the level and nature of sanctions matters. My own research shows how even small features of a school — when they signal that one might be devalued there based on an identity such as one’s race, gender or religion — can affect students’ learning and capacities in the school. A sanction for sexual harassment is such a feature (a far greater thing than many of the things our research has shown to have big effects). They signal how much a school values an entire group of people — women and men who experience this mistreatment. They communicate to the affected group whether or not they are valued, whether their careers are valued and whether they are equal members of the community deserving of equal treatment.

Thus, beyond the people involved in a particular case, the incidence of sexual harassment and the sanctions given can affect many women in a school setting and in profound ways — their learning and ability to thrive in the setting. As someone who has thought much about these issues, I thought it was important to step forward in relation to my own understandings. Justice and fairness are higher standards than following procedures. And it is justice and fairness that we must keep more in view.

Claude Steele is the former executive vice chancellor and provost at UC Berkeley.