When I read Professor Sujit Choudhry’s letter in The Daily Californian, I groaned, and then belted out the biggest, loudest and longest scream. I screamed for myself and UC Berkeley. I screamed for everyone who has been sexually harassed, including those who are too scared to come forward to accept, name and report what they are experiencing. Choudhry’s letter made me scream because it demonstrates how sexual harassment, including its profound effects, continues to be misunderstood, misaddressed and openly denied.
Like many other victims of sexual harassment, I was in denial about what was being done to me. In the email I sent to (then) Dean Choudhry, I shied away from “naming” the harassment, but I explained that the way he touched me and he kissed me made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and was wrong.
The power differential between myself and the dean of one of the top-ranking law schools in the country made it even harder for me to speak out. Dean Choudhry had a reputable temper. I was very afraid of what might happen if I spoke up and specifically named what I felt he was doing to me.
My role at the law school was to support the dean administratively and sometimes personally, to help him be most effective with his duties and obligations as dean. I felt loyalty to the office of the dean, and I tried to help Dean Choudhry as best as I could, even in the midst of the pain I was experiencing due to his actions. When I could no longer stay silent, I wrote a long email to him describing examples of some the abuses that I experienced while working for him, including his inappropriate kissing, touching and caressing of me. I also explained that I felt violated by him and humiliated, and was very aware that he was my boss and I was in a vulnerable position as a woman and a subordinate employee. Even after I mustered up the courage to address how his conduct made me feel, I was too afraid to call it sexual harassment, and instead, in the same email, I tried to pass off his actions as being “friendly,” “warm,” “harmless” and of “pure intentions.” This language reflected the fear and shame I felt at the time and was my form of coping. I hoped and assumed that Dean Choudhry would read the email as a whole, rather than disregard my explicit statements of feeling violated and uncomfortable and choose only to announce my conciliatory language, as he did in his op-ed piece.
I find it inexcusable that a father, husband, law school professor, world renowned scholar and dean would be clueless about inappropriate behaviors and touching in the workplace, not to mention a renowned law school.
Many careers and personal lives in addition to my own have been adversely affected by Choudhry’s abuses of power. I deeply resent Choudhry’s responses to my claims, including his recent op-ed piece, which I find to be defensive and arrogant, displaying a profound misunderstanding of the impact of his actions on me, staff and students. I am angered and saddened that Choudhry deems it appropriate to be present on campus, despite his violations of law and policy, and the fact that his scholarly pursuits do not require him to be on campus. To date, I believe that he has not offered an apology to the campus community even for his admitted actions.
On a broader level, the persistence of sexual harassment and the blame cast on victims by both the perpetrators and institutions are inexcusable. If it is a genuine goal of the university to change the campus climate around sexual harassment, then campus officials must take a zero-tolerance position on the matter of sexual harassment and abuse. Privileged or scholarly status should not pardon nor minimize the consequences for engaging in sexual harassment. Finally, the university needs to provide effective protections and meaningful support to victims of sexual harassment.
I will continue to stand and speak my truth. I affirm and accept the human process of going through the phases of denial, shame, hurt, confusion, anger, healing and higher understanding as a result of this experience. These experiences are recognized in the University’s own policies as being common to those who have been sexually harassed. I also want to encourage other people who have experienced or are experiencing sexual harassment to know that you are not alone, and there are people who do understand and who care. Do not doubt yourself or minimize your experiences. Please be compassionate and gentle with yourself, and know that regardless of your status in life, you have every right to learn and work in a safe environment, free of harassment and abuse.
Tyann Sorrell is the former executive assistant to former dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law Sujit Choudhry