Power in play: How UC employment ranking ties into sex misconduct discipline

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Valerie Tan/Staff

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Content warning: sexual violence

UC Santa Cruz alumna Luz Portillo first heard about the release of 113 UC sexual misconduct documents on her Facebook feed. One of the cases was her own.

As she was scrolling, Portillo saw in a news clip the face of the man who was found by a UC Santa Cruz Title IX investigation to have raped her. According to Portillo, the university had previously notified her about several California Public Records Act requests for UC Title IX investigation records and told her the earliest date the documents could be released but did not disclose the exact release date.

“I felt like (the university) did exactly the same thing they did when I was reporting it — they bypassed any moral responsibility they had,” Portillo said. “I just felt violated again.”

Portillo was raped by her professor Hector Perla in June 2015, according to Title IX investigation reports released Tuesday by the university. Portillo alleged that her case was handled improperly and that another employee had also sexually assaulted her. The employee’s role in the investigation was redacted completely in documents from the UC Santa Cruz Title IX office.

“If it’s faculty-on-student or employee-on-student, the university … will protect its employee rights and its reputation,” Portillo alleged. “It’s a systemic problem.”

From January 2013 to April 2016, the UC Santa Cruz Title IX office found a total of five employees to be in violation of sexual misconduct policy, among them Perla. Of the respondents across the entire UC system, at least 26 were confirmed to be faculty members, lecturers or administrators. In approximately 19 of these cases, the victims were students.

The data obtained from the 124 cases reveal the power dynamics at play within the UC system. A significant number of cases showed that perpetrators held positions of power relative to their victims.

“It is important to recognize how much sexual violence is a problem of power, and thus continues to be worse for those who are the most vulnerable in terms of race, class, ability, citizenship and sexuality as well as gender,” said Leslie Salzinger, a UC Berkeley associate professor of gender and women’s studies, in an email.

Differences in discipline

Everette Henderson, a former housekeeping assistant at the UCLA Santa Monica Hospital, was found to have violated UC sexual harassment and sexual violence policy, according to an October 2015 Title IX investigation. A female complainant — whose name was redacted in the released report sent an email to several administrators at the UCLA Santa Monica Hospital on Sept. 4, 2015, alleging that Henderson had demonstrated inappropriate behavior in the workplace.

According to the Title IX investigation, Henderson would approach the victim of sexual misconduct with questions such as: “So you have a boyfriend?” On Sept. 3, 2015, he allegedly asked her if he could have a hug and put his arm around her, making her feel uncomfortable. Henderson denied all allegations against him.

Staff in higher positions of power exhibited behaviors more questionable than his own at the hospital, alleged Henderson, who added that he saw doctors “grab female (nurses) on their butts … where they thought no one was paying attention.” Henderson alleged that, as a Black and gay man, he was targeted because of his race, job position and sexual orientation. He further alleged that doctors at the hospital were less likely to be reprimanded for sexually harassing nurses.

“At least two times a week, I would say, one or two doctors would say things that — if me or any minority housekeeping or transportation guy said the same thing, (we) would’ve been written up,” Henderson alleged in an interview with The Daily Californian. “But with the doctors, nobody’s gonna report that. They just laugh and talk shit later in the break room.”

In March 2016, Tyann Sorrell, who at the time served as executive assistant to former UC Berkeley School of Law dean Sujit Choudhry, filed a lawsuit against her boss, alleging that he had repeatedly given her unsolicited bear hugs and kisses from July 2014 to March 2015. Sorrell alleged that the UC Board of Regents was aware of the consequences of Choudhry’s employment but failed to take adequate action.

“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,” Sorrell said in an op-ed published September 2016 in the Daily Cal. “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.”

Sixty-three percent of female law students report having been harassed by their professors, according to a May 2016 study by the Yale Law Journal. Sorrell’s attorney, Leslie Levy, said the statistic suggests that the cases within the UC system are being dramatically underreported. Within the Title IX documents released Tuesday, at least 105 of the respondents universitywide were male, while at least 17 were female. Of the complainants, at least 97 were female and at least 37 were male.

Many women fear retaliation from reporting and feel that retaliation could be considered as harmful as the harassment itself, Levy said.

Levy added that she believed the UC system has not created an environment in which students and staff feel safe to report harassment. Soon after Sorrell filed the lawsuit against Choudhry, UC President Janet Napolitano sent a letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, urging him to ban Choudhry from campus for the remainder of the semester. Six months later, however, Choudhry returned to campus to work in his office.

“There are some people who will only change with consequences,” Levy said. “If you don’t have consequences, this epidemic is never going to change.”

The complexity of tenure

Of the at least 18 professors found in Title IX investigations to have violated sexual misconduct policy in the three-year span, Robert Latham, a former tenured English professor at UC Riverside, was the only nonvisiting faculty member to be fired. Several others resigned.

The UC Board of Regents has the sole power to terminate tenured professors’ employment after review by a campus faculty committee, the campus chancellor and the UC president. In general, the termination of a tenured professor’s employment is highly unusual in the UC system, with only a handful of firings in the past 30 years.

Latham was dismissed from his position about nine months after a Title IX investigation found that he had lifted a graduate student’s shirt, touched her body and kissed her stomach while she was intoxicated at a party.

He denies the allegations against him and has filed a lawsuit against the UC regents. Latham, who identifies as gay, is alleging that pressure from UC Riverside’s Graduate Student Union, as well as his sexual orientation, contributed to the outcome of his investigation.

But he suspects his own case is “highly anomalous” within the broader scope of Title IX investigations, noting his observation that faculty members are typically not disciplined as harshly as staff.

“You are better off, as an accused faculty member, if there are not interest groups who have decided in advance that you need to be fired before an investigation has even begun,” Latham said in an email. “(But) when that happens, and when these groups communicate their threats to the administration, you are in serious trouble.”

Even for professors who are not yet tenured, the adjudication process can be lengthy.

Before Perla’s Title IX investigation, he was an assistant professor of Latin American and Latino studies at UC Santa Cruz and was on track to become a tenured professor, according to Portillo. The Title IX investigation into allegations against Perla opened June 6, 2015, and closed about eight months later — the longest investigation length of any UC Santa Cruz case from roughly 2013-16.

Once the investigation found Perla’s sexual relations with Portillo to be nonconsensual, UC Santa Cruz issued Perla an employment-termination notice. Perla eventually resigned in June 2016, a year after the investigation was opened.

UC Berkeley sophomore Anvi Bahl, co-chair of the ASUC Sexual Violence Commission, also said she had observed that tenured professors, especially those who are renowned, have been much more likely to be “let off” than their colleagues.

“The more power and privilege that professors hold in universities … the more it seems the university seems keen or adamant to protect them,” Bahl said. “It just seems like they have a lot of influence. … I think that that is just an injustice to … any survivor.”

Perla allegedly boasted to her the day of her rape that he could never be fired because of his tenure, according to Portillo.

“To have so much job security gives them room to do whatever they want. And these professors know it,” Portillo said. “The ones who end up getting the short end of the stick are the victims.”

Staff writers Jessica Lynn, Cassy Vogel, Christine Lee and Audrey McNamara also contributed to this report.

Contact Chantelle Lee, Pressly Pratt and Harini Shyamsundar at [email protected].

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  • Debbie Velmere

    Prosecute them. Sexual abuse is often a control need issue not a sexual need issue.

  • ShadrachSmith

    Now that the grant rainmakers under Obama are drying up…prosecute them.

  • Anonymous

    Let’s face it – these professors literally keep the lights on. Overhead charged to grants provides a huge income for the UC. How much money does a custodian bring in? Would you kill the goose that lays the golden egg?