Renowned UC Berkeley philosophy professor emeritus accused of sex assault

Hannah Cooper/Staff

UC Berkeley alumna Joanna Ong filed a lawsuit against campus professor emeritus of philosophy John Searle and the UC Board of Regents on Tuesday, alleging that Searle sexually assaulted her and continued to harass her while she was employed under him.

Ong, 24, started working with Searle, 84, in July 2016 as a research assistant. According to the complaint, Searle allegedly sexually assaulted Ong on July 22, 2016, and continued to harass her afterward, creating a “hostile work environment.”

“My client had to suffer twice,” alleged John Kristensen, Ong’s attorney, in a press release. “First, when the assault and subsequent harassment took place. Then again when she reported the misconduct and the responses were, at best, indifference, and, at worst, enabling of the inappropriate sexual conduct that led to her original assault.”   

The complaint, first reported by BuzzFeed News, alleged that Searle offered Ong $3,000 a month for living expenses in addition to her $1,000-a-month salary. Searle is listed on the campus website as teaching Philosophy 132: Philosophy of the Mind this semester, but he abruptly stepped down from his position in March. He had been teaching at UC Berkeley for nearly 60 years.

Searle declined to comment on the allegations.

John Searle

John Searle

Ong also alleged that after she reported the sexual misconduct to UC Berkeley employees, the campus took no steps to look into her complaint. She alleged that, instead, the campus attempted to cover up Searle’s actions and that after making complaints to the campus, she received a 50 percent pay cut without cause.

“It’s pretty egregious behavior, and the fact that (UC Berkeley and the regents) still won’t clean up their mess is a problem,” Kristensen said. “They’ve been all talk and little or no action.”

Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore said in an email that campus officials had reviewed the lawsuit as of late Thursday afternoon. She added, however, that the campus was unable to comment on individual cases.

Ong first encountered Searle when she took his class as a campus undergraduate. Ong’s graduate student instructor, according to the complaint, was Jennifer Hudin, who is now the director of Searle’s Center for Social Ontology on campus.

After Ong began working with Searle as his research assistant, she reported that Searle had allegedly assaulted her to Hudin and other research assistants on separate occasions, according to the complaint. Hudin told Ong that she would protect her but also said Searle had engaged in sexual relationships with students in the past, the lawsuit alleged.

During Ong’s employment, Searle allegedly asked Ong to log into a “Sugar Baby, Sugar Daddy” website for him on occasion and openly watched pornography on his laptop in front of her with the sound on, according to the complaint.

The complaint also alleged that Searle would ask Ong to read and respond to his campus emails, which allegedly contained flirtatious rhetoric aimed at several young women, including international students from Europe.

Additionally, the complaint alleged that on one occasion, when Ong brought up the topic of American imperialism, Searle responded, “American Imperialism? Oh boy, that sounds great honey! Let’s go to bed and do that right now!”

In September 2016, Hudin told Ong that she would address issues such as Ong’s pay cut with upper management but allegedly admitted later that “out of her respect and loyalty” to Searle, she would not do so, the complaint stated.

Hudin could not be reached for comment as of press time.

Campus junior Agnes Artoonian said she took Searle’s Philosophy of the Mind class in 2014 — it was one of the first classes she took at UC Berkeley. Artoonian alleged that she experienced sexist rhetoric during Searle’s lectures and that she felt “physically repulsed” by his behavior.

She added that she felt so uncomfortable in the lecture that she tried to attend it as infrequently as possible. She spent a lot of time reading and studying on her own, she said, and voiced to peers that she felt the class was an unsafe environment.

“Even as someone that wasn’t closely related to him — I didn’t have a personal relationship with him — it really affected my grade and performance in class,” Artoonian said. “I genuinely feel like I would have done a lot better in his class if I wasn’t so uncomfortable by his presence.”

Carli Jipsen, a campus junior and philosophy major, was enrolled in Searle’s Philosophy of the Mind class in spring 2016. She said while she never felt unsafe in his class, she “definitely felt a little bit uncomfortable.” She alleged that Searle often made sexist and questionable comments in class and office hours.

“In my mind, I thought, ‘Oh well, he’s just older — he doesn’t get it. He’s just sexist,’ ” Jipsen alleged. “I haven’t had experiences with him making any sexual advances towards me, but I just got the strong sense that he was sexist.”

She alleged that once, during Searle’s office hours, he offered to take her on a trip to Prague after she told him that she had never been there. Jipsen also said Searle told her that he had bought a “really nice car” for Hudin because her car was very old, which Jipsen said she felt was strange.

Abhi Kodukulla, a campus senior and philosophy major, also took Searle’s Philosophy of the Mind class last spring and heard that Searle had stepped down “for personal reasons” a couple of weeks ago.

Kodukulla recalled rumors among his classmates about Searle’s treatment of women, although he was not aware of any formal complaints filed against the professor. He added that while Searle never made him feel uncomfortable in class, he found the allegations and the campus’s response “regrettably unsurprising.”

“What I’d heard was … just he’s always seen surrounded by these young female associates,” Kodukulla said. “I generally had heard about a weird sort of relation … between his associates.”

UC Berkeley alumnus Daniel McChesney-Young also had Searle as his professor when he was enrolled in Philosophy of Language in the early 2000s. He said he never saw Searle do or say anything he thought was unprofessional or made him uncomfortable but added that he didn’t have any intimate interactions with Searle, given that it was a large lecture class.

“I thought it was sad to see someone I learned a lot from accused of this,” McChesney-Young said. “I thought that given all the recent allegations against so many people … that it’s unfortunate that so many powerful men feel at liberty to take advantage of young, vulnerable people.”

The news of Ong’s lawsuit against Searle comes about a month after the University of California released 113 Title IX investigation reports detailing cases of sexual harassment and assault across the UC system. At least 124 Title IX cases from roughly 2013-16 have involved UC administrators, professors and staff members.

At UC Berkeley alone, 20 employees have been investigated for sexual misconduct since 2011, including former UC Berkeley School of Law dean Sujit Choudhry, former vice chancellor for research Graham Fleming and former astronomy professor Geoffrey Marcy.

Jipsen said she was “horrified” when she read about Ong’s allegations but, like many others, was not surprised. She said that while she didn’t hear any allegations against Searle when she took his class, she wasn’t surprised to learn of them, as sexual misconduct cases have “happened so many times” on the UC Berkeley campus.

“I think it’s just like another one of many that apparently the university doesn’t take it very seriously,” Jipsen said. “It’s not very surprising because it’s happened so much, and it’s obviously a big issue in the university.”

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  • Ken Richard

    The dumbing down of America. Suck it and you get paid, and you get the grade!?

  • Ken Richard

    WOw. Who would have figured that liberal progressive Bay Area educational institutions, any number of which may contain professors who are racist and discriminatory, would be accused of doing such things to young women?

  • Douglas Bonham

    John Searle was the first professor I encountered at Cal, when I came for summer school in 1965. He taught both six-week compressed semester classes of Introduction to Philosophy. He was a brilliant and arresting lecturer, always speaking without notes and pacing around the front of the classroom with his hands in his pockets. Philosophically, he was of the English Empiricist school, which figures since his post graduate training was from Oxford. In 1964, he had gained some fame as one of the faculty favoring the Free Speech Movement. Later, after 2001, he became politically a neoconservative, and sustained support from neocon think tanks. He always had a distinguished reputation.

    He was a very handsome man too in his younger days, and given the atmosphere which prevailed at Berkeley at that time, and still does,- although the higher ups are getting caught at it more often than before-I am not surprised that he had and has relationships with the abundant nubile younger women who come built in with the campus, and are tacitly accepted parts of a professor’s perks. Homosexual profs took similar advantage when possible, too. Particularly, graduate students, of both sexes otherwise not attached, had to beware the desires of their powerful profs.

    Legalities aside, the Regents and Prof. Searle will likely quickly settle this case. About the last thing Napolitano and Professor Searle need now is a high profile well publicized trial here, or an ongoing case which is going to dog the hapless Carol Christ the incoming Chancellor. Plaintiff attorneys might seek a million dollars, but likely $500, 000 will be paid out. Nice relatively painless $200,000 for plaintiff attorneys.

  • DarkStarCrashes

    But would he UNDERSTAND it?

  • DarkStarCrashes

    You do seem to dwell within a fairly strict logical system. However, I don’t think that humans must do so in order to develop reasonable beliefs.

    When I say “belief,” I do not mean it in an all-or-nothing binary sense. Beliefs can be uncertain and probabilistic to varying degrees.

    We form beliefs based on intuition and circumstantial evidence all the time, it’s part of living IN the world, not as an impartial observer.

    We’ll see what the court decides. I’m glad that our legal system has a high standard of evidence.

    However, when an individual on the internet seems so skeptical in this particular case, my intuitions question the (possibly unconscious) motives and biases behind such skepticism. Perhaps you are a logic-robot that applies such rigorous scrutiny to all claims of any kind, but this doesn’t seem to be the most likely state of affairs.

    My intuition points toward Searle being guilty (and it probably would even if I hadn’t sat in on his class and observed his personality). Why would this young woman make all of that up out of thin air? It seems more likely that she is telling the truth rather than framing an esteemed philosopher in order to cash out. With stuff like this having been swept under the rug for so long, I think the young woman is more entitled to the benefit of the doubt than Searle.

    • TNT

      You claim that humans need not follow “strict logic” to develop reasonable beliefs. Then later go on to claim that the defendant might be guilty–a belief based on your personal intuition. Because many people create beliefs along these lines, you tacitly reason that this makes such beliefs reasonable. There is one problem with such idea: your idea concerning belief is based on a vague, arbitrary notion that is void of empirical support. Your line of reasoning justifies intuition as the grounds for believing the defendant’s guilt but just the same another party can follow your line of reasoning and justify why their intuition serves as the grounds believing the plaintiff is lying.

      I have not argued against the position that humans develop beliefs based on intuition and circumstantial evidence that are often uncertain and probabilistic. Many people do think along these lines. Yet, is that a good thing? Historically, we can answer in the negative. People had intuitions that others were witches—the alleged Witches lived short, brutal lives because of such beliefs that you claim are reasonable. In the example provided in the first paragraph I demonstrated that such a view does not enable us to approximate the truth concerning the case. Is one or another party completely dishonest? Are they both partially dishonest? The publically available evidence in this particular case doesn’t allow us to answer with certainty either question, but we do know beforehand that both parties cannot be telling the truth.

      In another paragraph, you direct attention towards a skeptic’s motives and biases behind skepticism. You do realize that the cogency of an argument should to be found in the strength of the evidence and not in extraneous circumstances. For example, consider an argument for a socially unacceptable conclusion. A Neo-Nazi denies that the Holocaust took place. The counter-argument shouldn’t rest on the fact that the Neo-Nazi despises Jews but the strength of the arguer’s case and use of evidence. By doing so, one can reasonably conclude that the Holocaust took place. What about another argument? A Catholic priest argues in favor of evolution—this has happened actually. Is a protestant or atheist to reject the argument simply because the arguer is a Catholic priest? Or does the protestant or atheist consider the Catholic’s priest’s argument with respect to the logical ordering of the evidence? By following your line of thought, we should question the Neo-Nazi’s and Catholic priest’s arguments because of their possible motives instead of looking at the strength of their reasoning with respect to evidence. That is simply lousy

      Bias, however, is a very tricky issue. It is problematic for people conducting research or standing trial in some criminal case. For example, you have expressed biases against the defendant and in favor of the plaintiff. You admitted to having sat in on the defendant’s class and perceived him in such a way as to feel that he might be guilty of the charges. Likewise, you believe that the woman is honest, going so far as to ask why she would make this up out of thin air. However, people lie about all sorts of unimaginable things all the time—recently a young White lady lied about being raped by a group of African American men. People commit all sorts of irrational actions and justify these actions (often through intuition!). In sum, this case provides little reason to side with either party but under the law the defendant is innocent until proven guilty.

  • Joe Banks

    He should have stuck to groupies.

  • Oh, that’s just adorable. Disagree? Just label your opponent a racist. Instant win.

    • TNT

      The mantra is “underreported cases exist because victims are intimidated, ignored, retaliated against.”

      An independent observer is faced with the dilemma: How would anyone know how many underreported cases exist if they are not reported? How would anyone know if these cases constitute of harassment? Finally, how would anyone know that an underreported case is due to intimidation and retaliation? One would have to have access to some survey of all or most individuals claiming harassment, yet even then the questions as to the authenticity of the claims would stand.

      This is logic at its worst.

      • DarkStarCrashes

        I don’t like most of what you’ve been saying, but on this point you are correct.

  • Left Unsaid

    Only the lawyers will win.

  • Larry Gainor

    Confine him to a Chinese room with guards who don’t speak the language!

  • rigaud

    Have his prostate arrested.

  • Annon

    she’s hot

  • thompson_richard

    It’s not uncommon for elderly people to engage a nurse — my 90-year old friend Donna pays a woman $4,000 monthly. Several person have been denied positions requiring the consent of the senate for employing menial household employees without paying taxes. Even John Searle might have had to taken a reverse mortgage on his home to pay Johanna Ong’s demand.

    • Chong Lor

      Searle makes over $240,000 in base pay annually. He is sick and should be fired.

      • thompson_richard

        Gosh, Ollie, now you’ve done it! All those undergraduate students seeking admissions to impacted majors will take Philosophy 101 instead!

    • lodule16

      Jeez… go back to Reddit…

  • TNT

    Outside of the plaintiff’s word is there any evidence to support her allegations against Searle? The document lists that the plaintiff had an issue with the salary. Without any evidence supporting her claims, how are we not to believe that Ong not only took issue with the salary (which she claims was cut down, again what evidence can she provide to support this) but is trying to profit off of Searle’s name?

    • Kibble bits

      University emails for one, and Houdin’s testimony since I don’t believe they would have privilege and would have to disclose anything they saw or heard. Also, I guess if any other people come forward.

      • TNT

        The plaintiff claims that Searle would flirt with people via email. That doesn’t support the plaintiff’s charges against Searle at all.

        Let’s say other people came forward claiming Searle sexually assaulted or harassed them. What proof could they offer? Their word? If that is the case then we are stuck in the same situation I foresee in this very case.

        • Odysseus Ithacan

          Yes, people who have been assaulted or harrassed without witnesses (as often happens) really are in a difficult situation, aren’t they?

          But you seem to be ignoring some evidence in this case. It appears that the plaintiff *was* involved in what is known as “quid pro quo harrassment,” i.e. she was offered (and apparently paid) $3,000 in monthly living expenses in the expectation of a sexual relationship. The $3,000 “supplement” appears to be anomalous (3x her regular salary).

          Also the firing (as retaliation) is evidence as well, and surely the reasons for that will be examined closely, with witnesses.

          So it isn’t just her word against his.

          • Ken Richard

            So, you are suggesting that he wanted to inflate her salary, which was to be paid by the university, in exchange for her inflating his willy? She refused to fluff his luv monkey, so he cut her salary back to where it should have been to begin with, and she got upset? Wow!

    • Brook Haley

      Is there any evidence that you are not a sexist, misogynist commenter? Not here there isn’t.

      • TNT

        If you are tacitly implying that I am “sexist and misogynist” then the burden of proof falls on your shoulders to support such an assertion. There surely isn’t any evidence to support such assertion (because the assertion is bogus), hence it is quite asinine to bring it up out of thin air. In the same line of reasoning, the plaintiff must support her allegations else we are left to believe that she is lying (which isn’t hard to believe given the facts at the moment).

        • Odysseus Ithacan

          She will support her assertions (and you’re citing only part of the charges, one of which is actual physical assault). That’s what the lawsuit (w/jury trial) is about. I’m guessing that she’ll win, if only because it appears that Searle has a long history of committing sexual harrassment.

          • TNT

            And you have cited none of the charges. Do I have to list each of them for you? You believe that the plaintiff will support her assertions. That differs from asking if she is able to do so. And from what I read in the document the plaintiff has her word against Searle. She claims to have discussed the incident with Hudin–yet consider that even if such was the case, how would anyone know if what she told Hudin was truthful?

            It appears that you are taking as factual something that lacks substance (i.e, Searle has a long history of committing sexual harassment).

            He is innocent until proven guilty. If he is guilty then he deserves what the full weight of the law gives him. However, if he is innocent then the plaintiff deserves much as well for attempting to tarnish the good name of a distinguished professor.

          • Odysseus Ithacan

            I did cite a charge: physical assault. Retaliation is another. Yes, innocent until proven guilty. I appreciate your scepticism, but I think it is misplaced: distinguished professors aren’t repeatedly being made victims by false accusations of sexual harrassment, whereas many, many cases of sexual harassment and assault on college campuses are unreported or unprosecuted.

          • TNT

            The charge is sexual assault, physical assault would be a term with a broader semantic domain. In my second sentence I make reference to this charge as all others derive from it. Part of my skepticism derives from the law (innocent until proven guilty). Each case is its own. I will not consider Searle anymore guilty of the allegations just because in other instances across the country there have been guilty parties. That is such a slippery slope. Each case is its own. And I cannot consider valid an alleged case that is unreported or unprosecuted—how am I to know that it happened?

          • Odysseus Ithacan

            No, if you examine the lawsuit above, it states “assault and battery” (#5).

          • TNT

            And assault and batter differs from what you wrote “physical assault.”

          • Odysseus Ithacan

            Again, your scepticism is logical, but you do seem to display a rather shocking ignorance of the circumstances under which sexual harassment occurs, how vulnerable it makes the victims, and how difficult it is for them to get justice. The article details that the plaintiff made several complaints, but there was no official response to those complaints. At the very least, Federal Title IX legislation requires such a response. UC Berkeley and the UC System have been found egregiously lacking in the past. Beyond the question of Searle’s guilt, Berkeley is in a big trouble — again.

          • TNT

            In the document, the plaintiff claims to have voiced her concerns to Hudin. I have simply asked even if such was the case, how would anyone know if the plaintiff was truthful? I take no issue with your final few sentences. If the plaintiff did complain and the university did not respond then the university is at fault–this is an issue entirely separate to the one I have been discussing concerning the burden of proof.

            Finally, of course my skepticism (and posts) have been logical. I will not be swayed to vilify people over hearsay. If a person is a victim of a crime, report it, prove it. If somebody claims to have been victimized but cannot prove it then why should we accept their word as infallible?

          • Odysseus Ithacan

            Your notion of proof is naive, and we’re not talking about a witch hunt. As I’ve already written, “quid pro quo” arrangements are evidence of sexual harrassment. More than one person claiming to be victimized by the same person is also evidence. Failing to respond officially, or coverups, are also evidence. The burden of proof for legal cases in general is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but for sexual harassement cases involving Title IX, it is lower: it is “preponderance of the evidence.” In other words, if a school thinks there is as little as a 51 per chance that the accused is guilty, the accused must still be disciplined.

          • TNT

            My notion of proof is pretty basic but not the legal version. While in a court of law there are certain standards I have argued from a very basic position: What proof is available? You have not been able to resolve the issue (If someone else claims Searle did the same to him/her, then what proof outside of their word can they offer? If their word is all they possess then how can we accept one person’s word over another without another line of evidence?)

          • Odysseus Ithacan

            The issue as you simplistically present it can’t be resolved without another line of evidence. In this case there are other lines of evidence.

          • TNT

            The document does not present any other lines of evidence other than the plaintiff’s word. You must be working on the case and privy to information that is not available to the public at this time. Or am I mistaken?

    • Cera Fisher

      Believe it or not, this problem is in fact a very common one in sexual harassment/assault allegations, and there are very specific rules passed down by the EEOC to guide institutions in how to make determinations in a “he said/she said” situation. The alleged assault had no witnesses; given that, the institution has to determine credibility of both the complainant and respondent and also has to determine whether either has a motivation to lie. Often, even well-handled cases don’t end in an affirmative finding for the complainant. (Berkeley doesn’t have a great track record with handling these things well, of course.) However, the retaliation allegations are a lot easier to prove. If he cut her pay in half, that’s on the books, and since that happened *after* she reported the assault and harassment, it’s pretty easy to find in her favor there.

      One person’s word against another’s is the rule, not the exception, in cases like this. You don’t have to have cold hard evidence; there’s often no possible way to have it.

      Searle’s emails were almost certainly captured by the University in their proceedings, though. That will be detrimental to his credibility.

      • TNT

        Thank you for taking the time to write this post. It puts into perspective how the university will handle the case. However, I am afraid that an independent observer will find that retaliation isn’t as simple a matter to prove (at least not as simple as the protocol stated above). We see correlation but that isn’t necessarily causation. The plaintiff could have very well expressed X, but how would we know if X is true? Furthermore, if the defendant fires the plaintiff, then even if it follows after the plaintiff expresses X it falls on the plaintiff to demonstrate that said firing was retaliation for stating X and not over a work related issue. Of course, the above scenario isn’t to be mistaken with university protocol or legal action but simply presenting the issue as it might be viewed by an independent observer.

    • Mary Murrell

      She reported the accusation to a third party, so there may be corroboration. Obviously, evidence will have to come forth.

      • TNT

        Yes, we’ve established that she claims to have reported her accusations to a third party. Only with evidence can we be certain that she was telling the truth.

    • Hugo Estrada

      I went to his lectures in the late 90s. I saw him how he interacted with his female assistants. I find the allegations plausible.

      • TNT

        I went to his lectures in the mid 2000s. I saw him interact with males and females alike. The allegations are as possible as they would be in any case and just the same the allegations can be as false as in any case.