Renowned UC Berkeley philosophy professor emeritus accused of sex assault

coloredited_hannahcooper_searle
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.”


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