Software engineer recalls impact of alleged sex assault from UC Berkeley professor James O’Brien

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On Dec. 6, Samantha Ainsley, a software engineer at Google, contributed to an open-source survey of sexual harassment in academic settings, detailing her encounter with campus computer science professor James O’Brien.

Ainsley’s responses were anonymous at the time, but she has since decided to come forward with her allegations against O’Brien, a recognized researcher in the field of computer science, in an article published by the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 11.

According to her survey entry, Ainsley was a first-year graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the time. O’Brien and Ainsley met at a conference in Singapore in November 2012. After asking O’Brien for advice on her presentation, he allegedly said he was “too busy imagining what was under (her) dress.He then allegedly groped Ainsley’s upper thigh, underneath her skirt, and invited her to his hotel room.

O’Brien denied the allegations and added that the denials were confirmed by “three eyewitnesses who were present at that evening,” according to a statement provided by Wendy Tanaka, a spokesperson for O’Brien. O’Brien had previously denied these allegations as “categorically false” in another statement provided Jan. 11.

While Ainsley could not comment on the status of a potential Title IX investigation, she did indicate that she is willing to “move forward with an investigation,” and she filed a report mid-December.

“The Title IX office followed up with me after someone familiar with the 2012 incident reached out to them,” Ainsley said in an email. “Whether this was an isolated incident or part of a pattern of (O’Brien’s) behavior is for the Title IX officers to determine. I have placed my faith in the (campus) to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation.”

According to Ainsley’s initial, anonymous response, Ainsley said she believes O’Brien’s alleged harassment “directly led” to the end of her academic career.

“I remember putting myself under a microscope as the next conference approached,” Ainsley said in an email. “I analyzed everything from my research to my wardrobe in hopes of being taken more seriously. Ultimately, I made an excuse not to attend, and later another excuse not to return to MIT in the fall.”

According to Tanaka’s statement for O’Brien, Ainsley and O’Brien “have never been at the same university,” and he was not in a position to “negatively impact (her) career.”

Ainsley added, however, that she is not harboring any “residual ill will” and has “no score to settle.”

According to Ainsley, there is a common thread between the entries in the crowdsourced survey, which totaled more than 2,300 responses — many of the respondents expected professional interactions and were instead sexualized.

“Academic communities can no longer afford to claim ignorance to the pervasiveness of this issue,” Ainsley said in the email. “Reading the survey entries helped me understand that a failure to report is a potential disservice to other students. We cannot keep academic communities safe without accountability.”

Anjali Shrivastava covers academics and administration. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anjalii_shrivas.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Ainsley contributed to the open-sourced survey on Jan. 2. In fact, she contributed on Dec. 6, 2017.