UC Berkeley must do more to support graduate student survivors of sexual misconduct

CAMPUS ISSUES: While the campus has made increased efforts to address sexual misconduct in recent years, it must be more proactive in addressing graduate student needs

Kelly Baird/Staff

A graduate student depends on their professors and advisers — both for their research and for their future career prospects. Many graduate students work with faculty members who are one of a small handful of experts in their field. They have no choice but to study under those academics. And if that professor or adviser abuses their power, graduate students often feel trapped.

But graduate students don’t only face discrimination from their superiors. There’s a culture of disrespect for graduate students among both professors, who can abuse their power, and undergraduate students who joke about harboring crushes on their GSIs. At a time when sexual misconduct is in the national spotlight, it is critical that UC Berkeley makes considerations specific to graduate students when addressing these issues.

Over the last few years, the UC has made headlines for the rampant sexual misconduct plaguing the system. Both the campus and the university have recently increased efforts to address sexual misconduct — for example, by launching a survey to track sexual violence on campus and revising the UC’s misconduct policy.

Currently, the reporting and investigation processes are the same for students, faculty and staff, although the process is flexible enough to address particular concerns in certain situations, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore. But this consistency can fail to prioritize graduate students’ unique needs.

For instance, graduate students typically work in small communities, meaning that anonymous reporting may be insufficient to help insulate those same students and protect their identities. The campus needs to develop better ways of shielding graduate students from potential retaliation, as well as boost its support for them as students transition to different research advisers.

The vulnerability of graduate students is a “concern of the campus,” Gilmore said in an email, adding that it was highlighted by the Chancellor’s Senate/Administration Committee on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment. She emphasized that individual departments can also take steps to make graduate students more secure, such as providing mentors in addition to advisers — and they should.

While it’s encouraging that the campus is working to alleviate these concerns, the greater community must do even more and work even faster to address graduate students’ vulnerability. Graduate Assembly External Affairs Vice President Jonathan Morris suggested in a previous interview that UC Berkeley could create a pool of funding to supplant research grants, so if a graduate student receives funding from their adviser but feels the need to switch to another professor, the student would still be able to continue their research.

Geoff Marcy and Nezar AlSayyad are just two of many professors who were found by campus investigations to have violated sexual misconduct policy and preyed on vulnerable graduate students. If these incidents continue to occur, it is clear that there is still much more work that needs to be done.

The challenges that graduate students face in sexual misconduct issues differ from those undergraduates face: They threaten their sense of professionalism and safety. It’s time to change academia’s insidious culture and treat one of the campus’s most vital stakeholders — its graduate students — with the utmost respect.

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  • Lisa Siegel Sullivan

    Alsayyad was not found guilty. Please see this article from a majority of his students: http://www.dailycal.org/2018/02/12/students-colleagues-defend-nezar-alsayyad/

    • BerCaley

      Alsayyad was not criminally charged with anything. So there was nothing for him to be found not guilty of. He was accused of sexual harassment which isn’t a crime; it’s a tort. That accusation was settled by the University for $80,000 without admission of liability.


      My point in all of this is that he wasn’t found innocent. There was no fact finding. Money changed hands and a lawsuit was dropped. That’s all we know.

  • diogenes

    The truth is that graduate students ARE “trapped.” The academic and administrative hierarchy calls it “collegiality.” Survival, let alone advancement, mean learning to play along to get along, to follow authority, to not rock the boat, in intellectual as much as in institutional matters. Academics pretend otherwise, but Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions demonstrates that the pretense is bogus. It was published 78 years ago, it is a classic, widely cited, and nowhere heeded.

  • ESPM360

    Please explain why the DACA op ed written by UCB student Naweed Tahmas was rejected by your paper.

    • lspanker

      I bet it didn’t toe the party line…