UC Berkeley inaction on sexual harassment complaints continues to put students at risk

Recently, several media outlets reported that women at UC Berkeley face layers of bureaucracy when attempting to report instances of faculty members sexually harassing them. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle reported that scores of women are coming forward to heroically stand up for their rights, but it is important to note that the university has continued to move slowly in protecting students from such behavior.

Full disclosure: I am an attorney who has represented and continues to represent a number of UC Berkeley students and employees who have been sexually harassed by faculty and administrators. In my investigations, it has become clear that the school invested a great deal of time and money into protecting its faculty and administrators while allowing staff and students to be placed in harm’s way. A prestigious institution of higher learning with such high standards that is located in an extremely progressive part of the country does not seem like the sort of place where this behavior would occur, but the Chronicle uncovered that it is a systemic problem. Prominent faculty members such as big-name professors and deans of schools within the university bring in big bucks from donors, and universities battling for dollars feel pressured to protect their cash cows.

Although the university over the past few years has attempted to make changes, it seems like there are very significant obstacles to progress, especially when the perpetrator is a tenured faculty member. How is it even possible, let alone acceptable, that “in the 150-year history of the UC system the regents have fired just eight tenured professors.” Eight professors in the entire UC system, not just UC Berkeley! How can anyone who is being sexually harassed by a tenured faculty member believe that there is any point in coming forward with a complaint?

Throughout the state and country, universities are slow to adjust their treatment of women brave enough to call out their perpetrators. UC Berkeley is, unfortunately, no different in that it has created a bureaucracy that victims have to slog through in order to point out the behavior of predators who are protected by this system. So, you have professors who can sexually harass, assault and otherwise mistreat students for years, even decades, because a thick wall of bureaucracy stands between them and their accusers.

A woman in today’s society has to summon up a great deal of courage to be willing to call out her abuser, and when the school chooses to make that process drawn-out and complicated, it is essentially communicating that no one in the university is interested in such acts of courage. The tide has turned some, but a major overhaul is needed in order to remove any and all roadblocks that would continue to allow known predators from making students their unwitting victims. The UC Board of Regents needs to step up and make significant change, or risk allowing another generation of young, intelligent and ambitious women to become unwitting victims themselves.

It appears that a fundamental dynamic is at play to create an uneven playing field between students and employees versus faculty and administrators at UC Berkeley and other higher education institutions throughout California and the United States — that is, there are long-term, ingrained processes put into place to protect faculty members and administrators from accusations of sexual harassment and other misconduct, while very little attention has ever been given to the rights of students and lower-level employees who come forward with complaints.

My clients, who have been brave enough to come forward with internal complaints against UC Berkeley and other institutions of higher learning, unanimously complain about feeling powerless, disenfranchised and disempowered by the length of time it takes to have their complaints investigated. Even more significantly, they complain about how faculty and administrators seem to be able to delay investigations and to request and be granted second and even third investigations and how, particularly, faculty members can contest their discipline again and again.

This sends a terrible message to potential complainants and actually violates California state law when employees are the complainants — many graduate students at UC Berkeley are employees. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act mandates that all investigations of sexual harassment be “prompt.” In a noneducational private industry setting, “prompt” is generally thought to be a few days or maybe up to a few weeks. Although investigations undertaken by universities tend to be more thorough than those of other organizations, so they necessarily take longer, there is absolutely no need for an investigation and a final decision regarding discipline to take six months or sometimes years with appeal after appeal. All this time, the complainant remains at risk for retaliation, as the alleged perpetrator is often allowed to keep working and/or teaching as the process drags on.

Until UC Berkeley pays as much attention to the rights of complainants as it does to those of alleged perpetrators, justice will not be served, and the playing field will remain tilted in favor of the more powerful.

John D. Winer is an attorney who has represented women in recent cases involving UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California.

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