Sexual harassment culture at UC Berkeley must end

CAMPUS ISSUES: Failure to administer proper punishment for Law School Dean perpetuates UC Berkeley's shameful sexual harassment culture.

Once again, a high-level campus employee has resigned amid sexual harassment allegations.

Once again, campus officials who knew of and verified these allegations doled out trivial punishments, and it required a public outcry to hold the perpetrator accountable.

Once again, members of the UC Berkeley community are forced to wonder: How many other still-confidential yet confirmed allegations of sexual harassment sit in the annals of UC Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, awaiting a public lawsuit or media leak to bring them to light?

The allegations against Sujit Choudhry, the now-former dean of UC Berkeley School of Law, go back a full year, and in July 2015, the OPHD found him to have violated sexual harassment policies. But Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele only disciplined Choudhry with a 10 percent pay decrease and mandated that he participate in counseling at his own expense and write a letter of apology.

This punishment is an insult to the victims and the whole UC Berkeley community. It implies that an administrator who abused his power is still worth 90 percent of a six-figure salary and that an apology note will erase the emotional trauma that victims face. It demonstrates that the results of sexual harassment investigations have little tangible impact. It means that other perpetrators, understanding that severe consequences only result from public knowledge, will be no less likely to exploit women.

Just last semester, former astronomy professor Geoffrey Marcy was implicated in a breach of sexual harassment policies by the OPHD. But, as in this case, these findings were kept private while Marcy faced minimal consequences from high-level campus administrators. In both cases, keeping the allegations confidential meant that serial harassers could continue to prey on other women.

Steele’s choice of discipline for Choudhry’s and Marcy’s transgressions shows that he does not take sexual harassment seriously. In fact, the civil lawsuit against Choudhry alleges that Steele told the victim that he had “seriously considered firing” Choudhry from his dean position but hadn’t because “it would ruin the Dean’s career.” If these allegations prove to be true, Steele ought step down. Any administrator who values the career prospects of a sexual predator over a victim’s well-being has no business holding a position of power.

Regardless of Steele’s motivations, his lenient actions speak volumes about how this campus deals with sexual harassment. His job should be held by somebody who will actually give perpetrators of sexual violence — regardless of their job titles — punishments that match the severity of their crimes.

Choudhry’s resignation as dean means he is now a regular faculty member, holding authority over students and controlling their grades. This is not a solution to the problem. The university needs to fire him: Men who abuse their power must face severe, immediate and life-altering consequences.

Firing tenured professors is exceedingly difficult, because the UC Board of Regents retains the power to fire after consultation with a campus committee, the campus chancellor and the UC president. Tenure grants faculty members job security regardless of their academic research and public opinions. But tenure should not grant impunity in nonacademic transgressions.

The university needs to ensure that tenured professors who have violated campus codes of conduct, particularly with regard to sexual violence, receive a just punishment. Last semester, in light of the Marcy allegations, the university created a joint committee to evaluate how it handles sexual harassment. But despite the lip service dedicated toward fixing UC Berkeley’s shameful culture, the current incident proves that unchecked harassment is too common. The committee must take this into consideration when it forms its recommendations.

Some claim that issues of sexual assault are inherently difficult to define and much of the rhetoric surrounds an imagined grey area, often leading to victims feeling a sense of culpability for their harasser’s actions. But this could not be further from the truth.

The rules are completely clear: Yes means yes. If anybody on this campus, from Chancellor Nicholas Dirks to newly admitted undergraduates, would like to hug, kiss, squeeze or touch somebody else, they must ask for permission, and they can only proceed once permission has been granted with an affirmative “yes.” This is black and white and merits strict enforcement. Yet Choudhry didn’t even go through his required sexual harassment training, which emphasizes “yes means yes” policy, until after allegations first surfaced, and inadequate action was taken once the OPHD implicated him.

If the campus cannot even enforce its most rudimentary sexual harassment policies, then it seems inevitable that similar problems will arise in the future. And given the recent history, Dirks’ and Steele’s claim that the campus “can and must do better” feels routine and disingenuous. The entire campus community deserves different solutions to sexual harassment issues that plague UC Berkeley — otherwise, it should demand different administrators.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Senior Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.

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