Tyann Sorrell alleges campus administrators failed to adequately address sexual harassment complaints

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When Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele told Tyann Sorrell in October 2015 that the UC Berkeley School of Law’s dean’s salary would be cut by 10 percent for one year after he violated university sexual harassment policies against her, Sorrell was speechless.

“I was so hurt, more than the emotion of feeling upset or anger — that came later,” Sorrell said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

Though Steele said he had considered firing Sujit Choudhry, Sorrell alleges, he decided not to because it would “be ruinous to his career.”

“I wanted to ask him so badly, ‘Did you take any consideration of my career?’ But those comments pierced right through me,” Sorrell said. “They pierce through me now.”

Sorrell has served as executive assistant to Berkeley Law’s dean since 2012, before Choudhry assumed the title in July 2014. Two months later, after Choudhry began repeatedly kissing and hugging her, Sorrell began voicing her discomfort to several law school administrators.

A campus investigation wasn’t launched, however, until more than six months later.

Disillusioned by the campus’s handling of her complaints, Sorrell filed a lawsuit against Choudhry and the UC Board of Regents on Tuesday.

No longer dean, Choudhry remains a tenured faculty member of the school, though after, a letter sent Friday by UC President Janet Napolitano to Chancellor Nicholas Dirks ordered Choudhry remain off campus for the rest of the semester.

While the sexual harassment she endured was physically and emotionally scarring, Sorrell said the campus’s mishandling of her complaints — from her superiors to the human resources office to the provost — was what ultimately led her to file the lawsuit.

“I’m not saying we don’t have a voice, I’m saying the university has responded to people in my situation as if we (have) no values, no rights,” Sorrell said. “I really want effective protocol to be put into place. … Change on a systemic level.”

Failure to report

Before Choudhry took over as dean, Sorrell received positive ratings for her communication, organization and collaboration skills, according to a campus performance review evaluating her work from July 2013 to June 2014.

“(Sorrell) has an extraordinary work ethic,” the review said. “She cares deeply about the quality of her work (and) is also very respectful of everyone with whom she interacts.”

Her mental and physical health began to deteriorate after unwanted sexual contact began in September 2014. Shortly after, Sorrell said she began complaining to then-chief of staff Marilyn Byrne, but Choudhry’s behavior continued.

When Byrne retired in January 2015, according to the complaint, Sorrell again brought up her concerns, this time with Byrne’s replacement Areca Smit.

Soon after, Smit informed Sheri Showalter, Berkeley Law Human Resources director, and Georgia Giatras, senior assistant dean and chief operating officer, about Choudhry’s inappropriate conduct, Sorrell said.

Sorrell alleged, however, that neither Byrne nor Giatras spoke to Choudhry, and complaints were never filed with the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, or OPHD.

Sorrell worried about telling Choudhry about her discomfort, according to the complaint. The lawsuit alleges that Choudhry would frequently say that if a person feels things are unfair in their workplace, they should find another job. Later, the complaint said, she would blame herself for the inappropriate touching.

In March 2015, Sorrell felt she could not wait any longer for her superiors to act on her behalf. Her health worsening, Sorrell sent a six-page email informing Choudhry that she was tired of his behavior.

After receiving the email, Showalter told Sorrell she would report the email to OPHD. Though Sorrell said that continuing to work under Choudhry during the investigation would make her feel uncomfortable, Showalter allegedly told Sorrell she would have to use accrued sick and vacation time to distance herself, according to the complaint.

Upset by the conversation, Sorrell called OPHD and left a voicemail describing her situation. She didn’t receive a call back from OPHD until nearly two weeks later.

“In the very beginning, I had really tried to advocate for myself,” Sorrell said. “I just felt that they were not being fair about the disclosure of what their role should be.”

After the investigation findings

While the investigation was still underway, Sorrell said the law school’s human resources office called her at one point, saying it had expected her in the office that day.

“It was clear to me that I really needed an expert because not knowing your rights is like not having any,” Sorrell said.

Now on paid administrative leave, Sorrell sees a therapist regularly and has applied to multiple jobs on and off campus. While Steele said in a statement Wednesday that the campus supports her search to find an alternate job on campus, Sorrell has not been reassigned by campus administrators and has been largely unsuccessful in her job search.

According to Sorrell, campus human resources notifies her monthly that they’re unsure whether her leave will be extended.

“I’ve felt this incredible amount of pressure to have to find something and find something fast lest my leave will end and I will be either without a job all together or without income,” Sorrell said, who is a mother of five children.

The day she filed the lawsuit, Sorrell received an email from campus human resources about one of the positions she had applied to. It stated that her application was no longer being considered.

Last fall, the campus received similar criticism of its lack of disciplinary action against Geoffrey Marcy, a prominent former professor of astronomy, who was found to have breached campus sexual harassment policies.

“We need to have really significant penalties that really do impact people’s lives, and then people need to be more aware that that could happen,” said campus law professor Barbara Bryant. “It’s not just a boys-being-boys kind of thing.”

Lasting effects

In light of recent public criticism, Napolitano told Dirks in her letter Friday that the campus should ensure effective responses to findings of sexual harassment investigations.

The university does not intend to defend Choudhry in Sorrell’s lawsuit pending against him.

On Friday, the law school’s associate deans and senior administrators released a statement to the law school community.

“We are looking forward, as a community, to confronting and addressing the concerns raised by this conduct — including how it was addressed administratively,” the statement said. “We would also like to acknowledge the courage of Tyann Sorrell, the former dean’s executive assistant.”

Among the signatories are Giatras and Showalter.

Since she left in March, Sorrell has seen Choudhry once, from a short distance, walking down the street.

“I lost it. … It triggered a range of emotions that just made me sick,” Sorrell said.

Too often, Bryant said, society does not appropriately weigh the devastation sexual harassment and power dynamics can create in a person.

“There’s a lot going on for me, and to be honest with you, some of my hope around Berkeley and returning is quite frankly just foggy right now,” Sorrell said. “I’m just trying to get through this situation one day at a time.”

Senior staff writer Suhauna Hussain contributed to this report.

Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ayoonhendricks.