Splashed across Facebook newsfeeds and local media outlets are reports that once again, the campus has failed to adequately address sexual misconduct from one of its faculty and administration. This time, the face of this outrage is the now-former dean of UC Berkeley School of Law, Sujit Choudhry, who stepped down from his post last week once allegations that he repeatedly sexual harassed his executive assistant reached the public eye. Before the news was made public, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele had merely docked his pay by 10 percent, demanding he seek counseling and write an apology letter.
The news that the campus again attempted to sweep a sexual harassment case under the rug is not as surprising as it should be — in fact, it follows a pattern to which UC Berkeley students have grown accustomed. Just last fall, the campus bungled the case of esteemed astronomy professor Geoffrey Marcy, who resigned when allegations that he had sexually harassed multiple students over the course of many years came to light. After former UC Berkeley vice chancellor of research Graham Fleming resigned in 2015 following allegations of sexual harassment, he was simply shuffled into a new position as a Berkeley Global Campus ambassador. He was only terminated last week, when Napolitano wrote a letter demanding it.
When it comes to sexual misconduct, UC Berkeley has repeatedly proved itself to be a campus of contradictions: a place where students are urged to talk about consent with their peers but witness cases of sexual harassment in upper management mishandled and ignored.
This disregard for student safety is not only insulting, it endangers students when the campus should be fostering a community discussion about combatting sexual violence. How can students be asked to take the issue of sexual misconduct seriously when the campus doesn’t hold its most public faces to the same standard? How can students trust the administration with their own cases of sexual misconduct when it has repeatedly displayed its inability to take real, substantive action?
Ellen Simms, a professor of integrative biology, wrote an op-ed for The Daily Californian last semester saying that in her career, “Not one student who complained to me about an incident of sexual harassment has ever been willing to file a formal complaint. I cannot blame them. I know the costs of publicly calling out faculty for abusing their power in relationships with students. I have carried forward such complaints in the name of others, either my fellow students or students of my own. Each time, my career was severely and negatively affected.”
This sentiment was echoed in the San Francisco Chronicle, which quoted from UC Berkeley professor Michael O’Hare’s blog, saying that the mishandling of cases by Steele “might as well be an open letter to women on campus telling them ‘if powerful people around here mistreat you, we will protect them and punish you if you complain.’ ”
The UC Berkeley community has taken steps in recent years to improve education and training surrounding sexual violence, and these efforts have come in many forms. The Cal Consent Campaign spreads a message of respect and responsibility and encourages students to support peers and survivors in their midst. Freshmen this year were required to undergo sexual harassment and misconduct training soon after they arrived on campus. But the many mechanisms created to combat a pervasive culture of sexual misconduct — including Greeks Against Sexual Assault, the Confidential Care Advocate’s Office and other services — are only as strong as the campus’s public position on the issue.
Until a shift occurs in UC Berkeley’s treatment of high-profile faculty and administration, efforts toward a healthier campus climate appear both contradictory and hostile. The experience of Sarah Ballard, one of the students who filed a complaint against Marcy, offers a striking portrait of this irony: One of Marcy’s first points of contact with Ballard came after he attended an anti-sexual violence rally she had helped organize on campus.
Student advocacy against sexual misconduct and violence cannot be separated from UC Berkeley administrative behavior. As students encourage each other to advocate for a healthy and safe campus, we must be able to look to the administration as an example of this cultural shift rather than a mockery of our efforts.
As the fallout from the Choudhry scandal unfolds, students will continue to see their inboxes flood with information and policy revisions from Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, Napolitano and others. But we will observe this deluge with hesitation and scrutiny. Until we see these changes enacted, the promises of administrators read as hollow. It will take more than a flurry of emails and half-baked apologies to earn back the trust of a weary student body.
Libby Rainey and Alastair Boone write the Thursday column on bits and pieces of the UC Berkeley experience. Contact Libby at [email protected].
A previous version of this column may have implied that UC President Janet Napolitano ordered Graham Fleming’s termination from his post as a Berkeley Global Campus ambassador because of public outcry. In fact, she issued the demand in tandem with public outcry.