Feminist UC Berkeley faculty members call for improved sexual harassment policy

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Update 3/28/16: This article has been updated to reflect new information from Claire Holmes, associate vice chancellor of communications and public affairs.

Frustrated with the campus’s past handling of sexual harassment allegations, 28 feminist UC Berkeley faculty members signed a statement calling on the administration to bring sweeping reform to harassment policy on a systemic level.

Drafted over spring break by about half a dozen faculty members and released Monday, the statement aims to address two issues: administrative mishandling of high-profile harassment cases and consistent problems with reporting procedures and subsequent response.

The statement also frames sexual harassment on campus as not just a safety issue but a violation of survivors’ civil rights, according to signatory Wendy Brown, a campus political science professor.

“Instead of respecting this principle of equality, the current administration has gone out of its way to shield those who have engaged in repeated acts of sexual harassment, and has sacrificed the entitlement of all staff, faculty and students to a harassment-free environment,” the statement reads.

According to Brown, the campus administration’s response to recent allegations against former UC Berkeley School of Law dean Sujit Choudhry provided an immediate impetus for releasing a feminist statement. Additionally, recent anti-sexual harassment measures announced Thursday by Chancellor Nicholas Dirks came amid pressure from UC President Janet Napolitano and the campus community, Brown said, not from pure administrative initiative.

The faculty statement also addresses well-known campus offenders’ lack of accountability: Harassment may go unreported because staff and students fear jeopardizing their careers, according to Brown. Over the years, Brown said, she has observed cases in which faculty and students reached a state of deadlock after experiencing harassment within their field.

“I think many faculty feel there are repeat harassers on our faculty who are never charged,” Brown said. “Graduate students gave up on careers, and these perpetrators were allowed to continue, and that was wrong — never should have happened.”

Claire Holmes, associate vice chancellor of communications and public affairs, said that while the campus understands the concerns raised in the faculty statement, it believes that Carla Hesse’s leadership as the interim lead on UC Berkeley’s response to sexual harassment and assault claims will help promote a culture of awareness on campus.

“It’s climate and culture — it’s not just a policy, and it’s not just sanctions,” Holmes said. “It’s awareness, it’s training, it’s understanding what’s appropriate behavior.”

After sexual harassment allegations against then-astronomy professor Geoff Marcy arose in October, campus astronomy faculty published a similar letter calling for a safe climate for all members of their department.

For signatory Alice Agogino, a campus mechanical engineering professor, a major objective of the statement is to foster a more open, fair environment in which reporting sexual harassment is encouraged.

“I think that the victims need to have some understanding of the status of the process, that they are being heard and that actions are being taken,” Agogino said. “They’re seeing nothing happening, in fact. They’re seeing the same kind of abuse continuing.”

Agogino added, however, that senior leaders on campus should not resign, as they unintentionally inherited a system in which sexual harassment has been swept under the rug.

By publishing the statement, feminist faculty are advocating staff members’ and students’ right to work safely on campus, said signatory Raka Ray, a campus sociology and South and Southeast Asian studies professor, in an email.

(It) is my hope that the steps lead not just to a better appearance but to a more just and decent system for dealing with sexual harassment,” Ray said in the email.

Andrea Platten is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @andreaplatten.