In a letter sent March 24, tenured faculty of the department of South and Southeast Asian studies, or SSEAS, condemned the slowness of an investigation into a case of alleged sexual harassment by Blake Wentworth, an assistant professor in the department.
The letter was submitted by Jacob Dalton, chair of the SSEAS department, to the Vice Provost for the Faculty Janet Broughton.
According to the letter, between February 2015 and March 2016, at least seven students on campus made claims that their learning had been hindered by the conduct of an SSEAS faculty member. The letter adds that six of the complaints were “dismissed or shut down” by the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, or OPHD.
“This indicates at best institutional inertia and at worst, institutional intent to delay student hearings and silence student voices,” the letter said regarding the investigation.
Broughton was unable to publicly comment on the pending investigation because of her role in the disciplinary process, said campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore.
While the letter does not expressly name Wentworth, Michael Flynn — the attorney representing two of the complainants, campus graduate students Kathleen Gutierrez and Erin Bennett — confirmed that the allegations were made against Wentworth.
Investigators on campus have been conducting interviews and have nearly completed their investigation, after which action will be taken if necessary, according to Gilmore.
“Those actions may include referring charges to the Privilege and Tenure Committee, which allows for the full range of sanctions, up to and including dismissal, and for putting the faculty member on leave pending the final sanctions,” Gilmore said.
Some of the allegations were brought to the attention of SSEAS faculty by student complainants. An SSEAS associate professor and signatory of the letter, Sylvia Tiwon, said two students, including Gutierrez, came to tell her about behavior that they felt was unprofessional and could possibly constitute sexual harassment.
Flynn said that in February 2015, Wentworth allegedly went on a walk with Gutierrez, held her hand and told her he was attracted to her and he could lose his job as a result. Within the next day, when Gutierrez attempted to initiate a conversation with Wentworth regarding his behavior, he allegedly shifted the conversation and asked her out on a date.
Bennett, too, claimed that Wentworth acted inappropriately with her when she took an independent study course with him in fall 2014, according to Flynn.
“He told (Bennett) that learning Tamil is like having sex, and he touched her inappropriately on multiple occasions,” Flynn said, adding that he felt “(Wentworth was) trying to test her boundaries.”
Bennett consequently ended her independent study midsemester and filed a complaint with the campus’s OPHD in February or March 2015, Flynn added.
In April 2015, Gutierrez also reported her claims to the OPHD, Flynn noted. Gutierrez and Bennett are prepared — should the campus fail to take their desired actions — to proceed with a lawsuit against Wentworth and the UC Board of Regents under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, according to Flynn.
“(Gutierrez and Bennett) want OPHD to make its process more supportive to people who have endured sexual harassment or have survived sexual assault,” Flynn said. “(And) they don’t want professor Wentworth on the campus anymore.”
Other students, however, defended Wentworth as an excellent and empathetic professor.
“My experiences have been nothing but positive,” said campus junior Srushti Vora, who is currently enrolled in her fourth consecutive course taught by Wentworth. “He’s always been very respectful and professional toward me.”
Until the investigation is over, Gilmore said Wentworth has been ordered to avoid proximity to one of the complainants in the department building and has been removed as the faculty adviser for one of the complainants.