UC Berkeley faculty hold emergency meeting on sexual harassment handling

Nicole White/Staff

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Administrative accountability and utilization of faculty expertise were among the calls to action proposed by concerned UC Berkeley faculty members at a Thursday emergency meeting on sexual harassment handling.

The special meeting of the Academic Senate’s UC Berkeley division began with a brief presentation from UC Berkeley School of Law professor Eric Rakowski on the campus’s disciplinary process and ended with statements from high-level administrators, including Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, who pledged to work with faculty to address the various criticisms and suggestions made throughout the open discussion.

Forty-four members of the campus’s Academic Senate petitioned to hold the meeting in light of recent sexual harassment allegations that surfaced against UC Berkeley administrators and faculty, such as former Berkeley Law dean Sujit Choudhry and former astronomy professor Geoffrey Marcy

“Sexual harassment corrodes the university,” said campus sociology professor Michael Burawoy, who helped organize the petition, at the meeting. “Sweeping it under the table corrodes absolutely.”

As faculty filed into Sibley Auditorium, people handed out copies of a March 28 feminist faculty statement against sexual harassment and a Thursday statement on sexual violence signed by 300 feminist graduate students, calling for “broad conversation among faculty, administrators, graduate and undergraduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and workers on our campus.”

About 20 faculty members spoke during the roughly two-hour open comment period of the senate meeting to either criticize administrators or offer their advice on the next steps the administration could take to redress problems with reporting procedures and sanction processes. Many said they were dismayed that sexual harassment had permeated the campus for so long.

Campus anthropology professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes condemned at the meeting what she called a “culture of secrecy” on campus, drawing parallels between secrecy surrounding the spate of sexual harassment cases on campus and the Catholic Church’s efforts to sweep child sexual abuse scandals under the rug.

Several other speakers brought up the wealth of faculty research on topics such as workplace power imbalance and sexual harassment, questioning why the administration had not harnessed such knowledge more efficiently.

“We’re at a point of great danger but also great chances of actually using this moment to make drastic changes,” said Katrin Wehrheim, an associate professor of math, at the meeting. “We have the expertise on campus.”

The senate also passed a motion to grant Choudhry’s former executive assistant Tyann Sorrell an award for outstanding service to the university by a staff member, in recognition of how her allegations against Choudhry brought sexual harassment prevention and response to the forefront of administrative priorities.

At the end of the meeting, division chair and campus professor of political science Robert Powell invited Dirks and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele to respond to faculty members’ suggested improvements to the handling of sexual misconduct. Both administrators expressed their commitment to seeking faculty input in the future.

Although Steele declined to speak about specific details of what many faculty members criticized as his mishandling of allegations against Choudhry, Steele said at the meeting that it was “the most painful situation of my life.”

“Both the feeling of the meeting and the substance of the meeting will be helpful moving forward and making us better able to help both prevent and respond to instances of sexual harassment,” Steele said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

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