Campus graduate students file state complaint against campus assistant professor, UC regents

Enrique Lopez/Staff

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Two campus graduate students filed an official state complaint Monday to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, or DFEH, against campus assistant professor Blake Wentworth and the UC Board of Regents.

In March 2015, Kathleen Gutierrez and Erin Bennett filed sexual harassment complaints with the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, or OPHD, against Wentworth, a professor in the department of South and Southeast Asian studies. Six months later, the OPHD determined that Wentworth had only violated the UC Policy on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence in Gutierrez’s case.

Bennett’s case was dismissed on the basis of not being “sufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute sexual harassment,” according to the DFEH complaint filed by Bennett.

When Gutierrez and Bennett met with OPHD representatives, they were not informed of their rights to legal counsel or how long the campus investigation would take, according to Arabelle Malinis, one of Gutierrez’s and Bennett’s attorneys.

“There is very little transparency,” Gutierrez said during a press conference Monday. “We were not informed about the process and its progress.”

Malinis noted during the press conference that the OPHD has a specific responsibility to effectively deal with cases of sexual misconduct. She added that the complainants’ actions were meant to end the “culture of impunity” on campus.

“We demand that the University of California take sexual harassment seriously,” Bennett said during the press conference. “The process of filing a complaint needs to show empathy for the survivor, and the procedure needs to be transparent.”

After the press conference Monday, according to Malinis, Gutierrez met with Carla Hesse, interim lead for the sexual harassment response on campus, to share her experiences with Wentworth and to demand immediate action.

The campus has taken steps to protect the interests of students in light of the allegations, according to campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof. These include requiring Wentworth to avoid proximity to one of the complainants in the department’s building and removing him as the adviser for one of the complainants.

The investigation of the complaints that were filed to the DFEH on Monday could take a year or two to complete, according to Michael Flynn, another of Gutierrez’s and Bennett’s attorneys.

In accordance with existing procedures for faculty discipline, members of the campus faculty are currently investigating the case, according to Mogulof. Once their work is completed, action will be taken based on its findings.

The complaint filed to the OPHD last year and the complaint filed to the DFEH on Monday, however, are two separate processes, according to Flynn. If the campus takes the appropriate action, the DFEH may not have to get involved, he noted.

“We’re giving the university an opportunity to respond and to do the right thing,” Flynn said.

The disciplinary consequences of the campus investigation would allow for “the full range of sanctions,” including dismissal, according to Mogulof.

If the campus avoids issuing disciplinary action and the DFEH investigation finds that Wentworth violated campus sexual harassment policies, both parties will be given the option to mediate. Should this fail, the matter will be resolved in court, Flynn said.

In addition to the complaints filed Monday, Gutierrez and Bennett issued a list of demands to the campus, including Wentworth’s immediate termination as well as the implementation of a consistent and expeditious process for investigating cases of sexual misconduct.

“I came in with an objective to study, to learn, to teach,” Gutierrez said at the press conference. “I want that back.”

Contact Sofia Gonzalez-Platas at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sgonzalezplatas.