Campus sexual violence culture shows structural failure

“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept” became the catchphrase for David Morrison’s tough and transparent handling of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and other unacceptable behavior in the Australian Armed Forces in 2013. Morrison’s mantra was no empty rhetoric. It twinned a passionate belief that all are equal before the law with the practical recognition that building community requires dismantling inequity. His action garnered him the Australian of the Year award in 2016 and proved that leadership is forged in times of crisis. Without such tests, as critic Joshua Rothman recently opined, “ a would be leader remains just a promising custodian of potential.”

By contrast, our leadership has responded to the growing furor over its mishandling of sexual harassment cases with a veritable circus, ranging from a top-down architecture of managed protest (“teach-ins” designed from on high and scheduled a semester in advance) to more committees. Pledges from on high to become a national leader in the prevention of sexual harassment on college campuses appear to be driven more by damage control and concerns to protect our market value than by the core values of this university.

Founded in 1868, UC Berkeley grew out of a vision in the state Constitution of a university that would “contribute even more than California’s gold to the glory and happiness of advancing generations.” In terms of momentum, moving toward equal share in that promised bounty has been no gold rush. Not until 1978 did Barbara Christian become the first tenured black professor at our institution, barely six years after the Faculty Club voted to end gender discrimination. In fall 2015, newly appointed Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Na’ilah Suad Nasir identified the “power of a system that marginalizes” as a key factor in the disturbing rise of “anti-Blackness” on college campuses. Professor Nasir emphasized the importance of “educating our campus community about the reality that we live in a country where race (and gender, sexuality and disability status) still plays a significant role in how the world reacts to us and the opportunities available to us.” It is this bigger picture that our leadership needs to address in tandem with its reform of sexual harassment policy.

Our campus has made efforts to that end. In 2014, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks announced “an unending campaign to ensure that every member of our campus community feels respected and valued.” In 2013, our campus climate survey found that staff feel undervalued and some other, less represented groups feel excluded. In response, our diversity website identified “robust, constructive discourse and daily interactions” as a recipe to raise morale, exhorting “the entire UC community” — “every student, every professor, every administrator, every staff member” to show “attention and … enduring commitment” to this ideal.

UC alumna Tyann Sorrell, executive assistant to former UC Berkeley School of Law dean Sujit Choudhry, appears to have demonstrated both attention and commitment to that ideal. Her sexual harassment lawsuit details high performance evaluations and two pay raises within her first two years of service: no mean feat for a mother of five (I write as a mother of three). But as Sorrell’s lawsuit and her recent news conference indicate, Sorrell’s emotional health and physical well-being atrophied in the face of continuing demeaning treatment by a senior male colleague. The timing of Sorrell’s lawsuit — filed March 8, International Women’s Day — was symbolic of the challenges women face in the workplace.

But gender was not the only contributing factor to Sorrell’s harassment or Chouhdry’s inadequate sanction. The handling of her case also indicates a devaluation of the skills and aspirations of nonacademic personnel as compared to professorial faculty. Such double standards create an enabling behavior that marginalizes the more vulnerable members of our community.  

This is unsurprising. Staff on our campus, such as Sorrell, too often fill the bill of “invisible technicians,” a term coined by Steve Shapin to describe the erasure of laboratory staff from the annals of scientific discoveries. A vital plank of our campus community — without whose skills, institutional knowledge and labor our faculty and administration could not function — staff are often rendered invisible, a status reflected in the primary ledger of behavioral norms for our faculty: the Faculty Code of Conduct.

Amended 15 times since its adoption in 1971, the code gives clear and appropriate guidance on how “University Faculty” should treat students, recognizing the power imbalance of the student-teacher relationship. The section “Colleagues” explicitly refers only to faculty, while the meager “Community” section emphasizes faculty freedom to “express their views” while warning faculty against “deliberately creating the impression that they represent the University” in their speech acts. Staff are entirely absent from these and other sections of the code.

Creating a genuinely inclusive and diverse environment requires more than ticking off Title IX boxes. It requires the reform of campus structures to incorporate staff, faculty and students as a single campus community who are all equal before a universal standard of acceptable behavior.

Rewording basic documents such as the Faculty Code of Conduct to incorporate staff as colleagues and revising the available range of sanctions for misconduct are just some steps this campus can take toward developing a greater ethic of transparency and accountability. As is clear from the many voices that spoke at Thursday’s special Academic Senate meeting on sexual harassment, there is a wealth of talent and expertise that our leadership can tap to this end. But we would also do well to look beyond the shores of academia — and America — for examples of best practice and models of leadership in this domain.


Penny Edwards is an associate professor of Southeast Asian studies and the equity adviser for the Group in Buddhist Studies.

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