Campus community reacts to Claude Steele’s resignation statement

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When Claude Steele cited his wife’s ongoing health problems as a major factor in his decision to step down as executive vice chancellor and provost, some members of the UC Berkeley community began to question whether his statement told the full story in light of a slew of campus problems.

In a campuswide email sent Friday, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks announced Steele’s resignation — a decision met with a mixture of surprise, sadness and acceptance from students and faculty amid the campus’s recently released reports showing 17 substantiated cases of sexual harassment investigations within the past seven years and a $150 million deficit.

“I think his resignation removes some of the roadblocks to change,” said Michael Burawoy, a campus sociology professor and co-chair of the UC Berkeley Faculty Association, adding that effective changes across campus require the EVCP’s close connection with faculty, staff and students.

Steele began his role as UC Berkeley’s EVCP in March 2014 and has since contributed to launching budget reforms, improving fundraising methods and increasing campus diversity, according to Dirks’ email. Some campus community members, however, were discontent with the sanctions that Steele determined for former UC Berkeley School of Law dean Sujit Choudhry after he allegedly sexually harassed his executive assistant, Tyann Sorrell.

Aside from his wife’s health challenges, Steele’s resignation likely had to do with criticism and pressure from faculty, deans and department chairs, Burawoy alleged. Steele has previously said that the incident involving Choudhry was “the most painful situation of my life.”

While there were also significant concerns among faculty about the way Steele handled academic realignment to alleviate UC Berkeley’s financial problems, Steele took initiative in restructuring campus fundraising and addressing financial challenges, said Robert Powell, campus political science professor and chair of the Academic Senate’s UC Berkeley division.

Among his contributions as EVCP, Steele also promoted a more diverse faculty by allowing for departments to recruit those who served as role models for students of underrepresented-minority groups, according to Paul Fine, campus associate professor of integrative biology.

“He knew a lot about students and what it takes to be a student at Berkeley,” said Bob Jacobsen, dean of undergraduate studies at the campus College of Letters and Science.

Before serving as EVCP at UC Berkeley, Steele had years of experience working in private institutions, serving as a dean at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and as provost at Columbia University.

Steele improved Columbia’s tenure system by standardizing the procedure and making it more efficient, according to Andrew Davidson, a public health professor at Columbia.

Campus anthropology professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes, however, said she did not believe that Steele made a good adjustment from private institutions to a public one.

“When you have an outsider as (vice) chancellor, (it is important) that they learn how the campus operates through making connections with people who have been there for some time,” Burawoy said.

Many students had advocated Steele’s resignation prior to the Friday announcement, including Berkeley Law students in the immediate wake of the Choudhry incident. In a March Boalt Hall Student Association survey, 30 percent of respondents indicated their belief that Steele should resign not only as EVCP but from his faculty appointment to the law school.

“I was kind of shocked that he resigned, but a lot of people did have problems with the way he conducted his investigation,” said David Gomez, a first-year Berkeley Law student, who added that he was still unsure of the totality of the factors contributing to Steele’s resignation.

Selina Lao, a campus junior and the incoming ASUC student advocate, said she believed that the recent sexual harassment cases and budgetary issues at UC Berkeley likely influenced Steele’s decision to step down, adding that she was not only surprised by his resignation but concerned with who would serve as his interim replacement, considering how much training and knowledge the position entails.

“(I) would love to see people who are more student-centered and actively try to get students’ input, and not just undergraduates but graduates as well when they’re dealing with student issues that affect us,” Lao said.

But Jacobsen, who worked with Steele to revitalize undergraduate advising by hiring more advisers, said he was sorry to see Steele go and wished him the best in the UC Berkeley’s psychology department, which Steele is set to join next year.  

UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said in an email that once a decision on an interim EVCP has been reached, the entire campus community will be informed.

Senior staff writer Alexander Barreira contributed to this report.

Contact Roann Pao at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @roann_pao.

A previous version of this article may have implied that the campus’s recently released reports showing 17 cases of sexual harassment investigations within the past seven years included unsubstantiated cases. In fact, in all 17 cases, employees were found to have violated UC sexual misconduct policy.