This past March, news broke on campus that UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Sujit Choudhry had been sued by his former executive assistant, Tyann Sorrell, for repeatedly sexually harassing her for almost a year. She sued for eight causes of action: sexual harassment, retaliation, assault, battery, failure to take reasonable steps to prevent harassment and retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, failure to discharge a mandatory statutory duty and violation of business and professions code. Although Choudhry was found in violation of UC Berkeley’s sexual harassment policy, his “punishment” resulted in only a 10 percent decrease in salary for one year, required counseling and a requirement to write a letter of apology to Sorrell. In her lawsuit, Sorrell reportedly was told by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele that he had “seriously considered terminating the Dean” but had decided not to because “it would ruin the Dean’s career.”
Now, it has come to light that UC President Janet Napolitano had called for Chancellor Nicholas Dirks to ban Choudhry from campus during the spring semester amid the lawsuit. Dirks, however, never implemented this ban. Thus, Choudhry continues to have full privileges as a tenured professor and, although he is not scheduled to teach any classes, he is able to conduct research and publish as normal.
This is absolutely, utterly unacceptable. By failing to provide legitimate consequences for Choudhry’s actions, this campus makes it very clear once again where its priorities lie. It remains shocking to me that amid national media attention reprimanding UC Berkeley for its failure to adequately address sexual harassment and sexual assault, our tuition still funds the salary of a man who was found in violation of our own policy. It is disgraceful that the process for pursuing claims of sexual harassment by a faculty member is so secretive and has so little oversight that a clear violation of Title VII and campus policy can result only in a minuscule reduction of pay and that this information only became public knowledge after the survivor chose to sue over the severe mishandling of her case.
This, however, transcends issues of policy. I am concerned with the sort of precedent this sets in terms of our core values. How can we consider ourselves a progressive institution when we have tenured professors who pose a serious danger to the wellbeing and safety of women on this campus? We must recognize the power dynamic that already exists between professors and students and how that dynamic could easily be exacerbated and made dangerous by a man with a history of abusing his authority in inappropriate ways. Additionally, we must think about all the other men on this campus who saw the deliberate leniency our disciplinary system exhibited toward Choudhry. These men now know that they can easily get away with something similar. The cultural climate created by this choice is toxic. Survivors on this campus cannot seriously be expected to feel supported by seeing glossy signs reading “It’s On Us” on their way to class when 30 seconds later they could see a known faculty assailant.
In The Daily Californian this past Tuesday, Choudhry had the opportunity to explain “his side” in an op-ed I found troubling for a variety of reasons. First, he wrote that because Sorrell never disclosed to him that his conduct was sexual in nature (which is incredibly common in relationships of unequal power as to avoid retaliation), he cannot possibly be considered a predator. I believe that a man with as much legal experience as Choudhry understands why a plaintiff would feel uncomfortable coming to a boss with a complaint that he had sexually harassed her and why her refusal to do so does not negate the perpetrator’s behavior. Second, I am frustrated and confused by Choudhry’s call for students to “refrain from judgment” until a later time, when he has already been found to have violated our sexual policy. And finally, the majority of the piece was devoted to an emotional plea for support during what he describes as a traumatic incident for him, a self-victimizing outlook meant to instill guilt into those who were (and are) outraged by his behavior and our administration’s subsequent response. We readers are made to feel pity for a man who has committed sexual violence rather than the person who survived it.
We see a similar pattern again and again: Those in power routinely prioritize the careers of men over the people harmed in their wake. In no other crime other than sexual violence do we consider the impact a punishment may have on the future personal life of a perpetrator as a legitimate means for lenient disciplinary action. We saw it done in Judge Aaron Persky’s decision to only lightly sentence Brock Turner, a Stanford student found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, because he didn’t want punishment to “severely impact” Turner’s life. We saw it done in the 2012 Steubenville trials, in which the defendants were tried as minors in order not to “ruin their football careers.” And, most personally, I see it in the guilt my survivor friends who have chosen to report their assault feel every day because they have been conditioned to prioritize their assailants’ wellbeing over their absolute legal and moral right to justice.
Sometimes, I wonder what our justice system would look like if the broad cultural forgiveness and understanding we somehow grant to people found guilty of sexual violence could instead be shifted towards survivors. In a year’s time, I will be applying to a list of law schools where I hope to pursue a career of representing people who have experienced gender-based discrimination or violence, and I hope that by then our administration seriously changes how it deals with faculty assailants so Berkeley Law can remain on my list.
Marandah Field-Elliot is an ASUC senator