After scandal, campus officials hope to assuage concerns with sex misconduct arbitration

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The story of Sujit Choudhry’s case is, in many ways, typical.

Almost 18 months ago, the former UC Berkeley School of Law dean was accused of sexual harassment by his executive assistant and was found to be in violation of UC sexual harassment policy. After a campus investigation, multiple lawsuits and a slew of other high-profile sexual harassment scandals this spring, faculty members continue to ask for more insight into the sexual misconduct adjudication process.

Much like former campus vice chancellor for research Graham Fleming and former campus astronomy professor Geoffrey Marcy, who both resigned from their respective positions last year amid allegations of sexual harassment, Choudhry’s case was resolved in a little-known and labyrinthine disciplinary process overseen by campus administrators.

Nineteen UC Berkeley employees have been found by the campus Title IX office to have violated sexual misconduct policies since 2011. While almost all of those who were staff members were swiftly suspended or fired, faculty members found in violation have consistently been adjudicated through an early resolution settlement process.

“(These sanctions) were decided effectively in secret,” said Berkeley Faculty Association co-chair Michael Burawoy, who has advocated for greater transparency of and faculty involvement in the disciplinary process for the faculty.

While faculty members note that some level of privacy is both legally guaranteed and logistically important in the disciplinary process, numerous faculty members have argued that the current policy lacks meaningful faculty input and transparency.

Campus officials hope to address these concerns by announcing a new committee, which they said will review cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment and advise the chancellor on the administration’s proposed sanctions for cases involving campus faculty members and staff who are not members of UC Berkeley’s senior leadership.

Chancellor opts for settlement

What started as occasional hugging and kissing by Tyann Sorrell’s boss escalated into a regular occurrence, leading her to file a complaint with the campus administrators, according to a report completed by the campus Title IX office last year.

Campus procedures require that allegations of sexual misconduct brought against a campus employee be first investigated by a compliance resolution officer from the campus Title IX office, who must determine whether there is probable cause to believe a violation has occurred.

In July 2015, then-executive vice chancellor and provost Claude Steele received a report from Title IX investigators concluding that Choudhry had violated UC sexual misconduct policy. Later that month, Steele approached Choudhry with an early resolution settlement that effectively ended the disciplinary process.

Had an early resolution not been reached, Steele could have chosen to file a formal complaint against Choudhry with the Divisional Committee on Privilege and Tenure. This body of UC Berkeley’s Academic Senate division would have recommended a sanction after considering evidence and arguments from the administration and the accused, according to senate bylaws.

At the time, although Steele was designated to conduct the settlement process in Choudhry’s case, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks had the ultimate authority to decide punishments for campus faculty members and staff. Even if Steele had opted to bring the case before the Academic Senate, Dirks would not be formally bound to the senate’s recommended sanctions.

The sanctions agreed to in Choudhry’s settlement — a written apology, counseling at his own expense and a 10 percent pay cut to his dean salary for one year — annulled his rights to challenge factual findings in the case and concluded the disciplinary process, according to a lawsuit filed by Choudhry against the UC Board of Regents on Sept. 15.

While Choudhry eventually stepped down as dean in March, his initial punishment was decried by many as overly lenient. After public outcry, UC President Janet Napolitano soon initiated a new disciplinary proceeding against Choudhry and a number of initiatives to reform universitywide responses to sexual misconduct.

Two visions for oversight

In the past five years, the campus Divisional Committee on Privilege and Tenure has heard only one case of faculty misconduct, according to committee chair Vern Paxson, who declined to comment on the details of the case.

“The mere fact that the administration might often resolve disciplinary issues via settlement is expected, rather than any cause for concern,” Paxson said in an email. He noted that settlements are often cheaper and quicker, and they provide greater confidentiality to the accused.

Many faculty members, including Paxson, have expressed concerns over their lack of participation in the early resolution process. Others in the Academic Senate noted the challenges of the lengthy process required for the Academic Senate’s Divisional Committee of Privilege and Tenure to recommend sanctions for disciplinary hearings.

On April 7, the Academic Senate held a special meeting to address the administrative failures and procedural obstacles in adjudicating sexual harassment on campus.

Less than one month later, members of the Academic Senate passed a resolution by a 100-77 vote, expressing their desire to create a new body within the senate that would involve campus faculty in reviewing sexual misconduct cases and revising campus sexual misconduct policy.

The proposal was never implemented by the senate’s Divisional Council — which approves bylaws for new committees — because of its concerns over the effectiveness of the review body. The senate, however, remains committed to increased faculty input in the disciplinary process, according to Daniel Melia, secretary of the Academic Senate.

Academic Senate chair Robert Powell said a different campus committee could soon be announced to address such concerns. The new group, first proposed by Napolitano in an April systemwide letter, would be spearheaded by Carla Hesse, the interim lead of the campus’s response to sexual violence and chair of the existing Chancellor’s Senate/Administration Committee on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment.

“In the current setup, there is very little peer review or faculty review in ensuring appropriate sanctions,” Powell said. “That lack of any sort of broader review is the motivation for (Hesse’s) peer review panel.”

Senior leaders not included

Hesse’s new committee would not address cases involving senior campus leaders such as Choudhry but would instead focus on advising cases involving faculty members and staff.

Cases involving high-level leaders will instead be reviewed by a systemwide committee, announced in March by the UC Office of the President, that is composed of representatives from all UC campuses. The body would assess proposed sanctions for senior officials — coaches, athletic directors and campus deans and administrators — across the UC system.

Hesse said she hopes to introduce a UC Berkeley peer review committee — independent of the chancellor’s committee, the potential Academic Senate committee and the systemwide committee — which would serve as “a confidential panel of peers” to advise the chancellor on proposed sanctions for sexual assault and harassment on campus.

“They would review the case and they would review the sanctions and give him advice about whether (the sanctions are) fair and equitable and appropriate,” Hesse said.

Administrators could not comment on the identities of those who would comprise the campus peer review committee, as the details are not yet finalized. Hesse said, however, that “all campus constituencies will be represented,” including undergraduate and graduate communities, as well as faculty members, staff and administrators.

Hesse plans to announce the campus peer review committee early next month.

Adam Iscoe covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @iscoe_dc.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Sujit Choudhry had engaged in suggestive remarks toward his executive assistant, according to a campus Title IX investigation report. In fact, while the report stated that the complainant alleged Choudhry’s use of “demeaning, loud language,” the report concluded that Choudhry’s remarks did not violate gender discrimination policy.