Campus alumna starts petition to fire UC Berkeley professor accused of sexual harassment

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A UC Berkeley alumna created a petition April 11 that calls for the campus to fire John Searle, tenured UC Berkeley professor emeritus of philosophy, in response to recent sexual assault allegations made by Joanna Ong, Searle’s former research assistant, against him.

The petition, created by Aarti Kelapure, seeks to rename the John Searle Center for Social Ontology and remove Searle’s professor emeritus title. As of Monday, Kelapure’s petition had about 20,537 of the 25,000 signatures needed to reach its goal.

“It is an insult to those women Searle harassed, and to all female students, to give Searle such a lasting legacy on campus,” Kelapure said in an email. “These changes would show that (UC) Berkeley takes sexual harassment seriously and cares about protecting its students.”

Searle could not be reached for comment as of press time.

Ong filed a lawsuit March 21, alleging that Searle sexually assaulted her while she was working for him. In the suit, Ong also alleged that the campus attempted to cover up Searle’s actions after she received a 50 percent pay cut following her complaints.

“The school should have done something a long time ago, and they’re going to see their day in court,” said John Kristensen, Ong’s lawyer.

Kelapure’s petition alleges that campus officials knew of at least three other students who made sexual misconduct accusations against Searle, citing a BuzzFeed article as proof. The petition also alleges that the campus’s philosophy department has received complaints about inappropriate comments Searle made in lectures but has not reprimanded or disciplined him for these alleged indiscretions.

Campus senior and philosophy major Abhi Kodukulla, who took Searle’s Philosophy of Mind class in spring 2016, said the allegations against Searle should be confirmed before his termination is considered.

“In the interest of preserving due process, I probably would defer it to the civil suit, OPHD and Title IX, and should they confirm the allegations, then obviously some sort of justice would be expected,” Kodukulla said.

In early March, Searle was removed from his teaching post for the remainder of the semester as an interim measure while the investigation is pending, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore. Gilmore said in an email that the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, or OPHD, investigation will look into all alleged incidents.

Incoming UC Berkeley chancellor Carol Christ previously told The Daily Californian that the process of firing a tenured professor would require recommendations from their department, which would then go to the budget committee of the academic senate. These recommendations would then be made to the provost before going to the chancellor. If the chancellor decides that the professor should lose tenure, the case would go to the UC Board of Regents.

Although the investigation is ongoing, Kelapure’s petition has gained significant attention in the week since its launch.

“I started this petition because female students deserve to study and work in a safe environment, free from sexual harassment,” Kelapure said in her email. “All students, both male and female, deserve the support of real mentors, and schools like (UC) Berkeley have a duty to provide them with professors who don’t abuse their power.”

Contact Carina Zhao at [email protected].