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UC Berkeley must put students first in sex misconduct cases

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SEPTEMBER 06, 2018

A little over a month ago, I was notified that my former professor has been suspended for three years without pay. The outcome has been long in the making; I filed my complaint in March 2016. The process has been mostly silent.

First there was a five-month investigation, during which most of my colleagues were not informed by the administration that a professor in their department had been accused of serious violations of the faculty code of conduct and that the accusations had been taken seriously enough to warrant an extensive investigation. Then, after the investigation concluded, and upheld almost all my allegations, there was an opaque — and for me, traumatic — privilege and tenure process.

Then nothing. Then silence.

After the investigation first concluded, and I had no idea what was going to happen next, I looked for answers. I wanted to find traction and a sense of solidity under an ever-shifting ground, a maze of legal rules I had to discover myself.

It felt to me, at every turn, like I was the least valuable person involved. When I asked that the respondent not be present in the hearing, my request was denied. When I asked the department chair for a meeting shortly after the investigation concluded, I was asked to wait until he had received “official notification.” It felt to me that sticking with procedure was far more important than my ability to participate.

In the absence of any other information, what conclusion could I possibly have drawn, other than that I, as a student, wasn’t a priority?

And shouldn’t it be the students, first and foremost, who matter?

The investigation finished in October 2016. Finally, I thought. We could talk about it. His students could be informed. I’d met some of them. They reminded me of myself — similar insecurities, the same fears.

I remembered what he’d said to me: that my other advisers were “vultures,” that he’d protect me. I’d assumed, of course, that given that the investigation upheld my allegations and because the Chronicle had done some alarming reporting on older cases of his, that people in his orbit should be informed.

So far as I know, they were not. From what I could tell, they knew nothing of the investigation or of the outcome until I went public in the San Francisco Chronicle. As the Chronicle reported later, there was an outcry from the student body in response to a policy that prevents campus from disclosing case information. Only then did the campus offer an alternative class for students. I thought after that happened that we might be able to have more open discussions. I’m still waiting to have an open discussion.

So I waited. I wrote my dissertation. I wrote a story for the New York Times about what I wore to look believable, and I got the attention of an administrator, who asked to meet, but by then I was so angry at the years of silence that I was unwilling to give another minute of my time.

And then I heard the news. And then the Chronicle reported on his suspension. And then a line appeared on his official university biography page, stating that he would be “away” for three years. When I called around recently, asking for clarity on why there wasn’t more information, campus officials told me that these cases are confidential personnel matters that the university can’t comment on.

None of this offers me any real measure of confidence in support for present or future students.

The university needs to do better by its students. It cannot be up to people like me, who are willing to put our careers and our reputations on the line, again and again. It must be up to those who are tenured, who have careers and protections and who are in positions of real power. Recently, on Facebook, a faculty member told a reporter to ask her and her colleagues if she wanted the suspended professor back. To her I say: Don’t wait to be asked. To all my former professors: Don’t wait to be asked. Speak up.

In the meantime, here are my suggestions to my colleagues, my fellow graduate students. Talk to each other. Reason things out. Share information. Be open. Be willing to be vulnerable. Abuse of power comes through isolation and intimidation. Talk to your professors. Question the seemingly absolute power of some people to destroy, or build, your career.

There are more of us than there are of them. There are more good faculty members who want to educate their students than there are who abuse their positions of power. Stick with the good ones. Don’t back down. Hire lawyers. Hold your faculty accountable. Ask if anyone in the department is under active investigation. If you’re told no, ask if that’s because it’s the truth or because no one’s supposed to say otherwise. If someone’s listed as being “away,” ask why. Ask if you’re allowed to know why. If you’re not, that might be a clue.

Most of all, be unrelenting. This institution can change. I’ve witnessed it change in my time here. Investigation times have been shortened; the privilege and tenure hearing might not be as challenging for the next person; the PATH to Care center is staffed with good, often trauma-informed workers. These changes happened because of the brave students who came before me, who spoke up loudly and publicly, who put their careers on the line and who refused to back down. We can too.

Eva Hagberg Fisher is a doctoral candidate in visual and narrative culture.

SEPTEMBER 08, 2018