Assessing accountability in campus cases of sexual harassment

Beverly Pan/File

The UC Berkeley campus has promised to do its best to prevent and respond to sexual harassment as effectively, humanely, fairly and transparently as possible.

But how does the community know whether the campus is living up to this promise? It can be difficult to determine what accountability looks like when public discussion of any individual case is limited by the privacy considerations of the parties involved, as well as by confidentiality policies and laws protecting employee and student records. This question arises frequently, especially regarding cases involving faculty.

One component of accountability is being able to demonstrate, over time, that those found to have committed policy violations are sanctioned consistently, in proportion to the scope of the violation. While generally it is not possible to publicly discuss individual cases, it is possible to point to general patterns.

Every faculty member who has been investigated by the campus Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination since 2016 and found to have committed sexual harassment has faced disciplinary action. Some of those cases are currently ongoing. Of the cases that have concluded, all have resulted in one of the two most serious sanctions that systemwide university policy permits: dismissal or suspension without pay; or, for retired faculty, loss or suspension of emeritus privileges.

Accountability does not equate to dismissal of all who have been found to have violated policy. Not all will receive the most extreme penalty, as not all violations are commensurate. This general principle of proportionality of response applies not just to faculty, but also to students and staff who are found to have committed sexual harassment.

Another component of accountability consists of having a process that is fair and transparent — a process that contains checks and balances in addition to multiple levels of review. UC policies and procedures for investigating and disciplining sexual harassment have changed considerably over the years; the policies currently in force were substantially revised in 2016 (and are currently under revision again). Those familiar with past processes for responding to sexual harassment cases may, understandably, not be aware of the breadth of the changes that have taken place.

In the past, it was difficult to achieve sanctioning consistency. There was less central oversight or input from the parties involved in a case; individual adjudicators had little opportunity to build up experience and were not systematically trained. The current process has significantly more levels of input and review. This provides for much more consistency over time and across individuals.

A third component of accountability is transparency. This is the most difficult issue, given confidentiality considerations and the moral imperative not to retraumatize survivors or violate the privacy of witnesses by going public with very personal details about allegations or disciplinary measures.

But UC Berkeley is committed to making outcomes as transparent as possible. For example, in faculty discipline cases there is a choice between negotiating a settlement agreement and holding a live hearing before a faculty committee — the Committee on Privilege and Tenure. Both choices can result in a similar range of sanctions. Settlement negotiations between the administration and the accused individual are generally attempted first, as they take less time to complete and do not risk retraumatizing survivors in a live hearing format. Negotiated settlements are sometimes criticized as backroom deals. But in fact, settlements are more trauma-informed and can offer the most transparency, as it is campus practice to include in them a mutually agreed-upon public statement containing a basic summary of the allegations and final disposition.

The outcome of a disciplinary case is never going to undo the harm that was done in the first place. Although it is vitally important to have a fair and effective process, the imposition of discipline alone will never be ultimately restorative; discipline by itself will not solve the problem of sexual harassment. To solve that problem, we as a community must commit to strengthening our support for survivors and diversifying our ongoing prevention efforts. We must all take our sexual harassment prevention training and take it to heart; we must all, in small or large ways, live up to our values as a respectful community. Promises like those are completely possible to keep.

Sharon Inkelas is the special faculty adviser to the chancellor on sexual violence and sexual harassment.