Former UC Berkeley professor of philosophy John Searle was stripped of his emeritus status June 19 for violating university policies regarding sexual harassment and retaliation, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore.
Searle is known as “one of the most prominent philosophy scholars in the world,” according to the California Civil Rights Law Group. UC President Janet Napolitano revoked Searle’s title of emeritus professor, a status that confers “the prestige of continued association with the university” among other privileges, according to Gilmore. Revoking this title is, according to Gilmore, the most extreme disciplinary action the campus can take against an emeritus professor.
The removal of Searle’s title occurred in the wake of allegations regarding a series of incidents involving UC Berkeley alumna Joanna Ong during her time at the John Searle Center for Social Ontology, according to a lawsuit filed by the firm Kristensen Weisberg LLP against the UC Board of Regents and Searle on May 21, 2017. Ong worked as a research assistant to Searle and as a consultant for the center from July to September 2016, when she was dismissed from her position by her adviser Jennifer Hudin, according to the lawsuit.
“While Ong was employed at U.C. Berkeley, Searle sexually assaulted Ong and then continued to harass her as her employment continued,” the lawsuit stated.
Ong’s lawyers listed five causes of action in the lawsuit, including sexual assault, assault and battery, wrongful termination and retaliation. According to the lawsuit, Ong’s pay was docked and her work environment became hostile after she rejected Searle’s sexual advances.
According to the lawsuit, Ong initially reported the incidents of sexual assault and harassment to Hudin and another research assistant, but no action was taken at the time to address Ong’s concerns. In early September, Ong reported these issues once more to Hudin, who said she would help report the violations to upper management but later admitted she had no intention to do so, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint alleges that “U.C. Berkeley was well aware of Searle’s prior similar behavior with other young women including … his students and research assistants.”
The incidents were formally reported in November 2016 to the campus Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, according to Gilmore. The Committee on Privilege and Tenure within the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate heard the case, after which Chancellor Carol Christ made a recommendation for the removal of Searle’s emeritus status to the UC president.
Gilmore said in an email that while the administration was investigating Searle, because of the “disturbing nature” of the allegations, he was deprived of the right to participate in departmental activities and hiring processes, and he was not allowed an office on campus. According to Gilmore, the administration had to undergo the full disciplinary process before taking action against Searle.
“Sexual harassment and retaliation have no place in the UC Berkeley Community,” Gilmore said in an email. “We understand that such actions have the potential to cause great harm and are fundamentally detrimental to our educational mission.”