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Campus Title IX investigations continue to be opaque, discouraging

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JULY 11, 2019

In November 2016, then-graduate student Joanna Ong filed charges against campus professor John Searle with the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, or OPHD. This past week, the investigation finally culminated in Searle being stripped of his emeritus status after having been found by a Title IX investigation to have violated university policies regarding sexual harassment and retaliation.

This is an important step toward improving how sexual violence and sexual harassment, or SVSH, are addressed at UC Berkeley. But campus clearly still has a lot of work to do, as demonstrated by Searle’s case. Searle had numerous SVSH complaints filed against him with OPHD during his time as a professor, some dating back to as early as 2004, and the extent to which these complaints were investigated by OPHD remains unclear. Ultimately, it took campus far too long to respond to the allegations against Searle, and the process was opaque and inaccessible.

And this is not a problem unique to the Searle case. Specific and crucial information about how cases are handled after filing is difficult to find. One of the clearest and most explicit resources available to those looking to pursue an OPHD investigation is the 71-page annual campus SVSH report, which features a brief summary of the various types of case resolutions on pages 45-46.

It is unacceptable and frankly absurd that this section is so brief and hard to find. Individuals considering filing these complaints deserve more structure and support from OPHD and deserve to have a clearer picture of how their cases would be handled.

And even if you can find this list of potential resolutions, they are extremely vague and discouraging. They state that if alternative resolution, which doesn’t lead to formal disciplinary action, is not the appropriate resolution, a formal investigation by OPHD may take place.

But there seem to be too many contingencies for allegations to result in investigations. According to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore and the annual SVSH report, many factors affect whether or not an investigation into a complaint is warranted in the eyes of OPHD. These factors include the nature of the allegations, whether or not the allegations of misconduct would result in a policy violation and the available information or evidence about the allegations. This essentially means that the individual or third party filing the complaint carries the burden of ensuring that there is sufficient proof before OPHD even considers investigating.

Multiple reports of prohibited behavior against the respondent is an additional determinant of whether or not OPHD will investigate a case. But this decision to factor in the number of complaints against an individual seems to invite the possibility of waiting for complaints to pile up.

OPHD’s lack of transparency seems to be a recurring issue. Complainants should have a clear understanding of what to expect when moving forward with a case. They should have access to a concrete timeline that states when they will receive updates about their case — or how soon they will know whether or not there is a case at all.

With the lengthy and tumultuous Searle case finally coming to a close, there is an example of what the timeline for SVSH cases looks like and what disciplinary action comes out of them. But this case makes it strikingly apparent that OPHD processes are flawed. It’s beyond time for UC Berkeley to begin enacting concrete change to a broken SVSH system.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editors.

JULY 11, 2019