Status Over Survivor

Cal law dean’s return undermines severity of sexual harassment

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*Trigger warning: this editorial contains references to sexual harassment.

When he rubbed her neck, she felt uncomfortable. When he squeezed her, she froze with shock. When he grabbed her hands and placed them on his hips and kissed her, she cried in a bathroom stall with frustration. So she decided to take action.

There are at least 19 UC Berkeley employees who were found to have violated the school’s sexual harassment policy since 2011, many of whom are still working on campus today — including law school Dean Sujit Choudhry who was found by the UC to have sexually harassed his executive assistant, Tyann Sorrell.

Sorrell looked to UC Berkeley’s administration to bring forth justice — but found little help.

Despite the Title IX investigation finding Choudhry in violation of the school’s sexual harassment policies in his unwelcome hugging, kissing and touching in a sexual nature, he was allowed back on campus this fall. After deciding the university hadn’t done enough, Sorrell filed a lawsuit against Choudhry and the university.

Allowing Choudhry to return to UCB undermines survivors of sexual assault and harassment, as it perpetuates the idea that having power and status constitutes less harsh consequences.

The university allowed Choudhry to keep his tenured faculty status during the investigation, while Sorrell fought for her own psychological and physical well-being. He has remained on campus while suing the UC system.

As the Title IX investigation was pending, Sorrell was forced to use her sick days to avoid contact with Choudhry. Eventually she was given paid administrative leave, which was provisional upon the outcome of the investigation, according to released emails.

The university justice system is notoriously sympathetic to harassers who are held on social pedestals because of their positions as deans, tenured professors or promising athletes. The UC seems to be more concerned with maintaining social status rather than the basic welfare of the survivors.

When 1 in 4 women across the UC system are sexually assaulted, the fact that the UC is not able to effectively protect them is unacceptable. A report, released by UC President Janet Napolitano, in which eight campuses provided partial data, shows that “76 percent of 141 allegations made against faculty members from 2012 through 2015 were unsubstantiated or settled without a formal investigation,” according to The LA Times.

At UCB alone, the university allowed astronomer Geoff Marcy, Vice Chancellor of Research Graham Fleming and assistant professor Blake Wentworth to retain campus positions after being found guilty of sexual misconduct. Even though they received consequences such as pay cuts, fines, mandatory counseling and orders to issue apologies, it’s not nearly enough to be qualified as justice served.

Choudhry’s return to the campus community questions the competency of the UC system to carry out sound and consistent ramifications against perpetrators of sexual violence.

Survivors of sexual harassment should not be silenced or disregarded, and violators should not be allowed to resume their business as usual.

While Tyann Sorrell fights for the right to be respected and safe in her workplace and against the power imbalance that exists between her and her harasser, Sujit Choudhry is suing for alleged racial discrimination, accusing UC President Janet Napolitano of making him the symbol for the UC’s crackdown on campus sexual harassment instead of other white UC Berkeley faculty who were found in violation of similar policies. The UC system is struggling to tie up the loose ends of several types of social injustices — sexual harassment, racial discrimination and trying to fix a system that values status over honesty.

This April, Napolitano released a letter directing a task force to find a way to speed up sexual harassment investigations and create a more representative group of campus members to suggest disciplinary actions, which are currently decided by top administrators.

Despite the UC system’s efforts toward handling the campus sexual harassment, UCB’s track record reveals the system to be broken. If the UC system intends to honor its goal of fostering a safe and encouraging environment for students, it needs to listen to the voices of survivors and of the students whose voice are systemically silenced, instead of revealing itself as dysfunctional and damaging.