Settlement Reveals Systemic Issues

Claims against professor Héctor Perla speak to Title IX process

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I.

A Latin American and Latino Studies (LALS) student claimed she was sexually assaulted by both professor Héctor Perla and a fifth-year undergraduate student-employee in June 2015. She said she went to the hospital and filed a police report the following day — the day of her graduation.

Luz Portillo is the survivor of the assault and said while Perla emceed graduation and the fifth-year student watched from the audience, she was being tested for forensic evidence. She did not graduate.

By releasing her name, she chose to be associated with the sexual assault in order to bring light to an issue that she had learned about in, among other places, her LALS courses, specifically as it relates to Latinx communities. Her intent by coming forward was to start a discussion about the mishandlings of Title IX cases.

UC Santa Cruz is currently under investigation for possible violations of federal law in the handlings of two Title IX cases. In this academic year alone, Title IX director Tracey Tsugawa said she anticipates the amount of reports will be over 300, so far 190 reports have been made — last academic year the Title IX office received 233 reports total.

“I learned [in LALS classes] the legal and ethical definition of consent and also the culpability of the perpetrators within our communities and how the shame associated with the assault silences victims for fear of being ostracized,” the survivor said. “It’s ridiculous that though I learned so much from this area of study, that a professor within the same department would be the one to assault me.”

The fifth-year student graduated and is no longer a student at UCSC, though she was a student employee at the time of the assault, working part-time at the dining hall, according to UCSC media relations.

Héctor Perla, a popular LALS professor, was placed on involuntary paid leave during the investigation process for around 10 months from August 2015 to June 2016. His reported salary in the 2015 calendar year was over $88,000, which he could continue to make on involuntary paid leave. As the Title IX process neared it’s end, he requested an Academic Senate committee hearing following disciplinary recommendations, but resigned just days before the hearing and disciplinary action could be decided.

Infographic by Connor Jang.
Infographic by Connor Jang.

“He was such a big advocate for us to speak out against the machismo in our culture, but he just perpetuated it himself,” the survivor said. “That’s one of the biggest problems with coming forward, the cultural and societal part of assault are going to be blamed on the color of our skin.”

Though the report was filed nearly two years ago, it wasn’t until recently that the law firm representing the student settled a case against University of California regents for $1.15 million.

UCSC’s Title IX office maintains that the investigation process for incidents of faculty and staff has a set and complicated process. For Academic Senate faculty specifically, this process includes numerous steps, beginning with an investigation by the Title IX office and the Charges Committee and possibly ending with discipline of some kind — though Title IX director Tracey Tsugawa said resignation usually happens before the final stages.

“It’s really hard because it’s competing interests,” Tsugawa said. “It’s a no-win situation. On one hand, we have to protect the individual, and on the other hand, we have to protect the university and future students and future faculty […] Our duty is to protect people, and it’s so hard when those two needs clash. It’s really hard.”

Perla violated the Faculty Code of Conduct. The case advanced as far as a scheduled disciplinary hearing, according to multiple sources, but he resigned before it took place. He moved to Washington D.C. where he took a position on the Council on Hemispheric Affairs as a senior research fellow before joining the American Political Science Association as a congressional fellow. He no longer holds either position.

II.

*Name has been redacted for privacy protection and a pseudonym of the source’s choice has been used instead.

Maria* dated Perla for about two months in summer 2015 when he helped her with a summer research project. She said everything between the two was consensual. They began dating in July 2015; she was 19 at the time, and the Title IX report against him was already filed.

“I knew he was going through something throughout those two months because of the way he acted — insecure and manipulative,” Maria said. “He would constantly make sure if I was consenting to anything pertaining to be sexual.”

Maria was not a LALS student. She said she didn’t know of his other relationships at the time, and was heartbroken when Perla suddenly cut off their relationship via social media.

“It wasn’t until I got called in to talk about a [Title IX] case when I realized something had happened and the case was about him,” she said. “Perla was the classic machismo man, and honestly, I wasn’t surprised when one of the LALS faculty members said they knew he liked to prey on undergraduates.”

Even in having a consensual relationship with one of his prospective students, Perla was violating the Faculty Code of Conduct section IIA, subsection 6, which states that any romantic or sexual relationship with a present or future student is prohibited. Maria hoped to take his class in the fall.

“This shouldn’t be happening — students and professors dating,” Maria said. “They are abusing their position of power to prey on these starry-eyed undergrads. It’s so disrespectful to us as Chicana women trying to better ourselves.”

Perla was under investigation by Title IX at the time and did not tell Maria. It would be almost a year until the investigation would progress to its final stages, and he would eventually resign.

“These are the kinds of things that do happen,” said former Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor (CP/EVC) Alison Galloway, who was the disciplinary authority at the time of this case. “I think it’s probably a weakness of institutions where it’s a situation where ‘everybody knows,’ but it doesn’t get high enough up the ladder necessarily for someone to do something about it.”

If Perla had not resigned, the Academic Senate hearing would have recommended the nature of his discipline, if any. There are varying levels of discipline, ranging from a written censure to dismissal.

Non-tenured faculty members can be dismissed by the chancellor and CP/EVC. Though Perla was not yet a tenured faculty member, his file was under consideration for tenure since he had been at UCSC for over four years. Because he was under consideration, if both Galloway and Chancellor George Blumenthal agreed to dismiss him, it would fall on the legal council and Galloway said it would likely be up to the UC regents to have the final say, since the right of dismissing a tenured faculty member falls on them.

“I can’t say specifically what the response was, but I met with the professor and said, ‘You know, I think this is an appropriate outcome.’ And I couldn’t see a way that I could have him around,” Galloway said. “It went from there — it was going to go to [the Academic Senate committee on] privilege and tenure at the time that he submitted his resignation.”

Since the settlement news broke, numerous students have voiced concern for the systemic issues of Title IX and the lengthy processes of reporting and investigating cases.

“This issue is much bigger than just one case,” said fourth-year Ellen Poe, who is organizing with other students to reform Title IX processes. “There are structural issues throughout the Title IX investigation and discipline process that prevent it from working as effectively or transparently as it could.”

Poe, along with several other students, emphasized that this is an ongoing issue not limited to faculty and staff members, and that all reports should be taken as seriously as faculty allegations.

“Looking forward, I’m hoping to see students getting more involved and putting pressure on the administration to better address sexual violence at UCSC,” Poe said.

III.

According to numerous students in the LALS department, rumors about Perla’s behavior were common. Many said Perla attended parties with students, often made inappropriate comments and asked for female students’ phone numbers.

“It brings a sense of distrust and pain because we’re taught in LALS to look out for one another; to trust and fight machismo and all the -isms within our communities,” said an LALS student who preferred to remain anonymous. “So when a breach like this happens, it makes me shut down.”

In cases involving faculty, many survivors of sexual assault or harassment do not report it because of the power dynamic involved in student-faculty relationships, and Title IX director Tracey Tsugawa said she often gets reports about faculty members where the complainant asks to not initiate an investigation for fear that it will impact their education and future. Students report, she said, because they often want something on the record.

The anonymous student was in Perla’s class in fall 2014. She said she looked up to him as a mentor, and he helped her talk through her plans for school. After meeting up a few times, she said, he once took her to a secluded area near a beach where he started asking questions about her personal life, such as whether or not she had a boyfriend, and encouraging her to come sit close next to him. She was not involved in any Title IX investigation relating to him and never reported this incident, though she said it made her very uncomfortable.

“My body started to shake and I couldn’t pinpoint the reason why, but I felt unsafe. He kept insisting that I should sit down next to him, but I didn’t want to,” she said. “I couldn’t bring myself to do so.”

The student told him she had a girlfriend, and said his tone changed when he found out she was gay. She said she followed up with him to get his opinion on a career choice shortly after their encounter, and he never responded.

“It makes us angry and betrayed most of all because it’s a man we came to appreciate and care about,” she said.

The LALS department released a statement on Feb. 1, following a statement from the chancellor, condemning sexual violence and assuring that the LALS community is one of “trust, respect and transparency.”

“As an alum, I would like students to have the same experience that I had [in LALS],” said LALS major and alumnus Manuel Burciaga. “It was a unique experience, it was a lifechanging experience. It’s hard to talk about because I worked with this professor. I had classes with this professor. It’s disgusting.”

Burciaga expressed that he wanted to be part of the conversations LALS has around sexual assault, despite having graduated. He said he would like to write a letter to the department posing questions about the case and transparency around issues of sexual assault.

“I wanted to see what the department has to say,” Burciaga said. “Not only on the letter they sent out, but I have questions for them. I would like to have some answers.”

IV.

Though Title IX director Tracey Tsugawa was unable to confirm if there have been other reports against Perla since the settlement news broke, many have come forward expressing similar experiences or concerns with him.

“When I heard about the settlement, I was so shocked and felt so shitty,” said Maria, a UCSC student. “I thought I was the only one, and in reality I was one of [many]. I felt betrayed.”

Many also expressed that this instance speaks to a wider discussion of awareness of the culture surrounding sexual harassment and assault. It isn’t one person, one instance, one case.

“A lot [of] people think that this is just a singular episode,” said former UCSC student Luz Portillo. “But it’s bigger than that.”