Graphics by Dagmar Kuta
Content warning: This article contains references to sexual harassment and assault.
*Name has been changed to protect the anonymity of this source.
Due process within the Title IX system provides protection to the accused. But in the last year, several complainants and mandated reporters involved in allegations against professor Gopal Balakrishnan have felt backlash and are wondering where their protections are.
Balakrishnan, a tenured professor in the history of consciousness department at UC Santa Cruz, has at least three Title IX complaints against him. An open letter circulating since November 2017 also details seven in-depth public accusations of sexual assault, violence, harassment, drug use with students and gender discrimination. Balakrishnan’s attorney Jamie Dupree said Balakrishnan denies all allegations.
Title IX protects those who have reported retaliation, but strictly within the UC system definition — which can only go so far.
Processes like Title IX are meant to mitigate retaliation. However, the UC’s rigid definition of retaliation, limited to acts that create barriers to one’s education or employment, leaves gaps in protection. Complainants and mandated reporters involved in complaints against Balakrishnan have been left traumatized by reactions from the campus community and doubt that the system can fully protect them.
Lyddia*, a lecturer in the humanities department, is a mandated reporter. By law, mandated reporters are required to report if abuse of any kind is confided in them, observed or suspected. Last year, multiple students came to Lyddia with complaints about Balakrishnan.
“I had to figure out whether it would be held against me that I didn’t report, and it has certainly been held against me that I did report,” Lyddia said. “It is definitely a ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ situation for a lot of people trying to do the right thing and also just trying to protect themselves.”
As she decided between not reporting and putting her job in jeopardy or reporting and putting herself in the middle of the conflict, the risk of retaliation weighed heavy on her mind.
Lyddia ultimately decided to report the allegations to Title IX and experienced intimidation because of it, she said. She feels the intimidating actions were rooted in a systemic issue.
“It is much easier for a lot of folks to imagine that the bad apple is the hysterical woman than recognizing this is actually something that has been casualized in the community for a long time,” Lyddia said.
Her office has been graffitied twice and colleagues and students spread rumors about her personal life. Despite the distress these instances caused her, it is unclear whether Title IX will consider them retaliation until after the investigation concludes.
The UC systemwide Title IX Office defines retaliation as any threats, intimidation or reprisals that create barriers to one’s education or position at the university.
Within the UC system, protecting those who bring reports forward from retaliation is a top priority, according to UCSC interim Title IX officer Cherie Scricca. But the retaliation must fall under the university’s definition.
Acts some may see as direct retaliation aren’t always encompassed by the Title IX definition. For example, Scricca said not being invited to a social gathering could qualify as retaliation, depending on how it affects one’s position at the university.
“Unless your job, or your role as a student, or whatever it is, is dependent upon your ability to be social with that group of people it’s not retaliation,” she said. “People can be mean. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t feel like someone is getting back at you. But it’s not retaliation, according to the [Title IX] definition.”
While unable to comment on specific cases, Scricca said if the accused is found responsible for retaliation, the punishment is the same as being found responsible for the alleged violation. This applies even if the accused was found innocent for the initial complaint.
“The institution takes retaliation very seriously,” Scricca said. “And the reason it takes retaliation very seriously is because we want people to report. And if people feel as though they’re going to be retaliated against for reporting, they’re not going to report.”
While the penalty for retaliation shows the strong stance of the office, the Title IX definition does not always align with the forms of retaliation complainants bring forward. The complainant is only protected against barriers to their education or work, not necessarily their social or emotional well-being alone.
“I definitely contacted Title IX a couple of times feeling panicky and feeling very frustrated by what does and does not constitute retaliation in their eyes,” Lyddia said. “[…] I felt like I really had to make myself vulnerable to be seen as a subject being retaliated on.”
Once someone reports allegations to the office, their name is given to the accused. Title IX can promise privacy, but they cannot promise confidentiality, Scricca said, because the office releases the complaint to the accused.
For students, particularly graduate students, or those who might be reporting their superiors, this lapse in protection can make them vulnerable to workplace retaliation.
The United Auto Workers Local 2865 (UAW 2865), which represents tutors, teaching and research assistants who are often graduate students, use an anonymous grievance process for those who don’t want their name to be given to the accused. This process prioritizes anonymity unlike Title IX, where there is a lack of confidentiality between accuser and accused. Currently this anonymous process, used to address sexual harassment as well as other forms of workplace harassment, is on the chopping block in UAW 2865 negotiations with the UC Office of the President (UCOP). The union theorizes this is to make Title IX the sole process to handle these issues.
“Title IX has failed a lot of grad students and the fact that it’s not anonymous makes people really hesitant to report,” said Ana McTaggart, UAW 2865 UCSC chapter chair. “What the university wants to do is they want to take away the right to do union [anonymous] grievance around sexual harassment. They want to make sure it is reported to Title IX and only to Title IX. And that’s just not okay because these are our workplaces.”
The anonymous grievance process provides protections that Title IX cannot. UAW 2865 created a petition, addressed to UCOP, that would continue to allow for an anonymous grievance process, creating a safe environment for those who report, and a timely investigation process.
McTaggart worries that reporting to Title IX could incite retaliation it cannot protect complainants from.
“Taking away [anonymous] grievance would have a silencing effect for survivors of sexual assault and harassment,” McTaggart said. “People are really scared to report harassment especially by their supervisors.”
Retaliation by the books does not always account for how it is experienced, it can sometimes take forms that are unprotected by the Title IX definition.
Lyddia, a lecturer in the humanities department, said Balakrishnan is an adviser figure to graduate students and a professor with tenure — two positions that give him power.
“I wouldn’t call myself a victim, but there is a questioning of anyone who spoke up about [claims against Balakrishnan], in a sense that you would be characterized as crazy, a loud mouth, a gossip or any one of these kind of tropes that we’re seeing all over Me Too right now,” Lyddia said.
In May 2017, Title IX did not investigate reports against Balakrishnan, according to a complainant, this was for multiple reasons — some complaints did not stand alone, others got fed up with the process and stopped engaging. In response, bathrooms across campus and Balakrishnan’s office were graffitied with statements like “Balakrishnan is a sexual predator.” Leaflets were also spread throughout the humanities department alleging the same behavior. Following these actions, a group of humanities faculty sent out an email condemning these actions and urging students to use Title IX and faculty to support Balakrishnan’s due process rights.
Complainants like Chloe*, who filed against Balakrishnan with Title IX in winter 2018 for alleged inappropriate behavior, saw the email chain as retaliatory and dismissive toward her and other complainants. After the Graduate Student Union brought these emails to light, multiple complainants expressed the faculty emails created a campus environment that felt hostile.
Retaliation takes many forms. When Title IX complainants in cases against Balakrishnan began receiving phone calls from his private defense investigator on May 9, many said it felt intimidating. Brian Glasscock, a Title IX complainant against Balakrishnan for a drug use incident in 2009, said the tone of the investigator was professional but the call itself felt threatening.
“Calling me and asking me about my particular status as a complainant and stating that you are a private investigator working on behalf of legal council — to me all of those things put together seem to be attempted intimidation,” Glasscock said. “It is less about the substance and more about the manner, to me the manner seems meant to intimidate.”
Jamie Dupree, Balakrishnan’s attorney, confirmed the defense investigator is a part of Balakrishnan’s legal team. “Professor Balakrishnan has due process rights,” Dupree said. “We believe asking someone about their complaints is a minimum.”
Within Title IX guidelines, Balakrishnan, or any respondent, has the right to a private defense investigator. Yet Chloe* and Glasscock see phone calls from the private investigator as an intimidation tactic.
“I received the phone call and text because of my status as a Title IX complainant and because I filed a complaint,” Chloe said in an email. “It didn’t seem like this private investigator was a sleuth trying to get information as much as he was trying to intimidate complainants by harassing them and making Balakrishnan’s acquisition of a legal team known.”
Before the private investigator called the personal numbers of two complainants and one witness, Balakrishnan’s accusers already felt the academic community at UCSC had disregarded their claims in emails sent in May 2017 and several faculty meetings.
Whether or not this is retaliation is up to the discretion of the Title IX investigator’s interpretation of policy. Despite the potential outcome, the complainants and mandated reporters feel impacted by Balakrishnan’s private investigator, faculty email exchanges and the campus culture around sexual assault and harassment.
A parallel investigation through Title IX will be run on perceived retaliation. This type of investigation usually concludes when the investigation for the initial complaint concludes, estimated to be finished in July.
Lyddia, a lecturer in the humanities department, recognizes the culture at UCSC as a part of a larger system where accusers are belittled and intimidated. While due process paves the road for fairness for the accused, accusers and reporters speculate how far their claims will go and what potential protections Title IX can offer.