Content warning: This article contains references to sexual harassment and assault.
UCSC professor Gopal Balakrishnan was found by Title IX to have violated the university’s policy on sexual harassment. The Title IX investigation conclusion follows years of hushed stories and months of campus tension. Now, as the UC continues to pay Balakrishnan, survivors and students want justice. Shortly after Anneliese Harlander’s graduation in June 2013, tenured UC Santa Cruz history of consciousness professor Gopal Balakrishnan engaged in unwanted sexual conduct with her after a student party they both attended, according to the Title IX investigation report. The investigation into her complaint concluded Balakrishnan violated the UC Policy on Sexual Harassment in place until 2015.
Nearly five years later, at the end of January 2018, Harlander reported the incident to Title IX after reading an open letter including anonymous allegations against Balakrishnan. The investigation, which concluded Sept. 18, took about seven months with disciplinary action still pending. Since it didn’t result in immediate disciplinary action for Balakrishnan, Harlander and many others are still wondering when and how justice will be attained.
Harlander is among almost 800 individuals who signed a #MeToo petition calling for Balakrishnan’s termination from the UC, among other demands. The petition was created on June 5, 2018 and seeks systemic Title IX reform, too.
“As long as we stand together, then we can move forward and hopefully heal from these situations and work toward people being held accountable for their actions,” Harlander said.
Despite the investigation’s findings, and years of additional formal and informal allegations against him, Balakrishnan remains on paid leave. While he isn’t teaching at UCSC, he still receives $110,300 annually, said UCSC director of media relations Scott Hernandez-Jason.
Throughout the investigation, Balakrishnan denied all allegations against him through his counsel, Jamie Dupree. After the investigation concluded, Dupree declined to comment further.
“Now that the [Title IX] investigation has concluded, we are moving to the next step in the procedures for the disciplinary process pursuant to the required personnel procedures,” said Executive Vice Chancellor (EVC) Marlene Tromp in an email sent to campus staff.
Years before sexual misconduct allegations landed at the forefront of campus debate, students and other individuals gave warnings of Balakrishnan’s behavior.
“My first orientation as a grad student, […] someone pulled me aside and said ‘Don’t take classes under Gopal [Balakrishnan], he’ll harass you,’” said UCSC graduate student Ana McTaggart. “I’m computer science, I would never be taking a class under Gopal. The fact that some stranger felt compelled […] to warn me was shocking.”
In November 2017, some of those quiet stories were amplified when individuals wrote and posted to Facebook an open letter including seven detailed, anonymous allegations against Balakrishnan. The accounts accused Balakrishnan of intimidating students, sexually harassing individuals and using drugs with students. It also accused Balakrishnan of creating an intimidating environment for women and gender nonconforming individuals and preventing them from participating in academic spaces.
The open accusations jetted Balakrishnan’s name into campus conversations surrounding sexual violence.
This was the letter that led Harlander to report the incident from five years prior to the Title IX Office. When Harlander reported, the Title IX Office already knew of anonymous allegations.
“I can confirm that we received a number of anonymous allegations, and those are very, very difficult to do anything with,” said former interim Title IX director Cherie Scricca, who held the position during the Balakrishnan investigation.
The Title IX investigative process generally includes statements from both the complainant and the respondent, which can be hard to obtain when the complainant is unnamed. Some see this as a flaw in the system and are arguing for alternative, anonymous reporting routes that could result in disciplinary action for sexual assaulters.
“They were already aware of the fact that he had been accused of being a sexual predator,” Harlander said, “and basically they just really needed someone to come forward because they weren’t able to proceed with anonymous statements.”
Scricca could not confirm or deny this statement.
When Harlander and two other complainants came forward this winter, the office opened investigations into their cases.
The UCSC Title IX Office initiated its investigation into Harlander’s case in February, shortly after she reported her complaint against Balakrishnan. The office hired external private investigator GayLynn Conant, an attorney and member of the Association of Workplace Investigators, to conduct the investigation.
In the final report of the investigation into Harlander’s case, Conant listed six factual findings, based on a preponderance of evidence. These included that shortly after her graduation in 2013, Balakrishnan took advantage of Harlander’s extreme intoxication at a party, went to her home and engaged in unwanted sexual activity with her. Conant found Balakrishnan performed oral sex on Harlander and repeatedly attempted to have penetrative sex with her, and that she verbally declined consent multiple times.
In a separate case, Balakrishnan repeatedly attempted to have sex with another woman who verbally declined consent, and the woman and her friend forcibly pushed him out of the bed, according to the footnotes of the report for Harlander’s case.
“It is more likely than not that Respondent [Balakrishnan] engaged in unwelcome physical conduct of a sexual nature which is conduct that falls squarely within the definition of prohibited conduct under the University of California Policy on Sexual Harassment Policy dated February 10, 2006, the policy in effect at the time of the incident, and that a violation of the Policy has been substantiated,” according to Conant’s report conclusion.
According to Harlander, who is in communication with other complainants, and a Buzzfeed article published in September, the Title IX Office forwarded at least two other cases to the Executive Vice Chancellor (EVC) Marlene Tromp and concluded the alleged actions did not violate the UC Policy on Sexual Harassment.
Cases not deemed to fall under the scope of the UC Policy on Sexual Harassment are forwarded to the Office of the EVC, whether or not the allegations are determined to be factual, Cherie Scricca said. Due to Title IX confidentiality policies, she could not comment on the substance of the investigations.
In Harlander’s case, Conant considered statements from Harlander, three witnesses and Balakrishnan. Statements from private defense investigator Eric Mason were also included.
Balakrishnan’s attorney, Jamie Dupree, hired Mason on Balakrishnan’s behalf. In May 2018, Mason contacted Harlander and at least two other complainants who filed complaints to the Title IX Office to question them about the alleged incidents. Although the UCSC Title IX policy does allow respondents and complainants to hire their own investigators, complainants viewed the communication from Balakrishnan’s private investigator as intimidating.
“The main thing that really concerns me was the fact that they included the [private investigator’s] statement that Gopal [Balakrishnan] hired,” Harlander said. “That’s legally concerning considering we were very directly told that we cannot contact […] Gopal [Balakrishnan]. So how does that make it ok for him to have a private investigator contact us, let alone include it as evidence? That is absurd.”
Scricca maintained the UC could not prevent Balakrishnan from submitting any information regarding the case, including that obtained by a private investigator.
“It was never communicated that an investigator could not be used,” Scricca said. “What was communicated was a request that everyone keep private information that they learned during the investigation.”
Kristina Larsen, an attorney advising Harlander and another complainant, agreed the university cannot prevent respondents from hiring private investigators. She said it was the way Balakrishnan’s private investigator contacted the complainants directly that she found questionable.
Ultimately, GayLynn Conant, the Title IX investigator, deemed the statement from Balakrishnan’s private investigator uncredible, and it didn’t impact the outcome of Harlander’s case.
“Asking questions of a Complainant during an unexpected ‘cold call’ while the Complainant was at work, is a questionable investigation tactic. As a result, the investigator [Conant] does not consider the declaration to be persuasive on any issue,” wrote Conant in a footnote in the investigative report of Harlander’s complaint.
Due to the confidential process of Title IX, Conant was unable to comment on the investigative procedures or if the private investigator’s report influenced the outcome of the investigation into other complaints filed against Balakrishnan in winter 2018.
Harlander and Larsen still felt the inclusion of the statement was systemically problematic.
“I’m very concerned about the chilling message it [including the private investigator’ statement] is going to send to future complainants,” Larsen said. “That the university isn’t going to prevent, or admonish, a private investigator from reaching out directly to a complainant.”
Written rebuke. Reduction in salary. Permanent dismissal from the university.
These are all potential disciplinary actions for UC faculty who are found responsible for sexual assault or harassment.
Harlander and almost 800 others are pushing for Balakrishnan to receive the third option. With the Title IX investigation now closed, disciplinary action will be overseen by EVC Marlene Tromp and should be implemented by Oct. 31, according to a notification of the investigation’s conclusion sent to Harlander from Tromp. If Balakrishnan does not accept voluntary discipline, a disciplinary proposal will be reviewed by a peer faculty committee. The UC regents must approve all instances of faculty dismissal.
Harlander said she wants to see him removed from the university, but not because she’s seeking revenge. While Harlander expressed she might choose to pursue punitive action, she ultimately wants to get to the root of the problem.
“It’s more so seeking an opportunity for there to be healing and reconciliation,” she said. “And so that this never happens again.”
Within Title IX, the most that can happen is for Balakrishnan to be dismissed from the university. It’s possible Tromp will determine that to be an appropriate disciplinary procedure, but throughout the UC’s history, it’s been rare for tenured faculty members to be terminated.
In 2016, after former UCSC student Luz Portillo accused UCSC professor Héctor Perla Jr. of sexually assaulting her, Perla resigned before disciplinary action was decided. Portillo’s case was later settled against the UC for $1.15 million.
At the time, previous Title IX director Tracey Tsugawa said it’s common for faculty to resign before the final stages of an investigation. Scricca and UCSC director of media relations Scott Hernandez-Jason said they were unaware of any tenured faculty at UCSC who were terminated.
Because the case was investigated under Title IX and not a court of law, Balakrishnan cannot be prevented from teaching at another university even if the UC chooses to permanently dismiss him. So for Harlander, ensuring this kind of situation doesn’t happen again goes beyond the reaches of Title IX.
“Let’s say [Balakrishnan] gets fired. Where is he going to go next? And then potentially continue his actions,” she said. “If a sexual predator is removed from one space, and goes somewhere else, most likely the actions are going to continue unless you get to the root of the problem.”
To get to the root of the problem, Harlander believes in using restorative justice methodology.
Restorative justice centers on the idea that crimes cause harm to the survivor, perpetrator and community. Harlander said she is willing to engage in a mediation session or other form of restorative justice with Balakrishnan, if he is willing. Ideally, this would result in Balakrishnan acknowledging what he did, apologizing and making a commitment to change his conduct.
“[Restorative justice] is dependent on whether people are willing to be a part of it and therefore take responsibility for their actions, which is often the biggest challenge,” Harlander said. “[…] At this point with Gopal I haven’t seen that. I haven’t seen him taking any accountability for his actions.”
His attorney, Jamie Dupree, declined to give an updated response to Harlander’s case at time of print, citing the fact that some administrative Title IX proceedings, like the meetings with Marlene Tromp, have not yet been completed.
While Harlander wants to find justice and healing through restorative practices such as mediation sessions, she feels doubtful that will occur.