Content warning: This article contains references to sexual harassment and assault.
*Name has been changed to protect the anonymity of this source
**Gopal Balakrishnan is referred to as GB through student accounts
Graffiti and leaflets detailed allegations of sexual assault and harassment by a professor in the humanities department in spring 2017. The anonymous action sparked a contentious debate between students and faculty, anonymous allegations on Facebook and a complex Title IX investigation.
Seven anonymous allegations of sexual assault and harassment, drug use and creating a climate in which opinions of women and gender nonconforming people were minimized were published against Gopal Balakrishnan, a tenured history of consciousness professor at UC Santa Cruz. The accusations were published on Facebook in November 2017, spurring campus controversy between faculty addressing Balakrishnan’s claim to due process and students making public accusations.
Since the #MeToo movement, accusations of sexual assault and harassment have been on the forefront of national consciousness and social media. The anonymous allegations state this is not just about the actions of one professor — but the lack of accountability in the culture of higher education.
“We are addressing a broader ‘we’ — the community of intellectuals, academics, radicals and current and former students of which GB** is and has been a part,” the anonymous Facebook statement reads.
Beyond these public statements, there are more allegations against Balakrishnan. Chloe*, a former student, alleged inappropriate behavior by Balakrishnan to Title IX investigators in winter 2018.
The investigations into Chloe’s complaints and the Facebook allegations, opened this winter, were set to conclude on May 4. Title IX investigations generally last 60 business days, but the external investigator hired by UCSC Title IX Office, Gaylynn Conant, requested a 45-day extension due to the volume of witnesses. If no other extensions are requested the investigation will conclude in July.
Chloe’s story was not included in the Facebook allegations. After reporting to Title IX she said she experienced harassment from peers, faculty and Balakrishnan. To maintain her anonymity, her complaint will not be shared, but her experience since reporting has shed light on the burden many accusers of Balakrishnan have felt in the last year.
Balakrishnan could not be reached for a comment regarding these allegations, but his attorney Jamie Dupree said he denies all claims against him. Some claims from the anonymous Facebook allegations date back to 2005, when Balakrishnan started a tenure-track position at UCSC.
The graffiting and leafleting throughout campus alleging Balakrishnan was a “sexual predator” occurred just months after the UC Regents reached one of the largest Title IX settlements in history. Luz Portillo, a Title IX complainant against former UCSC professor Héctor Perla, settled for $1.15 million after the UCSC Title IX Office failed to address alleged sexual violence and harassment by faculty.
During the spring of 2017, Jess Whatcott, Graduate Student Association (GSA) president from 2016-17, said multiple students came to her with complaints about Balakrishnan. History of consciousness is a predominantly graduate student program, though some undergrads do take courses in the department.
Whatcott referred two people, not including Chloe, to Title IX. There were others who chose not to go to Title IX or the Academic Senate regarding their allegations against Balakrishnan, Whatcott said.
Though the specific reasons individuals choose not to report aren’t known in this case, fear of retaliation is often a prominent factor in choosing not to report to Title IX, according to both Whatcott and Cherie Scricca, interim Title IX officer.
“Graduate students work very closely with one or two faculty members and so they’re very vulnerable to retaliation,” Whatcott said. “That came up a lot, the fear of reporting and having one’s academic career cut off.”
Multiple sources said that as of May 2017 the UCSC Title IX Office had at least some knowledge of allegations against Balakrishnan. Students suspected Title IX had made no movement on the investigation. Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Balakrishnan said Title IX sent him a letter stating the office would not open a formal investigation based on complaints as of May 2017.
Because Balakrishnan could not be reached for a comment, City on a Hill Press could not confirm this with him. Interim Title IX officer Scricca also would not confirm or deny this due to confidentiality.
Scricca said the office could not comment on specifics of any case, but in general there are many reasons Title IX may not pursue an investigation. Not having the name of a complainant or respondent, claims not violating policy or limited information about the complaint could play a role in determining whether or not to open an investigation, according to Scricca.
The belief that the university and higher education community had done nothing to address these allegations and Title IX complaints led individuals to graffiti bathrooms and spread leaflets in spring 2017 that alleged Balakrishnan sexually assaulted and harassed students, according to anonymous student who was involved.
Chloe said growing tension between students and faculty members in the humanities department after the graffiting and leafleting added to the already emotional and time consuming burden of reporting to Title IX. Chloe did not participate in graffiti or leafleting.
“For a year now, students who have spoken out have endured a climate of hostility,” Chloe said, “in which faculty have disparaged students and their complaints both in semi-public email exchanges and in media outlets.”
Chloe is referring to an email professor Christopher Connery sent to a group of humanities department professors on May 7, 2017. The email, signed by Connery and other professors, criticized student actions in light of the fliers and graffiti.
“In an attempt to justify vigilante tactics, the leaflets impugn campus procedures for handling sexual harassment,” Connery said in the initial email. “Such a campaign threatens us all, faculty, staff and students alike, insofar as it seeks to condemn by rumor, insinuation, and repetition. There are procedures in place on our campus and in our courts to address the grievances we have against one another, and these sorts of anonymous accusations impede the proper functioning of those channels. We urge the administration to join us in condemning actions such as these and to take steps to defend us against such assaults.”
Connery declined to comment on this matter. GSA later published and condemned the email chain in an open letter. Two faculty respondents in the email chain were able to be reached, Donna Haraway and Richard Terdiman. Both still stand by the initial emails and also affirmed they are in support of due process.
After no action within the public domain had been taken by the university and in the climate of faculty email exchanges, the group of anonymous individuals published allegations on Facebook.
Complainants have expressed distrust in the Title IX process, but so have respondents.
“We have serious concerns about whether the university conducted itself appropriately in protecting [Balakrishnan] from anonymous allegations that were accepted by people on campus and engaged in an effort against him,” said Balakrishnan’s attorney Jamie Dupree.
According to Dupree, the UCSC Title IX Office ordered Balakrishnan not to talk to the media, due to his quotes in the Chronicle of Higher Education claiming the allegations were gossip. Dupree referred to this as a “gag order.” Interim Title IX officer Cherie Scricca could not confirm or deny this.
Christopher Connery was also quoted in the Chronicle stating, “There has been an organized campaign to destroy professor Balakrishnan’s life.” The Chronicle also reported that Connery said the Title IX process should make the judgment.
Scricca said Title IX does not silence complainants or respondents during investigations, but both parties are asked not to speak about their case to media or individuals until the investigation concludes to keep the process fair and impartial. These requests are not legally binding.
There are no pending criminal charges against Balakrishnan, according to Dupree. City on a Hill Press did not find any legal proceedings in California or Illinois, where Balakrishnan previously worked at the University of Chicago.
He is currently on paid leave, according to UCSC media spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason, with an annual salary of $110,300.
Allegations and Investigative Process
To date, 170 people have signed the anonymous statement in support of accusations against Balakrishnan, including the UCSC GSA, other UCSC graduate students, undergraduate students and alumni.
“We are writing this statement to let our community know that Gopal Balakrishnan has a pattern of using his position of power as a professor and influential academic to intimidate, harass and even assault young women and gender nonconforming people,” the anonymous Facebook allegations statement reads. “We have heard multiple first-person and witness accounts, and are including here statements describing such behavior. These statements are not all of the accounts of which we are aware.”
Public accusations have become a tool for women in the era of #MeToo, and recently accusers have compiled lists and public accounts of accused men. Raya Sarkar, a UC Davis law student, created a list of accused academics from South Asia, where she is from, in October 2017. Balakrishnan is among the 72 South Asian academics included.
“The purpose of my list was to create a cautionary list of academics, similar to the Shitty Men in Media list,” Sarkar said in an email. “I thought students ought to know the names of the professors who have sexually harassed someone.”
Sarkar compiled the list by accounts from women across the world. She confirmed a student at UCSC contacted her to add Balakrishnan to the list, but for privacy reasons Sarkar did not disclose the name of this person
The Facebook allegations detailed that Balakrishnan attended parties and consumed alcohol and drugs with students. Multiple UCSC alumni and signatories in support of the list of allegations said Balakrishnan regularly socialized with students at bars and parties.
The Title IX investigations are set to conclude 105 business days after the initial report. The university hired an outside investigator, Gaylynn Conant. Conant declined to comment on the investigation.
Interim Title IX officer Cherie Scricca said it is not unusual for a university Title IX Office to use an outside private investigator, such as Conant. While unable to comment on specific investigations, Scricca said that outsourcing an investigator could be to maintain objectivity in a case or simply due to a lack of available investigators.
“If a case is what would be considered high profile or one that is very much in the public domain,” Scricca said, “the reason that we would [hire an external private investigator] is to demonstrate, if you will, to the folks on the outside and to anyone who might be paying attention to this case that we’re maintaining objectivity and neutrality by not having an employee of the university conduct the investigation.”
At this time, while the Title IX investigation has not concluded, the university is aware of allegations against Balakrishnan. Scott Hernandez-Jason, UCSC media spokesperson, could not say when Balakrishnan’s paid leave would end.
“The serious and troubling allegations described on social media, if true, represent a serious violation of campus and system Faculty Code of Conduct and sexual violence/sexual harassment policies,” Hernandez-Jason said in an email. “UC Santa Cruz is committed to a fair and robust investigatory process that is focused on rooting out the facts.”
As the investigation continues, complainants are left feeling unheard and underrepresented in mainstream media. Chloe said the media has focused reporting on one side of the story.
“In my opinion, professor Balakrishnan and professor Connery’s narratives in the media portray complainants as conspiratorial, dangerous and hysterically vindictive,” Chloe said. “I see such characterizations as attempts to silence and discredit complaints, and as inherently sexist in nature.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story implied Chloe did not report to Title IX. Chloe did report to Title IX. Additionally, Chris Connery is a professor, not professor emeritus.