Content warning: This article contains references to sexual assault.
Survivor Anneliese Harlander strode into a hearing before the Academic Senate Committee on Privilege and Tenure, her lawyer beside her, to testify against UC Santa Cruz professor Gopal Balakrishnan.
On Tuesday morning, before entering the UCSC Scotts Valley Center, Harlander addressed a small gathering of UCSC #MeToo members, lit a candle and rubbed a stone between her fingers. Nobody else could enter the hearing, but supporters offered moral support to the UCSC alumna in the next part of a process they’ve been following since allegations first arose.
The hearing, one of the final steps in university disciplinary proceedings, is something Harlander and her supporters waited on for over a year.
“I’m feeling relieved now to have shared the story,” Harlander said after the hearing. “I’ve never shared it among so many people in one place, where everything is being typed up right in front of me. It was empowering and I am feeling very grateful to have gotten to this point and to have the support of so many people.”
According to the Title IX investigation that concluded in September 2018, Balakrishnan engaged in unwanted sexual activity with Harlander in 2013 after a student party they both attended. After years of silence, an anonymous letter containing other allegations against the professor and a petition calling for Balakrishnan’s termination inspired Harlander to report the incident to the Title IX Office in January 2018.
The office found Balakrishnan violated the UC Policy on Sexual Harassment that was in place until 2015 and the case proceeded to the disciplinary decision-making process. Throughout the process, Balakrishnan has remained on paid leave with an annual salary of over $108,000.
Harlander and her attorney, Dan Siegel, hope this hearing will eventually result in Balakrishnan’s termination.
The four-day hearing includes testimony from other complainants as well. When it concludes on Friday, faculty on the committee will deliberate and provide the chancellor with a disciplinary recommendation.
“The chancellor can impose discipline, short of termination, and if the chancellor does that, that’s a final decision,” Siegel said. “If the chancellor believes termination is appropriate in this case, that will be a recommendation to the Board of Regents, which must make the final decision in any case involving the termination of a tenured professor.”
There’s no deadline for when the committee will make its recommendation, but Siegel expects it to happen within a month or two.
Balakrishnan did not attend the hearing. He previously challenged the university’s proceedings, which were rejected by the Committee on Privilege and Tenure, said Balakrishnan’s attorney Jamie Dupree.
“Since the proceedings are unprincipled, Professor Balakrishnan will not appear at them,” Dupree said in an email.
Harlander and Siegel are taking Balakrishnan’s absence as a sign the committee might provide a recommendation in their favor. UCSC has never terminated a tenured faculty member, so Harlander hopes her case will pave a new way.
“It sets the precedent that with determination and with support and shedding layers of shame and all kinds of feelings of doubt and fear,” Harlander said, “that through shedding all of that and healing, really anything is possible.”
Harlander’s pursuit of justice isn’t limited to the university process anymore. She and Siegel also filed a civil lawsuit against Balakrishnan, which will include a deposition process during which Balakrishnan must answer questions regarding the case under oath. Harlander didn’t rush into the legal battle though — she would have preferred to address the situation through restorative justice.
“I believe in restorative justice. I practice restorative justice in my work and in my life, and I’m very well aware that that takes the perpetrator of the act, of the violence, to not only show up and listen, but to acknowledge the fact of what he’s done, to be honest and hopefully find some kind of reconciliation,” Harlander said. “At this point I don’t see that being possible. We will do absolutely everything in our ability to ensure that he’s held accountable for his actions.”