A harassment and assault problem at Berkeley University

There has been a great deal of focus aimed at the safety (or the lack of it) that exists on university campuses for staff and students alike.

The University of California, Berkeley, has been synonymous with liberal activism and social justice campaigns.

But students, alumni and staff members say they have a hard time squaring that image with a rash of high-profile sexual harassment cases shaking up the campus.

For example:

  • The Dean of the law school stepped down this month after an investigation concluded that he forcefully hugged and kissed his executive assistant almost daily.
  • An assistant basketball coach was fired, also this month, after the university determined that he had propositioned a reporter after shutting her in a parking garage. “With all candor, I was trying to trick her into going upstairs,” he told investigators.
  • In October, a renowned astronomer left the faculty after he was accused of buying students drinks, grinding with one on the dance floor and grabbing the crotch of a student from another university.

At a time of heightened awareness of the dangers of sexual violence on campuses across the country, Berkeley students and alumni are accusing the administration of failing to make the university safe from sexual harassment and violence — and then doing too little when it occurs.

In addition to these cases, the university is investigating 16 cases involving sexual harassment and nine involving sexual violence. The university is also facing two complaints lodged with the federal government and a civil suit brought by three women.

All three actions accuse the university of failing to prevent sexual abuse. (Sounds a bit like the UBC issue below).

“There’s a feeling that you can do this stuff, and you’ll just get a slap on the wrist,”

said Nicoletta Commins, a graduate student at the Berkeley School of Public Health and one of the three women suing the university. “Berkeley doesn’t do anything about it unless there is external pressure.”

Last week, Berkeley’s chancellor, Nicholas B. Dirks, announced a number of initiatives to raise awareness of sexual harassment and sexual assaults, including a half-day of activities for the entire campus, tentatively set for fall.

The chancellor also said the university would increase resources for the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination. Dan Mogulof, a spokesman for the university, said the office’s budget would be increased to $1.2 million from the current $900,000, and that the staff of three would be doubled.

Still, hundreds of Berkeley students and alumni expressed outrage this month when they learned that the administration had kept secret the existence of the sexual harassment case against Sujit Choudhry, the Dean of the law school who later stepped down. Under the terms of the confidential punishment, he had been allowed to remain in the job while his executive assistant, who had filed a complaint against him, was told to look for work elsewhere in the university.

This sounds very much like the situation that allegedly occurred at the University of Victoria:

The case at Berkeley University was made public only after the executive assistant, Tyann Sorrell, filed a civil suit this month against Choudhry and the university saying that the punishment the administration meted out — a one-year cut in salary to $373,500, from $415,000; a requirement to undergo counseling; and a letter of apology to Sorrell — was inadequate.

The university has since released details of the inquiry, which concluded that Choudhry, who became Dean in 2014, “engaged in intentional physical touching” of Sorrell, including “hugging, kissing her cheek, squeezing her arm, rubbing her arms and shoulders, and holding her hands to his waist at the workplace.”

The report concluded that the conduct was “unwelcome and objectively sexual in nature.”

A letter of protest by more than 400 alumni described Choudhry’s punishment as “feeble.” They threatened to withhold future donations until he was fired.

Choudhry announced he was stepping down this month, but he remains on the faculty.

Perhaps it is time to review your company policies and procedures on sexual harassment and make sure that they are living up to their intended use.

In Canadian Universities

Two of our local universities here in British Columbia have been at the pointy end of the conversation for some time. The University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria have each appeared in headlines.

Just a small glimpse at the last few headlines of assaults and harassment tells you why institutions of higher learning are under the microscope: