UC Berkeley chancellor defends provost under fire in sexual harassment case

Did a high-ranking UC Berkeley official go easy on a law school dean accused of sexual harassment in order to secure a faculty appointment for himself?

No way, said Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

"This is absolutely untrue," Dirks said in a statement Friday.

His comments follow the revelation last week that Provost Claude Steele allowed the dean of the Berkeley Law School, Sujit Choudhry, to remain in his post despite the fact that he repeatedly kissed, hugged and touched his former assistant against her will.

After investigators in Berkeley's Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination made that determination last July, Steele ordered a 10% cut in Choudhry's $415,000 annual salary, required him to attend counseling and ordered him to apologize to the assistant, Tyann Sorrell.

While the case was still under investigation in May, Choudhry urged the law school faculty to let Steele join their ranks, according to documents obtained by The Times.

However, it is not clear whether Steele was aware that Choudhry was under investigation at the time his appointment was being considered.

Steele declined a request for an interview.

But Dirks came to his defense, saying concerns that Steele imposed lenient sanctions in exchange for the law school appointment were completely unfounded.

He added that he -- not Choudhry -- was the one who suggested that Steele join the law school faculty.

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UC President Janet Napolitano also spoke up for Steele, calling him "an eminent scholar" whose social psychology research "made him a valuable addition to the law school faculty."

Steele was asked about the questionable timing at a March 10 faculty meeting and denied there was a connection, according to law school sources. But he agreed at the meeting to resign from the law school appointment, which the faculty approved in voting last June.

Choudhry pressed for Steele's appointment in a May 29 email to the law school faculty.

"When his term comes to an end, Provost Steele may wish to return to full-time research and education," Choudhry wrote in the email. Although Steele already had appointments in the Department of Psychology and the Graduate School of Education, he said adding Steele to the law school's roster would be an "excellent opportunity" for Berkeley.

In what Choudhry called an "unusual and exceptional procedure," he asked for an online vote rather than the traditional process of at least two meetings with the candidate.

Steele has been widely criticized for his handling of the case against Choudhry, who resigned as dean last week after Sorrell sued him for sexual harassment. Faculty, students and staff at the law school became aware of the harassment only when the suit was filed.

Dirks said that Steele did not choose to keep his decision secret from law school members but that discretion was "expected by the systemwide university regulations that guide these investigations."

In a statement this week, the law school's six associate deans said that faculty members were unaware of the sexual harassment investigation when they approved Steele's appointment in June. The deans called him an "extraordinarily well-regarded scholar, who clearly meets the standards for an appointment to the law school," but said it was better that he stepped down.

"We believe that Steele's resignation is in the best interest of the law school at this time and will allow the interim dean to assume that post without any concerns about the appointment process," the statement said.

Dirks said he and Steele believed the resignation was regrettable but "a necessary step toward ensuring the stability of the school in the wake of the Choudhry investigation."

Some law school members support further action.

Robert Berring, a law professor at Berkeley for more than three decades, said Steele should resign his position as provost as well. He said it was "unconscionable" for Steele to allow Choudhry to remain at the law school after admitting to sexual harassment, potentially endangering others.

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"He has lost credibility with a wide swath of faculty and certainly with most students," Berring said of Steele. "He's really failed in a major way to understand the dynamics of the situation. It looks as if you're a powerful enough person, you get special treatment."

The Boalt Hall Student Assn. is demanding an outside investigation and asked that Steele be barred from overseeing any sexual harassment cases until that investigation is completed.

A coalition of 13 Berkeley law journals issued a joint statement condemning the entire affair.

"Too often, the safety of women is subordinated to the career interests of men," the statement said. "Until there is a real threat of serious sanctions, up to and including termination, we can only expect sexual harassment and assault to recur."

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March 22, 9:30 a.m.: This story has been updated throughout with new details.

11:18 a.m.: This story has been updated with additional information from Berkeley Law School Dean Sujit Choudhry's email to faculty urging them to approve the appointment of Provost Claude Steele.

4:02 p.m. This article was updated with comments from UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and UC President Janet Napolitano.

This story was originally published at 2:30 a.m.