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UCLA community protests professor's punishment for sex harassment: $3,000 fine and 11-week suspension

UCLA students, faculty and alumni are escalating their complaints against the university over its decision to allow a prominent history professor accused of sexual harassment to return to campus after imposing what they regard as inadequate sanctions.

More than 75 people rallied Wednesday to protest the decision involving Gabriel Piterberg, a Mideast specialist who joined the UCLA faculty in 1999. Two female graduate students have accused Piterberg of repeatedly harassing them over many years by making sexual comments, pressing himself against their bodies and forcing his tongue into their mouths.

The students, Nefertiti Takla and Kristen Glasgow, have filed a federal lawsuit against the UC regents for failing to take sufficient action regarding their complaints.

UCLA launched an internal investigation and quietly settled with Piterberg in March 2014. The settlement was released by UCLA on Wednesday, nearly two years later.

Piterberg did not concede that he had engaged in improper or unlawful conduct or that any of the allegations were accurate. But he agreed to pay a $3,000 fine, accept a suspension without pay for one quarter and attend sexual harassment training. He is barred for three years from holding one-on-one meetings in his office unless the door is open and the meeting takes place between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

The sanctions also prevent Piterberg from engaging in “romantic” or “inappropriate” relationships with students, actions which already are prohibited. Any future allegations will be reviewed in an expedited disciplinary process, according to the settlement.

In exchange, UCLA agreed to end its Title IX investigation into the harassment charges without reaching a conclusion or initiating charges against Piterberg with the Academic Senate.

The settlement said it was forged to “avoid the cost, uncertainty and inconvenience of an administrative proceeding.” It was signed by Piterberg, his attorney and Vice Chancellor of Academic Personnel Carole Goldberg.

The university’s deal with Piterberg has been sharply criticized by Takla and Glasgow, as well as by other graduate students, history department faculty and UCLA alumni now teaching at other universities. Some of these critics pointed out that UCLA allowed Piterberg to defer his suspension until the spring of 2015 while he served as a fellow at the European University Institute in Italy — a move that lessened the impact of the sanctions.

Piterberg did not respond to requests for comment. He is on sabbatical in Europe and is scheduled to return to campus in July.

Criticism over administrative handling of faculty harassment cases has roiled other UC campuses as well. At Berkeley, administrators’ decision not to fire Geoff Marcy, a renowned astronomer found to have sexually harassed female students for years, prompted his colleagues to mount a successful campaign to force him out last fall.

Across the country, more than 100 campuses are under investigation by the federal government for their handling of sexual misconduct cases.

At UCLA, many of Piterberg's colleagues said the historian’s return to Westwood this summer would create a dysfunctional work environment. In a letter to UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and other campus officials, 38 history faculty members said Piterberg’s presence would make students feel unsafe and that the restrictions on his conduct would increase their workloads.

“His actions were not only deeply injurious to the specific parties involved, but have poisoned the academic community,” according to the Feb. 18 letter. Allowing Piterberg to come back to work “will signal that an effective climate of tolerance for harassment persists at UCLA.”

In a separate protest letter, more than 65 graduate students criticized the secrecy surrounding the settlement and said Piterberg had lost the trust and confidence of faculty, students and staff. Through its handling of Piterberg’s case, ”the administration is perpetuating the unsafe and hostile climate of our department,” that letter said.

Born in Argentina and raised in Israel, Piterberg is an expert on the history of the Ottoman Empire and the Mediterranean in the early modern period. He also teaches about colonialism, Zionism, Israel and Palestine and served as director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies until he was removed from the post as part of his sanctions.

UCLA indicated Wednesday that more would be done to address the protests over Piterberg. Jerry Kang, vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion, said officials are examining Piterberg's office location, teaching time, teaching arrangements and other issues to address the campus concerns.

“My fundamental commitment is to build an equal learning and working environment for all, and the letters I have received demonstrate how Prof. Piterberg's return threatens to undermine that environment,” Kang said in a statement. “We are thinking intensely and creatively about solutions.”

UCLA spokesman Ricardo Vazquez said administrators have taken several steps to strengthen protections for students, including hiring a new Title IX coordinator and more staff to handle complaints of sexual assault and other bias; establishing Kang's new diversity office; and bringing in a confidential advocate to support students who have experienced sexual violence or harassment.

“The university vigorously disputes allegations made in the lawsuit and will respond in due course,” Vazquez said in a statement.

Takla and Glasgow declined to comment on the protests. But their attorney, Michael Porcello, said the women were gratified by the support.

The best way to resolve the situation is for the university to cut its ties to the professor, Porcello said.

“Piterberg’s continued presence on campus poses an ongoing threat to those students and faculty given past complaints of harassment against him by members of the UCLA community,” he said.

On Wednesday, protesters vowed to keep up the pressure against Piterberg. They marched through campus, chanting, banging drums and waving signs calling for Piterberg to be fired and for the school to crack down on sexual harassment.

The procession stopped at the chancellor's office, but three campus police officers blocked the protesters’ entry and said Block was not available to meet.

Scottie Hale Buehler, a graduate student in the history department, said she felt she had to speak out despite her fear that it could jeopardize her academic career.

“You can get labeled a troublemaker, but if we don't speak out we're just perpetuating this culture of silence,” she said.

Peter Chesney, another graduate student in the history department, said faculty members suggested to students that their hands were tied because Piterberg has tenure. But Chesney said the students would plan sustained actions on their own.

“The idea is to disrupt the university until it operates in a way that's safe for students,” he said.

The UC Student-Workers Union (UAW 2865), which represents teaching assistants and other academic student workers, helped organize the protest as part of a coordinated series of actions this week against sexual harassment at UCLA and other campuses. Jonathan Gingerich of the union's UCLA unit said the new systemwide policy against sexual violence and harassment raised several concerns, including requiring his members to report incidents without the consent of the person harmed.

The union is also critical of a new report by UC administrators and the Academic Senate, which found that policies governing sexual harassment complaints against faculty members were “reasonable.” Amanda Reyes, the UC Santa Cruz representative who heads a union committee on sexual harassment, said the process is stacked against students. Students are required, for instance, to undergo questioning by the accused professor's attorney but are not allowed their own legal counsel, she said.

The union's recent survey of Santa Cruz graduate students found that 32.6% of 200 respondents said they had been sexually harassed or knew someone who had been.

“There's a lot of injustice happening,” Gingerich said. “The system isn't doing enough to insure accountability for powerful perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence.”

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UPDATES

5:30 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from UCLA officials and protestors.

7:34 p.m.: This article has been edited throughout.

This article was originally published at 12:49 p.m. 

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