UCLA professor sanctioned over sexual misconduct allegations returns to teaching, sparking protests

UCLA professor who has been accused of sexual harassment returned to teaching this week, publicly shamed and professionally damaged.

History professor Gabriel Piterberg never admitted any wrongdoing in cases involving two former graduate students. But he agreed in a 2014 settlement with UCLA to pay a $3,000 fine, accept a one-quarter suspension without pay, be removed as head of the university’s Center for Near East Studies and attend sexual harassment training. UCLA also imposed restrictions on his behavior, including a three-year ban on closed-door meetings with individual students.

That wasn’t enough for many students, whose noisy protests outside his classroom Monday prompted the cancellation of his two classes. They vowed to continue their protests Wednesday morning when Piterberg’s courses on the Ottoman empire and Middle East history from 500 to the present meet.

“We wanted to send a clear message to the university and the history department that we don’t think someone accused of sexual harassment should be teaching undergraduate classes,” said Melissa Melpignano, a fourth-year doctoral student and member of Bruins Against Sexual Harassment.

UCLA spokeswoman Kathryn Kranhold said Piterberg would continue to teach his classes throughout the quarter but that his lectures would be videotaped for students who prefer not to attend in person. She said students had the right to protest but also to access all academic coursework. All members of the UCLA community share the responsibility to promote the university mission of teaching, research and public service, she added.

Piterberg did not respond to requests for comment. The professor, a Mideast specialist who joined UCLA in 1999, was accused by two female graduate students of repeatedly harassing them over many years by making sexual comments, pressing himself against their bodies and forcing his tongue into their mouths. 

Nefertiti Takla and Kristen Glasgow filed a federal lawsuit against the University of California in 2015, alleging insufficient action on their complaints. They reached a settlement last September, with one student receiving $350,000 and the other, $110,000 and a fellowship to support continued work on her dissertation.

The 2014 settlement between UCLA and Piterberg — which involved only Takla and was not publicly released until March 2016 — bars the university from pursuing further action with the Academic Senate to oust him or jeopardize his tenure. UCLA also agreed to end its Title IX investigation into the harassment charges without reaching a conclusion. 

The settlement was widely criticized by students, faculty and staff for what they viewed as weak sanctions and unwarranted secrecy. 

UC officials said new reforms have been launched since the Piterberg case. Proposed sanctions of senior leaders and faculty are now evaluated by campus peer review committees to make sure they were commensurate with the misconduct. 

UCLA also has created a new Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion led by Vice Chancellor Jerry Kang, and hired Kathleen Salvaty, a well-respected civil rights attorney, as its Title IX coordinator.

“Since 2014, UCLA has taken significant steps to ensure an effective response to sexual harassment and sexual violence,” Kranhold said in a statement. “UCLA is committed to maintaining an atmosphere where all students can live and learn free of discrimination, harassment, exploitation, or intimidation.” 

Viola Ardeni, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Italian, said students want more transparency in how cases are handled and resolved, among other things, she said.

“To obtain more transparency would be a bigger victory than having (Piterberg) removed,” Ardeni said.

Still, students said they intend to resume their protests Wednesday. 

On Monday, they hung a poster in his classroom saying, “Good morning sexual harasser” and placed fliers about his case on the seats. A campus official removed the fliers and sign before Piterberg arrived for his 8 a.m. class but left intact a message written on the blackboard saying, “If a tenured professor sexually assaults his own students, it’s abuse of power,” Melpignano said.

Five students in the classroom stood and held signs calling for his ouster, while dozens of others chanted protests outside his classroom. After about 20 minutes, Piterberg canceled the class. Piterberg’s second class, a survey of Middle East history from 500 to the present, also was also canceled. 

The campus Daily Bruin, which reported the story, quoted one student who said he planned to drop his class.    

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Twitter: @teresawatanabe

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UPDATES:

Jan. 10, 7:15 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from UCLA and plans for additional student protests on Wednesday.

This article was originally published at 7:40 p.m. Jan. 9.

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