Victim of sexual misconduct by UC Berkeley law school dean criticizes campus settlement

UC Berkeley is under fire again over the issue of sexual misconduct.

The university announced last week that University of California regents had reached a legal settlement with Sujit Choudhry, a former law school dean who admitted in a campus investigation that he inappropriately kissed, touched and hugged his former assistant, Tyann Sorrell. Under the settlement, UC agreed to drop a disciplinary action against Choudhry, withdraw all charges and allow him to remain a tenured faculty member until his voluntary resignation “in good standing” at the end of the next academic year. Until then, UC agreed to provide him up to $10,000 for travel each school year and $97,210 in research funds.

Choudhry agreed to pay $50,000 to a charity of Sorrell’s choosing and $50,000 to her attorneys.

But the settlement has incensed Sorrell, who said Monday that UC was effectively giving Choudhry a “soft landing” because he was a prominent faculty member.

“It’s privilege helping privilege,” she said in an interview. “For all of the work done around this issue and all of the pleas for change, it’s an insult to people who have suffered through [sexual harassment].”

Choudhry’s attorney, Steven Herman, said he was “a bit perplexed” by Sorrell’s reaction because her attorney was provided with a copy of the settlement weeks ago and raised no objection.

But Sharon Vinick, whose law firm represents Sorrell, said her client had “no control” over the settlement terms. Sorrell said she was moved to speak out in part because Choudhry’s attorneys “touted around that he got light-handed treatment” after the settlement was disclosed Friday.

In another UC Berkeley case, an online advocacy group fighting sexual misconduct announced last week that it had gathered nearly 2,000 signatures on a petition urging university officials to fire John R. Searle, a professor emeritus who is being sued by a former researcher on charges of sexually harassing her. The petition by Care2 also demands that Berkeley remove Searle’s name from a campus center.

The civil lawsuit filed in March by 24-year-old Joanna Ong alleges that university officials failed to respond properly to complaints that Searle, 84, a renowned philosophy professor, had sexually assaulted her last July and cut her pay when she rejected his advances, according to BuzzFeed News. Ong was fired by a Searle associate in September, the lawsuit states.

BuzzFeed also reported that campus documents indicate other students had made similar allegations against Searle.

Such actions feed the perception that UC Berkeley continues to protect powerful faculty at the expense of victims, Sorrell and advocates said. Last year, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks was criticized for failing to properly discipline Choudhry and two other men found to have violated campus sexual misconduct policies: famed astronomer Geoff Marcy and vice chancellor of research Graham Fleming.

But Dan Mogulof, a campus spokesman, said in an email that such perceptions are unfounded. He said the campus has made “meaningful, substantive changes” to improve its handling of sexual misconduct cases. They include beefing up education, training, funding and staff to prevent sexual misconduct, handle cases and support victims.

Mogulof also said the university has launched a “rigorous investigation” into the allegations against Searle and removed him from classroom teaching as an interim measure.

Regarding Choudhry, Mogulof said the professor will not resume teaching at the law school. In addition, he said, Sorrell has received payment for her claimed injury.

“While no one is complacent and everyone understands that cultural change doesn’t happen overnight, our policies and practices are a far cry from what they were,” Mogulof said.

In a university investigation last year, Choudhry admitted he repeatedly hugged and touched Sorrell and kissed her on the cheek from September 2014 to March 2015. The university cut his pay by 10% and directed him to undergo behavioral training and apologize to Sorrell. But after Sorrell’s civil suit came to light, UC President Janet Napolitano ordered Choudhry to undergo another disciplinary process through the Academic Senate. In protest, Choudhry filed a campus grievance and a federal lawsuit.

Under the settlement, the two sides agreed to drop all legal action.

Despite her disappointment with the settlement, Sorrell, who still works at the law school, said she was ready to move on. She said she planned to devote her energy to improving the campus climate for victims of sexual misconduct.

“I’m ready to get to work, as we see there’s much work to be done,” she said.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Twitter: @teresawatanabe

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