At UC Berkeley, promises of a crackdown on sexual misconduct are met with skepticism by students
Thirteen female students accused a UC Berkeley sociology professor of unwanted sexual advances, including hugs and attempted kisses. One of them said he offered a higher grade if she would sleep with him; another said he wrote a negative letter of recommendation when she rebuffed his advances.
University officials found Abdelbaki Hermassi responsible for sexual misconduct, suspended him without pay for one quarter and placed the findings in his personnel file. Outraged students found those sanctions inexcusably lenient and mobilized campuswide sit-ins and protests.
The year was 1980.
More than 35 years after UC Berkeley’s first sexual harassment case, the campus seen as a bastion of progressive politics and social-justice activism is still struggling to get it right.
The reaction that is happening now is a very Berkeley thing. We don’t just lie down when something unjust is happening.
— Sloan Patrice Whiteside, a leader of the Boalt Hall Student Assn. at Berkeley
The school now finds itself embroiled in three sexual harassment cases involving faculty members in the highest echelons of the university. Law school Dean Sujit Choudhry, famed astronomer Geoff Marcy and vice-chancellor of research Graham Fleming have resigned under pressure in the last year amid widespread controversy over the handling of their cases.
And last week, campus officials fired assistant men’s basketball coach Yann Hufnagel after finding he had sexually harassed a reporter by sending her explicit and threatening text messages. Hufnagel’s former boss, head coach Cuonzo Martin, is now under review for his handling of the situation.
To Michael Burawoy, a co-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Assn. who witnessed the Hermassi protests as a newly arrived sociology professor, the fact that the campus is still grappling with the same kinds of cases — and criticism — today is nothing short of appalling. Some members of the faculty group are now calling for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Provost Claude Steele.
“The university administrators have tried to push this under the rug,” Burawoy said. “There has been gross mismanagement of cases and a certain naivete that they can be kept quiet.”
University of California regents, who wrapped up their two-day meeting in San Francisco on Thursday, issued an endorsement of UC President Janet Napolitano’s intervention in the Berkeley cases. After she learned — through the news media — about the law school case, she ordered additional actions against Choudhry, who had been allowed to remain in his job with a 10% pay cut after investigators found last year that he had repeatedly hugged, kissed and touched his executive assistant against her will for six months. He was also ordered to undergo counseling and apologize.
She also removed Fleming from a “global ambassador” position he was given after he resigned, and she announced that a systemwide committee would begin reviewing and approving all sanctions imposed by campus administrators for sexual misconduct violations.
“We had just too many cases where the sanction was not matching the behavior,” Napolitano said. “Enough already. It’s 2016.”
Students frustrated by the Berkeley administration’s handling of the law school case, which came to light this month, vented at the UC regents meeting Thursday.
Paul Monge, a first-year law student who said he was sexually abused as a child, told the regents that officials should inform students of verified cases of sexual misconduct for the sake of their safety. They should also impose harsher sanctions, he said, adding that the pay cut imposed on Choudhry “promotes the perverse incentive that you can pay off the violation if you are in a position of authority.”
Dirks addressed some of those concerns Thursday by unveiling a new plan to combat sexual misconduct. Among other things, the plan would expand education and training, beef up support services for victims and establish a new review committee to make sure sanctions are imposed in a “firm and consistent manner regardless of the rank or position of either the complainant or respondent.”
“We are committed to ensuring that Berkeley is a welcoming, safe, respectful, and inclusive community for every one of our students, staff, faculty, and visitors,” the chancellor wrote in an open letter to the campus community.
Its recent track record notwithstanding, experts say Berkeley is no more prone to sexual misconduct than other colleges. Annual records on sexual violence show that UC Berkeley had 50 reported cases of forcible sex offenses on and off campus in 2012 and 2013, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
During that same period, UCLA reported 57 cases, UC Santa Barbara had 39, UC Davis had 37, UC San Diego had 31, UC Irvine had 27, UC Riverside had 12 and UC Merced had 3. UC Santa Cruz was not included in the federal data.
Reports of campus sexual misconduct are on the rise nationally, in part because increased attention to the issue has encouraged more victims to step forward, said W. Scott Lewis, a partner with the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management. Requests for the group’s anti-harassment training and investigative expertise have doubled in the last year, with more than 1,000 campuses assisted since 2011, he said.
The Department of Education’s civil-rights office is currently investigating 173 colleges and universities accused of mishandling sexual misconduct cases. UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego, UC San Francisco, UC Santa Cruz and UC Davis are all on that list.
Berkeley students said they realize sexual misconduct occurs on campuses nationwide. But they expected more support from a university famed for its liberal activism.
Nicoletta Commings and Sofie Karasek were drawn to UC Berkeley for its social justice traditions. Karasek read about the free-speech movement in history class at her high school in Massachusetts and wrote her college application essay about her desire to pursue environmental activism there. She arrived on campus for the fall term in 2011, just in time to join hundreds of protesters in Sproul Plaza who were supporting the Occupy movement for economic equality.
“It was everything I wanted,” she said.
But after being sexually assaulted by fellow students, Karasek and Commings said, they were shocked that administrators seemed disinterested in their complaints, failed to keep them informed about their investigations and levied what they view as inadequate sanctions. They and a third woman are suing the university over the handling of their cases.
The university has denied the allegations.
“I did see Berkeley as this very liberal place that would protect vulnerable people and respond appropriately,” said Commings, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in public health at the campus. “But I was made to feel that nobody cared.”
In 2014, 31 current and former UC Berkeley students filed two federal complaints against the university alleging a decades-long pattern of mishandling sexual assault investigations by campus administrators.
The current rash of high-profile cases has galvanized the campus as never before.
Jeffrey Edleson, dean of the social welfare school and who co-chairs a recently formed committee of campus and community members to review UC Berkeley’s sexual misconduct policies, said he will push for “dramatic revisions.”
His favored changes include tougher sanctions to promote deterrence, immediate removal from campus of proven perpetrators until they can show they’ve reformed, and more public disclosure of verified cases of misconduct. Napolitano has said that all substantiated cases are public, changing UC’s previous inconsistency on that front.
Edleson said Dirks’ new plan “shows great promise to improve the climate on campus for women students, staff and faculty.”
The plan also increases support to the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, to reduce the time it takes to resolve cases. Officials will also raise funding for campus centers that help connect victims of sexual misconduct with counseling and other services.
Dirks also announced more money to improve sexual misconduct training. Advocates have complained that the classes are so dull that students have been seen to sleep through them and others sign in, then leave.
Nancy Lemon, a Boalt Hall lecturer in domestic violence law, said women needed to form “robust and gang-like” support groups for those who come forward with sexual harassment complaints. In too many cases, she said, female administrators have handled such complaints with “tepid responses,” which she said might be driven by reluctance to challenge men in power.
But students who have worked for years on the issue are skeptical about whether administrators are finally serious about change. Karasek said the promised reforms are “incredibly vague,” and Commings said little has changed despite years of task forces, meetings and other efforts to address the issue.
“The administration on this campus has clearly demonstrated that it values its public image over student welfare and has violated the trust of survivors over and over again,” Commings said. “After everything that I’ve experienced, how could I see this as anything more than lip service?”
Sloan Patrice Whiteside, a leader of the Boalt Hall Student Assn. at Berkeley, said law students planned to keep hammering on administrators to make sure they follow through on meaningful reforms. This is Berkeley, after all.
“It’s not going to die down,” she said. “The reaction that is happening now is a very Berkeley thing. We don’t just lie down when something unjust is happening.”
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