Berkeley Is Under Fire, Again, for How It Handled Sexual Harassment

March 10, 2016

Jason Doiy, The Recorder
Sujit Choudhry stepped down as dean of the U. of California at Berkeley’s law school on Wednesday. Just five months after the university drew withering criticism in the Geoff Marcy case, it is being accused once more of protecting a senior academic charged with unwanted sexual contact.

[Update (3/10/2016, 3:10 p.m.): Hours after this article was published, Mr. Choudhry resigned.]

For the second time in the last five months, the University of California at Berkeley is facing charges that it failed to adequately punish an academic, in this case, a law dean, whom it found responsible for sexual harassment.

The university announced on Wednesday that the dean — Sujit Choudhry — would leave the post but would retain his faculty position at the law school. Last summer the university found Mr. Choudhry responsible for sexually harassing his executive assistant. It docked his pay by 10 percent, required him to attend counseling, and ordered him to write a letter of apology to her. But then, that changed.

"Sujit Choudhry will be taking an indefinite leave of absence from his position as dean of Berkeley Law," Claude M. Steele, who as the university’s provost had levied the original penalty, said in a written statement on Wednesday. Mr. Steele said the university would announce an interim replacement soon.

The university’s initial punishment opens it up to criticism similar to what it received last fall, in the case of Geoffrey W. Marcy, a prominent astronomy professor who was accused of sexual harassment by former students. In that case, the university warned Mr. Marcy that if he touched more undergraduate women inappropriately, he could face suspension.

In response to calls that the punishment was much too lenient, the university created a committee of administrators and faculty members to examine how the UC system could better handle faculty discipline in cases of sexual violence and harassment. The panel’s recommendations are due next month.

On Wednesday, in the statement about the law dean, Berkeley’s provost pledged "to listen carefully to what members of our campus community and others have to suggest when it comes to how we prevent and respond to incidents like these."

The dean’s former executive assistant, Tyann Sorrell, said in an interview that Berkeley’s decision to take stronger action now in Mr. Choudhry’s case would not necessarily improve the campus climate.

"The dean is one man," said Ms. Sorrell, who is on leave with pay and looking for a job. "I’m not sure his stepping down is going to make a huge difference if change doesn’t happen on the systemic level to stop sexual harassment."

‘Disgusted, Humiliated’

The question of what more that colleges should be doing to stop sexual harassment, and what the right punishment is, has come up in a number of recent high-profile cases.

Those include the case of Jason Lieb, a molecular biologist who left the University of Chicago in January as it was preparing to fire him for making unwelcome sexual advances toward female graduate students at an off-campus gathering. Mr. Lieb had faced allegations of sexual harassment at a previous university.

At Berkeley the dean’s departure followed the filing of a lawsuit on Tuesday by Ms. Sorrell, who said Mr. Choudhry had repeatedly given her bear hugs and kissed her cheek after he became dean, in July 2014. The hugs and kisses, she said in the lawsuit, gradually became more frequent and more intimate. The physical contact, the lawsuit says, left Ms. Sorrell feeling "disgusted, humiliated, exposed, and dirty."

Ms. Sorrell complained to law-school administrators several times, the lawsuit says, but nothing happened until March 2015, when she wrote a six-page email to the dean, "informing him that she was tired of him constantly touching and kissing her." Ms. Sorrell sent a copy of the email to Berkeley’s human-resources department, and the university began an investigation.

Protecting ‘Career Prospects’

Last July, Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination found Mr. Choudhry responsible for violating the university’s policy on sexual harassment and violence, the lawsuit says. When Ms. Sorrell asked Mr. Steele about the 10-percent pay cut for Mr. Choudhry, which she believed was too lenient a punishment, the lawsuit says, the provost told her he "had seriously considered terminating the dean but the reason he had decided not to was because it would ruin the dean’s career."

Berkeley would not respond to questions about the lawsuit, other than to release the statement by Mr. Steele on Mr. Choudhry’s decision to vacate the dean’s post. It also released a 12-page report on its investigation last summer of the charges against Mr. Choudhry.

The lawsuit accuses Berkeley of protecting Mr. Choudhry’s "future career prospects" at Ms. Sorrell’s expense.

Brian Leiter, a professor and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago, said sexual-harassment charges against law professors and deans are rare. "Someone who is in an administrative position at a university these days has to be well informed about Title IX regulations," said Mr. Leiter, who blogs about legal education, referring to the federal gender-equity law. "Why would a dean get within 10 miles of the line?"

Mr. Choudhry did not return a telephone call and an email message requesting comment. Berkeley’s report on Ms. Sorrell’s accusations says Mr. Choudhry acknowledged hugging and kissing Ms. Sorrell but "there was never any sexual intent," it quotes him as saying. He often did that at the end of a long day, he adds in the report, as if to say "thanks for managing the office."

The report says that two months after he started as Berkeley’s law dean, Mr. Choudhry was scheduled to attend mandatory training at the university on how to avoid sexual harassment. But he never did, the report says, until several months later, after Ms. Sorrell had lodged her complaints.

Hugging, Kissing, Touching

Berkeley came under fire just last fall after it gave what many people in the field considered a slap on the wrist to Mr. Marcy, the astronomy professor, despite finding him responsible for sexual harassment. Women at Berkeley said that they had repeatedly told Mr. Marcy to stop hugging, kissing, and touching undergraduate women and that, although he promised to quit, he never did.

Eventually four women complained about Mr. Marcy’s behavior in incidents between 2001 and 2010. While Berkeley found all of their complaints credible, it simply placed Mr. Marcy on probation for five years, warning him that if he hugged, kissed, danced with, or touched students again, he could be suspended for a semester without pay.

When the punishment became public last October, it created an uproar, not just at Berkeley but in the field of astronomy in general. An online petition supporting people who "were targets of Geoff Marcy’s inappropriate behavior" drew more than 3,000 signatures. And Mr. Marcy’s colleagues issued a statement criticizing Berkeley for how it had handled the case and urging Mr. Marcy to leave. Finally, in October, the professor felt forced to step down.

Robin Wilson writes about campus culture, including sexual assault and sexual harassment. Contact her at robin.wilson@chronicle.com.