Harassment Allegations Against a Star Scholar Put a Familiar Spotlight Back on Berkeley

March 24, 2017

Jeff Chiu, AP Images
John R. Searle is the latest in a line of professors at the U. of California at Berkeley and philosophers in American academe to face accusations of sexual harassment.

The University of California at Berkeley and the field of philosophy are no strangers to the spotlight when it comes to harassment allegations against professors. This week, both the institution and the discipline found themselves roiled by yet another set of accusations, this time involving the star scholar John R. Searle.

A lawsuit filed on Tuesday by Joanna Ong, a 2014 Berkeley graduate, alleged that Mr. Searle, an emeritus professor of philosophy, had made sexual advances toward her last summer while she was working as his research assistant. About a week after she started working for him, Ms. Ong said, he locked his office door and groped her, according to the suit. The professor allegedly told her that "they were going to be lovers" and that he had an "emotional commitment to making her a public intellectual."

Ms. Ong claimed that her pay was docked when she rejected his advances and that she was eventually fired because she rebuffed him. She said she reported Mr. Searle’s behavior to other Berkeley employees, but asserted that they took no action. Details of the suit were first reported by BuzzFeed News.

The lawsuit also alleges that Mr. Searle had a history of "exchanging sexual conduct for monetary and/or educational advancement or other benefits," and that Berkeley officials "failed to protect U.C. Berkeley students, employees such as Ong, and others, by allowing this conduct to continue, even enabling Searle’s conduct over the years."

Mr. Searle, 84, has spent nearly six decades on Berkeley’s faculty and is widely considered to be one of the most prominent philosophers of the mind and language. He has given hundreds of lectures around the world about his work, including a 2013 TED talk that has been viewed 1.3 million times.

Mr. Searle continued to teach an undergraduate philosophy course at Berkeley until this month, when his students learned abruptly that he would no longer be their instructor, according to BuzzFeed. A Berkeley spokesman said he has a campus office but is not teaching. Mr. Searle did not respond to a request for comment from The Chronicle.

Many scholars weighed in on social media after the news came out, voicing their exasperation with a problem that’s nothing new but that, for them, was starting to get old. A few of them said their impressions of Mr. Searle made the harassment claims unsurprising.

More Bad News for Berkeley

The outrage surrounding Mr. Searle’s case spawned another public-relations headache for Berkeley, which has faced a wave of negative publicity following harassment allegations that publicly implicated at least five professors in the past 18 months. The first of those cases involved Geoffrey W. Marcy, a former astronomer at the institution, who repeatedly violated the university’s sexual-harassment policy but was threatened only with sanctions. Mr. Marcy resigned in October 2015.

Philosophy, too, has been subject to intense scrutiny about the behavior of some of its star scholars. Thomas Pogge, a philosophy professor at Yale University, faced a formal harassment complaint by Fernanda Lopez Aguilar, a recent graduate, in 2011, but a campus committee found insufficient evidence of misconduct.

He was also the subject of a federal Title IX complaint filed by Ms. Lopez Aguilar in 2015, in which she claimed that he had harassed her and multiple other former students. Mr. Pogge has denied the allegations but said he "would have done things differently" in terms of his relationship with Ms. Lopez Aguilar.

The allegations against Mr. Searle follow a similar pattern to many of the complaints involving other Berkeley professors and philosophy scholars at other institutions: When a female student or employee complained about harassing behavior, either verbally or through a formal report, they have said, the university didn’t take it seriously.

"It is disturbing to learn of another case of serious allegations of sexual harassment in the philosophy profession," wrote Charlotte Witt, a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of New Hampshire, in an email, "and perhaps even more disturbing to learn of the lack of an appropriate response by the University of California at Berkeley."

Ms. Witt is the chair of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women, which has taken steps in recent years to try to clean up the field’s reputation and make the discipline more welcoming to women. The committee does confidential reviews of individual philosophy departments by request.

Roqua Montez, a Berkeley spokesman, said campus officials had reviewed the lawsuit’s allegations on Thursday but couldn’t comment on individual cases.

Mr. Montez provided a statement from Carla Hesse, executive dean of the College of Letters and Science, who serves as the university’s interim lead on response to campus sexual harassment. "We want to be certain that the campus community is aware of the care we take in handling such cases," Ms. Hesse said, explaining the investigation procedures that Berkeley follows when allegations arise and the interim measures available to complainants.

'More of the Same'

A year ago, Berkeley officials announced that they would be making sweeping reforms to the institution’s policies for handling sexual-misconduct complaints. A campus committee released a report in January that outlined a series of recommendations designed to make the disciplinary process more transparent and more efficient.

But at the moment, Michael B. Eisen, a professor of genetics, genomics, and development at Berkeley, said he just sees "more of the same." The new allegations show, he wrote in an email, "that the systems they have in place don’t work." Until that changes, he said, senior faculty members with a history of harassment won’t feel any need to curb their behavior.

"They have no fear of consequences because they see that the university does not take these things seriously," he said.

“They have no fear of consequences because they see that the university does not take these things seriously.”

Public records released last month to the San Jose Mercury News revealed that more than 100 faculty and staff members across the UC system had been disciplined for sexual misconduct from January 2013 to April 2016. Nineteen of those cases were at Berkeley.

Berkeley will soon welcome a new chancellor, Carol T. Christ, the first woman to lead the university. Ms. Christ is currently serving as interim provost after Claude M. Steele stepped down to a faculty post last year amid criticism over his handling of sexual-harassment cases.

The lawsuit involving Mr. Searle offers both Berkeley and the field of philosophy an opportunity to do some soul-searching, said Heidi H. Lockwood, an associate professor of philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University. Berkeley officials need to remove Mr. Searle and strip him of his emeritus title, she said, and they need to issue a public apology "to other students who have been harmed."

As for her discipline, "philosophy feels like a war zone to me these days," she said. "In order to even make the first timid step towards peace, we need to start by having an open dialogue." For one, faculty members who have kept silent about harassment they’ve witnessed need to admit their wrongdoing, Ms. Lockwood said.

In the case of Mr. Searle, she said, "there is no way that other faculty didn’t know about the problem."

Ms. Lockwood said she knows of roughly half a dozen other philosophers who have been accused of harassment by multiple people but continue to teach. "Those faculty members who are engaged in this behavior must be forced out of the discipline," she said. "There is no other solution."

Still, in terms of recent harassment claims against professors, Brian Leiter, director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago, said he was "increasingly worried that some of the most prominent cases may have been unfair to the accused." He wrote in an email that "we should proceed with caution here."

As long as there continues to be a gender imbalance in philosophy, harassment will probably persist, said Hilde Lindemann, a professor emerita at Michigan State University who is a former chair of the philosophical association’s Committee on the Status of Women. Women make up an estimated 25 percent of tenured or tenure-track philosophy faculty members.

The field’s demographics are changing, though, Ms. Lindemann said, and most of the philosophy scholars who have publicly faced harassment allegations in recent years are older men.

As those professors retire, she said, "I’m hoping that, maybe, philosophy will outgrow this problem."

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.