It’s common for university faculty to survive sexual harassment complaints

Fear of a lawsuit, stronger bonds with an employee, and lack of university transparency all play a role.

Tyann Sorrell listens to speakers at a news conference on the University of California campus in Berkeley, Calif. A legal settlement has been reached between the University of California, Berkeley, the former law school dean, Sujit Choudhry, and his former assistant, Sorrell, who said Choudhry sexually harassed her. CREDIT: AP/Jeff Chiu

After being accused of sexual harassment by his executive assistant while serving as dean at UC Berkeley School of Law, Sujit Choudhry reached a deal with the university that would let him keep receive research funding, keep tenure, and avoid any charges, according to a Guardian story published on Tuesday.

The university arrived at this deal with the former dean after Berkeley investigators found that Choudhry had indeed sexually harassed his assistant, Tyann Sorrell. His pay was reduced by 10 percent and he was asked to write a letter of apology to Sorrell.

Sorrell said Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele told her he would be allowed to keep his job because getting fired would “ruin his career.”

This sort of deal is all too common, according to experts on university sexual harassment policies. A March 2017 Associated Press investigation found that a lack of transparency and lax discipline is prevalent across the University of California system.

The Associated Press looked at 112 cases from January 2013 to April 2016 at nine campuses, excluding Berkeley, and found that rumors about the accused faculty swirled for years before the universities took action — and that many of the faculty were not fired as a result. Two faculty members agreed to forgo merit pay increases; six retired or resigned before investigations were completed and punishment was decided, or did so as part of a settlement.

Trump’s Education pick could roll back efforts to fight campus sexual assault

A UCLA French Studies professor Eric Gans was accused of creating a sexually hostile working environment for a female graduate student in 2013, but he denied wrongdoing and signed a settlement. This allowed him to become professor emeritus and maintain an office on campus, but he is prohibited from teaching or advising students.

A UC Berkeley, Geoff Marcy, a professor of astronomy, was investigated for sexual harassment of four students. University investigators found that there was a pattern of sexual harassment, and it included unwanted groping of students. Still, the university drafted an agreement in which the professor agreed not to repeat the harassment, and was put on probation but not fired. The deal would have gone unnoticed, and Marcy would have kept his job, but BuzzFeed obtained a document related to the investigation, and it was fellow scientists and astronomers who ultimately pushed him out of the university.

This approach is not limited to the University of California system, however. Last year, a University of Kentucky student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, obtained documents showing that an associate professor of entomology, James Harwood, had been the subject of a seven month investigation after three years of allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment. But Harwood resigned, which allowed him to forgo a hearing. The alleged victims told the Kernel they were upset that his record would not follow him to another school, because the investigation was considered preliminary and not part of the public record.

They’re more inclined to protect faculty because they identify with them.”

Alyssa Peterson, policy and advocacy coordinator for Know Your Title IX, an organization that educates students on sexual and dating violence in school, said personal ties to the accused — and fear of getting sued by someone with resources and influence — can push universities to look for alternatives to dismissing a faculty member or administrator.

“They’re more inclined to protect faculty because they identify with them, and lean into tenure protections as an excuse not to discipline or hold them accountable,” Peterson said, referencing Sorrell’s comment that Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele was concerned for her harasser’s career. “It is a fair thing to be concerned about, but it has to accompany serious concern for the victim … That is a serious problem and undermines trust in their ability to handle other cases.”

Students and co-workers are also more fearful of accusing faculty and administrators out of fear of career blowback and retaliation from colleagues of the accused, Peterson said. In cases where faculty and administrators are well-known and wealthy — even with Choudhry’s pay cut, he would still make $373,500 annually — there are incentives to avoid a drawn-out legal battle.

“You don’t want someone accused who is low-income to have less process than someone who is wealthy, where schools fear they will sue. That is something we’ve been dealing with even in the student context, since students with more privilege are less likely to be disciplined. Employees have that extra insulation,” Peterson said.

A lack of transparency on the part of universities also makes it difficult for the university community to prevent future incidents of sexual harassment by faculty and administrators, Peterson said.

“At Yale Law School, we don’t know who perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault are within the law school,” said Peterson, who is a student at Yale Law School. “There is university wide data. It’s hard to tailor policy interventions when we don’t have that data. If we have that data, schools can be more transparent about who they are sanctioning. If they have five adjudications of professors and no one was found responsible, maybe that should trigger concerns about integrity of process.”

“Part of the issue is that there is this deep lack of transparency.”

There are situations where the wealth of the accused can benefit the survivor of sexual harassment or assault, however. In cases, like Choudhry’s, — or that of Brock Turner, the Stanford University rapist who only served three months in a California— victims can always bring a civil lawsuit. Legal experts told Rewire, a publication that covers reproductive and sexual health rights, that more survivors of sexual assault are turning to civil court cases for justice.

Although university investigations have a lower standard of proof than criminal cases, many survivors say the university system fails to mete out punishment. Criminal cases are much harder to pursue, but civil cases only require that the plaintiff persuade the judge or jury that it is more likely than not that the incident took place.

It is also challenging to sue the university, Peterson said. The U.S. Supreme Court’s standards for the harassment, set in its 1999 Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education decision, requires that the harassment has to be severe and pervasive, and that the educational institution has to both have knowledge of the harassment and be deliberately indifferent to it.


It’s common for university faculty to survive sexual harassment complaints was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.