America’s Top Public University Has a Major Sexual-Harassment Problem

The backstory of UC-Berkeley’s recent string of scandals.

Tyann Sorrell filed a sexual-harassment lawsuit against her former boss, UC-Berkeley Law Dean Sujit Choudhry. <a href="">Jeff Chiu</a>/AP

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Update, 8/17/16: UC-Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks announced on Tuesday, August 16 that he was resigning, following criticism of his handling of the university’s sexual-harassment scandals and budget, and a UC investigation over potential misuse of public funds. “I have come to the personal decision that the time is right for me to step aside and allow someone else to take up the financial and institutional challenges ahead of us,” he said. Dirks will remain in the position until a successor is chosen and then return to teaching as a professor of history and anthropology.

When news broke last month that the dean of the University of California-Berkeley School of Law was being sued by his assistant for sexual harassment, faculty and students weren’t the only ones caught by surprise—so was the president of the University of California system, Janet Napolitano. “I know you appreciate my level of concern about this situation, and my unhappiness in learning about it through the media,” Napolitano wrote to UC-Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. Within two days, the dean, Sujit Choudhry, had resigned. Eight months had passed since the university had found that he violated its sexual-misconduct policy.

According to a trove of documents released by the university this month—showing firings, resignations, and even transcripts of text messages related to its sexual-harassment investigations—at least 19 UC-Berkeley employees have been found to have violated the school’s sexual-harassment policy since 2011. Meanwhile, over the past year, a vice chancellor, a famed astronomer, and a provost have all stepped down from their positions amid public outcry over the university’s response to sexual-harassment claims—and the perception that the institution protected these powerful men instead of helping their accusers, some of whom were students.

Here’s a rundown of how the situation escalated in recent years:

April 30, 2013: Diane Leite, a former UC-Berkeley administrator, gives a deposition in which she accuses Vice Chancellor Graham Fleming of sexual harassment. According to an investigation later commissioned by the university, Leite testifies that Fleming, the $400,000-a-year head of research, had kissed her neck and repeatedly touched and hugged her.

February 26, 2014: Thirty-one current and former students file complaints with the US Department of Education, alleging that UC-Berkeley violated Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination, and the Clery Act, which requires universities to accurately report the incidence of certain crimes, including sexual assault.

March 7, 2014: The University of California system expands its policies against sexual and domestic violence, stalking, and harassment.

April 15, 2014: Nearly a year after Leite’s deposition, system president Napolitano hires an independent investigator to look into the allegations against Fleming.

May 1, 2014: UC-Berkeley appears on a Department of Education list of 55 colleges and universities under Title IX investigation that sparks nationwide alarm about the issue of sexual violence on campus. Soon after, Napolitano announces the formation of a President’s Task Force on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence and Sexual Assault, which will develop recommendations on combating sexual violence across the UC system.

July 23, 2014: A member of the astronomy faculty forwards the university two complaints from former students, who report that famed astronomy professor Geoff Marcy, a Nobel Prize contender, had sexually harassed them. Later, two more students make additional sexual-harassment allegations. Marcy denies one allegation, made by a University of Hawaii graduate student who said the professor “grabbed” her crotch while seated next to her at a dinner. He admits to touching one student’s neck and kissing another student on the forehead and cheek. In response to a fourth allegation, Marcy admits to buying drinks for a student at a conference after-party and then escorting her back to her hotel room.

October 24, 2014: Napolitano’s independent investigator concludes that Fleming violated the sexual-harassment policy by expressing “unwelcome” sexual interest in Leite, his former assistant. (In an email sent by his attorney to Mother Jones, Fleming denies that he sexually harassed Leite or violated any university policy, calling the investigation “shoddy and biased.”)

March 19, 2015: Tyann Sorrell, executive assistant to UC-Berkeley School of Law Dean Sujit Choudhry, accuses Choudhry of sexual harassment in an email sent to him and to human resources. The university opens an investigation.

April 8, 2015: Six months after the investigation found that he’d violated the sexual-harassment code, Fleming resigns from the vice chancellor post under protest. He remains a tenured chemistry professor and starts a yearlong sabbatical, during which Chancellor Dirks appoints him to an administrative post coordinating research partnerships internationally.

June 22, 2015: Nearly a year after four students made sexual-harassment allegations against astronomy professor Marcy, the university concludes that he violated Berkeley’s sexual-misconduct standards repeatedly between 2001 and 2010. Marcy is placed on a kind of informal five-year probation, in which he could face immediate discipline—up to a one-semester suspension—if he fails to meet “behavioral expectations.”

July 7, 2015: The university finds that Choudhry violated the university’s sexual-harassment policy for “unwelcome” hugging, kissing, and touching directed at his assistant. Provost Claude Steele decides the sanctions: a one-year salary cut of 10 percent, mandatory coaching on workplace behavior, and a letter of apology. “You have a very promising career as Berkeley’s Law School Dean with your innovative ideas, high energy, and enthusiastic citizenship,” Steele writes to Choudhry. “I trust that you will grow into the kind of leader that we both know you can be.”

Separately, the university receives a report that Yann Hufnagel, assistant coach for men’s basketball, allegedly sexually harassed a local sports reporter. School officials open an investigation.

August 4, 2015: Another assistant coach, Todd Mulzet of the diving team, is accused of sexually harassing a male employee. The university begins to investigate.

October 2, 2015: The university concludes an eight-month investigation into sexual-harassment allegations against Blake Wentworth, an assistant professor in the department of South and Southeast Asian studies. Their report finds that he made unwanted sexual advances toward a graduate student instructor in the department, touching her and calling her “attractive.” With university discipline pending, Wentworth continues to teach.

October 9, 2015: BuzzFeed News reports that the university found Marcy in violation of its sexual-harassment policy but did not impose immediate discipline. Before the story goes public, Marcy posts a letter to colleagues on his website apologizing for his conduct: “While I do not agree with each complaint that was made, it is clear that my behavior was unwelcomed by some women.” Later, the astronomy department interim chair urges colleagues who are just learning of the allegations to have empathy for Marcy amid the media uproar. “This is hardest for Geoff,” he writes.

October 14, 2015: After more than 20 members of the astronomy faculty issue a statement calling for Marcy’s dismissal, Marcy tells the university he is “stepping down.”

October 15, 2015: Napolitano announces a Joint Committee of the University of California Administration and Academic Senate to review procedures for handling sexual-misconduct cases involving faculty members.

November 11, 2015: A university investigation finds Mulzet, the diving coach, violated the sexual-harassment policy, including propositioning an employee for oral sex in front of students. Mulzet is given a two-month pay cut and required to attend sexual-harassment training.

March 8, 2016: The university’s findings against Choudhry—and the news that he received only a slap on the wrist—are made public when Tyann Sorrell files a lawsuit against him and the UC Board of Regents. Sorrell’s complaint alleges sexual harassment, assault, and battery, among other claims. “Choudhry’s conduct made plaintiff feel disgusted, humiliated, exposed and dirty,” court papers say. “She wondered what she had done to make him think it was o.k. for him to touch her.” (In an email to Mother Jones, Choudhry’s attorney writes that while Choudhry’s actions “were found to have violated Berkeley’s misconduct policy, they do not constitute sexual harassment, let alone assault or battery.”)

March 10, 2016: Choudhry resigns as dean of the law school, although he remains a tenured law professor. “I took this step because the pending lawsuit, against the university and me, appears to have become a distraction for the law school, the university and our community, an outcome I had hoped could be avoided,” he says in a statement. Dirks and Napolitano later deny that Steele’s decision not to impose harsher sanctions was influenced by his relationship with Choudhry, who had nominated Steele for a law faculty appointment that May, according to the Los Angeles Times.

March 11, 2016: Napolitano orders Chancellor Dirks to remove Fleming from his post as an international representative. She also calls for further discipline for Choudhry. Four days later, a vice provost notifies Choudhry that one or two faculty members will undertake an additional investigation against him for “possible violations” of the faculty code of conduct. “The initial decision not to remove [Choudhry] from his position is the subject of legitimate criticism,” Dirks and Provost Steele write in a message to the law school. “We can and must do better.”

March 14, 2016: After an eight-month investigation, the university determines that Hufnagel, the assistant men’s basketball coach, sexually harassed a local reporter. “With all candor, I was trying to trick her into going upstairs,” Hufnagel told investigators of one incident. (In a statement provided by his lawyer to Mother Jones, Hufnagel denies sexually harassing the reporter.) The university begins termination proceedings against him and releases a redacted report of their investigation.

March 18, 2016: The university revisits a two-and-a-half-year-old investigation against Nori Castillo, a director of UC-Berkeley’s SkyDeck, which helps secure venture capital funding for university-affiliated startups. Officials found that Castillo violated conflict-of-interest provisions in the school’s sexual-harassment policy in 2013. When a new executive director took over SkyDeck and reviewed the findings this year, Castillo was fired, effective immediately, according to a university spokesperson. (Castillo maintains that he decided to leave UC-Berkeley, and that the decision had nothing to do with the investigation.)

Napolitano names the members of a “Systemwide Peer Review Committee” to review proposed sanctions on senior leaders found to have violated the sexual-harassment committee. The new committee will be co-chaired by the chair of the existing Task Force on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence, and by Napolitano’s deputy general counsel.

March 24, 2016: Chancellor Dirks and Provost Steele announce that UC-Berkeley will establish its own Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Task Force, with initial findings due by July. Soon after, Napolitano declares that her office will be keeping close tabs on UC-Berkeley sexual-harassment cases, including monthly meetings with Dirks and written reports on their progress combating sexual misconduct. Dirks also creates a new administrative position coordinating UC-Berkeley’s response to sexual harassment and assault. The interim slot will be filled by Carla Hesse, a longtime history professor and executive dean whose responsibilities include fundraising.

April 5, 2016: In response to open-records requests from several news outlets, UC-Berkeley releases findings from 17 investigations since 2011. The papers show that 19 university employees were found to have violated the sexual-harassment policy. All of the employees fired were staff members, including a custodian, a painter, and a massage therapist; none were tenured professors.

The investigations reveal findings against two adjunct professors. Richard Sweitzer, who led a field team studying land management, resigned in 2013 after investigators found he “touched several female employees in ways that were both subjectively and objectively offensive.” Officials also determined that adjunct statistics professor Howard D’abrera sexually harassed a student in the fall of 2015, sending emails about “whisper[ing] sweet nothings in your ear” and “a dirty smoke filled weekend of unadulterated guilty pleasure and sins.” D’abrera resigned in January. (In an email to Mother Jones, D’abrera admits to sending the emails but disputes that they constitute sexual harassment; Sweitzer did not respond to a request for comment.)

April 7, 2016: Hufnagel resigns as assistant coach of the basketball team after presenting university authorities with about 900 text messages he exchanged with the local reporter—which he claims show “mutual flirtation,” not harassment. The next day, the University of Nevada-Reno hires him.

April 11, 2016: Two doctoral students in the department of South and Southeast Asian studies file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, claiming that UC-Berkeley failed to discipline Wentworth, against whom they’d filed sexual-harassment allegations a year earlier. (In a statement, the university says they are “aware of the concerns from students and others regarding the time it takes for the faculty discipline processes to be completed. We understand and share those concerns.”) Wentworth was recently suspended from teaching while faculty members investigate the case. He remains on payroll.

April 15, 2016: Provost Steele, who decided on Choudhry’s initial sanctions, resigns. His statement cites his wife’s ongoing health problems as the reason for his departure and does not refer to the sexual-harassment scandal.

April 18, 2016: Napolitano’s office publicizes a report from one of the committees looking at faculty sexual misconduct. According to data from eight University of California campuses, of 141 allegations filed against faculty between 2012 and 2015, a quarter were investigated. Among the recommendations: Include sexual violence and sexual harassment among types of “unacceptable” behavior in the faculty code of conduct, and make sure the chancellor knows when a professor is being investigated.

May 2, 2016: UC-Berkeley pledges to spend $2.5 million more to address sexual violence on campus. The funds will be used to hire additional investigators, bolster existing prevention programs nad support services for survivors, and expand sexual-harassment training for faculty, administrators, and students.

This story has been updated.


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