Accused of mishandling sexual harassment case, UC Berkeley provost quits

UC Berkeley Provost Claude Steele resigned from his position as controversy over sexual harassment and assault on campus increases. 

Jeff Chiu/AP
University of California graduate students Kathleen Gutierrez (l.) and Erin Bennett speak at a news conference on the Berkeley campus, April 11.

A top Berkeley official stepped down amid growing controversy over sexual harassment on campus, citing personal reasons.

Claude Steele, provost and executive vice chancellor at the University of California – Berkeley, announced Friday that he would resign his position at the university to focus on caring for his ill wife.

“I can no longer offer UC Berkeley the time and level of commitment it needs from its (provost), while at the same time being a part of my family in the way I want to be," Dr. Steele said on Friday.

The resignation has gained national attention as it arrived days after Steele received heavy criticism over the handling of a sexual harassment case. His resignation leaves lingering questions over what’s next for dealing with sexual harassment on campus.

“I don’t have any faith in Berkeley’s independent judicial system,” Erin Bennett, a graduate student who has accused a UC Berkeley professor of sexual harassment, told the Guardian. “What’s most important to me is that this doesn’t happen anymore.”

Steele became the subject of faculty, student, and public criticism after reports surfaced that showed the dean of Berkeley’s law school, Sujit Choudhry, broke university sexual harassment policy, but received only a light punishment, The Christian Science Monitor reported last month. A campus investigation confirmed that Dean Choudhry had repeatedly kissed, hugged, and touched his executive assistant against her wishes. As provost, Steele punished Choudhry with a 10 percent pay cut for one year, plus mandatory counseling.

Choudry soon resigned in the face of mounting outrage from peers and students.

Both Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Steele also admitted the punishment and crime warranted a broader conversation about sexual harassment on campus.

“We are under no illusion that a resignation could or even should bring this matter and broader, related issues to a close,” the two wrote in a letter to law professors, alumni, and students. “It is clear, as we heard during our meeting with law school faculty this morning, that the initial decision not to remove the dean from his position is the subject of legitimate criticism.”

Over the past months, UC Berkeley has gained negative public attention for a string of similar confirmed cases of sexual harassment that have gone either unpunished or lightly punished.

Kathleen Gutierrez, Ms. Bennett, and several others have complained about harassment from tenure-track assistant professor Blake Wentworth. Records show that an October investigation by the university confirmed Professir Wentworth made several sexual advances toward Ms. Gutierrez, but, as of April 10, Wentworth had received no punishment and still maintained an office two doors away from Gutierrez.

A release of hundreds of pages of redacted records also showed detailed reports on other sexual harassment cases at Berkeley. Of 19 cases that were highlighted, 11 resulted in terminations. None of those terminated were tenured professors.

The UC Berkeley investigations underscore the national issue of sexual harassment and assault on college campuses. A 2007 report from the National Institute of Justice found one in five women are sexually assaulted during their time in college.

Similar findings prompted the Obama administration to take a more direct approach to combating the issue. In 2011, the US Department of Education began issuing guidance to universities on how to handle sexual harassment and assault cases, the Monitor reported.

The US Department of Education also began investigating universities that mishandled sexual harassment or assault cases. The department is currently investigating 106 colleges.

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