UC Berkeley law school dean on leave after sexual harassment lawsuit

An investigation by the university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, conducted last July, established that the dean violated the school’s sexual harassment policy. The only punishment he received, according to the lawsuit, was a cut in pay.

Melanie Stetson Freeman
Students and visitors walk across campus at the University of California Berkeley.

The dean of the law school at the University of California-Berkeley is taking an indefinite leave of absence following the filing of a lawsuit for sexual harassment against him by a former administrative assistant.

Dean Sujit Choudhry will, however, remain on faculty and earn a professor’s salary.

Tyann Sorrell, the dean’s former assistant, filed the complaint Tuesday accusing the dean of making sexual advances towards her, including inappropriate touching, hugging, and kissing on the cheeks.

An investigation by the university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, conducted last July, established that the dean violated the school’s sexual harassment policy. Mr. Choudhry acknowledged the allegations, but didn’t receive a proper punishment other than a pay cut, Ms. Sorrell’s lawsuit claimed. Sorrell is also suing the University of California Board of Regents for failing to take enough action to stop the harassment, The Daily Californian reported.

“We feel very strongly that the law school failed to take Ms. Sorrell’s complaints seriously enough,” said John Winer, who is representing her, according to the Guardian. “It is especially concerning that this admitted sexual harassment was perpetrated by the dean of one of the most highly respected law schools in the country. Someone who certainly should have known better.”

Claude Steele, the university’s executive vice chancellor and provost, defended the punishment issued against Choudhry Wednesday, saying that it would "produce the necessary changes in his behavior."

“Based on the findings of the investigation, I believed that a combination of disciplinary actions, monitoring of his behavior, and formal training would be an appropriate and effective response, and would produce the necessary changes in his behavior,” said Mr. Steele, according to The Washington Post.

But this isn’t the first time the university has come under fire over sexual harassment allegations.

Last October, the university came under scrutiny for its decision to retain an astronomy professor who had been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior by several female students. However, the professor has since resigned. And in 2002, former law school dean John Dwyer resigned following allegations that he had sexually harassed a student.

Sexual assault on college campuses has drawn national attention recently, yet some say the spotlight hasn’t prompted enough action from school officials. As The Christian Science Monitor reported, a national survey released by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri in July 2014 found that of the 440 campuses surveyed, many of them failed to conduct basic practices for responding to and preventing sexual assault attacks.

Forty-one percent have not conducted a single sexual-offense investigation in the past five years. Among schools that reported more than zero sexual offenses to the Department of Education, however, only nine percent had conducted fewer investigations than the number of crimes reported.

Many campuses fail to encourage the reporting of sexual assaults. Forty-nine percent do not provide a 24-hour reporting hotline and 66 percent do not provide an online reporting option.

Yet one in four women are likely to experience sex assault on campus, according to a 2015 survey by the Association of American Universities.

Though most campuses tend to lean towards training women to deal with sexual assault cases, most advocates against campus harassment contend that teaching women to defend themselves isn’t enough.

“What we don’t want is people thinking, ‘We’ve just got to train people to protect themselves and then we don’t have to do all that difficult work of educating the community and changing attitudes and so forth,' ” David Lisak, an expert on interpersonal violence who has consulted with colleges, told Monitor staff writer Stacy Teicher Khadaroo.

In addition to the training, the focus, they say, should be to educate men and others who are likely to perpetrate these acts against women.

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