“Ethics Failures” at the University of California


In the wake of embarrassing revelations about the astronomical sums paid to campus chancellors for “service” on corporate boards that may involve conflicts of interest, the University of California faced another embarrassment when the Dean of the Law School at Berkeley resigned yesterday amid a sexual harassment scandal.  Sujit Choudhry’s resignation as dean came a day after he was suspended from the top-ranked law school after his former assistant filed a sex harassment lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court. The suit alleges that he hugged, kissed and touched the assistant repeatedly during 2014 and 2015 and that the campus did nothing to stop it. A constitutional law expert, Choudhry became dean in July 2014. He had been a professor at the New York University School of Law.  The resignation comes less than 15 years after a previous law school dean resigned in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal.

UC Berkeley Law Dean Sujit Choudhry

UC Berkeley Law Dean Sujit Choudhry

UC Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination had investigated the claims by Tyann Sorrell and concluded in July that Choudhry “violated policy (and) demonstrated a failure to understand the power dynamic and the effect of his actions on the (assistant) personally and in her employment,” Provost Claude Steele said in a statement.  As punishment at the time, the dean was docked 10 percent of his pay for one year — from $415,000 to $373,500 — and told to apologize. Steele said he also required Choudhry to see a counselor at his own expense.

Sorrell’s lawsuit claims Choudhry’s punishment was far too light: The dean had kept his job, while Sorrell remains on paid leave. During the investigation, it says, Sorrell was told to use her own vacation and sick leave to be paid. It was only after Sorrell sued that the campus placed the dean on leave and further reduced his pay by an unspecified amount.

The campus’s investigation of Choudhry concluded quietly last summer as another sex harassment scandal was about to break open: Investigators found in June that another Cal professor, famed planet hunter Geoffrey Marcy, had violated UC’s sex harassment policy between 2001 and 2010 by giving massages and other unwanted attention to at least four female students. Administrators privately warned him not to do it again but did not fire the astronomer, who many believed would win a Nobel Prize. Yet word leaked, and by fall, UC Berkeley was being widely criticized for its light-handed approach. Marcy resigned in October.

University of California President Janet Napolitano said then that she would review UC’s sex harassment policy.  A committee’s recommendations are due in April.

In an editorial on “UC’s Ethics Failures,” the San Francisco Chronicle called the university’s response “a slap on the wrist” and linked the Choudhry case with that of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, who had been receiving $70,000 a year as a board member for the group that operates the controversial for-profit DeVry University and another $420,000 over three years as a board member for a college-textbook publisher.  The paper called on Katehi to resign.

The Chronicle’s call was echoed by another state legislator.  Assembly member Evan Low (D-Campbell), a member of the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, wrote:  “Recent revelations show that Chancellor Katehi has received an outside compensation of $420,000 on top of her already hefty taxpayer-funded executive pay.  She was also engaged with a board that is being investigated for false claims regarding their students’ success.  Her personal interests and financial gains have strayed away from the interests and mission of the University and its students. I join my colleague Assembly member Kevin McCarty in calling on Chancellor Katehi to resign from UC Davis. These activities are distracting her from her role as chancellor and could further damage the name and image of the University.”

And the Davis Enterprise reported that Katehi had also moonlighted as a board member at a Saudi Arabian university that has been accused of buying its way to an impressive international ranking.  Katehi served on the board of King Abdulaziz University (KAU) in Jeddah at about the time the university came under fire for its aggressive global recruitment of highly cited researchers with offers of $6,000 or $7,000 a month and free stays at five-star hotels.  KAU’s tactics, detailed in a 2011 article in Science magazine and a 2014 article in the Daily Californian, the Berkeley campus newspaper, raised serious concern among academics. One UC Berkeley professor was quoted as saying he was “shocked and disgusted.”

One commenter on my previous post about the Katehi affair complained that one of only two female chancellors in the UC system was being singled out and that UC encouraged such board memberships.  But, as I reported, the male chancellors in the system are equally suspect in this regard and Katehi did fail to seek system approval for her DeVry position.

Nevertheless, the Katehi case and the widespread moonlighting by other top administrators is a clear embarrassment, as are the Choudhry and Marcy resignations.  Indeed, when UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks spotted a news camera yesterday, he cinched up his coat, opened an umbrella and refused to talk.  In a joint statement with Provost  Steele, however, Dirks acknowledged the criticism over their handling of Choudhry and said that “the initial decision not to remove the dean from his position is the subject of legitimate criticism.” They said the campus needs stronger sanctions and that “we can and must do better.”

While the situation was unfolding, the law school was welcoming admitted students for a weekend introducing them to the school.

Law students delivered a letter of rebuke to the chancellor’s office, saying: “We are outraged and disgusted by the university’s deliberate withholding of information concerning the safety of students, staff and faculty.” They expressed solidarity with Sorrell and announced a “vote of no confidence” in the administration.

And a group of alumni wrote the following:

President Napolitano, Chancellor Dirks, members of the Board of Regents, and members of the Berkeley Law Faculty and Administration: As proud alumni of the UC Berkeley School of Law, we were shocked and dismayed to learn that Dean Sujit Choudhry sexually harassed his executive assistant, Tyann Sorrell, less than 15 years after Dean John Dwyer resigned in another sexual harassment scandal. Even more disappointing are the university and law school’s responses and seeming complicity in continuing Choudhry’s employment after the university’s own investigation confirmed the truth of these violations. In short, this feeble response has betrayed students, the UC Berkeley community, Boalt alumni, and the values that we hold dear.

It has been reported that Choudhry admitted in summer 2015 to hugging, kissing, and making other inappropriate and unwanted contact with multiple women on staff. Despite the university’s findings consistent with these admissions, the university punished him with only a one-year, 10 percent salary reduction and required that he write a simple letter of apology to the survivor (a penalty alleged in the complaint to have been driven by the university’s concern with ameliorating any harm to his career and advancement). The university’s response is a complete and utter failure of UC Berkeley and the school of law to condemn sexual harassment in its community. In 2014, Choudhry’s total compensation was $472,917. This suggests that the university values a female employee’s safety and well-being only to the extent of $47,000. And, of course, the financial penalty — none of which appears to have gone to the survivor — does nothing to adequately protect current and future survivors of sexual harassment and create an inclusive, welcoming culture for all law school students, faculty, and staff.

A leading institution of legal education — one that fashions itself on the cutting edge of progressive legal education — must do more. As alumni, we demand it. As Chancellor Dirks reminded the entire campus in 2014, “sexual assault has no place on a college campus or anywhere in civilized society.” Generations of Berkeley Law students, many of them women and particularly women of color, have worked tirelessly to recruit a more diverse faculty and create a more inclusive environment for the study of law. UC Berkeley, and in particular the law school, is an institution that prides itself on commitment to gender equity and social justice, which is the reason many of us specifically chose to attend Berkeley Law. Law school deans should model the values of the school that they represent. Moreover, Boalt’s dean should and must be someone that faculty, staff, and students feel comfortable and safe approaching with questions and concerns and as a leader that the entire legal academy and profession looks to with admiration.

In light of Choudhry’s violation of multiple women at the law school, the notion that he could continue to hold the position of dean is unreasonable, laughable, and insulting — not only to the women in the Berkeley community, but also to the values that brought us to Boalt, values that tie generations of alumni together. Given his behavior and the impact it would undoubtedly have on his ability to effectively connect with and serve the law school community, he was entirely unfit to hold the position of dean. That the university and the law school had not already reached this conclusion is, quite frankly, alarming.

We demand the immediate termination of Sujit Choudhry. We also demand that the university initiate an independent, external investigation into the handling of this incident and related incidents over the years that suggest larger, systemic issues in the handling of sexual harassment and assault at UC Berkeley. The professional advancement of faculty or staff who have admitted to engaging in sexual harassment must never again take precedence over the best interests of the survivors and the larger Berkeley and Boalt communities.

As long as Choudhry remains at Boalt or the University of California in any capacity, we cannot in good conscience contribute financially to Berkeley Law or to the university. Nor are we comfortable encouraging prospective students to attend Boalt. Let us be clear: We cherished our time at Boalt and consider its faculty members and students to be mentors and friends to this day, and we thus make these demands with heavy hearts. But we cannot recommend our alma mater when it apparently allows a confessed repeat harasser to hold its highest position of power and the university appears to aid him in covering up such blatant misconduct.

We await your prompt, full, and satisfactory response to this situation.

Of course, in many respects the real tragedy here is that the UC administration’s embarrassing failures will in all likelihood damage most the system’s faculty and students.  For years the UC and CSU systems have been systematically deprived of adequate funding by the California Legislature.  To address the situation UC President Janet Napolitano has entered into a highly suspect agreement with Governor Jerry Brown, which involves a proposed “reform” of the system’s pension plan that has been widely condemned by faculty.  Some had hoped that faculty resistance might lead to changes in the plan, but today Napolitano endorsed the program unchanged, perhaps fearing that the recent scandals would reduce her bargaining power in Sacramento.  Clearly she will have her hands full convincing a Legislature that such a scandal-ridden system deserves more funding.  But anyone who thinks the cuts will be felt mainly at the top where the scandals originate is at best naive.  The impact, alas, will be on the faculty, staff, and most of all the students, who continue to watch in shock as one of the great public institutions of higher education in the world is gradually reduced by its supposed leaders to ethical rubble.

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