Sexual Harassment – Law School Dean Not Leading By Example.

Former Berkeley Law School Dean Sujit Choudhry. Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley School of Law.
Former Berkeley Law School Dean Sujit Choudhry. Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley School of Law.
What happens when the Dean of one of the most prestigious law schools in the country is found by an internal investigation to have sexually harassed his executive assistant? Well, he keeps his job because administration decided termination “would ruin the dean’s career, that is destroy his future chances for higher appointment.” No, this is not a story out of the Onion. It’s what happened at the University of California Berkeley School of Law. Because we all want Dean Sujit Choudhry in a position of more responsibility?

After the victim, Tyann Sorrell, asked why the Dean was not terminated by a school professing a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment, she was given the above explantation. When Tyann Sorrell filed suit, the Dean initially said he disagreed with the allegations and would defend against them, but then resigned the following day as Dean. The court papers also stated that Ms. Sorrell had learned that the Dean had harassed other women employees at the university. I’m guessing that helped the Dean reconsider his opposition. Yet, my understanding is Mr. Choudhry is currently maintaining his position as a faculty member at that salary.

The provost, a male, confirmed that their internal investigation had found that the Dean “violated policy, and he demonstrated a failure to understand the power dynamic and the effect of his actions on the plaintiff personally and in her employment.” Clearly, the Dean did not “get it.”

Ms. Sorrell, ironically, is the one who was put on paid leave and is still looking, so far unsuccessfully, for work within the university system. As Ms. Sorrell’s attorney pointed out, usually a zero tolerance policy means you’re fired. Apparently, not if you’re the Dean of the law school at Berkeley. The victim has to look for a new job!? In 2016, is this where we still sit?

Why is this behavior, not just on the part of the Dean, but by the provost and the university itself tolerated? We continue to perpetuate and permit a broken system that protects the men – the perpetrators of the sexual harassment and discrimination. Does the university or we as a society want people like Dean Choudhry to have more chances at future advancement? Let’s put him in charge of more women and give him more responsibility. Of course not. Let’s fire them and make an example out of them, making it clear that this behavior has no place in academia or the workplace in 2016.

I spent 25 years as an attorney representing mostly women in court who were sexually harassed. All they wanted was to be left alone to do their jobs. I remember women in university settings who had good cases of sexual harassment and discrimination who elected not to pursue their case. The reason they gave me was that if they were to bring a sexual harassment complaint and/or file suit it would most certainly end their academic careers and chances to advance. That was their reality. The other difficulty and reality in proving such claims is that it is often hard to find current employees to support their claims and who are willing to testify against a manager of their employer for fear of retaliation. And know that those fears are real. Even though thre are laws on the books that purportedly make retaliation illegal, employers are clever and often find ways to either force people who complained out or make the environment so miserable they quit.

How many stories similar to Ms. Sorrell’s are happening now, but not being reported for fear of retaliation? And then juxtapose this continued problem with a system that requires complainants to file with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for an administrative investigation before they can even bring suit in federal court. Often the backlog at the EEOC is a year or more so people demand a right to sue letter and then file suit, if they can find a lawyer.

Consider the above in conjunction with a recent New York Times article lifting up that colleges are now spending millions of dollars to deal with sexual misconduct complaints. Harvard has its first Title IX officer overseeing how the institution responds to complaints of sexual violence under Title IX, the federal law that governs gender equity in education. That officer is one of a growing number of Title IX employees as colleges spend millions to hire various personnel (lawyers, counselors, case workers, peer counselors, survivor advocates and more) to deal with increasing numbers of these complaints.

The argument can be made that on one hand having such awareness and increased reporting is a positive development in dealing with a long standing problem that received short shrift for years. But it is also known that some colleges are doing a better job of addressing the realities of sexual assaults on campus than others, where some colleges still intentionally minimize the serious nature of sexual assaults when they notify students of what has happened on their campus.

Perhaps the Berkeley example with Dean Choudhryy serves as an example of the troubling message we are still sending to our future lawyers and defenders of civil rights. It’s truly not alright to protect male harassers who violate the law. They should not be looked out for and their career opportunities protected. They should be fired. The victims, brave people like Ms. Sorrell, should keep their jobs. Because, you see, they did nothing wrong. Where along the way was that essential fact forgotten?

What would help curb this continuing epidemic of sexual harassment and sexual assault? Obviously, more training, starting at a much earlier point. Maybe grade school. Perhaps we need more women in academia leadership roles? Perhaps we need more women legislators? Perhaps we need more women judges?

Do you see a pattern developing here?

Until the current power structure changes, and there are more women in positions of real power, I am afraid we will still continue to suffer the pangs as a society of the old boys club that still, subconsciously or consciously, treats women like sexual objects. Even our Republican presidential candidates were recently arguing about provocative and revealing pictures of their wives and their husbands being their protectors. To them I say “grow up.”

Join me in supporting and voting for more women in 2016. Let’s see what real change can actually look like,

Senator Grassley Will meet with Uganda Dictator But Not Sure About Supreme Court Nominee?

imageWhere have our statesmen and stateswomen gone?

I remember seeing Republican Senator Orrin Hatch speak at the funeral of former Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy. They were fierce political adversaries, but at the end of the day could spend time together, as friends. They understood that you could fight hard with one another about issues, but at the end of the day, they both loved America and understood only by compromise and working together could they get the people`s work done.

But just the other day I saw that same Republican Senator Hatch, who had previously spoken glowingly about Judge Merrick when he was nominated for the D.C.Court of Appeals, say that things have now changed as he justified following the Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s edict to not even meet with Judge Garland, President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee to replace Justice Scalia. We need Senator Hatch the statesman, the elder, to be resurrected.

Republican Senator Charles Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, recently took the bold step of stating “If I can meet with a dictator in Uganda, I can certainly meet with a decent American.” He said that in referencing his recent apparent huge concession to now at least meet with Judge Merrick Garland. I find such comments referencing meeting with a dictator as a benchmark for even meeting with a Supreme Court nominee not only unstatesmanlike, but embarrassing to the Senate and the American people. Are our Republican Senators that afraid of their Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell? It gets even better. Senator Grassley later actually backed off on such a radical commitment to meet with Judge Garland. He said he would take the Judge’s phone call if the Judge saw fit to call him. At that point, according to Senator Grassley, he’d see where things went. Unbelievable? Maybe.

Maybe that’s what you feel you must do to justify splitting from Senate Majority Leader McConnell and even agreeing to maybe meet with Judge Garland. But why? Is this where we have come to in our country? Such behavior is arrogant and insulting to Judge Garland, President Obama, and the rest of America. Sorry, I don’t give Senator Grassley any kudos or points for his actions here. Rather, such comments lift up the brokenness that is our Senate. He should be ashamed of himself as a Senator and as the Judiciary Chairman. Statesmanlike is not the word that comes to mind.

Of course, Senator McConnell keeps saying the people should have a say in choosing the next Justice and he swears no vote will happen for Judge Garland in the Senate until after the next presidential election (in almost 8 months). It appears Senator McConnell is thinking Donald Trump, a bigoted, egomaniac who incites violence at his rallies and admittedly is using himself as his foreign affairs advisor during the campaign (he says he has a good brain!) should pick the next nominee when he wins in November. Or, maybe Senator McConnell has come to terms with Hillary Clinton being the next president and making the selection. Right.

There is some chatter that the Republican senators, including Senator Hatch, might be open to a recess appointment by President Obama should their presidential candidate lose the election in November (and Hillary Clinton is elected). In fact, at a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Senator Al Franken, a Democrat from my state of Minnesota, asked Senator Hatch about such an “absurdity.” He could not get the esteemed Utah Senator to admit that it is more than a bit absurd to demand that the people should have a say in deciding the next Supreme Court nominee – but apparently only if a Republican is elected president, Oh, and if it’s a Democrat elected president, then Republican Senators might be okay with President Obama’s recess appointment. I think that shows the extent of the absurdity that has become enmeshed in our Republican senators’ mantra. When will we hold them accountable for these actions that eat away at the Senate’s soul? Can it get more bizarre you ask?

Some of you may consider it low hanging fruit for me to, yet again, prod my former Senator, Republican John Hoeven of North Dakota. Senator Hoeven was not one of the few Republcan Senators who has agreed to meet with Supreme Court nominee Judge Merrick Garland. You see, he’s up for reelection this cycle so he may be worried about that. Except it’s now March and he is still unopposed. . . and as most everyone in North Dakota politics will tell you, Senator Hoeven can likely stay in the Senate as long as he desires.

Imagine my surprise and, yet again, disappointment when Senator Hoeven’s spokesperson came out with a gutsy call – Senator Hoeven is reserving his decision on whether to meet with Judge Garland. Are you kidding me? Just to meet with the President’s nominee to the highest court in our country? Reserving it for what? How afraid of Senator McConnell must Senator Hoeven be? The back story on that question must be fascinating. Or, maybe there is no back story to it and Senator Hoeven is just doing what he’s told to do. As you might guess, I’m not holding my breath that Senator Hoeven might change his mind – on whether to even meet with Judge Garland, which I understood to be part of his job that he’s being paid by us to do. That has simply not been the pattern of Senator Heoven. A true statesman would behave in a manner truly becoming a Senator. He would meet with Judge Garland, the sitting president’s nominee, and give him the professional courtesy of an up or down vote based on, you guessed it, his qualifications.

Maybe this has become the new normal? Tell me I am not the only naive American that still wants its Senate to function. We can no longer afford to continue living in this bad Dr. Seuss story. America deserves statesmen and stateswomen, and much better than this ongoing Senate absurdity. . .but getting the Senate to do anything about it?

Does the Black Lives Matter Movement Make You Uncomfortable?

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Does the Black Lives Matter movement make you uncomfortable?

That is the question asked by Anthea Butler in her recent article in The Christian Century. Professor Butler teaches religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She and six other writers thoughtfully reflected on the movement in the latest issue of The Christian Century.

After asking this initial question, Professor Butler then asks, “if so, why? If it is because you don’t like marches or confrontations, then you are part of the problem. Jesus said, ‘I come not to bring peace, but a sword.'” She concluded by stating ” If we believe that ‘all lives matter,’ we first have to consider which lives are treated as if they do not matter.”

Does that sound harsh? My guess is your answer may depend on whether you’re black or white.

I recently heard Jim Wallis, Sojourner magazine Editor, a member of the clergy and a long time civil rights advocate, speak in Minnepolis. He was talking about his book, “America’s  Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.” The large crowd that had come to hear him speak appeared to be primarily middle to upper middle class white people. During the question/answer session Mr. Wallis was asked about recent events where Black Lives Matter folks had shut down part of the main highway system in Minneapolis. . . during rush hour. He was asked why the Black Lives Matter people would take such drastic action that inconvenienced so many and, in their estimation, only served to piss off their much needed white allies.

Jim Wallis, who is white,  smiled and sighed, and then asked the audience how often they thought black people were inconvenienced during their day – because they were black? And the room was silent. I’m guessing because most in the audience had never really thought about it in those terms. Why not? Because it’s not their world. . .and yet it is. Can we, as whites, walk in the shoes of our brothers and sisters who are black? And again, if not, why not?

After a young black man, Jamar Clark, was fatally shot by police last fall in Minneapolis, my wife and I participated in some Black Lives Matter marches. Our church also had a service in advance of one of the marches,  sending off a group of marchers. The service included our local ELCA Bishop speaking poignantly to the Biblical implications for such actions by and on behalf of those who have been, historically, oppressed.

The marches we were part of were powerful. They included prayer and poems with the dose of expected frustration and a sense of determination. The most troubling thing for me was actually the police helicopter that followed overhead throughout the march. The looks on the faces of those who came out of their houses and apartments,  mostly people of color, to watch and support marchers, many with children in their arms, made it clear they felt seen, and, hopefully, heard. I’ll never forget those faces.

Shortly after the almost three weeks of protesting by citizens at the Fourth Precinct that had ended when the police came and cleared everyone out early in the morning, the Minneapolis City Council had a budget meeting. The budget was hastily amended at the last minute to include money for necessary police training. That was a positive action. But there was also a last minute attempt to amend the budget to include a provision to spend $605,000 to upgrade the Fourth Precinct – ostensibly to make it safer. This was met with intense frustration and protest by Black Lives Matter and citizens. Having spent weeks witnessing the intense  protesting by its citizens of the shooting by police of a young black man in Minneapolis and the underlying conditions that continue to face blacks in Minneapolis, the City’s first action and reaction – is to try and further protect – the police? Again, what tone does such a proposed action set for future relationships and dialogue?

Thankfully, after many protestors spoke, the proposed amendment never saw the light of day and was not even offered. While that, too, was a good thing and says City Council members got part of the message, a larger issue remained. Was anybody really truly listening to the Black Lives Matter and citizen concerns? Concerns that should be everyone’s concern, white and black.

Minnesota  Governor Mark Dayton gave his State of the State speech this past week. Dayton, a Democrat, cited statistics that the median income for U.S. born  black families is 55 percent less than for white families. He said that every part of our society has a part to play in closing Minnesota’s opportunity and achievement gaps. That made sense to me. To that end, he pledged to “double the percentage of minorities in state government in the next two years.”

Great, I thought. But what will that look like? What will legislators, business leaders and educators be doing to make that talk a reality? What will those of us who are white be willing to risk?

A day after the Governor’s speech touting the need to make substantive changes to address the racial inequality that has resulted in two Minnesotas – one white and one black, a Republican legislator introduced legislation. Ah, but not the kind I bet the Governor had envisioned. This bill, as described in a press release by the House sponsor, “would authorize governmental units to hold persons civilly liable to recover public safety response costs if the person is convicted of participating in an unlawful assembly.” This appears to be in direct response to earlier Black Lives Matter protests at the Mall of America and the temporary closing of Interstate 94 (as referenced above) that was inconvenient for some white citizens. How is this helpful?

Now, the part of me who is a big fan of free speech as guaranteed under our Constitution, and who has sued the government  several times for violations of citizens’ constitutional rights, sees this being immediately challenged in court should it somehow pass. But the bigger and more immediate  problem is the tone this type of legislation sets. It lessens the likelihood of meaningful dialogue to actually solve underlying systemic problems. It’s intentionally confrontational and does not help build relationship. While I don’t personally know the legislator who brought this bill forward, it is my understanding that his father is a retired police chief in rural Minnesota. We all, to a large degree, learn what we live.

Perhaps if this legislator and others who signed on to the bill had reached out to the Black Lives Matter folks before introducing such a bill, a bill destined to be negatively received, there could have been some dialogue. . . and even progress. But the bill seems to send the unfortunate message that we, the white government, don’t like blacks  being so disruptive and inconveniencing us – and that inconvenience will cost you.

In the end, it costs all of us. Real change is, necessarily, inconvenient.

 

 

 

More Than Just Imagining a New America

imageMy son asked me if I had a magic wand and could fix things, in what to many of us has become this  unrecognizabe America, what would that fix look like. My response embarrassed and saddened me. You see, I really have no idea. . . and yet I really do. Everything I started naming that was in need of “fixing” was tied to another thing that needed “fixing.” I bet you get that.

I smiled when I read that former Republican Governor and presidential nominee Mitt Romney came out with what pundits were calling a significant statement calling Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump a phony and a fraud. All I could find myself thinking was “Wow, thank you Captain Obvious.” That statement, while perhaps of interest to those trying to get their heads around the apparrent imploding of the Republican party, does little or nothing to move forward the much needed intelligent debate that seems to be eluding us as a country these days. “How do we fix America?”

Donald Trump’s fix appears to speak to a part of America that wants to fix America by getting rid of the double speak of Washington politicians in favor of a “straight talking outsider” whose mantras are of exclusion, bigotry, name calling and tapping into the fear that oozes from the pores of so many Americans. Bernie Sanders has tapped into the frustration on the other end of the political spectrum, starting the “revolution” aimed at accomplishing many of the longtime goals so many left of center folks have been pining for from this broken Washington.

But. . . and you knew the “but” was coming, the pragmatist in us must admit that our broken system, fueled by political gamesmanship, money and obstructionists, will not let either one of these things come to pass. Why is that? At the end of the day, it gets back to us – the American voters permitting it to stay the way it is.

Do we continue to be led like sheep because, well, it’s all so terribly broken and screwed up and you see, there is really nothing each of us as just one lonely person can do about any of this? So, maybe we’ll vote, share some articles on Facebook, write a check, and rant online. That’s really all we can do, the way things are.

But imagine that’s not all we can do.

Imagine if Americans of all political persuasions, shapes and colors were to rise up, together, demanding integrity, honesty and accountability from the people we send to Washington, D.C., to represent us to do our work. . . the people’s work. Imagine if we “unelected” those members of our House and Senate who are unresponsive and unwilling to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case and get big money out of politics.

Imagine if we all said “screw gerrymandering” and demanded that our elections became about more than the few House seats in play and congressional districts were drawn in a way that, you know, made sense. Imagine if we had voting on Saturdays, and if it could be electronic, so all eligible voters could vote . . . with ease.

Still with me? Good.

Imagine if we, the people, actually demanded our leaders be people of integrity whose word was their bond, and they worked for the people, not a party or special interest groups. Imagine if we limited the amount of time people could serve their fellow Americans so they did not spend inordinate amounts of time raising money to get reelected, worrying more about pissing off party leaders and/or extreme voters than doing what’s best for our country because, God forbid, they might not get reelected. I can tell you from experience, there are worse things than not getting reelected.

Can’t you imagine all of the above, and more? I  think this is a pervasive “imagining” among American voters who, like us, feel powerless and voiceless in this country we love with all our breaking hearts.

Now the scary part. How are we going to do this? Will it involve unlikely alliances and failing big? Of course. Does it it seem Pollyanna like? No doubt.

Yet, admit it, there’s an infectious energy that strikes at one’s soul – moving from imagining this fixing of America to the reality of it. Don’t all our children and grandchildren deserve the opportunity to grow up in something other than an  imagined America? And only we, as active, engaged and pissed off people can start the messy process to make it happen.

Where do we start?

 

Monday, February 22