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,