Gabriel Piterberg, a graduate student adviser and professor in the history department, was accused in a lawsuit last June of sexually assaulting two students, including forcibly sticking his tongue into their mouths.
UCLA arranged a settlement after the graduate students Nefertiti Takla and Kristen Glasgow reported their assaults and then-Title IX coordinator Pamela Thomason discussed the matter with Piterberg. However, the students filed a lawsuit against Piterberg and the UC Regents in June and later alleged in September the university advised them against making formal complaints.
Whether or not the allegations are true, it’s evident UCLA has failed to create a campus where students are safe from faculty members’ advances. The university cannot continue to support perpetrators academically and professionally after finding significant evidence they pose a threat to campus safety.
Takla and Glasgow first consulted Thomason about Piterberg’s advances in 2013, according to their lawsuit.
While that lawsuit is ongoing, an earlier, independent investigation by UCLA found enough evidence to warrant a litany of punitive actions for Piterberg. Yet according to the settlement agreement that Takla and Glasgow’s lawyer released last week, Piterberg was given only a slap on the wrist – he paid the UC Board of Regents $3,000, was suspended last spring quarter and participated in a sexual harassment training session. The only other punishments set for Piterberg were just as inconsequential: He may now only speak with students during open-door office hours and cannot try to establish any romantic or otherwise inappropriate relationships with students.
But, as it turned out, the punishment was even less stringent than it sounds. Piterberg’s spring quarter suspension was spent in Europe as a fellow at the European University Institute. While it is unclear if UCLA knew of this fellowship before administering the punishment, the fact remains that a professor accused of sexually assaulting students got to spend his quarter off in Europe and return to the university 10 weeks later.
As a tenured faculty member, he was allocated certain protections, which prevents the University from taking permanent action. Tenured faculty can only be dismissed by the UC Regents after sexual harassment investigations have been completed. Regardless, there could have been stronger punishments. The fact that Piterberg’s suspension was served on fellowship abroad, for which the University congratulated him, indicates the settlement was far weaker than it should have been.
For a university already under investigation by the Department of Education for its compliance with Title IX, the Piterberg case is a symptom of a dangerous environment.
This outcome is an embarrassment for UCLA. Not only does this represent a huge step backward and a betrayal of students’ trust, but it displays a startlingly low standard when it comes to treatment of sexual assault suspects.