The Daily Bruin editorial board calls on UCLA to ensure history professor Gabriel Piterberg does not return to his position.
Piterberg has been the subject of multiple sexual harassment complaints from graduate students within his department. Yet, instead of taking appropriate disciplinary action against him, UCLA administrators quietly drafted a settlement and put the case to rest, allowing Piterberg to return to his position after just one quarter away.
The settlement now hampers the university’s ability to remove Piterberg, since it can no longer do so on the grounds of his alleged sexual misconduct. This places UCLA students, faculty and staff in harm’s way.
To protect campus safety, UCLA should immediately ask Piterberg to resign and offer a severance package to incentivize him to do so. Furthermore, UCLA’s Title IX office should ensure that future claims of sexual misconduct are investigated by the Academic Senate, not given premature settlements.
While Piterberg’s settlement implies his position is secure, it is evident the campus community does not believe it should be. The union representing student workers across the University of California organized a march calling for Piterberg’s removal last week. This came soon after 38 history professors signed a letter against Piterberg’s return to campus in July. Given the current attitude toward Piterberg, it is reasonable to think that a severance offer would be accepted.
Protesters have called for the UC to fire Piterberg, an action that would surely prompt a retaliatory lawsuit from Piterberg and only agitate the open wound UCLA has failed to suture. Given the settlement that’s already in place, and the fact that Piterberg has complied with his share of the agreement – however small it may be – a wrongful termination suit against UCLA could be strong.
While the thought of offering Piterberg money to get him to leave might be repulsive to some, the university must prioritize the community’s safety and wellness above all else.
Ultimately, the cost of a severance package would be significantly less than the cost of fighting a wrongful termination suit, and it would be a small price for UCLA to pay for the massive mistake it made in handling the case and the settlement early on. The safety benefits should easily justify the cost.
Paying out of pocket for its failure would hopefully motivate the university to pursue the proper course of action in the future.
As tempting as it may be to reach a settlement, which in Piterberg’s case UCLA did to “avoid the cost, uncertainty and inconvenience of an administrative proceeding,” the university must be responsible for uncovering the truth. Not only did Piterberg’s settlement halt the ongoing internal Title IX investigation into existing sexual harassment claims against Piterberg, relieving him of undergoing possible punishment from the Academic Senate, but it also allowed him to return to his post as a tenured professor, with punitive action that can best be described as a slap on the wrist.
The message sent by the administration seems to be clear: Protection of the campus community is paramount, unless it takes any real effort, resolve or moral backbone to do so.
Despite these lessons, the administration seems no more willing to make a strong moral stand. In response to protests, Jerry Kang, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion, in an email statement said that UCLA would examine Piterberg’s office location and class times among other things to address these concerns.
These proposals are as weak as they are inane. Anything short of Piterberg’s permanent removal from UCLA threatens students, faculty and staff.
Since UCLA has put itself in a position where forceful removal would be legally challenging, it must do what it can to get a peaceful resignation.