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Despite promises and publicity, UC perpetuates lackluster response to harassment

(Nicole Anisgard Parra/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Ani Gasparyan

June 8, 2019 12:01 a.m.

This year, thousands of UCLA graduates will be women.

But very few of them will go on to become professors.

The majority of students and college graduates today are women. But professorship remains a position largely occupied by men – and there are a lot of reasons why that’s the case.

Sexual harassment and sexual violence are the worst of them.

Last year, 38% of women in graduate school reported they experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff. Almost half of these students said they had been victimized by the same faculty member.

It’s understandable why students wouldn’t stay on to become faculty at these universities. The duplicitous nature of harassment makes staying much harder – it can be painful to bring up allegations of abuse, and even more so to prove what happened. And often, those cases involve someone who holds more footing within the university than you.

The results are drastic: Women are pushed out of pursuing advanced degrees and careers in academia by harassers who make campus environments suffocating.

The University of California’s campuses have pledged to increase the hiring of women as faculty, while turning a blind eye to sexual violence and sexual harassment. It’s no wonder, then, that there are so few women faculty members in certain fields of study at UCLA.

So this graduation season, let’s consider all the women who have been forced to abandon academia. It’s about time they got higher education’s attention.

According to a 2018 state audit, UCLA, UC Davis and UC Berkeley inconsistently disciplined faculty who had committed multiple sexual harassment complaints. Campus coordinators who should have overseen these cases were found to be relatively uninvolved and uninterested.

The UC since changed how it responds to sexual assault and harassment complaints, including a stipulation that university officials should consult with Title IX coordinators about appropriate disciplinary measures.

But that doesn’t change how campuses like UCLA insist on maintaining confidentiality policies and settlement agreements that deter victims from even coming forward about their cases.

And the UC’s failures don’t end there.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found in 2018 that UC Berkeley failed to conduct formal investigations into students’ sexual harassment or assault complaints, or even resolve them in a timely manner.

The university’s former executive vice chancellor and provost, Claude Steele, resigned amid the scandal of this investigation – likely because of criticisms regarding his mishandling of a sexual harassment complaint against Sujit Choudhry, the former dean of Berkeley’s law school, by his executive assistant.

Steele determined the most appropriate course of action was to keep Choudhry as dean with a cut in his salary and have him write an apology letter to his assistant.

His assistant later sued and reached a settlement. Choudhry remained a professor for another year, even after the university found him guilty of sexual harassment.

UCLA was also home to a major sexual harassment scandal. Gabriel Piterberg, a former history professor, was accused of sexually harassing two of his graduate students. The university mishandled the Title IX case and the court proceedings dragged on for far longer than necessary. Eventually, Piterberg only left campus as part of a settlement.

This trend of easy walk-offs has been prevalent for years. In 1996, Diane Reifschneider, a doctoral candidate for chemistry and biochemistry, filed a lawsuit against UCLA, then-Chancellor Charles E. Young and chemistry and biochemistry professors Malcolm Nicol and Charles Knobler. Reifschneider alleged she had been sexually harassed over a period of two years by Nicol, her academic advisor, who she claimed in her suit had a history of harassing female students.

That pervasive culture is a big reason the majority of female undergraduates don’t go on to become professors or graduate students.

“Whenever a woman comes forward for expressing any grievances for sexual harassment, her authenticity is questioned,” said Saraliza Anzaldua, a doctoral student in philosophy. “And it’s very difficult for any woman who feels alone without an ally to feel like any progress can be made.”

Even if women reach faculty status unscathed, the culture of harassment within higher education remains. About 40% of female faculty members and 30% of female nonfaculty staff members said they had experienced sexual harassment at their university.

The number of women in higher education reflect that. Women hold 49% of faculty positions in the U.S. but only 38% of tenured positions. At UCLA, only 33.7% of professors were women in 2016. When the path to a professor position is riddled with a culture of misogyny, it only makes sense that so few women have made it through.

Yes, men like Piterberg and Choudhry might seem as though they’re few and far between. But just because sexual harassment doesn’t make headlines doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening – only that it hasn’t been reported. Many women, whether to avoid further harassment or a drawn-out legal process, have packed their bags and left academia without saying a word.

So while the numbers are daunting, they’re not all we should rely on – we’ve heard enough women come forward with reports of assault to know that, while universities can choose to ignore the problem, women cannot.

Whether it’s Piterberg, Choudhry or Nicol, we know it happens in the UC. Whether it’s Stanford University, Columbia University or University of Notre Dame, we know that it happens across the nation.

Just ask some of the women graduating this year.

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Ani Gasparyan | Senior staff columnist
Gasparyan was an assistant Opinion editor from 2018-2019. She previously contributed as an opinion columnist for the section and writes about issues surrounding gender equity and student life.
Gasparyan was an assistant Opinion editor from 2018-2019. She previously contributed as an opinion columnist for the section and writes about issues surrounding gender equity and student life.
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