UC regents’ neglect toward misconduct claims shows inaction stems from the top
(Andrea Grigsby/Illustrations director)
By Lucy Carroll
Nov. 19, 2019 11:32 p.m.
You’re only as strong as the weakest link in your chain.
Unfortunately for the University of California, those links are broken at the very top.
A UC Board of Regents meeting took an unexpected turn Nov. 13 when a University of California, Santa Cruz graduate student accused Regent George Kieffer of sexual misconduct. During the public comment portion of the meeting, Rebecca Ora alleged that Kieffer grabbed her thigh during a meeting with multiple students five years ago.
Ora said she hesitated to file a complaint at the time of the incident out of discomfort, instead opting for an informal resolution process. She claimed to have eventually filed a formal complaint over a year ago – one which was met with inaction.
The UC is well equipped to teach that justice is swift, but practicing what it preaches is clearly a different story.
And when gross misconduct and negligence comes from the top, it’s all the more disturbing.
As the governing body for what are arguably the world’s leading research universities, the regents must set an example of following the UC’s sexual misconduct policies – especially considering they’re the ones writing them. Furthermore, the almost exclusively internal process used to determine investigative proceedings creates a culture of consolidated power in the last place it should exist. Increasing transparency and creating an impartial investigation process won’t prevent every abuse of power, but it will at the very least jump-start meaningful repercussions.
And Ora’s statements, though still unconfirmed, serve as a reminder of more systemic problems within the UC.
This incident could easily be mistaken as a singularity – but it’s a mistake the UC seems to be making repeatedly. In 2017, a California state audit detailed the University’s mishandling of sexual harassment reports and transparency. 2018 brought the willful resignation of Regent Norman Pattiz after he allegedly sexually harassed an employee at a separate business.
As the leaders of the UC, it goes without saying that the vetting process for regents should be rigorous – and it generally is. All UC employees undergo background checks which include their criminal record, sex offender status and more. For supervisors, sexual harassment training is mandated every two years.
But what the UC provides in preemptive rigor continues to be desperately lacking in the aftermath of these cases.
Jin Kim, a third-year psychobiology student who works for the Student Wellness Commission, said misconduct from high-profile leaders within the University can feel like a betrayal.
“I think one big thing is that there’s a violation of trust because these are people that we have put our faith in to lead the UC system to a better place,” Kim said.
The power dynamics intuitively associated with the position of regents can prompt all the training and seminars in the world, but misconduct on the part of those trusted to lead can only be effectively mitigated through punitive actions taken in response.
And when it comes to walking the walk, the UC doesn’t have a great track record.
Claire Doan, executive director of strategic communications and media relations for the UC, reiterated the University’s official statement, which stated the University responded to the allegations when it became aware of them and has hired an investigator external to the UC.
But when the regents themselves review the investigative decisions, the University’s policies quickly become stained with bias.
The investigative process largely revolves around the decisions of a panel of UC regents – that is, the same board filled with close colleagues of the accused. Conflicts of interest riddle the system, and a general lack of transparency regarding the investigative process obscures it further.
Anjali Singhal, a second-year global studies student, said she is angry the UC regents don’t seem to be holding themselves to the same standards they set for others.
“If Kieffer were to be held responsible for his actions, it could inspire others to come forward,” Singhal said. “It really matters, because this could be such an influential case, and the fact that nothing is happening is pretty disgusting.”
When Ora spoke last week, it highlighted an uncomfortable truth. The further the regents stray from the same standards they set for the rest of the campus community, the more unwelcoming those spaces become – especially to those students and faculty who have experienced unwanted sexual behaviors in their past.
“It’s very disheartening for a lot of survivors,” Kim said. “Because it seems like they have all of these programs and we talk about Title IX, but you finally get that courage and you speak up and it goes unheard – and you just feel like ‘Why did I bother?’”
The UC regents hold a historically integral role within the UC. But they’re doing a disservice to themselves – and the UC community – with a deeply flawed approach. The combination of internal investigation processes, delayed response times and overtly lowered standards for their members serves no one but the perpetrators of harassment. And if it was meant to protect those in power, it’s unlikely to do so for long – after all, even Pattiz fell from grace under enough public pressure.
But the UC shouldn’t need that pressure to approach these situations with tact.
Granted, individual cases don’t always point to a larger systemic issue. The last few years could have been unfortunate for the community, and unlucky for public relations. But these cases are not the underlying issue – rather, they serve to showcase the symptoms of a larger system that facilitates continued mismanagement. And in doing so, it fails students from the top down.
George Kieffer might have been the weakest link this time around.
But to regain their own community’s trust, the UC regents will need more than a quick fix.