UC Berkeley's Sexual Harassment Scandal Is Making Headlines, But It's Really Just a Symptom of the Problem

As any woman in academia can tell you, what's happening at Berkeley is par for the course — what's unusual is that people are talking about it.
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As any woman in academia can tell you, what's happening at Berkeley is par for the course — what's unusual is that people are talking about it.

Between 2011 and 2015, 19 different staff members at the University of California, Berkeley, some of whom were professors, were accused of sexual harassment, ranging from lewd and homophobic comments, to groping graduate students under their skirts. This week, two students sued the university, charging that it grossly mishandled their cases, failing to take action against known sexual harassers. 

The situation at Berkeley, starting last fall with the resignation of astronomer Geoff Marcy and continuing into the recent resignations of the school's law dean and an assistant coach, is bringing the issue of campus rape and sexual harassment to the fore yet again. Every few years, we see an explosion of discussion on the subject, like with NPR's multipart series, or an Al Jazeera report on problems with Berkeley's handling of sexual assault just two years ago.

There's a reason that these things continue to be issues: It's not about an individual school, and it's not even just about rape culture, both of which profoundly affect everyone. It's about an extremely broken and problematic culture within academia, particularly among graduate students and post-docs. This culture feeds not just into the experiences of grad students like those coming out in droves at Berkeley, but to the fraught sexual culture on university campuses in general — because when there's a precedent for the tolerance of sexual harassment and assault in one area, it sets the tone for the whole campus, no matter what the extensive UC policy on sexual harassment and assault (recently updated to give a tip of the hat to California's "yes means yes" law) might say.

Graduate students and post-docs are in a complicated position. Many are conducting highly specialized research in their fields and they have a limited number of universities they can attend, and even fewer advisors — if you are studying medieval textiles, say, you might only find a handful of advisors who are qualified to supervise your dissertation. Graduate students delve deep into complex research topics and they need to work with experts in their field. After completing their dissertations, many go on into academia themselves, joining an elite few. 

You can probably see where this is going. 

Graduate students in many areas of academia cannot afford to cross their advisors, departments, and universities. They risk not just the problems of sexism and rape culture — not being believed, being victim-blamed and shamed for reporting, being harassed by colleagues, being ignored by campus authorities — but also the distinct possibility of ending their careers. It may not be possible to find an alternate dissertation advisor, for example, or if someone wants to transfer schools, she's counting on good letters of reference. 

Reporting, for some, means losing everything. As soon as you file a sexual harassment complaint, the wheels start turning — while the college glacially investigates, the graduate student is still stuck interacting with the advisor she's accused of sexual harassment, and she's trapped in a department that may turn highly hostile. 

There's a reason that Geoff Marcy resigned under pressure from professionals in astronomy from outside Berkeley — those in the astronomy program didn't have the clout and professional cachet to do anything about the situation, no matter how infuriating it was. 

Women in the sciences have been quite outspoken on this issue for some time, and to illustrate that this is not just a Berkeley problem, it's worth noting that another professor, at the University of Chicago, also just stepped down because of a sexual harassment complaint. Writing for the New York Times, scientist A. Hope Jahren cited sexual harassment as a major contributor to the flight of women from STEM. This is, in other words, a known and highly documented issue, but academia has stalled out on dealing with it.  

Meanwhile, for the tenured faculty charged with harassment, the Board of Regents must make a decision about whether to revoke their status. Some continue to be allowed on campus, while others are suspended... and sent home with pay. 

As the current situation unfolds, feminist faculty at UC Berkeley have stepped forward with an open letter, using their platforms as people with more prestige and job security in their fields to speak up. For people at early stages in their careers, those who do not have tenure, and those who belong to marginalized groups, it's extremely dangerous to speak up. These faculty gave voice to the voiceless, even as they risked consequences that could create long-term career problems as they become known as feminist harpies or "difficult personalities."

Graduate students are trapped in an ugly situation, and it's a situation that amplifies. As professors learn that they can harass their graduate students, they do it to their undergraduate students as well. Undergrads are afraid to report because they're familiar with the mechanics of rape culture and don't have very much in the institutions that claim to be protecting them. The system perpetuates year after year, even as "whisper networks" may warn women away from some academics. 

Those networks cannot become public, however, because there's too much at stake. 

In the wake of accusation after accusation, UC Berkeley is sending out a flurry of emails to students, desperately trying to reassure them that the situation is in hand. They point to an online course students will have to take before enrolling, and they report being "very interested" in the outcome of an amorphous "task force" recommendation, which is a polite way of saying that the university and the UC system at large are very interested in optics, but not very interested in proactive measures to address the problem by creating a safe environment for graduate students to open up about harassment. 

"Several high profile sexual harassment cases here at UC Berkeley have raised deep and understandable concerns about how the campus and its leadership manages these cases and demonstrates our commitment to ensuring a safe community for all of our students, staff and faculty. In particular, we acknowledge that some recent decisions in cases of sexual misconduct have exacerbated these concerns, and we profoundly regret any and all errors of judgment on our part," Chancellor Nicholas Dirks informed the Berkeley community in an email circulated among students, faculty, and staff. 

The non-apology was underwhelming, as was the series of plans outlined in following communications — the everpresent "task force" made a guest starring appearance, along with, chillingly, "Each member of our campus community must have clarity about their own responsibility to prevent and report harassment and violence, as well as about how to effectively intervene and provide support where possible."

Yes, that's right: It's your job to keep people from sexually harassing you, and when you fail, it's also your job to report it. 

Berkeley's approach to this matter reinforces both external rape culture, and also entrenched and deeply upsetting institutions within academia. While internal emails also state that faculty and staff will be receiving "training," they're vague when it comes to the specifications and what it will actually look like.

Berkeley has historically been a model of social justice activism, from marches on Justin Herman Plaza, to sit-ins, to strikes. That also makes it a community leader when it comes to addressing social issues, and its woeful response to the continually unfolding problem of campus sexual harassment and assault is fundamentally disturbing. 

This is not an individualistic problem, and it's not something victims are responsible for: It is the result of tolerance for sexual harassment among leading staff and faculty. 

When reports of sexual harassment are accumulating, that suggests that there's a serious problem, because survivors often don't report. Such cases should be immediately prioritized and addressed, and survivors should receive immediate counseling, treatment, and support — for example, no one should be forced to keep working with the dissertation advisor she accused of sexually harassing her, and no graduate student should have to fear reporting on the grounds that she will get bad letters of reference, killing her career before it even begins. 

If Berkeley wants to set a model, it needs to stop looking at victims as the problem, and start looking at its own internal culture. 

Photo: John Morgan/Creative Commons