On a gray January morning in Oakland, Tyann Sorrell glides into her attorney’s 13th-floor offices overlooking Lake Merritt. She is greeted by hugs, one after another, and warm words.
Then she gets down to business: Her $1.7 million sexual harassment settlement with the University of California.
At 43, Sorrell is a reluctant hero of the “Me Too” movement, a soft-spoken and poised mother of five who challenged one of UC’s most hallowed institutions, the UC Berkeley School of Law, and the new leader it hired in 2014.
As an executive assistant at the law school, joining in 2012, Sorrell described her initial years as positive and her relationship with then-Dean Christopher Edley as “a wonderful bond.” Everything changed in mid-2014, she said, with the arrival of Sujit Choudhry, a constitutional law scholar who replaced Edley and became Sorrell’s new superior.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
What happened over the next few years shook the institution at its highest levels and ripped open new dialogue on UC campuses and elsewhere about how sexual misconduct allegations are handled in higher education.
An internal investigation found that Choudhry had violated university policies with his “unwelcome” kissing, hugging and touching of Sorrell, according to the report, but he was not placed on leave. As discipline, he was given a temporary 10 percent pay cut from his $472,917 annual salary and required to write an apology letter to her.
Sorrell, who had made numerous internal reports about Choudhry’s behavior, said she was required to use her accrued sick and vacation time to take time off to avoid being around him. In March 2016, she filed a lawsuit in Alameda Superior Court.
The fallout has been considerable – for Choudhry, for the administration and for Sorrell.
Under the settlement reached last year with Sorrell, the UC Regents denied her claims and allegations. However, UC President Janet Napolitano has announced a series of new measures to improve the university's handling of such cases.
Besides the $1.7 million settlement, Choudhry struck a separate agreement in which he will pay $50,000 to Sorrell's attorneys and $50,000 to charities of her choice that deal with sexual harassment and violence. He will voluntarily resign in May as part of his own agreement with the regents.
Claude Steele, UC Berkeley’s executive vice chancellor and provost, resigned in April 2016 amid criticism over his handling of Choudhry’s discipline.
Sorrell took an extended leave and attempted to return to her old job, but she left last year for good, citing persistent retaliation among senior leaders. She said she is focusing on her family and contemplating her future, while also pursuing new career passions.
On Jan. 10, Sorrell sat down with The Bee to talk about her case, the circumstances surrounding her allegations, and the impact the notoriety has had on herself, her former colleagues and her family. Some of the interviewer’s questions have been edited for brevity.
Q: What was the work climate like before Choudhry’s arrival?
A: Dean (Christopher) Edley – he was so loved and had made so many wonderful contributions to the law school. In my time working with Dean Edley, there was a wonderful bond there. The law school was happy. It was just good energy.
Q: What happened next?
A: One of the immediate things that I noticed on Day 1 meeting Choudhry was an immediate tone shift … From that first interaction, it was like, “Whoa, this is going to be really different.”
Q: You have said that his inappropriate touching, hugging and kissing got progressively worse. Describe that.
A: Over time, what seemed to be a warm greeting became more intense, more involved, more, I would say, violating and boundary-crossing. And it was extremely, extremely uncomfortable ... And I knew intuitively that this is not about to stop. It also really felt like any reasonable adult should know better.
Q: Do you object to people expressing affection in the workplace?
A: Even at Berkeley Law, in my time there, I have hugged, I have kissed co-workers. You know, it’s a friendly place. It was a comfortable place ... I’m a naturally affectionate person myself. That being said, and I think I want to place emphasis on that, me being a naturally affectionate person – to feel like someone has stepped over the line says a lot.
Q: You waited a while before filing a formal complaint. Why?
A: I didn’t want to rock the boat. I was still working for him. I was still a subordinate employee, so I was being very careful. I didn’t want to make accusations that I was not going to know how to follow up on and deal with.
Q: What made you finally file that complaint?
A: I’d had enough ... It was like a mobilizing anger – that kind of anger where you’ve just had enough, I guess. And it mobilized me to act.
Q: Did you question yourself during this period?
A: Absolutely... I did that to myself almost the entire time. I denied and told myself so many stories and narratives of what was happening, knowing all along that this was very abnormal... I didn't want to be an office cliche. There's a lot of self-blaming that can happen.
Q: How were things when you returned from your extended leave?
A: Staff? Warm welcome. Lots of support. Just so much support, I couldn’t even tell you. It was a beautiful thing. But the people who had the power? The blowback that I got for coming back is a story in and of itself.
Q: You ultimately decided to leave the university last July. Why?
A: It was very clear to me that my return may have been nostalgic for a while, but if I had to sum it up, my return was very inconvenient ... I was treated like a misfit.
Q: Did this ordeal affect your husband and children?
A: I’m mom. And when I’m coming home, tense and crying and upset, of course it definitely did. I tried to protect my family and keep them away from it as best as I could. I think as a family together, we did a good job holding each other up.
Q: Any regrets?
A: Oh, so many. I’m a very transparent person … There’s no blueprint, there’s no manual on how to handle this, situations like this.
Q: What did you learn from this experience?
A: I still feel what’s missing is not enough inclusion of the voices of victims in the planning and in the programming of redress on sexual harassment, including prevention, training … Get some people out there who’ve walked the walk, and have gone through it, and have not just been a spectator.
Q: What’s next for Tyann?
A: This has forced me to take a step back, in all the right ways, in all the good ways, and refocus my life on what I want to do … One of my other passions that I’ve always had is piloting, so I’m in piloting school now. (Laughs.) That was my surprise.