One of the first things students learn at the University of California is that, when it comes to physical contact, only yes means yes. Without “affirmative consent,” forcing intimacy on someone is abusive. It’s a sophisticated standard to apply to kids.
Still, we apply it, just as we routinely make it clear in every California workplace that sexual harassment is unacceptable and illegal: no hugging, no grabbing, no groping, no kidding. So how can it be that yet another UC academic has failed to get the memo – the dean of the UC Berkeley law school, in this case?
Sujit Choudhry, an international authority on comparative constitutional law, announced an “indefinite leave of absence” as dean on Wednesday after his executive assistant sued him and the university for sexual harassment. The assistant charged that for months after Choudhry took over at age 44 as dean in July 2014, he pestered her with bear hugs, kisses, massages and other inappropriate contact.
When the university investigated, he didn’t deny it; the hugs were just friendly, he said, to “thank” her for her hard work, though he admitted he didn’t thank male colleagues that way. In July, he was found guilty and disciplined with a 10 percent pay cut for a year and told to undergo counseling and write an apology to the assistant. UC Berkeley Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele said in a statement Wednesday that he believed the punishment “would produce the necessary changes in his behavior.”
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The lawsuit was the assistant’s reply, and no wonder. Choudhry’s salary in 2014 was nearly $473,000. The docked pay was scarcely a slap.
Choudhry is a tenured faculty member, which complicates these kinds of personnel matters. But he’s hardly been the only academic at Cal to exhibit boundary issues. Less than six months ago, renowned astronomy professor Geoff Marcy was forced to step down from his faculty position amid sexual harassment complaints from female students, whose charges of serial groping dated back to at least 2011. And Choudhry was the second law school dean to be charged with sexual harassment in less than 15 years.
In a meeting with The Sacramento Bee editorial board, UC President Janet Napolitano said that UC deans are normally disciplined at the campus level. But, she added: “How often do you have to say, ‘It’s a workplace’? People ought to be able to come to work without being groped, as a minimal standard.”
A task force, prompted by the Marcy case, has been reviewing sexual harassment policy at the UC; a report is due in April. We hope it makes it clear, to the extent it isn’t already, that “yes means yes” isn’t just for students, and sexual harassment is sexual harassment, even for people with Ph.Ds.