Students rally against UC Berkeley cases of sexual misconduct
Disturbed by reports of UC Berkeley’s mishandling of numerous faculty and staff related cases of sexual misconduct, over one hundred students, faculty and community members rallied in support of graduate students Kathleen Gutierrez and Erin Bennett.
The April 11 rally was planned after Gutierrez, 28, and Bennett, 25, went public with their intentions to file formal complaints against the university for what they called its mismanagement of their reports in The Guardian on April 10. As they presented their complaints and demands for policy changes to UC Berkeley administrators inside Dwinelle Hall, attendees took turns speaking and chanting outside.
Gutierrez and Bennett reported being sexually harassed by Dr. Blake Wentworth, an assistant professor in the South and Southeast Asian Studies Department, to the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD) in March 2015. In their case reports, the two described incidents of unwanted touching and sexually suggestive comments dating back to Fall 2014.
According to the student’s lawyer, Arabelle Malinis, five other students have come forward with complaints of sexual harassment and misconduct against Wentworth since Gutierrez and Bennett filed their complaints over a year ago. However, the university has yet to take action against him.
In her case report, Bennett said that she was enrolled in a one-on-one independent study class with Dr. Wentworth, but dropped the class after a few weeks because Dr. Wentworth primarily talked to her about his personal life and his “failing marriage.” Bennett said the comments started with sexual innuendos and then escalated to inappropriate and unnecessary touching.
Gutierrez’s case report said Wentworth would frequently show up at her office uninvited to talk about his personal life, such as doing drugs at Burning Man, sexual practices he enjoyed, and visits to strip clubs. During one visit Wentworth allegedly said: “I could lose my job over this…but I’m just so attracted to you.”
Wentworth has denied all allegations. He was not at his office the day of the rally for comment and his classes have currently been reassigned to other instructors.
“We are making immediate investments in prevention initiatives that go beyond required training,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said in an email to students from March 24 regarding prevention of sexual harassment on campus.
Dirks and other administrator’s initiatives include organizing a campus-wide teach-in, providing more resources for OPHD to respond to complaints in a timely fashion, and creating a campus-based review process for sexual assault incidents.
Wentworth’s case is not the first incident this year. Several media outlets including the New York Times reported that renowned UC Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy resigned after decades of reports of repeated sexual harassment of students emerged last fall. According to reports released by UC Berkeley, Sujit Choundhry, dean of the law school, resigned in March after admitting to sexually harassing his assistant, Tyann Sorrell. The university received backlash for allowing Choundhry to remain on staff as long as he wrote a letter of apology and took a 10 percent pay decrease. Assistant men’s basketball coach Yann Hufnagel also resigned earlier this month after an OPHD report of sexual harassment lead to termination proceedings as reported by The Daily Californian.
Last week the university released over 400 pages of investigation reports showing that 19 employees had been accused of sexual misconduct allegations since 2011. Eleven of the 19 were terminated or resigned, none of which were tenured faculty.
John Winer, attorney for Tyann Sorrell, former assistant to Choundhry, compared the problem of sexual harassment on the campus to the cover up of the Catholic Church sex scandal.
“After at least 20 findings and the university claims that nobody knew about it? It is empowering the persons involved to continue with their behavior. They have fired low level employees, but do they fire high level staff? No. It’s a problem that’s hidden and it’s a problem that perpetuates itself,” Winer said.
During Monday’s rally Arabelle Malinis, one of the attorneys for the two graduate students, demanded “an end to the culture of impunity for faculty members on campus.”
“When there is information and findings and the institution does nothing, then that sends a terrible message,” Malinis said. “It sends the message for everyone else to keep quiet, and that has to change.”
Both Bennett and Gutierrez said they have suffered from anxiety, depression and extreme fatigue for the past year. Bennett has taken a leave of absence to avoid running into Wentworth and Guiterrez has changed offices in an attempt to eliminate contact with him.
“The process for reporting needs to be survivor centered and needs to be transparent and consider the survivors needs as paramount. We have a right to be safe on campus and to have a safe work environment,” Bennett said.
Both Gutierrez and Bennett said there is no established protocol for dealing with sexual assault issues and where it is in place, it is diminished or suppressed. Proceedings against Wentworth are still pending and the graduate students say they will file a law suit against Wentworth and against the university if the school continues to take no action.
“When I found out that more people were affected, I knew I had to come forward. I know I’m not alone. I know different students on different campuses are experiencing the same thing so it made sense to come out now. Now is the right time,” Guiterrez said.