University of California at Berkeley School of Law Dean Sujit Choudhry has resigned in the wake of a sexual harassment complaint, school officials announced Thursday.
Berkeley’s chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, accepted Choudhry’s resignation as dean, effective immediately. Under the University of California’s tenure policy, Choudhry remains a faculty member, and a top administrator acknowledged “legitimate criticism” of the school’s initial decision not to remove him from his position as dean.
A lawsuit was filed against Choudhry and the University of California Board of Regents with claims including sexual harassment, retaliation and failure to stop it.
Tyann Sorrell, a former executive assistant to Choudhry, claims that from September 2014 to March 2015, he sexually harassed her with kisses to the cheeks, bear hugs and repeatedly rubbing her shoulders and arms — and that when she complained to supervisors, they didn’t stop him and tried to retaliate against her.
Hundreds of alumni quickly banded together after hearing of the lawsuit, which follows another recent high-profile case of alleged sexual harassment at the prestigious public university.
Arusha Gordon, who graduated in 2013, was surprised by the allegations and by the university’s response. “I was particularly disappointed because I, like many alumni, chose Berkeley Law because the Berkeley community prides itself on its progressive values, including gender equity. To have something like this happen goes against all the values myself and other alumni hold.”
She said more than 450 alumni had signed a letter in about 24 hours calling for Choudhry’s resignation and “an independent, external investigation into the handling of this incident and related incidents over the years that suggest larger, systemic issues in the handling of sexual harassment and assault at U.C. Berkeley.”
On Thursday, through his attorney, Choudhry issued a statement:
Earlier today, I tendered my resignation from the position of Dean of UC Berkeley Law School, effective immediately. I took this step because the pending lawsuit, against the university and me, appears to have become a distraction for the law school, the university and our community, an outcome I had hoped could be avoided.
I have received many requests to respond to, or comment on, the allegations that are the subject of the pending lawsuit. On my counsel’s advice – and in order to have this case tried in a court of law, and not in the press – I am refraining from doing so at this juncture. I will defend, in the litigation, against the claims and allegations made against me. I respectfully ask that fair-minded persons understand that there are two sides to every narrative, and that the university and I should have an opportunity to mount a full defense in court, the only forum in which the claims and allegations against us can be fairly adjudicated.
Sorrell’s attorney sent a copy of a note he said was sent from Choudhry to Sorrell.
Claude Steele, the executive vice chancellor and provost, released the results of an internal investigation Wednesday evening and wrote, in part, “A thorough investigation of this case found that Dean Choudhry’s behavior in this situation violated policy, and that he demonstrated a failure to understand the power dynamic and the effect of his actions on the plaintiff personally and in her employment. Based on the findings of the investigation I believed that a combination of disciplinary actions, monitoring of his behavior and formal training would be an appropriate and effective response, and would produce the necessary changes in his behavior.
“I know we all share the goal of eliminating of sexual harassment and all forms of discriminatory behavior at UC Berkeley. I intend to listen carefully to what members of our campus community and others have to suggest when it comes to how we prevent and respond to incidents like these.”
On Thursday evening, as the resignation was announced, Steele sent out another statement.
We believe the dean’s resignation is an outcome in the best interests of Berkeley Law and the university as a whole. At the same time we are under no illusion that a resignation could or even should bring this matter and broader, related issues to a close. It is clear, as we heard during our meeting with law school faculty this morning, that the initial decision not to remove the dean from his position is the subject of legitimate criticism.
We can and must do better as a campus administration. We must move in the direction of stronger sanctions, and in doing this we want and need the broad input of the campus community.
We are sharply focused on this issue and committed to ensuring a supportive and safe environment for every single person on this campus. We will act quickly to generate action that will produce lasting change in our culture and practices.
Tomorrow we will be reaching out to faculty leaders for their help in quickly putting all of these commitments into motion.
Students issued a written statement, decrying that after a four-month investigation that concluded that Choudhry had violated the sexual harassment policy, his “$472,917 salary was lowered by 10% for one year,” he was required to undergo counseling and told to write a letter of apology, but the law school community did not learn of the allegations until this week. “We are outraged and disgusted by the University’s deliberate withholding of information concerning the safety of students, staff and faculty,” wrote Kyneshawau Hurd, the co-chair of the coalition for diversity and Sloan Patrice Whiteside, the 3L class co-president for the Boalt Hall Student Association, with a list of demands including an investigation of Steele’s decisions, student access to all investigations and student input into the selection of an interim and permanent dean.
Faculty who attended a previously scheduled meeting Thursday wrote a message to the law school community: “We know that you have been expecting to hear from us.
“We learned today about allegations that have been made against Dean Choudhry and University administrators involving both sexual harassment and the institution’s response. We take these disturbing allegations extremely seriously. We emphatically condemn the type of conduct alleged in the complaint.
“Our understanding is that a statement from central campus is forthcoming today, which we hope will provide more clarity. We will communicate further as soon as we know more.
“Our community is much more than any one individual. Our strength lies in our brilliant and passionate students, staff, faculty, and alumni. We trust this community to work together to meet this challenge.” It was signed by Ty Alper, Holly Doremus, Molly Van Houweling, Calvin Morrill, Charles Weisselberg, and Kathleen Vanden Heuvel.
While the situation was unfolding, the law school was welcoming admitted students for a weekend introducing them to the school.
Marissa Ram, who graduated in 2013 from the school, wrote in an email, “I was extremely disturbed to find that the Dean of Berkeley Law had violated the University’s own sexual harassment policy. The University’s response was insufficient and points to a larger, systemic problem in preventing and responding to sexual harassment and assault at UC Berkeley.
“The University’s own investigation confirmed the veracity of the violations, yet the University still prioritized the career security of a male academic that violated the University’s own sexual harassment policy over the safety of its female employees and students. In 2016, it shouldn’t take a lawsuit, media coverage, or an alumni-wide outcry before there are any meaningful consequences for sexual harassment by the Dean of a leading institution of legal education.
“Permitting Sujit Choudhry to remain a professor at Berkeley Law or the University of California in any capacity is unacceptable; it would only confirm that UC Berkeley and the Board of Regents do not take sexual violence against women seriously.”
Here is the full text of the letter from alumni:
President Napolitano, Chancellor Dirks, members of the Board of Regents, and members of the Berkeley Law Faculty and Administration: As proud alumni of the UC Berkeley School of Law, we were shocked and dismayed to learn that Dean Sujit Choudhry sexually harassed his executive assistant, Tyann Sorrell, less than 15 years after Dean John Dwyer resigned in another sexual harassment scandal. Even more disappointing are the university and law school’s responses and seeming complicity in continuing Choudhry’s employment after the university’s own investigation confirmed the truth of these violations. In short, this feeble response has betrayed students, the UC Berkeley community, Boalt alumni, and the values that we hold dear.
It has been reported that Choudhry admitted in summer 2015 to hugging, kissing, and making other inappropriate and unwanted contact with multiple women on staff. Despite the university’s findings consistent with these admissions, the university punished him with only a one-year, 10 percent salary reduction and required that he write a simple letter of apology to the survivor (a penalty alleged in the complaint to have been driven by the university’s concern with ameliorating any harm to his career and advancement). The university’s response is a complete and utter failure of UC Berkeley and the school of law to condemn sexual harassment in its community. In 2014, Choudhry’s total compensation was $472,917. This suggests that the university values a female employee’s safety and well-being only to the extent of $47,000. And, of course, the financial penalty — none of which appears to have gone to the survivor — does nothing to adequately protect current and future survivors of sexual harassment and create an inclusive, welcoming culture for all law school students, faculty, and staff.
A leading institution of legal education — one that fashions itself on the cutting edge of progressive legal education — must do more. As alumni, we demand it. As Chancellor Dirks reminded the entire campus in 2014, “sexual assault has no place on a college campus or anywhere in civilized society.” Generations of Berkeley Law students, many of them women and particularly women of color, have worked tirelessly to recruit a more diverse faculty and create a more inclusive environment for the study of law. UC Berkeley, and in particular the law school, is an institution that prides itself on commitment to gender equity and social justice, which is the reason many of us specifically chose to attend Berkeley Law. Law school deans should model the values of the school that they represent. Moreover, Boalt’s dean should and must be someone that faculty, staff, and students feel comfortable and safe approaching with questions and concerns and as a leader that the entire legal academy and profession looks to with admiration.
In light of Choudhry’s violation of multiple women at the law school, the notion that he could continue to hold the position of dean is unreasonable, laughable, and insulting — not only to the women in the Berkeley community, but also to the values that brought us to Boalt, values that tie generations of alumni together. Given his behavior and the impact it would undoubtedly have on his ability to effectively connect with and serve the law school community, he was entirely unfit to hold the position of dean. That the university and the law school had not already reached this conclusion is, quite frankly, alarming.
We demand the immediate termination of Sujit Choudhry. We also demand that the university initiate an independent, external investigation into the handling of this incident and related incidents over the years that suggest larger, systemic issues in the handling of sexual harassment and assault at UC Berkeley. The professional advancement of faculty or staff who have admitted to engaging in sexual harassment must never again take precedence over the best interests of the survivors and the larger Berkeley and Boalt communities.
As long as Choudhry remains at Boalt or the University of California in any capacity, we cannot in good conscience contribute financially to Berkeley Law or to the university. Nor are we comfortable encouraging prospective students to attend Boalt. Let us be clear: We cherished our time at Boalt and consider its faculty members and students to be mentors and friends to this day, and we thus make these demands with heavy hearts. But we cannot recommend our alma mater when it apparently allows a confessed repeat harasser to hold its highest position of power and the university appears to aid him in covering up such blatant misconduct.
We await your prompt, full, and satisfactory response to this situation.
Here is the student association’s statement: