A renowned Middle East scholar and architecture professor at UC Berkeley spent months ingratiating himself with a graduate student before placing his hand on her upper thigh, proposing they become "close friends" and suggesting they go to Las Vegas, a campus investigation has found.
Nezar AlSayyad, an internationally recognized scholar and a frequent public voice on global issues, is the latest prominent faculty member at UC Berkeley found to have sexually harassed a student or colleague in violation of University of California rules, The Chronicle has learned.
A five-month investigation completed in October upheld nearly all of the student's allegations. The 52-page report obtained by The Chronicle found that AlSayyad's behavior became increasingly personal from 2012 to 2014, with frequent social invitations and hugs, as he sought to position himself as the student's protector and make her beholden to him.
The conduct "can be seen as an attempt to 'groom' (the student) for the possibility of becoming a romantic or sexual partner," wrote lawyer Eve Fichtner, an independent investigator hired by the university.
While the report deals with the harassment of one student, The Chronicle found two others who complained about AlSayyad's conduct. One student alleged more than 20 years ago that they had sex and that she felt taken advantage of, but her complaint was never the subject of an investigation. Another student accused AlSayyad this spring of nonsexual misconduct; an investigation is pending.
AlSayyad, 61, has denied all allegations of misconduct. He said in an interview at his campus office that administrators are overreacting for fear of being perceived as soft on sexual harassment.
AlSayyad, who earns $210,000 a year, has taught at UC Berkeley since 1985. He has co-founded an international architecture forum, helped attract millions of dollars in grants as chairman of the university's Center for Middle Eastern Studies and won a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship in 2014, among other honors. As editor of a peer-reviewed journal, AlSayyad also holds a potential key to success for many students hoping to publish.
On Friday, The Chronicle learned that campus officials have barred AlSayyad from teaching next semester. The move suggests they are acting swiftly to force his resignation.
Asked to comment, AlSayyad said he is unaware that he will not be teaching this spring.
"If true, I will not accept it, as it presumes I did something wrong when I did not," he said.
The findings and allegations raise questions about AlSayyad's behavior over many years. They come at a time of heightened scrutiny of sexual harassment on college campuses as students increasingly speak out about the sexual advances of faculty who wield power over their academic futures. While no national statistics exist that show how common sexual harassment is in academia, female students — especially in the male-dominated fields of science, math and architecture — say harassment is pervasive and can derail promising careers.
Student speaks out
The UC Berkeley graduate student told officials in March that she had changed departments — and the course of her career — because AlSayyad had positioned himself as her sole protector from "vultures" in the architecture department who looked down on her work.
"I almost left school, and had years of self-doubt," Eva Hagberg Fisher said in an interview. "And when I trace it back, it all goes back to him."
Hagberg Fisher, 34, said she wanted to speak out after revelations this year and last about three high-profile employees at UC Berkeley — a celebrated astronomer, the dean of the School of Law and a vice chancellor — who groped, kissed or touched students or colleagues. AlSayyad's name is redacted from the report on her case, but Hagberg Fisher confirmed he is its subject.
UC Berkeley's investigator reviewed hundreds of pages of documents and interviewed 18 people. The report concluded that AlSayyad sexually harassed Hagberg Fisher at a crucial time, as he served on an exam committee that would determine if she was qualified to write the dissertation needed for her degree.
AlSayyad invited Hagberg Fisher to dinner and drinks repeatedly and expressed his love for her, despite his "position of trust, authority and power," according to the report. He also hugged her and commented on her appearance — including on the morning of her all-important doctoral exams.
Investigator Fichtner said it was reasonable for Hagberg Fisher to view AlSayyad's pre-exam hug as "inappropriate and as a sexual overture" because of his escalating personal interest in her.
Fichtner also found that AlSayyad undercut his credibility with inconsistent responses to some of her questions, such as denying that he had called faculty members vultures or had positioned himself as Hagberg Fisher's protector. When confronted with his own emails, however, he characterized the comments as normal communication, Fichtner wrote.
In an interview, AlSayyad dismissed Hagberg Fisher's accusations as "greatly exaggerated." He said it is normal for professors to go out for drinks with adult students and that he was shocked Hagberg Fisher had misconstrued hugs he intended as kind and caring.
"I have absolutely done nothing wrong," he said. "I actually feel terribly victimized."
The investigator recommended in her report that campus officials begin the process of deciding whether AlSayyad violated the Faculty Code of Conduct. Discipline options for a violation include a written rebuke, pay cut, demotion, suspension, denial of privileges, or firing through the loss of tenure. Although an unknown number of tenured professors have been forced to resign over the years — including famed astronomer Geoffrey Marcy last year for sexual harassment — just two have lost tenure at UC Berkeley in 25 years.
AlSayyad criticized the process, saying the investigator appears to serve as "a prosecutor, a judge and a jury."
A second investigation of AlSayyad's behavior is pending. Another graduate student filed a complaint in April mirroring Hagberg Fisher's accusation that AlSayyad manipulated her by isolating her from other professors. The student told campus officials she came to UC Berkeley to study under a specific faculty member in architecture but dropped that professor as her adviser after AlSayyad warned her the professor could not be trusted.
AlSayyad said in an interview that he does not isolate students from other faculty, but tries to ensure that they are surrounded by "the best possible group of people" for their work. He called the allegation ludicrous.
For Cassandra Adams, a former assistant professor of architecture at UC Berkeley, the university's willingness to investigate claims of sexual harassment and other misconduct against a professor of AlSayyad's stature is a welcome change. She said the campus handled a complaint of sexual impropriety against AlSayyad in the 1990s very differently.
Adams recalled that in late 1993 or early 1994, her research assistant, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, tearfully described an incident with AlSayyad, who was on her master's thesis committee.
"She said, 'He slept with me,'" said Adams, now an architect in El Cerrito. "She was very upset."
Adams knew that her research assistant depended on AlSayyad for approval of her academic work and for help advancing her career.
"It was a big deal for her to say anything," Adams said. The student, who was from a traditional background, wondered whether she and AlSayyad would have to marry because they'd had sex.
AlSayyad already was married. He'd recently separated from Nadia Anis, who had been a student when he was a teaching assistant at Cairo University.
Adams said she helped her research assistant file a written complaint with the architecture department. The UC Berkeley Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, where Hagberg Fisher filed her complaint, would not exist for another 18 years.
AlSayyad denied in an interview that he had sex with the student, and said he didn't know she had made that claim against him. If he had known, AlSayyad said, "I would have absolutely sued the student."
Anis, his ex-wife, said in an interview that AlSayyad called her at the time and said he was "really stressed out because 'this thing' had surfaced."
"I just remember him saying, 'I felt really lonely, so I asked her out to dinner or the movies,'" said Anis, 58, an architect in San Rafael. "He said, 'This girl is suggesting that I sexually harassed her.'"
Anis said she never believed the student's allegation because she didn't think AlSayyad would jeopardize his career.
"It doesn't match up with what I know of him," she said. "He was so concerned with his image."
Jean-Pierre Protzen, a former chairman of the architecture department, said colleagues told him about the student's complaint at the time. They decided: "We should really tell him to stop."
Protzen said AlSayyad was subsequently removed from the student's thesis committee "for the good of the student."
AlSayyad said he removed himself from the committee because the student had developed an affection for him.
"The only allegation that I heard is that she is in love with me, I am in love with her," he said. After he learned about it, he said, the student came to his office in tears, but he would not let her in and told her, "You should not have tried to damage my reputation."
Asked if he'd ever gone out with the student, AlSayyad said: "Maybe we went to the movies."
The student withdrew her complaint "under duress from the university" after about a month, said Adams, the assistant professor who had helped her. "They told her, 'It's your word against his.' She was upset about it. It's like being bullied."
Reached by The Chronicle, the former student did not dispute the account provided by Adams and Protzen but declined to comment.
Adams said she also spoke with the department about her research assistant's allegation.
"It was very scary for me," she said. "But it was the right thing to do."
Adams subsequently lost her bid for tenure and said she believes that speaking up was the reason. She said Fichtner, the investigator on Hagberg Fisher's case, contacted her this spring and expressed interest in looking into that possibility.
In 2010, Hagberg Fisher joined the UC Berkeley architecture department as a master's student and took an introductory course co-taught by AlSayyad. She said he was an engaging lecturer and that she was flattered when he took an interest in her work, complimented her intelligence and said he wanted to teach her at the doctoral level.
But by 2012, her enthusiasm had vanished. AlSayyad repeatedly told her that other professors "wouldn't work with me and didn't want to work with me," she said in her complaint. Believing she lacked the faculty support to succeed in architecture, Hagberg Fisher told a professor outside the department that she planned to quit school.
That professor offered her an alternative: creating her own doctoral program outside of architecture. Hagberg Fisher agreed. Thinking AlSayyad was the only architecture professor who supported her work, she invited him to serve on her exam committee.
The following winter, Hagberg Fisher received frightening news: She became ill with a ruptured cyst in her brain. At the same time, AlSayyad's attention had become more personal, and his "language escalated to wanting to see her regardless of where she was or how sick she was," Fichtner, the investigator, found.
On April 2, 2013, AlSayyad emailed Hagberg Fisher: "I would love to see you any time you are available, zombie or not, in school or elsewhere. Can you have a drink with me?"
As Hagberg Fisher's recovery continued into fall, AlSayyad repeatedly invited her to get together socially, emails between them show. He and his second wife, Ananya Roy, had separated that summer, court records show. They married in 1997, when she was a doctoral student in UC Berkeley's department of City and Regional Planning.
On Sept. 13, 2013, AlSayyad emailed Hagberg Fisher again: "I heard you have to do surgery again soon. Can I see you soon, perhaps for a drink, coffee, or a meal?" She replied that she was ill and would soon need a spinal tap.
Eventually, Hagberg Fisher agreed to meet him for drinks at Five, a restaurant and bar at a hotel in downtown Berkeley, emails between them show. The investigation found that they not only discussed health issues and a past romantic relationship of Hagberg Fisher's, but that AlSayyad "casually expressed his love for Ms. Fisher in relation to how he loved his students."
As he drove her home that night, AlSayyad told Hagberg Fisher that he often goes to Las Vegas with his close friends, put his hand on her upper thigh and "said something like, 'I consider you to be a friend, and I hope that we can become close friends,'" Fichtner wrote.
Hagberg Fisher froze. She pretended she needed to stop at a nearby supermarket and got out, she said.
"This behavior from a male professor towards a female student in the close confines of a car demonstrated physical conduct of a sexual nature as well as the opportunity for Ms. Fisher to provide sexual favors or respond favorably to his subtle sexual advance," Fichtner wrote.
AlSayyad disputed the account, telling Fichtner: "I never touched her leg, and if I did, it was accidental when I was hugging her in the car."
He told The Chronicle that he never invited Hagberg Fisher to Las Vegas and called the idea "disgusting."
Hagberg Fisher said she told two close friends about what happened in the car, but told no one else about the incident for more than a year, believing it "would only lead to trouble."
"I needed his support," she said. "Whether or not that power is real, we are taught as graduate students that it is."
Hagberg Fisher said she avoided AlSayyad for months after that and considered removing him from her committee. But she had already postponed her qualifying exams several times for health reasons and feared the change would further delay her progress. And without AlSayyad — the only architecture professor on her committee — getting a teaching job in an architecture department "would be close to impossible," she said.
Then, on May 7, 2014 — just before AlSayyad and Hagberg Fisher's other committee members were to administer the three-hour exam to determine if she was qualified to write a doctoral dissertation — AlSayyad hugged Hagberg Fisher outside the exam room and told her she looked great and that he hoped she "felt as good as she looked," the investigation found.
AlSayyad told the investigator his hug was not intended to be sexual and that he was simply happy that Hagberg Fisher had made it to the exams and looked well after an illness.
But Fichtner said it was reasonable by that time for Hagberg Fisher to view any touching from AlSayyad as "exceptionally uncomfortable and sexual."
Hagberg Fisher passed her exams. AlSayyad praised her performance and invited her to work for him over the summer. Then he told her that two other professors on the panel had remarked that she was not a scholar and should not have passed, but that he had fought for her, she said.
She said his statements undermined her ability to confidently move forward with her work.
"I just thought, 'I'm done,'" she said in an interview. "I decided I wasn't going to take this level of undermining and hardly veiled criticism."
Hagberg Fisher notified her head graduate adviser that she did not want AlSayyad to be placed on her dissertation committee.
"I feel relieved," Hagberg Fisher emailed a friend at the time. "I'm nervous to run into him because I don't think I'll be able to say, 'Please don't hug me,' or whatever, but I think I can also just avoid him."
Then, in March, Hagberg Fisher talked with a friend who had spoken publicly about witnessing sexual harassment by Marcy, the former astronomy professor forced to resign after disclosures that he had groped or behaved inappropriately with students during a decade at UC Berkeley. By that time, so many other students had also come forward to condemn sexual harassment on campus that Hagberg Fisher said she felt emboldened to speak out herself.
While she is pleased with the investigator's findings in her case, Hagberg Fisher said she is distressed that campus administrators have shared only minimal information with her about how AlSayyad might be disciplined. They did not tell her, for example, that he won't teach next semester.
"I would rather see him immediately fired," she said.
Still, Hagberg Fisher said she does not regret her decision to come forward.
"What happened to me was wrong," she said. "If my speaking up can shine a light on this person — and maybe he can't do it to someone else — that's my goal."