A new sexual harassment case involving a UC Berkeley professor has reignited anger and frustration from students who say the university has not learned from recent scandals — and that the school is still protecting the interests of prominent academics over the safety of students.
Last month, a campus investigation found that architecture professor Nezar AlSayyad placed his hand on the upper thigh of a graduate student and proposed they become "close friends," according to a recent report in the San Francisco Chronicle. The professor — who denied the allegations in a message to his students — was barred from teaching next semester, according to the Chronicle. But students say he is still teaching and has been permitted to hold one-on-one meetings.
"I think it's outrageous that someone under investigation for such serious transgressions was left in positions of teaching and advising that put students in harm's way," said Brooke Staton, a graduate student in city planning who is in one of the professor's lecture courses.
The campus administration, however, hinted that might change. Without revealing specifics, it released a statement late Tuesday afternoon saying that campus leaders "met to discuss what might be necessary to protect students' welfare" and that "decisions were made to take action in support of students' needs and interests."
AlSayyad did not respond to requests for comment, but denied wrongdoing in an interview with the Chronicle.
Students staged a protest Tuesday outside of Wurster Hall, where AlSayyad teaches, and are planning another action Thursday. In a petition submitted this week, graduate students in the Department of City and Regional Planning are demanding the campus immediately suspend AlSayyad and strip his tenure rights if the campus finds he has violated the Faculty Code of Conduct. The students are also demanding he receive a "severe reprimand and disavowal of his behavior."
In a statement, College of Environmental Design Dean Jennifer Wolch said that she could not comment on the particulars of the case, but that "many members of our community have been deeply shaken" by the news story.
"The College of Environmental Design is committed to the safety and welfare of our students, and has no tolerance for sexual harassment or sexual violence," she said.
As cases pile up, UC Berkeley has become Ground Zero for the backlash against sexual harassment on college campuses nationwide — a problem that makes graduate students, whose careers rely heavily on advisers, feel particularly vulnerable.
In September, students marched to the UC Berkeley law school to protest the return of former law school Dean Sujit Choudhry. He stepped down in March and for months stayed away from campus after a lawsuit made public campus findings that he had sexually harassed his executive assistant, Tyann Sorrell, by subjecting her to unwanted hugs, kisses and caresses.
Shortly after his return to work in September, Choudhry was moved to another building away from the law school after Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Interim Provost Carol Christ determined the professor's "actions and presence at the Law School have caused extensive disruption to the operations of Berkeley Law," according to a letter Christ wrote to Interim Law Dean Melissa Murray in September.
Sorrell was one of the first sexual harassment victims at UC Berkeley to go public with her story, saying it was unfair that she — not Choudhry — had no choice but to leave the job she loved because she didn't feel safe at work.
But that, too, has changed. After an 18-month leave of absence, Sorrell returned to the dean's office last week — with a new boss.
Although nervous about the "naysayers" she might encounter upon her return, Sorrell said she received only the warmest of welcomes. In a phone interview, she said bouquets of tulips, lilies and daisies covered her desk by the end of the day, including one from Murray — who announced Sorrell's return in a brief email to the law school.
"Almost right away, my co-workers started coming in, one after the next, some in groups, to welcome me back," she said. "People asked, 'Can I hug you?'
"I said, 'Absolutely, I wouldn't have it any other way.'"