Two weeks ago, UCLA students disrupted a history class taught by Gabriel Piterberg, a professor accused of sexual assault toward two of his graduate students. Protesters forced Piterberg to release his lecture one hour earlier than scheduled, hoping to hold him accountable for his actions.
Throughout this past inauguration weekend, protests broke out nationwide. Some were disruptive. For instance, Friday's teach-in leaders at Odegaard Library were confronted by students studying in the library. Some have criticized such disruptive protests as mere populism.
I would like to make my point clear: There should be zero tolerance for sexual harassment in academia. However, student protesters –– disruptive or not –– cannot replace justice. Protesters provoke awareness and actions from decision makers but never make decisions for them directly.
The way UCLA handled this sexual harassment case is disturbing. Accusations of this professor committing sexual harassment dated back as early as 2013. UCLA reached a quiet disciplinary settlement with Piterberg in March 2014, and released all details nearly two years later. The graduate students sued UCLA in mid 2015, claiming the school "urged them to keep quiet and not pursue formal investigations." The lawsuits were settled in Sep. 2016, with UCLA paying students $460,000, and one of the students provided with a dissertation year fellowship.
Considering the currently released information, I am suspicious that UCLA has taken advantage of its institutional status throughout the matter. As a major university in the Los Angeles region, UCLA is a powerful entity.
Sexual harassment could lead to civil or criminal charges. The process of the school's internal investigation is questionable compared to formal investigations conducted by law enforcement or other third parties. Due to so-called privacy concerns, the university preferred this kind of internal policing.
It makes sense, then, that the graduate students sued the school for violating Title IX over one year later. And the result was just a deal with UCLA. The institution has been abusing its power, playing the role of law enforcement as well as court. It is not surprising that other students have been protesting for years in attempts to seek transparency, awareness, actions, and justice.
Some commentators on the student protest stated they did not approve of the disruptive manner of demonstration, yet they agreed with students' opinion on sexual harassment. In this case, student protesters failed to achieve their intentions; they could use a different technique beyond loud protests to get their points across.
Although it may not apply to the UCLA case, there have been historical examples in which the accused sexual offender is actually innocent. In 1992, David Mamet carried out the controversial play "Oleanna," which made some feminists furious but some men cheerful, as the play suggests some accusers of sexual harassment in academia have had malicious intentions.
Sexual harassment should not be tolerated. An offender should suffer serious consequences, including the potential end of their career, because of the traumatic experiences they impose onto the survivor. The power of imposing such strong punishments is therefore carefully practiced. Can schools abuse their institutional power to bargain with the survivors? Can students impose justice by simply disrupting others' education? The answers are both no.