At the University of California, investigations of sexual harassment claims against employees often take more than a year and cause extended periods of stress for the accuser and the accused.
But beginning Sept. 1, campus officials will have 60 business days to complete their investigations — and another 40 days to issue disciplinary decisions, according to new rules issued last week from UC President Janet Napolitano meant to clarify the cumbersome, emotional process.
"We have an obligation to respond promptly and effectively," said Kathleen Salvaty, UC's Title IX coordinator, a job that refers to the federal law barring gender discrimination on campuses.
Salvaty acknowledged that some investigations may still take longer than 60 days if witnesses are unavailable in the time frame, for example. But under the new rules, "both complainant and respondent have to be informed of any extensions, given the reason for the delay and given a new projected timeline."
The rules don't say how harassers should be disciplined. But they specify the steps and timeline for how UC will handle accusations against faculty and staff. For example, within 40 days after a violation has been determined, the chancellor must make a decision about discipline. If the harasser is a faculty member with tenure — a lifetime job protection — a referral, if appropriate, must also be made within that time to the faculty panel that decides whether to revoke tenure.
In UC's 149-year history, just eight professors have lost tenure. Many more have voluntarily quit when pressured to do so.
The rule changes come after years of heightened public scrutiny over UC's handling of sexual harassment and sexual assault cases, as campuses have had to hire more investigators or contract out for them. Salvaty, whose position as systemwide Title IX coordinator was created in January, employs two full-time investigators and may soon hire more.
At UC Berkeley, administrators decided in May to spend $3 million a year to deal with sexual harassment and assault, despite a budget crisis at the campus. The campus has been widely criticized for lax discipline of high-profile employees, including a famous astronomer, an vice chancellor and a law school dean who received light punishment until their cases became public.
In March, The Chronicle examined records of 57 sexual assault investigations on the 10 campuses from 2013 to 2016, and found that UC had fired fewer than half of the employees who attacked or inappropriately touched students, colleagues or medical patients.
The new rules clarify the roles of investigators and decision makers, as well as the rights of the accuser and the accused, "furthering a culture of safety and respect at the university," Napolitano said in a statement.
Sheryl Vacca, a former UC executive who chaired the university's sexual harassment prevention committees, said last summer that investigations take more than a year to complete, on average.
Victims say the long wait can deter victims from reporting a problem in the first place — or, if they do report, the ongoing stress and distraction can make them feel victimized a second time.
"Both suspects and victims often complain that justice delayed is justice denied," said attorney Wendy Patrick, a business ethics lecturer at San Diego State University who also prosecutes people accused of sexual assault.
At UC Berkeley, doctoral student Eva Hagberg Fisher filed a sexual harassment complaint in March 2016 against Nezar AlSayyad, a Middle East scholar and architecture professor who had positioned himself as her protector. AlSayyad denied engaging in any misconduct.
Hagberg Fisher heard nothing for more than two months. Then, on June 8, 2016, she got a letter from the campus Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination acknowledging her report, telling her an investigation had begun, and establishing a "no-contact directive" between her and AlSayyad.
The investigation dragged on, and by the end of September, Hagberg Fisher felt increasingly alone in her fight. Other students learned of her complaint and accused her of hurting their chances of getting a recommendation letter from AlSayyad, a renowned scholar in his field.
"This is a distraction from my academic work," she told The Chronicle at the time. "I'm realizing the kind of personal cost this is taking. This has gone on so much longer than I thought."
On Oct. 5, 2016, more than six months after Hagberg Fisher complained, the campus upheld her allegations that the professor had spent months ingratiating himself with her, had placed his hand on her upper thigh, and had suggested they become "close friends" and go to Las Vegas.
"This investigation took longer to complete than originally anticipated, largely due to the number of witnesses and the delays caused by witness unavailability," wrote the investigator who had been hired from an outside firm.
"Tightening the timetable for both investigations and decisions on discipline afford all parties quicker case resolution," said Patrick of San Diego State.
But because some cases may be difficult to investigate, "the new timetables will be challenging, to say the least," she said. "Only time will tell regarding whether these new deadlines are realistic."