A group of UC Berkeley architecture students say their academic careers are in limbo because the university has allowed a prominent professor to serve on doctoral committees and advise them despite a 2016 campus finding that he sexually harassed a student.
More than 75 students, alumni and supporters signed a petition demanding the "immediate removal of Nezar AlSayyad from all positions at UC Berkeley" and sent it Monday to campus leaders and members of a faculty committee who have spent three months considering whether to revoke Professor Nezar AlSayyad's tenure.
"Current and prospective students as well as visiting scholars have been in the dark about AlSayyad's status, perpetuating a culture of ambiguity and professional uncertainty," said the petition, which criticized the secretive nature of UC Berkeley's disciplinary process.
Campus administrators relieved AlSayyad of teaching duties after an investigation found the renowned Middle East scholar and architecture professor ingratiated himself with graduate student Eva Hagberg Fisher before placing his hand on her upper thigh, proposing they become "close friends" and suggesting they go to Las Vegas.
AlSayyad denies harassing Hagberg Fisher and calls the 2016 report flawed. On Tuesday, he said, "some of the individuals involved in this petition are inadvertently supporting a smear campaign" led by Hagberg Fisher.
The professor still performs duties that graduate students depend on: serving on their committees, formally advising them, writing all-important letters of recommendation.
The petition highlights the complexity of addressing sexual harassment in academia.
In Hollywood and elsewhere, the momentum of the #MeToo movement has toppled moguls, celebrities and politicians quickly following publication of sexual misconduct allegations and findings.
But professors have tenure, a shield that protects them from being fired, whether for pursuing controversial areas of research, for speaking out politically — or for sexual harassment. So unless a tenured professor leaves voluntarily, as many do, a downfall can be slow and agonizing for everyone, including the accused.
"Professor AlSayyad is incredibly frustrated and disturbed by being in this position for as long as he's had to endure it," his attorney, Dan Siegel, told The Chronicle Tuesday. "He did not sexually harass anyone. He believes, and I believe, that the evidence that was presented at his (tenure) hearing establishes his innocence."
The confidential, three-day hearing before a committee of fellow professors took place in early November. No decision has been rendered and no timeline announced. In the 150-year history of the University of California system, eight professors have lost tenure, allowing them to be fired.
Rhetoric Professor Marianne Constable, who chairs the Faculty Senate's Privilege and Tenure Committee that held the hearing, declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of the process.
Chancellor Carol Christ's spokeswoman, Janet Gilmore, also declined to comment on any case involving a professor.
AlSayyad, on the UC Berkeley faculty since 1985, has taught no classes for more than a year. He continues to receive his $211,000 salary.
"It's ridiculous," said Hagberg Fisher, who signed the petition. "He's still advising students, still on (academic) committees and still a member of the department."
Hagberg Fisher said the petition was not about her case.
"It's about addressing the needs of all the students that are currently in this weird educational limbo," she said.
Others who signed the petition agree that AlSayyad's half-in and half-out situation has created problems. In some cases, students chose UC Berkeley specifically because of AlSayyad, a renowned author and intellectual in his field, yet can take no classes from him. In other cases, students have participated in earlier protests and demanded that he be removed.
The situation has "created an, at times, toxic environment," said Eric Peterson, a doctoral student in architecture who helped organize the petition. "If you speak out against him, you lose an essential advocate for your professional success and economic livelihood."
Marianela D'Aprile, who received her master's degree from the architecture department in May, said she signed the letter because she was dismayed that AlSayyad was allowed to continue advising students and participate on the committee that makes graduate admissions decisions.
"It is really infuriating," said D'Aprile, 25, who became friends with Hagberg Fisher in recent months and now works for her as an architectural consultant. "It leaves students in this very precarious and vulnerable position, especially students who are still working with him."