It stops here
Harassment in the books
Emily Merz: UC sexual misconduct policy's vagueness leads to leniency for faculty
By Emily Merz
Daily Bruin
Daily Bruin

One in five.

That's a startling statistic all UCLA first-years learn in orientation.

One in five female college students will experience sexual harassment or assault during their time in college.

To reassure students about their safety, the university then outlines how students can use the Title IX office, whose purpose is to handle complaints of sexual harassment or assault.

What the university glosses over, however, is that even though students file complaints, few will end with a full investigation and a proportional punishment for the offender.

Such was the case with Gabriel Piterberg, a history professor at UCLA accused of sexual harassment and assault by two graduate students. Piterberg was allowed to continue teaching at UCLA after taking an unpaid suspension for one quarter. And in March, the university decided to fire Piterberg when its investigation determined he was in fact guilty of sexual misconduct.

The university certainly made the right decision in 2018, but it clearly mishandled the case, because the graduate students first pressed charges against Piterberg in 2013.

And that's the bigger story: how university systems like the University of California are handling sexual assault and harassment cases, not just what the end results of investigations are.

The UC, for example, received 113 complaints of sexual harassment or assault between 2013 and 2016. A good number of those complaints, however, were resolved through settlements or informal administrative procedures, not thorough investigations.

The UC Office of the President's systemwide Title IX office needs to reform its Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Policy guidelines to ensure campuses are completing sexual harassment and assault investigations, instead of just seeking settlements or warnings. The office must also amend SVSH Policy to clearly denote what kind of disciplinary action is proportional to the offenses committed.

The issue is not just how long investigations take, but rather how the entire reporting, investigating and disciplinary procedure is rooted in vague policy. When complaints are filed, the Title IX coordinators of each campus can choose to continue with the complaint to seek an alternative resolution, start a formal investigation or don't take administrative action, according to SVSH Policy.

While the alternative resolution process is a reasonable way to resolve cases of minor misconduct, it is also an informal way to avoid investigations. Alternative resolutions allow the universities to issue warnings, refer the accused to counseling or settle with them with no investigation. And this has been a trend at campuses with tenured professors, such as UC Berkeley, which received 401 informal and formal complaints of sexual harassment or violence between 2011 and 2015, a majority of which were settled through an informal process, according to the Daily Californian.

In 2015, for example, UC Berkeley gave an informal warning to Geoffrey Marcy, an astronomy professor accused by numerous students between 2001 and 2010 of sexual assault, that he would not be able to use his protections as a tenured professor to avoid investigations or discipline if there were any more allegations against him in the future. He eventually resigned, but only because students pressured him and news outlets, such as BuzzFeed News, covered the issue.

Alternative resolutions can allow for the culture of sexual harassment to pervade the UC system by serving as a cover to avoid investigating some cases. They allow faculty found guilty of sexual harassment or assault to continue teaching and the university to sweep harassment under the rug.

And when alternative resolutions are unsuccessful, the UC employs opaque, arbitrary measures to impose further sanctions. According to SVSH Policy, the Title IX office must carry out a formal investigation when alternative resolutions fail. But there is no defining metric for when an alternative resolution is unsuccessful. A professor could settle with the university or be required to go through additional sexual harassment training, but if they continue to sexually assault or harass students, it's at the discretion of the Title IX office to determine if that warrants an investigation.

Moreover, disciplinary action is at the full discretion of the university vice chancellor or staff department once they receive the report from the Title IX office. Often it is just a warning, or a brief suspension without pay or a meeting with the Title IX coordinator.

And that's precisely the problem: The Title IX office can go through all the motions – initial assessment, alternative resolution or formal investigation – but a vice chancellor or the corresponding staff department can render them useless by taking no disciplinary action should they think it unnecessary.

UCOP needs to reform its SVSH guidelines to include specific requirements about proportional discipline and alternative resolutions. It should outline what disciplinary action is necessary to address different levels of sexual discrimination based on investigation findings, so that the universities can't implement the policy unequally. Additionally, it needs to outline in what kinds of cases an alternative resolution would be appropriate, and what kinds of outcomes are acceptable in the case of an alternative resolution.

To the UC's credit, Kathleen Salvaty, the University's Title IX coordinator, said UCOP is looking to alter the alternative resolutions portion of its SVSH guidelines. And this could potentially be a positive step. However, Salvaty provided no details about what would change, meaning there is a great chance the policies could largely remain unchanged.

The UC needs to ensure its SVSH Policy indeed protects students from sexual violence and sexual harassment. Otherwise, it will continue to be just another part in countless stories victims share about being sexually harassed or assaulted at universities.