UC law school dean resigns after harassment claims

The dean of the University of California at Berkeley law school stepped down from his post Wednesday after a lawsuit by his former executive assistant alleged he had sexually harassed her and other women in the office for months.

University Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele confirmed that Dean Sujit Choudhry would be taking an indefinite leave of absence as dean, but would remain with the law school as a faculty member at a faculty member’s salary.

Steele also confirmed that he had found last year that Choudhry had violated the school’s harassment policy, penalized him by docking his pay as dean 10 percent and ordered him to send a letter of apology to the woman and pursue counseling.

“Based on the findings of the investigation I believed that a combination of disciplinary actions, monitoring of his behavior and formal training would be an appropriate and effective response, and would produce the necessary changes in his behavior,” Choudhry said in a statement.

But the lawsuit by Tyann Sorrell alleges that Steele told her during a meeting last October that:

“… he had seriously considered terminating the dean but that the reason he had decided not to was because it would ruin the dean’s career, that is, destroy his future chances for higher appointment.”

Sorrell, 41, started working for the law school under former Dean Christopher Edley in June 2012. She maintained that position without incident for over two years but when Choudhry took over as dean in July 2014, a pattern of harassment began that left her anxious, depressed and afraid to go to work, according to the suit.

Choudhry started by giving her tight bear hugs twice a day and his sexual behavior escalated over the course of about six months, pressing his body against hers, kissing her and massaging her shoulders while she was at her desk working.

He kissed her in view of other staff members to the point that others remarked on it, but she worried about addressing the issue directly because she could lose her job and “Choudhry had a temper and was known for berating and being rude and dismissive of employees when they upset him,” the lawsuit states.

Sorrell complained to Choudhry’s chief of staff at the time, Marilyn Byrne, but those complaints never went any further. When Byrne left the position in January 2015 and Areca Smit took over, Sorrell complained to her, and Smit said Choudhry had hugged and kissed her too and it made her uncomfortable and that another woman in the office had made similar complaints.

Smit told Sorrell a superior at the university would confront Choudhry about his behavior, but that confrontation never happened, though Sorrell was offered a raise.

But as the harassment continued, Sorrell drafted a six-page email stating “she was tired of him constantly touching and kissing her, she felt violated and humiliated, that his conduct had caused her a significant amount of stress and anxiety for a long time, and that her health had significantly deteriorated as a result of his conduct.” She also sent the letter to Smit and university human resources director Sheri Showalter. Sorrell went on leave while Choudhry was investigated.

During the investigation, Choudhry admitted to hugging, kissing and caressing Sorrell and putting her hands on his waist, and he admitted doing similar things to other women in the office and not to male co-workers but he said there was no sexual intent. The investigation found that he didn’t understand the power dynamic or the impact on his employee.

Sorrell was informed he had been docked 10 percent salary and was ordered to write her a letter of apology as discipline in August. In late October, she received the letter during a meeting with Steele.

Steele said today that Sorrell remains on paid administrative leave and he is willing to work with her to find a position on campus to fit her interests and needs once she is willing to return to work.

Choudhry stepping down from the dean’s position is not the first time the law school has lost a dean over sexual misconduct allegations. Dean John Dwyer resigned in 2002 after allegations that he had non-consensual sex with a student after a social event on campus.

UC Berkeley has endured other recent complaints of sexual misconduct by faculty and staff. Astronomy professor Geoff Marcy resigned in October amid allegations that he had sexually harassed students for a decade as the university looked the other way.

Last year, former student Aryle Butler joined two other women in suing the school because they said investigations into sexual assaults on campus are often inadequate.

Butler said she was assaulted by a board member and guest lecturer at the Wrangell Mountains Center in Glennallen, Alaska, when she was there as part of a UC Berkeley program during the summer of 2012. She said in the suit that when she reported the assaults, the school’s Title IX coordinator, tasked with preventing sexual discrimination on campus, implied the reports were false and the school conducted no investigation.

In the university’s response to the allegations against Choudhry becoming public today, Steele said the announcement of an interim replacement dean for the law school would be made shortly:

“I know we all share the goal of eliminating of sexual harassment and all forms of discriminatory behavior at UC Berkeley. … I intend to listen carefully to what members of our campus community and others have to suggest when it comes to how we prevent and respond to incidents like these.”