UC Berkeley dean resigns, remains on law school faculty

The dean of the University of California at Berkeley law school resigned from his position of dean Thursday after becoming the latest faculty member to come under fire for sexual misconduct, UC Berkeley officials said Thursday.

Dean Sujit Choudhry had already taken an indefinite leave of absence on Wednesday following allegations that he had sexually harassed his executive assistant for months in 2014 and 2015. But he remains on the law school faculty under the university’s tenure policy.

University executive vice chancellor and provost Claude Steele said in a statement Thursday:

“We believe the dean’s resignation is an outcome in the best interests of Berkeley Law and the university as a whole. … At the same time we are under no illusion that a resignation could or even should bring this matter and broader, related issues to a close. It is clear, as we heard during our meeting with law school faculty this morning, that the initial decision not to remove the dean from his position is the subject of legitimate criticism.”

A lawsuit filed Tuesday by Choudhry’s former executive assistant 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.”

The lawsuit accused the dean of inappropriately hugging, kissing, and massaging Sorrell, a 41-year-old mother of five, and other women in the office after becoming dean of the law school in 2014.

The results of an investigation released by the university on Wednesday corroborated the claims and said that Choudhry was punished by having his pay docked 10 percent and ordered to pursue counseling and write a letter of apology to Sorrell.

The lawsuit says that Sorrell worked for the law school under former Dean Christopher Edley since June 2012 without incident but once Choudhry took over as dean in July 2014, a pattern of harassment began that left her anxious, depressed and afraid to go to work.

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.”

An investigation began after Sorrell sent a six-page email to university officials 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,” according to the lawsuit.

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.

Choudhry resigning 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 following 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.

Steele said Thursday that the university is soliciting input on how to improve the university’s response to such allegations and will be reaching out to faculty leaders on Friday:

“We can and must do better as a campus administration. … We are sharply focused on this issue and committed to ensuring a supportive and safe environment for every single person on this campus. … We will act quickly to generate action that will produce lasting change in our culture and practices.”