What’s the matter with Cal?

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Not all is well in Berkeley. If you walk around, nothing seems amiss. People’s park still smells like weed. The school year at UC Berkeley just started, so the campus is abuzz with students. Many of those students have just signed over the right to their first-born child to rent an apartment nearby. All normal, around here.

But business as usual has a lot of students very angry, since it’s become apparent that business as usual includes not taking sexual harassment allegations against professors very seriously. Sujit Choudhry, former dean of the Berkeley Law School, has just returned to work as a professor after resigning his leadership position over sexual harassment allegations.

Before we get into Choudhry coming back to campus, a little background. Choudhry isn’t the first recent high-profile sexual harassment case in Berkeley. Geoff Marcy, famous astronomer and former Berkeley professor, appears to have been a grade-A, first class creep for years. The university’s response? To call it a slap on the wrist would be an insult to slaps on the wrist. We talked to him and made him promise not to do it again, and if he does it again there will be consequences. We swear. Marcy ended up resigning amid the outrage.

Even before Marcy’s case became public, UC Berkeley was already under federal investigation for mishandling cases of sexual violence. Then came Choudhry’s case. An executive assistant accused him of repeatedly giving her unwanted long hugs, kisses, and massages. He swears the contact wasn’t sexual. Not one bit. Sure. And I bet the only reason he jerks off is to ward off prostate cancer.

The university found that he had violated policy, and responded with the harshest of harsh punishments: he’d have to write an apology letter and take a 10% pay cut for a year. He’d be down to a salary of only $373, 500. To be fair, that might rent you a shack in People’s Park these days.

His victim is suing. Janet Napolitano, president of the UC system, has demanded a second disciplinary hearing with an eye to imposing harsher penalties. Choudhry, as you’d expect, is protesting that suggestion. Amid all this, two UC Berkeley administrators (one of them the chancellor) have chosen to step down in response to protests over how they’ve handled these and other cases. The chancellor is also in trouble for improperly having a university employee work for him as a personal trainer.

Choudhry resigned as dean and agreed to stay away from campus for a little while. But he’s still a tenured professor in the law school. No way he’s giving that tenure up if no one makes him. So the news this week is that he’s back on campus. Just working in his office and advising students (I’m sure he gives great advice).

To celebrate his return, he wrote a tone-deaf and very lawyer-y open letter, published as an op-ed in The Daily Californian. Many students were unhappy about that. The Daily Cal then took pains to clarify that their publication of the letter should in no way be construed as an endorsement of Choudhry’s return. The mood on campus isn’t exactly high.

Will things change? There’s turnover in the highest levels of the administration and stronger pressure from outside to make things right. Those are good signs. But the cynic in me thinks that the strongest incentive for Berkeley to change might come from the admissions market. If strong law school applicants start choosing other law schools over Berkeley and Berkeley’s numbers slide (taking the school’s rankings with them), then the administration will have to send strong signals that things are different, now. But I’m sure Berkeley Law students are hoping it doesn’t come to that.

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