by Cassia Roth
[Includes Call to Action at bottom. Please take action. Karen Kelsky]
A sexual harassment case is currently rocking UCLA.* Professor Gabriel Piterberg, a professor of Middle Eastern history, has been accused of harassing two female graduate students repeatedly beginning in 2008, with behavior that to me appears to be sexual assault.
In 2013, the women went to Pamela Thomason, the Title IX authority at UCLA, who proved dismissive and ineffective in handling the case. Thomason discouraged the women from filing formal complaints. The subsequent University investigation (which never went before any governing board) was conducted in secrecy “to avoid the cost, uncertainty, and inconvenience of an administrative proceeding.” The settlement did not require Piterberg to acknowledge any wrongdoing or misconduct, slapped him on the wrist with a $3,000 fine, and made him take one quarter off without pay. Administration also allowed him to find a cushy sabbatical gig for the quarter before temporarily relieving Piterberg of his duties and pay at UCLA. He is slated to return this summer, and while he has restrictions on when he can meet with students, that’s it.
As a response, in the summer of 2015 the two women filed a federal lawsuit against the University for failure to act on sexual harassment complaints. The lawsuit is not about the harassment itself, but about how the University and Title IX officer handled the complaints. And to put it simply, both parties really screwed up.
The details of the case are not pretty. I don’t want to rehash them here. I can only imagine how both these courageous women felt telling these stories, and how they must feel now that the details of those experiences are publically available. But what is clear is that Piterberg repeatedly used his position of power to sexual harass and assault these graduate students. His actions demonstrate how misogyny can run rampant in a hierarchical setting that pretends its egalitarian. We all know our advisers can make our break our career; and, apparently, so do they. Some use it to their advantage.
It’s clear that a complacent and dysfunctional administration won’t fire Piterberg. From people I’ve spoken to at UCLA, the History Department could have been more transparent in their communication, but they essentially hold no power in this situation, as administrators call the shots. So colleagues and graduate students have taken matters into their hands.
On February 18, a group of 38 history faculty members sent a letter to Chancellor Gene Block and Vice-Chancellors Scott Waugh, Jerry Kang and Carole Goldberg. In it, faculty members stated they do not believe Piterberg has a place back in the department. We have a big department at UCLA, so the 38 signatures means a lot of faculty members did not sign the letter. Various professors who research and write about gender and power were conspicuously absent from the list. As has been said for other sexual harassment cases in higher ed, the idea that we should rely on shame as a sufficient punishment is not a compelling argument.
The faculty letter states that “From what we know, Piterberg has expressed neither remorse about his actions nor awareness of the damage it has caused to the Department of History.” They express concern that because he will not be able to engage in certain departmental tasks, he will “benefit from reduced service and overall workload” as well as bring with him a “dysfunctional working environment” that poses a threat to students, staff, and faculty. They end by arguing that “Piterberg’s public presence on campus will signal that an effective climate of tolerance for harassment persists at UCLA.” I can’t disagree with that. I mean this is an administration that thought a punishment for being a serial sexual harasser was a reduced teaching and service load.
Alumni have also taken a vocal stance against Piterberg’s return, sending their own letter to the History Department on February 16, calling on the Department to perform their own “independent and rigorous” investigation to assess whether Piterberg still presents a risk to female students and junior faculty.
And graduate students have begun organizing as well. The History Graduate Students Organization (HGSA) drafted a letter outlining our concerns and “standing in solidarity” with the defendants. Sixty-seven graduate students signed. One main concern was the process by which sexual harassment is addressed on campus. “The fact that the majority of students first learned of these incidents from major media outlets instead of our own university reflects the broader culture of silence and secrecy surrounding cases of sexual assault and harassment in universities and undermines any reasonable trust in UCLA’s juridical processes.” We asked Chancellor Block about his May 30th, 2015 letter to the UCLA community in which he declared UCLA to be committed “to our shared responsibility for preventing sexual violence.” Hmmm.
On March 2, graduate students staged a protest of Piterberg’s return. As graduate student Scottie Buehler stated, “If we don’t speak out we’re just perpetuating this culture of silence.”
And on March 3, Linus Kafka, a UCLA history PhD and lawyer, sent a letter to the Associate Vice Chancellor of Alumni Affairs. In it he stated that “the university was specifically warned about Dr. Piterberg” in the past. In 2005/2006, Kafka had told university auditors that Piterberg had “made inappropriate, abusive, and hateful statements to students and staff,” and that in his “opinion as a lawyer,” he believed that “Dr. Piterberg’s behavior fostered a hostile work environment, was not protected by any concept of academic freedom, and was not only ethically wrong but exposed the university to liability.” UCLA did nothing.
I hope Piterberg’s case follows the path of UC Berkeley’s Geoff Marcy, who was accused of years of sexual harassment. In response, UC Berkeley gave him a slap on the wrist, telling Marcy, “Don’t do this again.” But a concerted effort on the part of his field forced Marcy to resign in 2015.
Like Marcy, Piterberg should leave. And while the events of the last few weeks are encouraging, it angers me that it takes federal lawsuits, letter-writing campaigns, and protests to fire a known sexual harasser. I thought we had the legal and administrative framework in place to enforce sanctions. Apparently, those in charge just don’t care.
Call to Action:
UCLA Chancellor’s Office
Box 951405, 2147 Murphy Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1405
Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Scott Waugh
UCLA Office of the Chancellor
2147 Murphy Hall, Box 951405
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1405
Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Jerry Kang
385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Los Angeles, CA, 90095
Stephen Aron, Chair, Department of History
*From Cassia: “I have copies of all of the letters I cite, which I can make available (some of them are already posted on-line to the LA Times, and I have linked to them in the article).