UCLA Allows Sexual Harassment- Guest Post and Call to Action

by Cassia Roth

[Includes Call to Action at bottom. Please take action. Karen Kelsky]

Dr. Cassia Paigen Roth

Dr. Cassia Paigen Roth

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:

Contact UCLA directly to protest non-action on Piterberg.
Chancellor Gene Block


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

UCLA School of Law
385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Los Angeles, CA, 90095

Vice Chancellor of Academic Personnel Carole Goldberg


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).

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


UCLA Allows Sexual Harassment- Guest Post and Call to Action — 13 Comments

  1. I am affiliated with UCLA, but am not there physically. I am aggravated to have learnt about the case in question from this blog. Typically UCLA would send emails to the community whenever something happens. A case of sexual harassment, apparently, does not deserve wider attention. Ugh.

    • Many people within the history department itself did not learn about the case until the LA Times printed a story about the federal lawsuit.

  2. And this is exactly why these situations need to be handled by law enforcement, not university administrators. He should be in jail, not just lose his job.

  3. Pingback: Nursing Clio UCLA Allows Sexual Harassment

  4. So Pamela Thomason in the meantime has left UCLA to work for the CSU and train all universities within the system in Title IX issues? What a joke!

  5. Pingback: UCLA Makes Excuses About Sexual Harassment – Guest Post Part II | The Professor Is In

  6. It would be nice to get other insights into the situation beyond the current, “he said, she said,” scenario. The entire affair (no pun intended) has gotten very ugly. Upon reading the allegations (via the link) there appears to be very disconcerting/problematic behavior by victim one (whom I’ll refer to as, “Ph.D student”), switching advisors, slow progress toward her degree (ten years), continuing to enter into questionable situations, i.e. meeting at the alleged harasser’s home AFTER his continued alleged unwanted sexual advances and discussion of sexual topics, too much personal information regarding his relationships, etc. Why not get away from this person? Why continue to engage with this guy? (Red flag) At least try to meet where further harassment would be less likely or gather some evidence but expect this to negatively impact any future prospects in academia after the controversy subsides. At least realistically consider all possible outcomes of any actions, that appears to not have been the case here.

    “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.” Do these two sentences raise more red flags? Think about why this occurred. Think Ph.D student and alleged abuser will no longer be at UCLA in the near future and how about the professors who didn’t sign (consider they didn’t sign out of concern for their own careers, could be… then again maybe they saw problems with Ph.D student’s behavior, actions and allegations.)? Btw, doesn’t Vice Chancellor Goldberg’s (attained her law degree at Stanford) field of expertise include sexual harassment? Be interesting to get her true thoughts on this case, might have helped Ph.D student to have consulted her initially, just a thought.

    Then, Ph.D student wants to throw the whole mess at UCLA’s feet in hopes of forcing an outcome in her favor and having the faculty member fired and publicly excoriated, blacklisted or something to that effect. All parties in this situation have rights, even the alleged abuser. Allegations like Ph.D student’s are hard to corroborate since she and her alleged abuser were the only ones present yet somehow UCLA is expected to sort the whole thing out to everyone’s satisfaction. Real life doesn’t work this way.

    Short of the alleged abuser issuing a mea culpa (apparently Ph.D student isn’t admitting to any missteps on her part) this situation is a real sh*t storm with a likely outcome of no winners and many people being unhappy. A little advice: wouldn’t moving on to another advisor, another program, another school, etc., have been preferable to submitting oneself to further abuse/harassment and the current highly unpleasant litigious situation? No way this ends well.

      • @Karen, your ad hominem attack against me (Labeling my comments as “mansplaining” and characterizing my comments as labeling women as “ignorant.” Those are your words, not mine.) is fallacious reasoning.

        Law is a stated set of rules and operates within a delineated set of parameters, no more no less. I’ve seen elsewhere on this website the phrase, “you have to know how/when to choose your battles.” If a person wants to avail themselves of legal remedies then they darn sure better know what the process truly is, what the legal remedies are, how often they occur, what to expect and what are the actual most frequently occurring outcomes and the plethora of possible deleterious impacts, not only for the accused but also for the party proffering the allegations. In other words: know what you’re up against and know what you’re in for, it’s more complicated than most realize. Also consider how does one put such an episode in one’s life behind them, what does it take and for how long? You can ignore those things all you want, doesn’t mean they don’t manifest themselves in reality and don’t have to be addressed at some point.

        Don’t attack the messenger if you don’t like the message, prove what I stated was erroneous using sound valid logic, not fallacious reasoning that is part of an appeal to stereotypes/labeling then marginalization by proxy, i.e. your thinly veiled attempt to pejoratively label me a misogynist, which is far from the truth btw. Ignore reality all you want, that won’t take away the sting of, nor help heal, the bitterness and disillusionment that follows when unexpected, often unintended, unpleasant realities manifest themselves.

        Consider what you want out of life, what’s truly meaningful to you. Some people take years to get over such an episode, some merely cope via self-medicating or through risky behaviors with negative impacts to themselves, some never get over it. I think few actually come to terms with it to the point it never bothers them again.

        We all have choices we make for whatever reason, even the choices we might try to convince ourselves were or are out of our hands. We can choose to believe we are perpetual victims, not of our own choosing or we can choose to be self-actualized and take responsibility, at least to ourselves, for the choices we make and our hand in the consequences that ensue.

          • Karen, I like your blogs about many student/faculty issues, I really do. You’re intelligent and insightful on many of these issues because you have the expertise, but I have noticed that you allow emotions to cloud your logic on some issues because you appear to have personal crusades.

            For example, I’ve noticed you have a tendency to delete comments from people you disagree with who have differing views (including those from minorities such as myself). To boot, you insult people like bob for expressing their opinion on the basis of his gender. I might remind you that’s sexism – period.

            I wish you the best, I just hope you are a little more inclusive in the future.

          • I was a little taken aback by the “mansplainer,” “ignorant women.” retort by you, Karen. No one has ever called me that previously. Upon further reflection (also after a little research into the term “mansplainer,” a term with which I was previously unfamiliar) and upon reviewing my somewhat clunky attempt to explain my points: replacing all gender specific terms referring to the student, i.e. she, her, etc., in my original post with,”PhD student” (“PhD student’s,” as required to show possession where appropriate), and also replacing all referents to the male/alleged abuser in the interaction at issue, i.e. he, his, guy, etc., with “professor/advisor/dissertation committee chair,” should, hopefully, render the post gender neutral, as was my intention without misogynistic connotations and allow the points I attempted to raise for discussion to stand on their own free of gender bias as none was intended.

            I thought I clarified that better in my follow-up post, especially when I referred to ways people sometimes deal with often unintended, life altering events which happen to us as we pursue our lives. What I was thinking about, but failed to elucidate, was some of my previous friends, colleagues and acquaintances turned to substance abuse and other unhealthy behaviors, e.g. alcoholism, prescription and illicit drug use, suicide, etc., which unfortunately led to their subsequent demises.

            That is the main point I was trying to make, especially about, what we value in life, keeping perspective and owning one’s choices, not beating one’s self up emotionally nor viewing one’s self as a victim but rather as a human, with all our inherent frailties and flaws so we can move on and remain productive, mentally and emotionally healthy people. Lawsuits and the adversarial legal system doesn’t usually give people the satisfaction and closure generally required to allow us to move on, often taking a toll on our lives be it our valuable time, mental well being or personal relationships among other things we value. I was apparently unable to transmit my ideas with sufficient clarity. Sorry I gave the wrong impression and got somewhat defensive.

  7. Bob, ignorant, dismissive and victim-blaming arguments and attitudes like yours are exactly why women continue to be victimized. Based on the evidence we have, Piterberg is a serial abuser of students. The two women in this case are bravely risking their careers and personal lives in order to try to save future victims from this abuser. Your response is, “Oh, we’ll never know what *really* happened [because of course you can never believe a woman, even when multiple people come forward with similar reports],” “Oh, the legal system is flawed so why should anyone ever seek justice anyway” and my favorite, “Oh, *even if* your professor sexually harasses and assaults you, it’s YOUR FAULT because you didn’t switch advisers, switch schools, move out of the state, move off the planet, etc. etc.” So, the women are just supposed to disrupt their entire lives and careers to avoid a serial abuser and leave the school quietly, allowing him to continue abusing students??? Because investigations and lawsuits in an attempt to protect students and redress grievances are just so messy and unpleasant? So shut up, women, whatever happens to you is your own slutty fault anyway. Oh, and by the way, if you persist in your search for justice, all you can expect is a slow slide into a drug-and-alcohol-induced “demise.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you! Bob, can you take a minute to seriously consider what you have written and how offensive and ridiculous it is? And, worse, how you are absolutely enabling violence against women?

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