By Maya Palit
This March, a 41-year- old woman named Tyann Sorrell filed a lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court, suing Sujit Choudhry, the former Dean of the University of California Berkeley School of Law, for sexually harassing her over a two-year period while she was his executive assistant. She sued the university too, for what she thought was an exceedingly casual treatment of her case the previous year. In 2015, the University of California’s Office of Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination decided that Choudhry was guilty of harassing Sorrell, but didn’t do much about it — they deducted 10 percent of his salary for one year (which still left him with a whopping $373,500, or approximately Rs 2.5 crore), asked him to write her a formal apology and undergo counselling. Choudhry resumed teaching in the faculty a few weeks ago, having resigned as Dean in March this year after taking a leave of absence because of faculty outrage, not official legal pressure.
In a new and bizarre turn of events, he is now playing the victim. Choudhry sued the university on 15 September, accusing it of racial discrimination in its interrogation of him over allegations of sexual harassment. Choudhry’s complaint, in a nutshell, laments the fact that the university has treated several white sexual offenders better in the past, and that it has picked on his South Asian descent to deflect from its shirking of responsibility.
Whether it has, is a relevant question for the Berkeley administration to assess, particularly as April 2016 witnessed the release of records of male academics who consistently avoided disciplinarian action for sexual harassment (including a former Vice-Chancellor who resigned but continued to get his salary for almost a year after) and were followed by campus protests. The Berkeley spokesperson made a grand statement about the writing being on the wall, but you can’t do too much with that acknowledgement. And a brand of twisted logic is at work in another very recent Berkeley lawsuit. A couple of days ago, Blake Wentworth, an Assistant Professor of South and South East Asian Studies, filed a defamation case against three women who had alleged that he sexually harassed them. He also sued them over false light publicity and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. He found it outrageous, their behaviour in complaining about his inappropriate behaviour. There was an even more baffling line in his lawsuit about them being “beyond the bounds of decency tolerated in a civilized society” — pretty loaded phrasing for a full-time disseminator of knowledge about pre-modern cultural history to toss around. He forwarded one of these students a lads’ conversation where he debated taking down whoever had snitched on him, “I want to find out who’s spreading this rumor, and grind their fucking nuts into powder before I distribute it into communal meals for his family.”
Either way, Choudhry making a big noise about being the scapegoat in this situation means that clearly he hasn’t thought through (or is disguising really well) his knowledge of several obvious aspects to his case: the power dynamics of the situation for one thing, which mean that he was in a position of immense authority over Sorrell. This had kept her from making a formal complaint for a long time in the first place, as she feared for her job and stability as a parent to five children. Additionally, by turning harassment into a debate on “racism”, he is also eliding, much too conveniently, Sorrell’s identity as a black woman. The South Asian student feminists and alumni of Berkeley wrote to condemn this, calling it a case where “systemic racism against South Asian Americans [is being] perverted into a convenient defense of sexual violence.”
Sorell might have found it surreal or ironic if she wasn’t still dealing with the traumatic consequences of his actions. Earlier this month, she told Sam Levin, the Guardian reporter who has been covering the case, that she was still “piecing herself together” and was put on paid leave, in contrast to Choudhry, whose tenure and credentials (which include Oxford, Toronto, Harvard degrees) meant he could regain normalcy very quickly. In an open letter, she said that she was “angered and saddened” about his presence on campus, and recalled her struggle over the last year, “I was suicidal. I was done … It was all on me to try to figure out my relief and my protection.”
A few weeks ago, Choudhry wrote an open letter too, addressed to the students of Berkeley School of Law, which denies any sexual intent towards Sorrell. It gets full marks for didactic tone, “At Berkeley Law we train you… not to draw hasty conclusions based on lopsided readings…” and comprehension of the severity of sexual harassment, “Let’s be clear: Sexual violence of all forms is horrendous and never, ever acceptable.” All this is rendered a bit hollow, though, when you accompany your admission to hugging and kissing your assistant on a regular basis as your way of thanking her for doing her job well — it seems inexplicable that the one thing missing in a prolific career with decades of teaching is a basic sensitivity to what is and isn’t appropriate in the workplace.
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