UC Campuses have Failed to Investigate Sexual Harassment Complaints Quickly and Consistently, State Auditor Finds

A state auditor report showed that sexual harassment complaints filed by students against faculty and staff members have quadrupled over the past 10 years. Photo: iStock

The University of California often takes months to resolve sexual harassment complaints against faculty members and fails to impose consistent discipline in such cases, a state auditor’s report has found.

It took as long as seven months for university officials to discipline some faculty members found to have sexually harassed students, according to the report released June 21. Faculty and staff involved in multiple sexual harassment incidents often received inconsistent and ineffective punishment, and went on to repeat problem behaviors, the report noted.

The report reviewed sexual harassment investigation and discipline procedures at three UC campuses: Berkeley, Davis and Los Angeles.

“Although the university has been aware of issues with its responses to sexual harassment complaints and has taken steps to address them, it must do more to stop, prevent, and remedy sexual harassment at its campuses,” State Auditor Elaine Howle wrote in a letter accompanying the report.

The findings come amid increased scrutiny nationwide on universities’ handling of sexual harassment complaints. Federal officials recently announced they are investigating whether the University of Southern California (USC) concealed hundreds of sexual harassment allegations against a campus gynecologist. Meanwhile, an investigation published by the Sacramento Bee earlier this year showed the UC system was second only to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in the number of sexual harassment settlements it made.

Sexual harassment complaints filed by students against faculty and staff members have quadrupled over the past 10 years, the auditor’s report shows. Complaints rose from about 50 in 2007 to more than 200 in 2016, according to the findings.

Deborah Wood, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley and a member of the UC Student-Workers Union, UAW Local 2865, said she was “not at all surprised” by the auditor’s findings. She pointed to a prominent case last year in which UC Berkeley fired an assistant professor accused of sexually harassing multiple students, almost two years after officials substantiated the first claim against him.

Wood said she herself filed a sexual harassment complaint against a fellow academic student worker and waited four months for the university’s Title IX office—which handles such complaints—to process the case. It was dismissed, she said.

“They took four months to tell me that they decided that what had happened to me, even if it were true … was not severe and/or pervasive enough,” she said. “Part of the reason I had come forward was to show how pervasive it was because I knew that at least three other complaints were already pending in the Title IX office against the same person.”

The UC Student-Workers Union has demanded that the university system implement contract changes to improve its handling of sexual harassment and sexual violence complaints, including resolving reports in a timely manner and establishing consistent discipline for perpetrators.

In response to the auditor’s report, UC President Janet Napolitano accepted the recommendations to improve its policies and procedures for handling sexual harassment cases. She added that the UC system has already made significant improvements in this area that were not in place when the auditor conducted its report and were therefore unaccounted for in the findings. These include adopting system-wide procedures for investigating and adjudicating sexual harassment disputes with a focus on improving timeliness, transparency and consistent discipline, she wrote.

Campuses have also improved their ability to track complaints, taken on more staff to deal with them and implemented mandatory training and education for employees and students about sexual violence and sexual assault, according to the letter. This has resulted in more people coming forward to report problems, she said.

Additionally, the UC has created a system-wide office to handle sexual harassment complaints, and requires each campus to have a confidential advocacy office to support victims of sexual violence and harassment, as well as a services coordinator to assist students accused of engaging in such acts, she said.

“UC understands the need for a strong stance against sexual violence and sexual harassment, meaningful efforts at prevention, and fair and timely processes for addressing complaints,” Napolitano wrote.

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