Berkeley scandals expose need for independent sexual harassment investigations

Students and faculty at colleges and universities have become all-too-familiar with the endless cycle of sexual harassment allegations at their institutions: Faculty or staff member is accused, faculty or staff member is found in violation of sexual harassment policies, faculty or staff member receives slap on the wrist, public finds out, staff member receives more serious consequences.

The most recent rash of high-profile college sexual harassment investigations has illuminated the need for a third-party mechanism to adjudicate cases.

It is currently up to the individual universities and their administrations to investigate claims and discipline offenders. We have a duty to the accused and the accuser to ensure that the process is as fair as possible to both parties and untainted by personal bias toward one side or the other.

Schools have additional incentive to sweep cases under the rug to protect their institutional reputations, particularly in cases where the accused is a high-profile individual who helps attract donors and students.

This is especially apparent in the turmoil surrounding four recent high-profile cases of sexual harassment with botched investigations at UC Berkeley and the San Francisco Chronicle’s in-depth dissection of their unequal outcomes.

Janet Napolitano, president of the UC system, announced Saturday that she would be meeting monthly with UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and had assigned the systemwide director for sexual misconduct issues to work full time with UC Berkeley staff. Faculty members also sent a letter Monday to Vice Provost Janet Broughton condemning the university’s handling of another case.

California needs to establish a mechanism for third-party Title IX investigations, particularly with regard to sexual harassment allegations, that is outside universities’ control.

Our current system allows schools far too much discretion with the punishments they mete out and the length of their investigations. A third-party investigator, particularly a state-wide one, would be able to much more effectively maintain objectivity and pursue a fair outcome.

We can no longer ignore that which has become so readily apparent: Sexual harassment is a problem of epidemic proportions and must be addressed as such. We can no longer leave the decision of whom to punish, when they should be punished and how severely they should be punished in the hands of those who benefit from keeping allegations of sexual harassment hidden from view.