BERKELEY -- For the second time in five months, UC Berkeley is facing an outcry over its handling of a sexual harassment case involving a powerful faculty member: the dean of UC Berkeley's law school, whose case came to light this week in a lawsuit filed by a former executive assistant.
Sujit Choudhry -- who stepped down Wednesday from his position as dean but will remain on the faculty -- acknowledged to campus investigators last year that he had hugged, kissed and caressed his administrative assistant, Tyann Sorrell, saying it was his way of "saying thanks" after a long day of work, according to an investigative report released Wednesday by the university.
But Berkeley's provost allowed the dean to keep his prestigious position at the top-tier law school -- stating that he "didn't want to ruin the dean's career," according to the lawsuit -- even after a university investigation concluded in July that Choudhry had sexually harassed Sorrell. The dean took a one-year, 10 percent pay cut and was ordered to undergo counseling -- and to write Sorrell an apology.
"I was insulted when I heard the disciplinary actions," Sorrell said in an interview Wednesday, "and though I wasn't asking for his termination, it was ever so apparent to me that it was a slap on the wrist for them."
The lawsuit filed Tuesday against Choudhry and the University of California regents comes after UC Berkeley came under fire for letting world-renowned astronomer Geoff Marcy off with a warning after he was found to have sexually harassed students over nearly a decade. The Marcy case prompted the University of California system to review its tenure policies, including its statute of limitations; recommendations are expected in April.
Marcy resigned amid a national outcry; the majority of his colleagues wrote a letter calling for his departure.
Now, some students, faculty and alumni are calling for Choudhry's firing, appalled by the treatment he received. A letter signed by a group of UC Berkeley Law alumni called the decision last year to keep him on as dean "unreasonable, laughable, and insulting." An adjunct lecturer at the law school who specializes in sexual harassment cases described the outcome as "absurd" but not surprising.
"Once again we're seeing a person in power who uses that power to do something they absolutely understand is a violation," said Barbara Bryant, who has taught at the law school and has a mediation practice in Berkeley.
Thanh Bercher, a junior public health major, said her heart went out to Sorrell. The consequences for Choudhry's behavior, she said, were "so minimal compared to the effect it had on this person's life."
On Wednesday, Provost Claude Steele defended those and other sanctions he issued against Choudhry last year, saying he believed they would "produce the necessary changes in his behavior."
"I know we all share the goal of eliminating sexual harassment and all forms of discriminatory behavior at UC Berkeley," Steele said in an emailed statement. "I intend to listen carefully to what members of our campus community and others have to suggest when it comes to how we prevent and respond to incidents like these."
If it weren't for the lawsuit, Choudhry's actions would still be largely unknown to the public. UC Berkeley has failed to release records concerning employees disciplined for sexual harassment and misconduct in response to a Public Records Act request filed by this newspaper in early November. The campus says it does not keep such records centrally and has yet to hear back from all of the offices that hold them.
"That said, we will be sending out again a very firm message to people internally that if they have records responsive to this request they must be submitted to our public records office immediately," said campus spokesman Dan Mogulof.
Choudhry, a comparative constitutional law expert and a member of the United Nations Mediation Roster, was appointed dean of the UC Berkeley law school in July 2014, replacing Christopher Edley. He was previously on the faculty at the NYU School of Law. An interim replacement has not been named.
On Wednesday, Choudhry released a statement through his lawyer, saying he disagreed with claims in the lawsuit but decided to step down as dean to "not become a distraction for the law school, the university and our community whose interests I have always placed above all else."
In the lawsuit, Sorrell -- now on paid leave -- alleges two of the school's top managers did nothing to address the problem after she complained of the harassment, despite promising to do so. Both told her that they, too, had experienced unwanted touching by the dean, she said.
The campus investigation began after Sorrell forwarded the law school's director of human resources a six-page email she had written to Choudhry in March 2015, "informing him that she was tired of him constantly touching and kissing her, she felt violated and humiliated, that his conduct had caused her a significant amount of stress and anxiety for a long time, and that her health had significantly deteriorated as a result of his conduct," the lawsuit says.
The probe concluded in July 2015. In August, Sorrell learned about the sanctions given to her boss.
When she met with Steele, the provost, in late October, he told her "he had seriously considered terminating the Dean but that the reason he had decided not to was because it would ruin the Dean's career," according to the lawsuit.
Sorrell said she couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"Those were the words that pierced right through me, that broke me," said Sorrell, a mother of five who is struggling to find another job.
In recent months professors from the University of Chicago, Caltech, Northwestern and UC Berkeley have been caught up in high-profile sexual harassment cases, but the issue is far from new.
The Berkeley case wasn't even the first scandal involving a UC Berkeley law dean. In 2002, Dean John Dwyer stepped down and resigned from his faculty position after a former law student accused him of sexual misconduct at her apartment after a night of drinking at a law school-related function in 2000.
Staff writer Angela Ruggiero contributed to this report. Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.