Students and faculty at the University of California at Los Angeles are protesting the university’s decision to welcome back Gabriel Piterberg, a history professor who has been accused by two graduate students of serial sexual harassment and assault. The protestors argue that UCLA’s decision to allow Piterberg back, particularly after the university botched a Title IX investigation, effectively gives sexual harassers impunity.
A lawsuit filed last year by Nefertiti Takla and Kristen Hillaire Glasgow, two PhD students in the history department, claims that Piterberg repeatedly harassed them, making sexually suggestive and threatening comments beginning in 2008. The lawsuit also claims that, in addition to verbal remarks, Piterberg physically assaulted them by groping and forcing his tongue down both of their throats. Takla and Glasgow both claim that the university ignored their complaints and actively discouraged them from filing Title IX complaints.
In the suit, Takla claims that Piterberg—her dissertation adviser—began harassing her in 2011. Inside Higher Education reports:
“Piterberg told Takla, his former research assistant, that he’d been “distant” lately because he’d been feeling “frustrated,” and, later, that if she hadn’t been his student, he would have “risked everything” and really kissed her, the suit says.”
Takla also claims that in early 2013, Piterberg groped her and tried to force his tongue down her throat, and that Piterberg repeated that behavior later that year. The situation put Takla in an academic bind, she says. Piterberg is one of two Middle East specialists in UCLA’s history department, and, worried that switching advisers would effectively end her career, she called him and asked him to keep things professional. When Takla asked Piterberg for a recommendation letter for a Fulbright fellowship, Piterberg responded, “Why can’t we just be lovers?”
At that point, Piterberg told Takla to switch advisers because he “couldn’t control” himself around her, though he acknowledged that the move would be bad for her career. Takla took that as a threat and later found that his recommendation letter was missing vital information and was “lukewarm.” In mid-2013, Takla ended her academic relationship with Piterberg.
Inside Higher Ed reports:
He responded by saying that philosophers Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger had had a career-long love affair, and that “if done right, professor and student relationships are supposed to [be] intimate,” according to the complaint. He also allegedly said he masturbated while thinking about her, and said that “if anything happened between us, it would be while you are writing your dissertation.”
Takla took that to mean Piterberg might insist on sex in exchange for signing off on her dissertation.
Takla reported the harassment and threats to Pamela Thomason, UCLA’s then Title IX coordinator. Takla’s lawsuit claims that Thomason told her that the professor acknowledged “basic facts,” but claimed that the acts were consensual. Thomason discouraged Takla from taking the next step, a hearing before the Academic Senate, because “the Senate was made up of Professor Piterberg’s peers, so there would be no point because they would all side with him.” A limp Title IX investigation went forward and found no wrongdoing on Piterberg’s part.
Glasgow’s claims are unsurprisingly similar to Takla’s. Glasgow, who was not Piterberg’s student, claims that he verbally harassed and groped her multiple times from 2008 to 2013. Glasgow said in the suit that she was reluctant to complain since Piterberg sat on the department’s funding awards committee. After Glasgow learned of Takla’s 2013 complaint, she filed a Title IX complaint, again with Thomason. And again Thomason discouraged Glasgow from going forward, suggesting that Piterberg’s peers would side with him. Glasgow eventually learned that her complaint was never investigated.
“I was shocked, disheartened and disillusioned,” Glasgow told the Los Angeles Times last year. “This was my life’s passion, to be in academia and to do research, and this is one of those moments when I’ve had to rethink everything.” Thomason has since left UCLA. She is currently the Title IX officer for the California State University system, which oversees 23 of the state’s campuses.
Eventually, under pressure from graduate students, UCLA launched a Title IX investigation against Piterberg in 2014. The results of the investigation are unclear, but what is clear is that the university doled out meaningless punishment in response to serious allegations. According to the terms of the university’s agreement with Piterberg, he was suspended for one term, fined $3,000, and forced to write Takla a recommendation letter. He was also required to acknowledge the university’s sexual harassment policy. Finally, and perhaps most ridiculously, for the next three years, Piterberg is required to leave his office door open while conducting meetings with students.
In return, Piterberg does not have to “concede or admit the truth or accuracy of any allegation made by [the] complaint,” neither does he have to admit that he engaged in “improper or unlawful conduct.”
From the moment UCLA announced the decision, students were furious, and academics across the field were suspicious. Many pointed out that the university’s suspension coincided with a prestigious fellowship that Piterberg had already planned. Insider Higher Ed points to a post on the higher education-focused blog The Professor Is In, written by PhD candidate Cassia Roth. On the blog, Roth argues that UCLA purposefully delayed Piterberg’s Title IX hearing so that he could accept the fellowship without any hindrances.
“Essentially, UCLA allowed Piterberg to delay the settlement for nine months, so he could take a fellowship that coincided with the quarter he took off in spring 2015 …. More important than the individual figures, however, is the issue of prestige. Reputation and prestige are everything in academia. By covering up the sexual harassment case and allowing Piterberg to get the Braudel fellowship, UCLA protected Piterberg’s reputation. Piterberg’s ‘quarter off’ may have cost him financially, but it actually boosted his real academic capital, his research status. And it also enhanced UCLA’s own academic standing.”
UCLA’s decision to welcome Piterberg back to campus is not sitting well with students or faculty. Last month, both joined in a rally protesting Piterberg’s planned return in the summer. “[Piterberg] assaulted and really psychologically terrorized these women,” recent UCLA history PhD Matthew Kelly, told Inside Higher Ed. “If the university’s final response is to allow him to return to the department after paying [a fine] — what is it, a sexual assault fee? — and agreeing to leave his door open, then he was right. He has effective impunity.”
The protests at UCLA raise broader questions about the persistence of sexual harassment, particularly within the California system. University of California, Berkeley has recently mishandled two high-profile sexual assault cases: first with astronomer Geoff Marcy and later with law school dean Sujit Choudhry. In both cases, the university failed to act after it was clear that both men were serial harassers. Like Piterberg, Choudhry was fined as part of his Title IX remediation. Apparently the price to sexually and assault women at UCLA is much lower ($3,000) than it is at Berkeley ($47,000).
In a statement, UCLA said they “vigorously dispute” the allegations made in the lawsuit.
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