UC Must Prioritize Prevention and Protection in its Sexual Harassment Policy

Recently, the University of California’s reputation as a world class institution has been significantly tarnished by a spate of high profile sexual harassment cases. The seemingly unending flood of administrators and faculty who have abused their power over employees and the university’s incomprehensible resistance to implementing true reform have threatened to drown the institution in scandal.

As a female postdoc in Atmospheric Chemistry at UC Berkeley, where the Geoff Marcy case brought the crisis into the public eye, this issue is particularly troubling, though unfortunately not surprising.

Postdocs have already completed Ph.Ds, and the majority of us aspire to careers in academia. The postdoc position can last only five to six years and is currently contingent on the renewal of the position each year. Our research is conducted under the mentorship of a professor or PI (Primary Investigator), and because our future success is determined almost exclusively by factors that fall entirely at the discretion of our PI, reporting abuses of power carries particularly pronounced risks for our long-term career prospects.

While the mentorship system leaves all postdocs vulnerable to abuses of power, female postdocs face particularly daunting institutional obstacles. Though women enter into STEM fields at a rate equal to or even greater than that of men, there is a tremendous disparity in the number of us who “choose” to leave the academy during our postdoctoral years.

Numerous institutional factors contribute to gender inequity at UC, including the “baby penalty”, well documented by UC Berkeley’s own Mary Ann Mason. But recent scandals have cast a glaring light on sexual harassment as a prominent factor, one which most women become aware of early in their scientific careers. During my short career thus far, I have already heard this type of story too many times.

Since January, the University has formed multiple committees to address sexual harassment and has even implemented a revised policy. Yet, through all that, UC has shockingly failed to come up with any real reforms that will actually prevent harassment and protect survivors.

UAW 5810, the union for postdocs at UC, is determined to implement effective reform. In the months leading up to our current round of contract negotiations and again in our first two bargaining sessions, we submitted a comprehensive series of recommendations designed, in contrast to current policy, to protect and empower survivors of sexual harassment. Our proposals include:

  • UC’s current policy consolidates the power to investigate and adjudicate harassment claims at the campus level Title IX offices, which have failed miserably across the state to properly investigate harassment claims due in part to their inherent bias as representatives of the university whom they are meant to be investigating. To ensure that there is no conflict of interest or bureaucratic incompetence that compromise the investigatory process, we have proposed that upon completion of the preliminary investigation, the case be immediately referred to an outside independent investigator.
  • UC’s current policy includes no firm restrictions on investigation length, leading to potentially interminable periods in which survivors are often forced to interact with their abusers with no knowledge of when or if their case will move forward. This not only creates a barrier to reporting but also punishes survivors who are brave enough to report. We have proposed strict time limits by which an initial report must be delivered and a comprehensive investigation completed.
  • UC’s current policy carries a statute of limitations on the length of time a survivor has to file a claim, leading to situations in which survivors are told their claims are no longer valid due to an arbitrary time limit with no legal (or common sense) basis. Because the goal of any sexual harassment policy should always be preventing future abuses and protecting those who have been victimized, no matter when they choose to come forward, we have proposed no restrictions on the length of time a survivor has to file a claim.
  • Currently, there is no training on the prevention of and response to sexual harassment that is specifically for postdocs. Postdocs are forced to go through a generic training for university staff, despite our uniquely vulnerable position within the research structure of the university. To ensure that postdocs receive appropriate and effective training, we have proposed that the University and Union jointly develop and conduct trainings for postdocs.
  • UC’s current policy requires that all faculty members complete annual training, but we have no mechanism to ensure compliance. We have proposed that the University be required to provide evidence to the Union at the start of each year that all supervisors of postdocs have completed all required training.

At the bargaining table, UC expressed immediate concern about the rights of faculty members, while not mentioning the rights of survivors. This reflects a stunning refusal to comprehend the gravity of this crisis and is indicative of UC’s pattern of superficially acknowledging that academia faces a systemic crisis, while refusing any accountability or willingness to challenge the entrenched patriarchal bureaucracy. It also highlights UC’s instinctual response to minimize and contain liability, rather than addressing the root cause.

We do not believe that sexual harassment is an issue to be “contained.” As with the broader Gender Inequity crisis, the burden of the UC’s failure to institute effective policy falls disproportionately on young scientists such as postdocs, graduate students, and junior faculty, particularly women. Whatever agreement is reached must reflect and remedy this reality.

There are a number of intelligent and intrepid individuals within the administration of the University of California. At our next session on June 30th in San Diego, our bargaining team would welcome proposals from the university that will lead to positive policy reform — even if they differ from our own.

We will not, however, tolerate proposals that maintain the status quo. If the UC is incapable or unwilling to look past its self-protectionist instinct, then postdocs are not afraid to use any and all tactics to protect our livelihoods and future careers, as well as the reputation of the university to which we devote so much of our blood, sweat, and tears.

Carlena Ebben Eaton is a postdoc in the Department of Chemistry at UC Berkeley and a trustee of UAW Local 5810, the union for over 6,000 postdocs at the University of California.