To Report a Professor: a letter from UCSC Title IX Complainants on Power, Due Process, and Cultures of Permissibility
This letter was collectively written by complainants in the Title IX process regarding Professor Gopal Balakrishnan, in response to a request to submit separate letters to the Executive Vice Chancellor regarding findings in Title IX investigation. Given the way this letter was written, and the parameters and purpose of the letter, the discussions in it are limited. Nevertheless this letter is being released in hopes to contribute to the conversations around MeToo in academia.
Oct. 8th, 2018
Executive Vice Chancellor Marlene Tromp:
We write as a collective of complainants in the ongoing Title IX and Faculty Code of Conduct processes regarding Professor Gopal Balakrishnan. By acting as a collective of complainants we embody an emphatic support of one another and the truths and experiences of each of us. No matter the delineations of findings in our individual cases, we believe that our accounts taken together show a pervasive, persistent, and severe pattern of unacceptable behavior by Professor Balakrishnan. At this point in the process, we wish to be acknowledged as a group: each of our complaints contribute to a coherent narrative of abhorrent patriarchal entitlement, abuse of power, and violent misogyny endemic to Balakrishnan’s impact on us as complainants and furthermore on the campus community, as seen in the petition written by our peers and carrying nearly 800 signatures, cited together with this letter.
When you wrote a campus-wide email addressing the latest BuzzFeed article about this matter, you thanked us for our bravery in coming forward. In response to your gratitude, we as a collective of complainants in the university process would like to hold space for claims that are not being adjudicated through the institutional process and for those that have not come forward. By holding space for those who will not report or are not represented by their participation in the university process, we would like to bring a critical awareness to the ways in which a chilling climate was fostered by the Humanities faculty in their email exchanges, in comments made to the media, and through retaliatory behavior on the part of Professor Balakrishnan himself. We also note that the decision made by the Title IX office to include Balakrishnan’s private investigator’s statements as evidence will have a chilling effect on future students and so we hold space for the students who will experience harm in the years to come and choose not to report because of the terrible precedents that have been set in this case.
In an email sent among Humanities faculty, our professors characterized anonymous statements about Professor Balakrishnan’s attacks on students as lacking merit because such statements were not part of the institutional framework for “due process.” They exercised entitlement by believing it was their place to privilege a discussion about tactics over a discussion about student safety and sexual violence. These faculty members deflected concrete concerns about sexual violence perpetrated by their colleague into an abstracted analysis of anonymity. In so doing, they deployed their power to turn the discussion in a direction that at no moment attempted to ensure, empower, or acknowledge the safety of students. Instead they proposed that they themselves were “under attack”. Using victimization discourse to claim being harmed by those alleging oppression based violence is a hallmark tactic of rape apologists and has recently been used by conservative American politicians. We note one of the most disturbing elements of prevailing national discourse is the idea that talking about sexism, and specifically, sexual assault, presents an existential crisis to those in power in which straight men are victimized during the #MeToo movement. We are disappointed at the way in which Humanities faculty, and specifically Literature faculty, whose pedagogical task it is to challenge the way that narratives frame power, instead fell into a narrative framing that aggrieved their power and privilege, much in the same way that we see masculinity being aggrieved as a perceived victimhood in national discourse. In a way, we have been betrayed by Professor Balakrishnan’s behavior specifically. In another way, we have been betrayed by the stance of Humanities professors pedagogically, intellectually, and politically. We have been dismayed by the reactionary conservatism displayed by professors we once looked to in order to critique power in the way they demonstrated upholding power when it comes to gender and violence. We interpret this response as an indication that our professors’ primary concern has been with protecting themselves and their own complicity in Professor Balakrishnan’s behavior, while shielding their colleague from public circulations of the general knowledge of his behavior.
The reason the four of us have spoken so loudly is because we felt it was time to take the narrative back from those in power and place it the hands of those whom have been systematically denied opportunities to speak out. Since our story began to be told in the media we have received overwhelming support from students across the country. What we have learned from so many other students, and from the #MeToo movement, is that power relations affect all aspects of reporting and redress: specifically, students have very little power in seeking remedy for abuses at the hands of faculty, and Title IX and other institutional processes described as “due process” exacerbate and exploit embedded power imbalances that exist between faculty and students, men and women, and those with economic access to legal counsel and those without. To this latter point we add: throughout our own participation in the Title IX process, Professor Balakrishnan’s access to money has meant he has been able to pay two lawyers and a private investigator to advise him through this process and to contact complainants and witnesses on his behalf in attempts to undermine our reports. The decision to incorporate the statements of Balakrishnan’s hired investigator into the official evidence file in opposition to our reports confirmed and formalized an imbalance of power in this case. We have seen first-hand how such an expensive expenditure of legal defense for an administrative process imbalances the process itself and impacts the abilities of complainants to properly advocate for their own due process rights in the absence of their own means to retain paid counsel.
When we made the individual decisions to speak about our experiences and report them to Title IX, we did so in a climate of faculty-generated hostility, suspicion, and criticism. Humanities faculty were very aggressive in their stance that claims of sexual violence had little to no merit unless they were reported “through the proper channels” and unless there were names attached to the complaints. This is the same narrative pattern to which Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has been subject since she came forward that she was held down, groped, and almost raped by Brett Kavanaugh: that her claim lacks merit because it was unreported for so many years. The fact of a survivor’s reporting or not reporting an incident of sexual misconduct through official channels and due process and the survivor’s choice in deciding the ways in which this reporting or telling can occur should not be held against claims of harm. Indeed, watching Kavanaugh’s testimony to the Judiciary Committee elicited collective groans from those who have been following the UCSC situation regarding Professor Balakrishnan: each time that Kavanaugh screamed out for due process against public accusations, we heard echoes of the Humanities faculty reactions to the campus wide “open secret” of Balakrishnan’s behavior going public.
The reporting and investigation process itself was another months-long trial we had to withstand. Some of us reported to Title IX and were redirected to Susan Fellows, Director of Academic Employee Relations, who in turn notified us that our complaints would be investigated by the Title IX office. The investigation necessitated that we write detailed statements about our experiences, submit to questioning from administrators and an investigator hired by UCSC. Often times, we were given only days to review and respond to hundreds of pages of evidence and statements, in lieu of having skilled and paid lawyers to do so for us. We had to learn, on the fly, how these administrative processes work, and how to navigate the particular obscurity of the Title IX process that at many time lacks transparency. On the fly we had to learn to properly respond to intense evidence reviews; again and again we had to put our lives and work on hold to sift through pages and pages of triggering, upsetting, and emotionally demanding documents. We had to learn what our rights are in this process and how to advocate for them. For some of us, participating in this process also meant being harassed and intimidated by a private investigator hired by Balakrishnan’s lawyers, who called one of us at work and refused to give her time to process what he was asking, and even went so far as to look for another at her previous places of residence.
We note that the very faculty who admonished students for not reporting and cried out for due process did not themselves, at any time, report or speak up against Gopal Balakrishnan’s behavior, though we experienced multiple indicators that some of those same faculty and indeed, faculty across the UC system, had prior knowledge of his dangerous conduct toward students. Faculty were unwilling to challenge their peers and speak out about Professor Balakrishnan; instead they stayed silent and placed the entire burden on the students he harmed. To that extent, we wholeheartedly support the demand in the petition supported by 800 of our peers to call into account the culture of the Humanities that allowed his behavior to be so pervasive and persistent for so many years. We believe that faculty could have prevented Gopal Balakrishnan from harming so many students, including committing sexual assault, and that one of the greatest injustices in this case is their failure to do so. In light of their failure, we have chosen to do everything possible to prevent another student from being harmed.
And so, though we are speaking as a group of four complainants who have endured the bureaucratic and emotional demands of the Title IX process, we wish to recognize the voices of those who experienced sexual violence or harassment by Professor Balakrishnan who are not formal complainants. We feel that these voices contribute to a public record of the history of harm that has in fact occurred. In attaching a Buzzfeed News article from May 22nd, 2018, we draw attention to accounts besides our own that were recorded through investigative reporting which found these accounts to be credible by means of fact-checking, interviewing witnesses, and reviewing relevant documents.
As also reported by Buzzfeed News, students made the university aware of incidents of gender discrimination in the classroom perpetrated by Professor Balakrishnan in 2009. This was also reported to Title IX. We feel that these complainants were mishandled by the university and by then History of Consciousness chair Donna Haraway. We ask that you investigate and learn from the breakdown of process in 2009, and consider whether Campus Conflict Resolution Services is an appropriate method for dealing with gender-discrimination in the classroom. We also ask that you inform us why “nothing happened” when complaints of gender discrimination in the classroom were submitted to the university in 2009.
We support and believe these accounts as they were reported by Buzzfeed News, and request that they be considered as credible public record to form an understanding of the pattern of misogyny, violence, and discrimination that has gone unchecked for too long.
In terms of the standing of our own complaints, we wish to make clear the following:
While we understand the policy in place at the time of this assault referred only to “Sexual Harassment,” the University of California updated its policy in 2016 to address sexual violence; what happened to Anneliese Harlander was sexual violence, not harassment and this should be acknowledged in public statements regarding the Title IX investigator’s findings. To continue to refer to what Gopal Balakrishnan did as “sexual harassment” is an insult to all survivors of sexual violence. We ask that future statements by you and other university administrators properly refer to Gopal Balakrishnan’s conduct as sexual assault and/or violence.
Further, there are several allegations of serious Faculty Code of Conduct violations that have yet to be properly investigated. At the onset of the Title IX investigation, we were told that you as the EVC made an explicit request that Title IX investigate Faculty Code of Conduct violations at the same time as they investigated violations of the University Sexual Harassment and Violence policy. In light of the Title IX investigator’s decision not to investigate Faculty Code of Conduct violations that were outside the scope of the UC Sexual Harassment and Violence policy, instead referring these back to the EVC for further investigation, we ask and expect that a probable cause investigation will be initiated quickly to determine these separate but extremely serious violations of the Faculty Code of Conduct.
Regardless of the findings of further investigations into additional violations of the Faculty Code of Conduct, based on the findings already made by the Title IX investigator, as well as the clear pattern of behavior we and others have reported formally and publicly, we strongly believe Gopal Balakrishnan is a danger to students. As such, the only appropriate discipline is termination. We note that this call for termination of employment is a demand listed in the attached petition and is echoed by the hundreds of community members that have signed. It is not safe for Gopal Balakrishnan to continue teaching or advising, and we ask that you to initiate disciplinary proceedings quickly. As it stands, Gopal Balakrishnan is essentially on a paid vacation while the university slowly figures out what to do now that it is clear he sexually assaulted at least one student. This is unacceptable.
In terms of remedies and outcomes we demand the following:
The university proceed with investigating the remaining Faculty Code of Conduct complaints, and that the due process rights of the complainants is upheld in a thorough and serious procedure of such complaints. That said, we also believe that as it stands, the university has enough information already to take a strong position and proceed with terminating Professor Balakrishnan’s employment.
In that context, we ask that the university expedite a hearing and a determination on the termination of Balakrishnan’s employment. Furthermore, we are disturbed that Balakrishnan, while on paid leave, still has a current and ongoing ability to advise graduate students. We believe that Balakrishnan’s ongoing and pervasive behavior demonstrates a pedagogy of sexual harassment, sexual violence, and misogyny, and we believe he should be immediately barred from any and all professorial duties, including and especially interacting with students.
We also wish to address that, even in Balakrishnan’s absence, there is a culture of permissibility that remains to be urgently addressed. Reiterating our previous reflections on the negative impact that Humanities faculty have had on this process, on those who have spoken out and those who have not, and their own failure to speak out against their colleague and/or report his conduct to proper authorities, we emphatically add that our demands as a collective of complainants include all of the demands in the attached petition written by our peers and signed by members of the campus and academic community. Amongst these demands are the following: the university investigate faculty failures to report; the Humanities division issue a statement outlining steps it will take to prevent the continuation of this culture of permissibility; all faculty participating in the harmful “Literature faculty email thread” of May 7th, 2017 issue a formal apology, including those responding on the thread; and faculty who have issued damaging characterizations of complainants to the media also apologize.
While we advocate for using restorative justice practices, Professor Balakrishnan has had numerous opportunities to take responsibility for his actions and has chosen not to, and so we do not believe restorative justice to be the appropriate solution as it relates to Gopal Balakrishnan. That said, we would of course welcome and still encourage him to take responsibility for his actions. Ultimately, it is important to hold everyone involved accountable for both their actions and non-actions which have perpetuated these rampant acts of violence, misogyny, and abuse of power.
Finally, while we sign this letter as a group of formal complainants, we also sign this letter as part of an important and significant cultural shift in the ways that sexual violence, gender discrimination, and misogyny are held to account: we sign this letter not only as Title IX and Faculty Code of Conduct complainants, but as adherents, supporters, and participants in the #MeToo movement. As such, we say: “Times Up: Enough is Enough!”
Signed, Anneliese Harlander, Amanda Reyes, Beth Peller, and Complainant D