UC Berkeley students to file state sexual harassment complaint against professor

Exclusive: Allegations against Blake Wentworth, who was not terminated last year despite misconduct findings, renewed in significant development in scandal

Kathleen Gutierrez struggles to get out of bed each day. For the past year, the 28-year-old University of California at Berkeley graduate student has battled extreme fatigue, unexpected body aches and debilitating anxiety.

At the root of her stress is her fear that at any moment on campus, she could run into Blake Wentworth, a professor in her department who she says repeatedly sexually harassed her – touching her inappropriately and frequently making offensive comments, including telling her “I’m so attracted to you” and bragging about doing drugs off of a stripper’s body.

In October, records show, a university investigation concluded that Wentworth violated the college’s harassment policies and made “unwelcome sexual advances” toward her. But more than six months later, the professor has faced no discipline and remains employed at UC Berkeley – with an office two doors away from Gutierrez.

“I don’t feel safe,” Gutierrez said in a recent interview. “That exhaustion, that’s physical and emotional at times, really weighs on me.”

At least six other students have given recent testimonials expressing concerns about Wentworth, and several have filed complaints, according to a recent letter sent by multiple faculty members to supervisors.

On Monday, Gutierrez and Erin Bennett, another graduate student who has accused Wentworth of harassment, intend to file formal complaints with the state against the professor and the University of California, alleging they have been subject to discrimination, sexual harassment and a hostile and intimidating work environment.

The complaints with the state department of fair employment and housing – copies of which the students’ attorneys shared exclusively with the Guardian – set the stage for a possible lawsuit and mark a significant development in a sexual harassment scandal that has shaken the prestigious northern California public university.

In October, Geoffrey Marcy, a prominent UC Berkeley astronomer, resigned following reports that he avoided serious discipline after the school determined that he had repeatedly sexually harassed students.

In March, Sujit Choudhry, dean of UC Berkeley’s renowned law school, stepped down in the wake of faculty outrage that he was able to keep his job after the school substantiated sexual harassment allegations from his executive assistant.

Following other high-profile harassment controversies, the university last week released hundreds of pages of investigation records involving 19 employees found guilty of misconduct by the school’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD). The documents revealed that although 11 people resigned or were terminated, no faculty members were fired for sexual harassment.

Wentworth, a tenure-track assistant professor in the department of south and south-east Asian studies, was one faculty member who has avoided termination despite findings of misconduct.

Although it has been more than a year since Gutierrez and Bennett formally reported Wentworth for harassment, the university says disciplinary proceedings in his case are still pending.

In official statements to the university and in emails to the Guardian, Wentworth vehemently denied all the allegations, which he called “baseless”. He was being “railroaded”, he said.

In lengthy interviews, the women said they decided to file state complaints and speak publicly in the hope of protecting other students and to shine light on harassment that is pervasive at universities and workplaces across the country. They both said UC Berkeley’s inaction had been traumatizing and that they would not feel safe until Wentworth was removed from the school.

“I can’t be on campus,” said Bennett, a 25-year-old comparative literature student, who said she was forced to take medical leave due to the university’s handling of her case. “I don’t know what graduate school is like without harassment.”

According to Bennett’s complaint, Wentworth encouraged the first-year graduate student to take a one-on-one independent study course during her first semester in fall 2014. Wentworth specializes in the Tamil language, which is Bennett’s area of interest.

Immediately, the complaint says, Wentworth began talking about his personal life and making inappropriate comments, at one point saying that learning Tamil was “better than sex”. On different occasions, he also allegedly touched her hand, placed his hands on her shoulders and got physically very close to her.

Bennett alleges in the complaint that the professor also often talked about his marriage, at one point “alluded to things he would do if Ms Bennett were his wife” and once calling her his “poor little lamb”.

“I became increasingly uncomfortable with his behavior,” Bennett said in an interview. “The power dynamic was very strong and palpable.”

Even though Wentworth is the only expert in Tamil literature at the university, Bennett said she dropped the class and tried to put the experience behind her.

Gutierrez, who is an instructor in Wentworth’s department, said the professor would frequently visit an office for grad students and make inappropriate sexual comments.

On 17 February last year, her state complaint says, Wentworth asked her to take a walk with him, and once outside he “began to talk about his recent divorce, visiting a strip club, and doing drugs [off] of a stripper’s body”. He also allegedly grabbed her hand and said: “I could lose my job over this … but I’m just so attracted to you.”

After she had made clear she was uncomfortable, Wentworth later came up behind her and wrapped his hands around her head and ear, according to the complaint.

“It was so disturbing to me to know that was happening in my workplace, that he made such an assertive come-on to me,” Gutierrez said in an interview. “I remember being very scared to think I might be alone with him.”

Both women said they were initially reluctant to report Wentworth, because they felt ashamed and feared retaliation. But once they learned that other students had similar concerns about him, they came forward and began a reporting process that they said was long, confusing and unfriendly to victims.

Though they both reported Wentworth in the spring, it was not until October that OPHD issued its findings, determining the professor had violated policies in Gutierrez’s case.

But in Bennett’s case OPHD said Wentworth’s actions “were not sufficiently severe or pervasive” to constitute sexual harassment, concluding that his conduct toward her was “unprofessional, and exhibited poor personal boundaries”.

Bennett said the decision was devastating and that she became too distraught to return to campus. As a result, she took leave, which eventually caused problems with her scholarships and health insurance.

“I don’t have any faith in Berkeley’s independent judicial system,” she said. “What’s most important to me is that this doesn’t happen anymore.”

In Gutierrez’s case, two committees subsequently had to review the case, which meant she had to re-tell the harassment allegations to another set of strangers – a process she said was particularly painful.

If a faculty committee recommends termination, according to UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof, the UC board of regents will have to vote to approve the decision. Mogulof declined to comment on pending litigation, but noted that the university recently formed a committee on sexual violence and harassment and is reviewing policies and procedures for reporting and investigating complaints.

“There needs to be improvement in our policies and our practices and our culture on this campus,” Mogulof told the Guardian earlier in the week.

In a series of lengthy emails, Wentworth wrote: “The reason my ‘cases’ have not been treated with severity is that they are, and have been proven to be, fanciful.”

He denied saying he was attracted to Gutierrez or ever mentioning strippers, said he never used the phrase “poor little lamb” and said he always makes boundaries clear – that “there can be no romantic relationship between professors and students ever”.

Wentworth told investigators he likely made the “if you were my wife” comment to Bennett as part of a grammar and culture lesson.

Wentworth denied ever inappropriately touching either woman, saying Bennett lied about his physical contact and calling her a “troubled young woman”. He said that as soon as he learned students were “bothered” by him, he stopped communicating with them outside of his classes.

“I state emphatically that the accusations are unjust and unmerited,” he wrote.

Speaking to the Guardian, Gutierrez started crying when describing how hard it is for young women in academia, especially minority women, to complete their studies without facing discrimination and harassment.

“This place isn’t made for people that look like us. How am I supposed to get through the demands of graduate school when I know that my colleagues are going through this?” said Gutierrez, who is Filipina.

“People wonder why women of color don’t make it.”

Gutierrez said she has been forced to change offices for fears of encountering Wentworth and tries to avoid her department’s building as much as possible.

“My body is just collapsing under all of this,” she said, “but … I am so committed to staying, because it just infuriates me to think that anybody else might go through this in the future.”

If you have information about this story contact: sam.levin@theguardian.com

Contributor

Sam Levin in Berkeley, California

The GuardianTramp

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