2016 East Bay Person of the Year: Janet Napolitano

In dealing decisively with campus leadership scandals, budget battles, and sexual harassment cases, Janet Napolitano has become the most effective UC president in recent memory.


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Photo by Derek Remsburg/Courtesy of the Daily Cal

UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks announced his resignation in August.

In 2014, four women alleged that Marcy sexually harassed them between 2001 and 2010. A subsequent investigation by the university backed up these allegations, but campus officials kept the results secret. University officials also only gave Marcy a stern warning. When BuzzFeed News broke the story, four months after the university concluded its investigation, Dirks defended the university’s decision, citing restrictions on disciplinary actions and a three-year statute of limitations. But five days later, amid calls for Marcy’s resignation by faculty members of his own department, Marcy agreed to step down.

After Fleming’s former assistant, Diane Leite, accused Fleming of sexual harassment in a deposition in 2013, an independent investigation in October 2014 found that he “more likely than not” violated UC’s sexual harassment policy. But he kept his job for another five months with no apparent discipline, according to the Chronicle. Fleming finally resigned in protest in April 2015, but he remained a tenured chemistry professor, earning $343,000. Meanwhile, Dirks appointed Fleming to an administrative post at the Berkeley Global Campus in Richmond.

In March 2015, Tyann Sorrell, executive assistant of law school dean Sujit Choudhry, filed a sexual harassment complaint with the university, prompting an investigation, which corroborated the allegations. But, again, campus officials kept the results confidential. Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele gave Choudhry a slap on the wrist: a 10 percent pay reduction—from $415,000 to $373,500—and orders to write a letter of apology to Sorrell and to seek counseling at his own expense.

The allegations only came to light eight months later, when Sorrell filed a sexual harassment lawsuit. According to court papers, Steele told Sorrell that he had not terminated Choudhry because it would “ruin the Dean’s career.” Two days after Sorrell filed her complaint, Choudhry resigned but remained on faculty per the university’s tenure policy.

As university leadership failed to impose appropriate sanctions on sexually harassing faculty, Napolitano took immediate action toward reforming UC’s sexual harassment procedures and policies, and in some cases overrode Dirks’ decision-making. While she insists she’s not a micro manager—“I try to surround myself with really smart people who are smarter than I am and give them a lot of responsibility,” she said—at the same time, she acknowledged, “I am a demanding manager.”

From the beginning of her tenure, Napolitano has made sexual harassment a key focus of her efforts. In 2014, she expanded UC’s policies against sexual violence and harassment. After the Department of Education listed UC Berkeley among the 55 colleges and universities under Title IX investigation for their handling of sexual violence complaints, she announced the formation of a President’s Task Force on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence and Sexual Assault.

The day after Marcy agreed to step down, Napolitano announced a Joint Committee of the University of California Administration and Academic Senate to review procedures for sexual misconduct cases involving faculty members.

And after Napolitano found out that Dirks had merely reassigned Fleming, she dispatched a sternly worded letter to the chancellor: “I expect you to immediately remove Professor Fleming from any administrative positions that he holds with the Berkeley campus or its affiliates,” she wrote. (She was also unaware that Fleming had continued receiving his regular pay until informed by a Chronicle reporter in June.)

Napolitano also wasn’t told of the findings of the university’s investigation of Choudhry, nor of Steele’s light punishment of him, and only learned about them after news of the lawsuit broke.

“I know you appreciate my level of concern about this situation, and my unhappiness in learning about it through the media,” Napolitano wrote in the same letter addressing the Fleming situation. “I am confident you are taking steps to address the campus’s failure to keep the UC Office of the President apprised.”

Napolitano ordered Dirks to prevent Choudhry from returning to campus, institute disciplinary proceedings against him, make sure that all senior leaders on campus complete the required sexual harassment training, and provide a plan for additional sexual harassment training for senior administrators and managers.

In March 2016, when Nori Castillo, an assistant director of UC Berkeley’s startup accelerator, SkyDeck, was fired over sexual harassment, Napolitano appointed members of a new Systemwide Peer Review Committee to review and approve all proposed sanctions for any senior leader found to have violated UC’s sexual harassment policy. And after Dirks and Steele announced that UC Berkeley would establish its own Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Task Force, Napolitano declared that her office will keep close tabs on sexual harassment cases on campus, including holding monthly meetings with Dirks.

Napolitano’s office also released a report of the UC’s Joint Committee of the Administration and Academic Senate, showing that of 141 sexual harassment allegations filed against faculty at eight UC campuses from 2012 to 2015, only 24 percent were investigated. The report recommended updating the faculty code of conduct to include sexual violence and harassment as “unacceptable” behavior and making sure the chancellor knows when a professor is being investigated.

As Dirks was facing a possible no-confidence vote by the Academic Senate, he finally resigned in August (although he will remain in office until his replacement is found). Napolitano insists it was his decision, but she was clearly unhappy with how he handled these cases.

“I think that over the last year, we’ve done a lot of work not just at Berkeley, but throughout the university on matters of sexual assault and harassment,” said Napolitano. “My view is enough is enough. We redid the framework for how student cases are handled, how faculty cases are handled, how staff cases are handled. We worked on and continue to work on prevention because, to me, if you can prevent these things from happening, that’s the best outcome.”

Napolitano said her background as a lawyer has helped guide her course of action. “I start with the rule of law,” she said. “I start with those are the norms that we follow. And I want to make sure that the rules are clear, that the procedures are fair, and that the sanctions are commensurate with the behavior. You can call that kind of a legal way to look at it. That’s just the way I break up issues, you know? What’s the problem? What’s the path to dealing with the problem, and how do you judge the results?”

While most agree that a lot more work needs to be done, there is also a sense that Napolitano is definitely steering things in the right direction. Wendy Brown, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley who’s been outspoken on the issue of sexual harassment on campus, described Napolitano’s zero-tolerance policy as an “exceptionally important” stand.

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