Young Women File Sex Harassment Claims Against South Asian Studies Professor at UC Berkeley

In one instance, the professor talked to the young woman about his failing marriage and compared learning Tamil to being "better than sex," the claim states.

Two young women on Monday morning filed sexual harassment claims against a University of California, Berkeley Southeast Asian Studies professor.

Graduate instructor Kathleen Gutierrez of Oakland and graduate student reader Erin Bennett of Berkeley held a news conference detailing their allegations, which they say stem from September 2014 to February 2015.

The two filed the employment discrimination allegations against South and Southeast Asian Studies Assistant Professor Blake Wentworth, an expert on the Tamil language of India, with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

They said they complained to the university more than a year ago, and nothing was done: He's never been disciplined or fired, though the university seemed to indicate some steps were taken at some point to deal with the issue.

"He's been shielded from accountability," one of their lawyers, Aliya Karmali told NBC Bay Area.

News of the claims was first reported by the Guardian.

In an emailed statement, the university said that officials were aware of the complaint and took "several steps" to protect the interests and well-being of the students. For instance, the university said officials had already put an order in place "requiring the faculty member to avoid proximity" in one of the woman's department area, and instructed to avoid the graduate office and student lounge area. In addition, the university said the faculty member was removed as adviser for one of the women.

The case is being investigated, the university said, by Berkeley faculty.

The professor did not respond to NBC Bay Area for a comment. But in a March interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Wentworth "categorically” rejected the allegations against him. He also told the Guardian he was being "railroaded" for "baseless" claims.

“More than anybody, I want the idea of sexual harassment to be clearly articulated. … And I also believe that I have not done it,” he said at the time. Wentworth got a perfect score on "helpfulness" on Rate My Professors.

But the two claims do not paint Wentworth as helpful.

In fact, Gutierrez's claim alleges that she was put into a "hostile" environment, where Wentworth allegedly made "inappropriate" sexual remarks to her that referenced "fisting," drugs and Burning Man, and "escalated to inappropriate touching and proposal for dates."

"I'm exhausted, but I know something good is going to come out of this," Gutierrez said.

Bennett's claim alleges the professor placed his hand on hers while she was petting a dog, and placed his hands on her shoulders, which made her feel "harassed and unsafe." He also talked to her about his failing marriage, the claim states, and compared learning Tamil to being "better than sex."

"Having reviewed the claims of Erin Bennett and Kathleen Gutierrez, it is more clear to me than ever that UC Berkeley has been going overboard in protecting its faculty and administrators at the expense of students and lower level employees who have presented legitimate claims of sexual harassment," their attorney, John Winer, said. "This has directly led to a sexual harassment crises of epidemic proportions.”

These new claims come in the wake of documents released by the University of California, Berkeley on April 6 that show 19 employees, including six faculty members, were found to have sexually harassed students, employees or both since 2011.

Wentworth was one of those professors.

"It's been long enough," Bennett said. "I'm really tired of withholding my education. I want to go back to school and I want to feel safe on campus."

Monday's event was also attended by Tyann Sorrell, who sued the university's board of regents and former law school dean Sujit Choudhry for sexual harassment.

"We're standing together and saying enough and we want the university to hear us," she said, standing with Bennett and Gutierrez. 

The records obtained by the East Bay Times after a Public Records Act request reveal 11 new cases that had not been disclosed during the recent high-profile sexual harassment cases involving a renowned astronomy professor, a vice chancellor, the dean of the law school and Cal's assistant basketball coach.
The documents showed that all the employees fired over the violations were staff members, and none were tenured faculty, the newspaper said.

Documents released by the University of California, Berkeley show 19 employees, including six faculty members, were found to have sexually harassed students, employees or both since 2011. Jodi Hernandez reports.

Last week, school spokesman Dan Mogulof told the newspaper the relatively small number of overall cases makes it difficult to say whether professors are given preferential treatment over staffers, but a new task force summoned by Chancellor Nicholas Dirks will review all the cases and their handling.

"We want everything to be examined, up to and including how discipline is imposed and whether indeed there are disparities of how discipline is imposed based on the status of the accused,'' Mogulof said last week. "The writing is on the wall. We know we must do a better job.''

The release of nearly 400 pages of documents come as UC Berkeley faces a growing outcry over its handling of sexual harassment and misconduct on campus. It prompted University of California President Janet Napolitano to announce last month a new process for reviewing sexual harassment claims against administrators.

A new system-wide committee would review and approve all proposed penalties for high-level administrators who violate sexual assault and harassment policies.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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