Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

At Berkeley architecture school, sexual harassment investigation drags on


March 2018

In the midst of the #MeToo movement, consider the following scenario: sexual harassment accusations against a powerful man, reinforced by an investigation and internal deliberation at his place of employment, leading to a widespread petition from his colleagues demanding action. But instead of resignation or prompt disciplinary action, the accused remains employed, salaried, and facing an unknown fate, as the proceedings taking place against him are conducted out of the public eye.

And while sexual harassment in the workplace has come to the forefront—following a reinvigorated discussion around reporting sexual misconduct on college campuses—that this particular scenario has been unfolding at a college known as a liberal, progressive bastion may come as a surprise. But here we are, in the architecture department at the University of California at Berkeley.

In March of 2016, Ph.D. student Eva Hagberg Fisher accused Nezar AlSayyad, a tenured architecture professor in the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design—and her former faculty advisor—of sexual harassment and misconduct.

university-funded investigation of AlSayyad, released in November 2016, found numerous incidents of inappropriate behavior between 2012 to 2014 that echo Hagberg Fisher’s claims. A settlement reached between Berkeley and Hagberg Fisher in December 2017 led to the school paying her a settlement of $80,000.

AlSayyad has consistently denied all allegations, recently saying that those involved are “inadvertently supporting a smear campaign,” and a coalition students recently published a letter in the student newspaper defending him (five co-signed the letter, and the rest chose to remain anonymous). Via his lawyer, Dan Siegel, AlSayyad has denied to Curbed the claims that he manipulated or made inappropriate advances towards any students, including Hagberg Fisher, or that he violated the Berkeley Code of Conduct.

Despite the university’s findings against AlSayyad, he’s still collecting his $211,000 annual salary—though he’s been removed from teaching duties. A recent student and alumni petition is keeping the issue in sharp focus, demanding, among other things, that AlSayyad—who has tenure—be immediately terminated. Meanwhile, there’s no indication of when Berkeley’s internal investigation, currently being conducted through the Committee on Privilege and Tenure, will result in any additional action.

Eric Peterson, an architecture Ph.D. student who helped start the petition, says AlSayyad continues to attend department social functions, is often spotted on campus, and continues to advise students. (According to Siegel, AlSayyad “does continue to advise his graduate students who have decided to continue with him as their advisor,” but is rarely on campus and does not attend social events.)

“[The school] had a trial in November, he had been found to have violated the code of conduct, but at the end of the hearing, they announced no timeline for the second part of the process,” Peterson said. “The case has formally been hanging over our heads for years, and it seems to us that there continues to be a refusal to set a timeline.”

A faculty member at the School of Architecture tells Curbed that colleagues weren’t surprised to hear allegations about AlSayyad’s behavior in the Hagberg Fisher case. He was known for manipulating advisees and inappropriate advances toward female students; it had been an “open secret” at the school for years. The sentiment was confirmed by another source.

“It’s not just sexual harassment; he’s behaved badly across the board,” his colleague added. “What if he gets off, doesn’t retire, and comes back to the department? It’ll destroy our Ph.D. program.”

The uncertainty continues to affect Hagberg Fisher, who is now working on a dissertation about midcentury figure Aline Saarinen’s impact on architectural public relations. Hagberg Fisher says she has been effectively barred from the library for fear of running into AlSayyad due to a no-contact directive from the school, which instructs her to leave a room if she sees him on campus. Since she can’t be guaranteed undisturbed access outside of protected afternoon hours three days of the week, she believes the directive raises potential issues under Title IX, a federal law banning discrimination in educational settings on the basis of sex.

Baffled at the lack of transparency around the process and frustrated about the time she has invested in the university process, Hagberg Fisher says:

My intent is to show this treatment is standard. This is what’s going to happen to a graduate student who speaks up about a professor. This is how bad it’s going to be, and this is how hypocritical an organization like Berkeley, which says it’s progressive and all about the free speech movement, is going to be. I get all these emails about the new sexual harassment plans [on campus] and it makes me enraged. It’s not congruent with my reality.

When asked to respond to the student petition with a potential timeline for the current disciplinary process, Janet Gilmore, the university’s senior director of strategic communications, delivered the following statement:

We have received the letter from the students and we thank them for reaching out to campus officials to express their concerns and thoughts. While policies and confidentiality requirements prevent us from discussing any particular cases, we will be responding directly to the students to address their general concerns with them.

In recent years the campus has made numerous changes to strengthen its policies and services regarding sexual misconduct prevention and response, but we know there is more to do and we appreciate insights from students, faculty and staff as we work toward further improvements.

Curbed also contacted Sharon Inkelas, a linguistics professor who was recently named special faculty adviser to the chancellor on sexual violence and sexual harassment. She deferred to Gilmore.

The AlSayyad case can be held up as an example of the power dynamics at play in academia, where graduate students and doctoral students are beholden to advisors for recommendations and important professional connections.

“It’s an abuse of power,” says John Parman, a senior associate at Gensler and a former UC-Berkeley student who signed the petition. “And I think that’s the issue. Some of it is pure and simple abuse, and it’s wrong in any case. But it’s especially reprehensible if it’s your student.”

“I do think we have bullying problems in the department,” reports another woman, a current faculty member. “I think power harassment is pretty common at Berkeley.”

It’s also not a new phenomenon. According to Terezia Nemeth, a real estate executive and alumna, it was well known that there were inappropriate relationships between professors and female students when she attended Berkeley between 1979-1983 and 1985-1986. She says that male professors functioned as gatekeepers, especially those who controlled studio courses that could make or break careers by helping position students for better jobs and writing letters of recommendation.

“There were power dynamics at play, without question, there was preferential treatment, being grants in exchange for favors, and there was pervasive treatment of women as sex objects,” she says.

She recalls seeing graffiti in the women’s bathrooms in the architecture department, and warnings on the stalls, that cautioned female students about particular teachers, or said “professor X likes a particular type of sexual favor.” Parman reports that his wife saw the same thing when she visited the school in the early ’80s.

UC Berkeley’s Wurster Hall, home of the school’s architecture department
 Falcorian/Creative Commons

Students and faculty in the architecture department have been waiting for a response since the university released the results of an investigation about AlSayyad in 2016, which, at the time, spurred student protests. Faculty interviewed on background for this story note that the system of adjudication adds additional tasks to already overworked academics, creating a process that seems deliberately designed to take too long.

In January, Hagberg Fisher penned a viral op-ed in the New York Times, using clever rhetorical devices to explain her situation—drawing attention to the case and hoping to goad the university into action.

“The university hasn’t given a clear answer to why they haven’t taken action,” says Marianela D’Aprile, a lecturer and former graduate student instructor at Berkeley, and a petition co-signer. “Quite often, that’s been the response we’ve gotten. ‘It isn’t up to us, it’s up to the people who are running the investigation, or reviewing the results of the investigation.’ The burden of responsibility has been passed around a lot.”

Berkeley has dealt with a series of sexual-harassment cases in recent years involving a law school dean and instructors in the astronomy and Southeast Asian studies departments.

In response, the school changed its procedures for handling accusations of sexual harassment, introducing new policies on October 10, 2017, for dealing with charges against faculty members.

D’Aprile and others speculate that Berkeley’s other recent sexual-harassment cases may be shaping the school’s response to AlSayyad. (The school has not commented on whether the policy changes apply to the current case, citing confidentiality).

It would be the first of these cases where the school officially decided to remove tenure status. For example, astronomy professor Geoff Marcy wasn’t fired: He resigned in 2015 after being pressured by fellow academics. If AlSayyad refuses to leave voluntarily, it makes the ordeal much more lengthy and expensive.

On February 26, the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights concluded a four-year Title IX investigation into the way Berkeley handles sexual harassment cases and determined that the school needed to change its policies, including the alternative-resolution systems that deal with sexual-harassment cases, to make adjudication more prompt.

Hagberg Fisher says while some of the more sensational aspects of her case have garnered the most publicity, it was the emotional manipulation—being told simultaneously that her work wasn’t good enough and that AlSayyad would “protect” her—that undermined her confidence the most.

Furthermore, “there is this system of performative fealty in grad school” she says. “We’re assigned one advisor and trained to keep that advisor on our side. They hold absolute power over our careers.”

D’Aprile said that there have been allegations of previous inappropriate actions by AlSayyad toward students—“It’s widely known and accepted that Eva wasn’t the only one”—which to her, underscores the problem with the university refusing to take more swift, decisive action.

“The university has a promise to keep students safe,” she says. “The fact that they’ve taken so long. … They’ve failed to protect students.”

Gilmore said on February 8 that she would get back to Curbed about a date when UC Berkeley would respond to students about their petition, and we will update the story when we hear more.

She also noted that “the University of California system and UC Berkeley campus recently made changes to its staff and faculty adjudication processes, including steps to make the process more efficient and transparent. And we continually explore ways to improve our prevention and response efforts.”

Looking back, Hagberg Fisher says that she believes the university has dragged out the process to try to keep her silent. The entire situation has made her sour on the idea of teaching.

“I fucking loved Berkeley before I went; it was the only place I wanted to go,” she says. “But every time I see UC Berkeley, even in my email signature, I wonder why they caused so much suffering.”

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