As graduate students at UC Berkeley, we were appalled to read Carla Hesse’s pedantic meditation on “freedom” and “respect” in lieu of a serious discussion of the sexual harassment scandals currently plaguing our campus. Sexual harassment and assault harm everybody, Hesse contends, including perpetrators. Why? She insists that the issue is one of “respect”: “Free love becomes harassment and even assault.” She writes as if harassment is about excessive sexual freedom and not about power and inequality; as long as we’re all respectful of one another, everything will be fine.
Everything is not fine. What Hesse neglects to address is that all too many instances of sexual harassment on this campus appear to follow the same pattern: high-powered administrator or Academic Senate faculty member harasses or assaults a student or worker, and then the cover-up begins. Indeed, fewer than a quarter of reported cases were even investigated between 2012 and 2015. The administration is clearly more concerned about its image and refurbishing the UC Berkeley brand than it is with protecting its own students and employees. As our disgraced former vice chancellor and provost Claude Steele made quite clear, the careers of these men are more important than the lives of survivors on the Berkeley campus.
Hesse’s bizarre op-ed continues in this tradition. She never once suggests that the campus will pursue a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment, instead devoting the entirety of her column to ableist nostalgia and patronizing thoughts on “freedom.” Her odd conflation of the Free Speech Movement with the “freedom” to harass others points to a fundamental misdiagnosis. It is not “respect” as opposed to “freedom” that has finally brought to light sexual harassment on our campus, but the courageous, persistent struggles of survivors and their allies despite obstacles at every turn. Hesse should demonstrate real commitment to these survivors, not undermine them by urging us all to be “respectful.”
We are absolutely disgusted that our chancellor thinks that Hesse is fit to head the sexual harassment committee, and we demand Hesse’s immediate replacement. The remedial process she advocates does nothing but isolate survivors as individual “cases.” Instead, it is imperative that we continue to build organizational channels through which survivors can mobilize collectively, uniting undergraduates, graduate students and workers alike, to address the conditions that enable sexual harassment in the first place.