Calif. professor denies sexual harassment charges

University of California, Santa Cruz, professor Gopal Balakrishnan.

University of California, Santa Cruz professor has denied allegations that he sexually harassed and assaulted students over a number of years. The allegations against Gopal Balakrishnan of the History of Consciousness Department came to light in December when a letter signed by several students was circulated. The letter also contains anonymous first-person accounts of students’ experiences with Balakrishnan. The statement described him as someone who regularly hung out with undergraduate and graduate students in bars and at parties.

“We are writing this statement to let our community know that Gopal Balakrishnan has a pattern of using his position of power as a professor and influential academic to intimidate, harass, and even assault young women and gender nonconforming people,” the letter said. “We have heard multiple first-person and witness accounts and are including here statements describing such behavior.” The statements are not all of the accounts, the letter says, adding that they simply represent the experiences of people who were willing to tell their stories. “We want to affirm our support for the authors of the statements, as well as the UCSC students who have organized on their campus to bring GB’s behavior to light,” the letter said.

According to the letter, Balakrishnan’s behavior has kept women and gender nonconforming people, especially younger people with less social capital, from participating in political and intellectual spaces. Those who claim he harassed them say they have dropped out of political and intellectual circles for fear of running into him, and some who have heard about his behavior second-hand have learned to avoid social gatherings he might attend, the letter said.

“In this sense, calling out his behavior publicly is not an act of exclusion, but a first step toward meaningful inclusion of those who are already being excluded,” the letter said.

Balakrishnan has denied the accusations since they were first brought to light, saying the accusers were simply spreading gossip that the university’s Title IX office, after an initial evaluation, had decided didn’t merit a full investigation. He charges that he is the target of a campaign of public humiliation that had begun early in the spring, he told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “This spring I was subject to nearly two and half months of graffiti attacking me in my workplace, accusing me of being a sexual predator, followed more by anonymous leafleting along the same lines, which called for a boycott of my classes, also that I no longer be invited to conferences and that my work be ignored,” he said.

The university’s director of news and media relations Scott Hernandez-Jason confirmed to India Abroad that Balakrishnan is not currently teaching on campus, although he is still employed by the university. “We are deeply troubled by the allegations of sexual misconduct shared on social media about one of our faculty members. If true, they represent a serious violation of campus policy,” Hernandez-Jason said.

The university’s Title IX Office and the Academic Personnel Office are aware of the allegations, he said, and are asking anyone with additional information to come forward so investigations can be conducted. “Sexual misconduct has no place at UC Santa Cruz, and we seek to hold perpetrators accountable,” he said. However, he said, the university is limited in how it can respond when it receives anonymous reports, he said. “The alleged actions are against everything we stand for at UC Santa Cruz,” he said.

According to a 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct conducted by the Association of American Universities, 11.7 percent of student respondents across 27 universities reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation since they enrolled at their university. These incidences among female undergraduate student respondents were at 23.1 percent, including 10.8 percent who experienced penetration. Overall rates of reporting to campus officials and law enforcement or others were low, ranging from 5 percent to 28 percent, depending on the specific type of behavior, the survey noted. While more than 6 in 10 student respondents (63.3 percent) believed that a report of sexual assault or sexual misconduct would be taken seriously by campus officials, the most common reason for not reporting incidents of sexual assault and sexual misconduct was that it was it was not considered serious enough, the survey found. Other reasons cited were embarrassment, shame and mental and emotional stress.

Last October, Rohit Varma, former dean of the University of Southern California’s Keck Medical School, resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct stemming from a single incident 15 years earlier. Last April, former UC Berkeley law dean Sujit Choudhry, who had been charged with sexual harassment by his executive assistant, reached a deal with the school that allowed him to maintain tenure, receive research funding and avoid charges. He was allowed to remain a faculty member until his voluntary resignation, expected this year.

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