Sexual Harassment Process Troubles Complainants

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Several UCSF students came forward with their stories of academic sexual misconduct involving individuals who are still at UCSF last October after a briefing of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) report on sexual harassment of women in science. The study showed that despite the policies and procedures in place, 50 percent of women experience unwanted sexual harassment in academia. 

One survivor who shared her story is UCSF alum Grace, whose name we have changed to protect her identity.

It was interview weekend when Grace became interested in working with Richard Schneider.

“I was talking to another professor and then he pulled me aside and said, ‘you don’t want to work with that professor you want to work with me,’” she recalled. “I thought he was really committed to being a good mentor. I guess that’s what I thought at the age of 20.”

Grace started school at UCSF a year later and when she needed to choose a faculty advisor for a project she asked Schneider.

“For a long time I thought ‘he is so invested in my academic success,’” she said. “He’d have these really long, intense meetings with me.”

Initially, her meetings with him were one hour, but over time their meetings grew longer.

Then he started to schedule their meetings around lunch.

“He would invite me out to lunch and say, ‘Oh let me grab my jacket cause it’s actually a lunch date.’ And I just thought ‘Oh, that’s funny.’”

Grace was interested in joining Schneider's lab, so when he invited her to the department holiday party she agreed to go.

“He told me if I was joining his lab, or considering it, it would be good for me to meet the whole department and learn about what everyone is doing,” Grace said.

“He kept bringing me drink after drink and that’s when I thought, ‘this seems unhealthy.’ Then he told me I was being too weak to handle myself and if I didn’t join his lab that would mean I was too afraid.”

With a keen interest in Schneider’s research Grace decided to join the lab, and her relationship developed beyond that of mentor and mentee.

“It took me a long time to realize his interest in teaching me wasn’t [really] in teaching me,” Grace said.

Her romantic involvement with Schneider, who was married, made Grace feel increasingly isolated. Eventually, Grace did end their romantic relationship, but she still felt uncomfortable and didn’t know how to leave the lab environment.

Unclear about the resources available to her Grace started to talk.

“In personal discussions if I mentioned that so-and-so was harassing me, people would say ‘Oh gosh, let’s not talk about this again or we’ll have to report it,’” Grace said.

“A professor might say ‘I’ll try to [take care of that]’ but then [didn’t], or ‘maybe let this one slide.’ So there was very much a sense that it had to reach a certain severity before getting reported. But if it was a certain severity, they also didn’t want to report it because people would get into actual trouble.”

At first Grace accepted this. Reporting Schneider, she believed, could negatively impact her own studies and reputation.

Once her advising committee signed off on her thesis, however, she spoke to two people she felt she could trust.

Grace’s complaint initially led to mediation, but later launched a formal Title IX investigation to determine if university policy on sexual violence and harassment had been violated.

“[A group of UCSF lawyers] interviewed me and [said] ‘the investigation is beginning’ and that was it,” Grace said. “What they did in the background, like interview other people, I have no idea.”

In a Title IX investigation, campus investigators interview witnesses and gather information. The evidence is then assessed, a report written, and a conclusion made.

Grace faced difficulties when others were unwilling to speak up about Schneider’s behavior.

“Legally [the Title IX report] was probably laid out accurately, but what was left out is that they couldn’t follow up on any related experiences from his previous trainees,” Grace said. “They were afraid to speak because they were still in academia, so they said they would not come forward at all.”

In July 2013, the Title IX report was completed and found that Schneider was in violation of university policy.

Schneider did not immediately respond to a media inquiry for comment on this article.

Almost two years later, in February of 2015, Grace received a letter of resolution from the university describing the disciplinary actions imposed upon Schneider. He was demoted and a formal letter of censure was put into his academic personnel file, and would remain for four years, until February 2019.

By this time Grace had not only left UCSF, she had left science.

“I floated around for a couple of years not doing anything because of the trauma,” Grace said. “I would get panic attacks going to interviews. I didn’t think I could survive in any place I had to work with a man, which was literally everywhere.”

More Transparency Called For

Meanwhile, UCSF trainees are unaware of Schneider’s violation of the UC policy on sexual harassment. Schneider received the Dentistry School’s Mentor of the Year award in 2016, one year after the letter of censure was put in his personnel file. Trainees are still working alongside him, and that is causing concern among those who are aware of his history.

A UCSF trainee Ada, whose name we changed to protect her identity, said she was shocked when she found Schneider’s name on Professor Julie Libarkin’s database cataloging cases of academic sexual misconduct and violations of relationship policies.

The account of the misconduct was especially disturbing, Ada said, because it appears the professor does not understand that he is in a position of power.

“The professor thinks it was consensual, but structurally it can’t be,” Ada said. “It seems like he thinks what he did was okay, and he’s adding to a culture here that communicates tolerance of sexual harassment.”

She talked with her Principal Investigator. She talked with her friend. She did what she could to process this information, but beyond that there was nothing else to do.

That was until she heard a first-year student mention working with Schneider.

“I couldn’t say anything to her, it would just [look like] me shit talking a professor,” Ada said. “It was a long, several month process of [figuring out] ‘how do I tell her?’ The NASEM briefing is what pushed it.”

Ada ended up informing the student indirectly, by having another UCSF trainee send an email with a link to the pertinent information.

“This is a discussion she should be having with an administrator,” said Ada.

Ada’s story was a shock to Grace.

“My main goal with reporting my advisor was to make sure that he didn’t see any more students,” Grace said.

Complaint Process Adds to Trauma

Danielle Fasani, a pharmacy student at UCSF, spoke of similar difficulties with the system when she was sexually harassed by a fellow student during her second year.

“It wasn’t the investigator making me feel this way, just the overall process making me feel like I had done something wrong somehow,” said Fasani of her experience with the Title IX process at UCSF. “It didn’t really occur to me [to think of myself as] a victim until the end of it.”

After talking through her options with Campus Advocacy Resources and Education (CARE) Advocate Denise Caramagno, she decided to make a formal complaint with UCSF’s Title IX Office.

According to University of California policy, Title IX investigations should be completed within 60 business days, however, extensions can be granted for complex cases.

“The respondent kept submitting more and more text messages, and every time that happened I had to respond to it,” Fasani said. “So it seemed almost impossible to put an end to this thing.”

Extensions in Fasani’s investigation meant the process took six months to complete.

“It was frustrating that things kept getting extended,” Fasani said. “A lot of the time they would not inform me beforehand that there was going to be an extension, so I would be waiting at the deadline [wondering] ‘why is there no decision?’”

One measure put in place during the investigation was a mutual no contact directive, which meant that neither party could contact the other directly or indirectly through another individual.

Fasani, however, found this directive difficult to enforce.

“In my case the respondent kept harassing me by cutting off my conversations with other people,” she said. “One night he stood outside my apartment and he was yelling, but there was no way for me to prove this.

“The issue is there is no distance component [to the no contact directive], so he could get as close as he wanted, and being in the same program, that was pretty frequent. I ended up getting a restraining order, but that’s something that I had to do on my own.”

Despite these difficulties, Fasani felt she had a good interaction with the Title IX investigator and felt supported by the faculty in the pharmacy program.

“I could just approach them one-on-one and explain what was going on and they really went out of their way to be helpful,” she said.

To Fasani the administration had a different standpoint.

“One thing that I was asking of the administration was to allow me to take my exams in a different room because I knew that there was already another room that students with disabilities take their exams in,” she said. “I don’t need extra time, I just need to be in a different room so I can focus. It really took a surprising [number] of hoops I had to jump through just to get that.”

Fasani found herself needing to jump through another hoop on the day when the Title IX investigator’s decision was to be made.

“It was 4 p.m. and [there was] still nothing, so I actually went down to the Title IX office myself and I weaseled my way in,” Fasani said. “I stood there and wouldn’t leave until they assured me that it would be done that night.”

After six months of interviewing witnesses and gathering information the Title IX report found that the respondent was in violation of UC policy.

The respondent, however, filed an appeal and the case was contracted to an outside law firm.

The appeal process led to the reversal of the Title IX investigation findings. The respondent was no longer considered in violation of UC policy and thus no punishment was handed down.

“For my case it would have been a mandatory two-year suspension at the least, so that really had a chilling effect on the witnesses,” Fasani said. “The key witness, who actually encouraged me to report the incident, turned around and not only said he didn’t see it, he actually said that he was there at the time and that I was lying, that it did not happen at all.”

Administration Responds

Nyoki Sacramento, who became the Director of the UCSF Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination in 2017, oversees Title IX investigations.

According to Sacramento, most witnesses are willing to talk with her office. She is, however, aware of instances where witnesses have backed out or are hesitant to talk, and stated this could be considered a strike against a respondent in an indirect way.

When asked about extensions impacting the timeliness of investigations, she highlighted the various complexities that can arise. For instance, sometimes the parties involved remember additional evidence near the end of an investigation. Other times cases may require interviews with 20 plus witnesses. Thus additional time can be necessary to conduct a thorough and fair investigation. When these extensions occur Sacramento said both the complainant and respondent are informed.

The role of Sacramento’s office is to make a policy finding, and it is then the responsibility of UCSF to determine disciplinary actions. This process can also add to the timeline.

Sacramento spoke to the integrity of her staff, stating that every employee in her office takes annual trauma-informed trainings and works to put necessary accommodations in place for complainants.

She also emphasized the hard work and dedication of her staff, and stated they and the UCSF community are on the same side when it comes to prevention of discrimination and harassment.

These issues are also important to the Dean of the Graduate Division Dr. Elizabeth Watkins.

She attended the NASEM briefing and afterward had dinner with the UCSF trainees who organized the event as well as the director of the NASEM study Dr. Frazier Benya. One topic the group discussed was the need for institutional cultural change.

“We should be able to change our practices and frankly have to change our practices,” Watkins said.

Watkins also spoke with senior faculty members following the briefing and they too brought up changing the professional culture.

“We were talking about how it’s really on us to start speaking up in the moment when appropriate or to take the offender off to the side or reach out to them within a day and say, ‘you know what you said is inappropriate and here’s why,’” Watkins said. “The senior faculty are the ones that have the power to make the change. Those who are in positions of power [can] use that in a constructive way to speak for those that are less empowered.”

Task Force on Gender Equality Holds Town Hall

Although unfamiliar with Grace’s case, Fasani said she also wants the administration to be more transparent about perpetrators of sexual harassment.

“Once [a case] is settled if the faculty, or whoever, has been found responsible then we feel it’s really important to let the entire student body know in some way just so that they’re aware,” Fasani said. “Also to encourage others to come forward by showing that the school is taking it seriously and responding to it.”

Now in her fourth-year, Fasani is using her personal experience with the Title IX process in her position on a Student Advisory Board that provides input on sexual violence prevention and response to the UC Office of the President (UCOP).

One change Fasani has pushed for is training for outside law firms that are contracted by the university.

“This really materially affected the outcome of my own case because I had asked repeatedly that the attorney hearing my appeal provide whatever certifications she had in this area and she refused to do so,” Fasani said.

“There’s no way to tell what sort of training [outside lawyers] have received in terms of sexual violence and sexual assault, so we’re working on creating this just-in-time training packet that will help them get a deeper understanding of the process and be more trauma informed.”

Fasani is also advocating for a post investigation survey. Both the complaint and respondent would be asked to fill out the survey to ensure that all parties are being treated fairly and that the investigation is carried out in a trauma informed manner.

UCOP, however, has been pushing back against this idea.

“Their fear, which I understand, is they don’t want their investigators to be pummeled with all this criticism,” Fasani said. “That’s valid, but the way we are envisioning this survey it would be a closed set of answers. Like, ‘on a scale of one to five how respected did you feel by the investigator?’ It’s the kind of thing where you expect people to fill out fives on all of them, and if they’re not, then there is obviously an issue.”

Fasani’s recommendations currently stem from her own experiences, but she hopes to receive feedback from other students.

“I would love to bring up what other people see as a problem because my experience is just one way and I do want to represent the whole student body,” she said.

Fasani, who is graduating, is currently looking for UCSF students to serve on the board for the coming academic year.

A group of UCSF trainees, separate to the UC student advisory board, have also been working to directly address these issues at UCSF.

The UCSF Task Force on Gender Equity and Inclusion formed as a result of a community reflection following the NASEM briefing in October.

The task force will present their NASEM-supported recommendations for changing the culture surrounding gender and sexual harassment to the UCSF administration. The town hall meeting, which will be held Friday March 15th at 1 p.m. in Genentech Hall Auditorium, will also include time to hear from attendees.

If the stories above resonated with you and you want to work to change the climate at UCSF, you are encouraged to attend and contribute to the conversation.