VIDEO: UC Berkeley students given option to leave class taught by professor accused of harassment

 

BERKELEY (BCN) — University of California at Berkeley students enrolled in a course taught by a professor accused of sexually harassing a graduate student over several years will be given the option to leave the class and take it with an alternate instructor, university officials said Wednesday.

The university sent an email to students taking the History of City Planning course with Nezar AlSayyad informing them that given recent concerns, all students will have the option of moving to a new section of the
course with all of their grades and records intact, university officials said.

Providing the new section was one of several demands made in a letter by 77 students in the Department of City and Regional Planning on Monday. The students are also seeking the suspension of AlSayyad, an apology and an affirmation of commitment against sexual harassment by the university.

The allegations against AlSayyad were made in a complaint to the university earlier this year by Eva Hagberg Fisher, an interdisciplinary PhD student who is continuing to teach at the university while working on her dissertation.

The university retained the Van Dermyden Maddux Law Corporation to investigate. In a 52-page report completed last month, the firm sustained most of her allegations and recommended AlSayyad for discipline.

The investigator conducted 24 interviews with 18 individuals and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, eventually concluding that AlSayyad escalated personal interactions with Hagberg Fisher, isolated her from other faculty and eventually touched her in an overly personal or sexual manner.

According to the report, Hagberg Fisher first enrolled in a class with AlSayyad in 2010. Despite not being her adviser, he helped her with her application to become a PhD student.

Over the source of several years, AlSayyad paid her inappropriate attention and was “grooming” her to be a sexual partner, according to a redacted copy of the report. The conduct happened so gradually that at first Hagberg Fisher didn’t notice what was happening.

His special attention initially focused on her academic achievements, calling her brilliant and commenting on her writing, but later he said that he loved her, offered to come to her home and asked to take her out, according to the report.

The situation culminated with him touching her on the upper thigh and telling her he wanted to be closer friends while in his car after taking her for drinks in 2013, according to the report.

Hagberg Fisher removed AlSayyad from her dissertation committee in 2014 and struggled with whether to file a complaint against him. She discussed the situation with friends and colleagues during that time.

“I have suffered emotional pain and a sense of isolation from being repeatedly told that my department did not support me, as well as the trauma of having someone who is meant to be an educator repeatedly violate boundaries,” Hagberg Fisher wrote, according to the report.

In an interview with investigators along with his attorney, AlSayyad denied the allegations and said there was nothing inappropriate about his relationship with Fisher. He said he was shocked by the allegations.

“Male faculty often engage in behavior that may be perceived as sex harassment. But not me, I understand that,” he said, according to the report. “I am a victim in this, because I had no intent whatsoever.”

AlSayyad has won several awards during his tenure at UC Berkeley, including the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award. He has authored and edited books on colonialism, urban design and Islamic architecture, according to his university biography. He did not immediately return a request for comment.

In his interviews with investigators, he questioned why it took so long for Hagberg Fisher to come forward, speculating that she did so because she looked back on the interactions differently following a deluge of sexual harassment allegations at the university over the last year.

Earlier this year, assistant men’s basketball coach Yann Hufnagel resigned his post after allegations he had sexually harassed a reporter covering the team. Hufnagel’s resignation came less than a week after law
school dean Sujit Choudhry resigned as dean after he was accused in a lawsuit of sexually harassing his assistant.

Choudhry retained his tenure as a professor and is suing the university to prevent harsher discipline than the 10 percent pay cut he already received.

The scrutiny after those events led the university to escalate reviewing and reforming its sexual harassment policies, a process that was already underway after accusations surfaced last year that astronomy professor Geoff Marcy had been sexually harassing students for years.

Students angry about the new allegations against AlSayyad held a protest on Tuesday outside Wurster Hall, which houses the university’s College of Environmental Design. Another protest is planned for Thursday along with a walkout from AlSayyad’s class.

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