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Law Dean Quits Over Accusation

November 28, 2002|Stuart Silverstein, Michelle Munn and Maura Dolan | Special to The Times

BERKELEY — The dean of UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall, one of the nation's top law schools, said Wednesday that he would resign from the university because of a sexual harassment allegation lodged by a former student.

John P. Dwyer, Boalt's dean since July 2000, announced his resignation in a letter to faculty, staff and students, surprising many of them as they prepared to leave for Thanksgiving.

In the letter, Dwyer said he and the female student, "had a single encounter two years ago that was consensual, but there is no allegation that any form of sexual intercourse occurred. Nonetheless, I acknowledge that this reflected a serious error in judgment on my part and was inappropriate."

Dwyer said that the woman who filed the complaint was never a student in his classroom. The woman, who has graduated from the school, filed her complaint Oct. 11, university officials said.

The episode throws a harsh light on the problem of improper sexual encounters between faculty and students on university campuses, which many experts believe take place far more often than is reported.

The incident also derails the academic career of Dwyer, 50, an environmental law expert and a popular dean who had shown enormous promise since early in his career. Dwyer, who is divorced, graduated from Boalt in 1980 and was only the second graduate of the school to serve as its dean in its 108-year history. His resignation as dean takes effect Jan. 1.

University spokeswoman Janet Gilmore said the university began an internal investigation immediately after the former student filed her complaint. Gilmore said the probe is continuing and confirmed that it focuses on a single encounter. She declined to provide further details, saying that the matter is confidential.

At some universities, any sexual relationship between a faculty member and a student is forbidden on the grounds that the difference in power and status between the two people can lead to exploitation even if the relationship begins consensually.

UC Berkeley's policies are apparently less specific, and officials Wednesday were unable to say precisely how they applied in Dwyer's case.

The campus' sexual harassment policy has a 90-day limit for filing complaints, which faculty members say may have prevented its application. The university's code of conduct for teachers, which faculty members said has a three-year statute of limitations, requires professors to "avoid any exploitation, harassment or discriminatory treatment of students." In addition, it bars discrimination against students for reasons related to sex, sexual orientation and other areas covered by civil rights law.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl declined to be interviewed about the matter, and Dwyer did not return phone calls left at his office and home.

Sexual harassment allegations are becoming more common on university campuses, partly because of poor training of staff and faculty, said Jan Salisbury, a consultant and researcher who advises universities and other organizations on sexual harassment issues.

"Most colleges and universities lag far behind workplaces in the way they prevent and resolve harassment and discrimination complaints," she said, adding that faculty members usually aren't required to receive training to handle potential sexual harassment issues. That is changing at some universities as court decisions over the last two decades have expanded the scope of sexual harassment law and led to a spate of judgments against schools and other employers.

Salisbury saw little irony in a law school dean being accused of sexual harassment, saying, "These issues aren't about somebody understanding the law. That's a small part of it. It's about understanding power" and gender dynamics. Managing those kinds of gender issues, she said, "isn't taught in law school."

At Boalt, faculty and students seemed surprised by Dwyer's letter; the incident and investigation had been kept quiet even within the law school.

"It looks to me like it happened overnight," said Jan Vetter, associate dean at Boalt.

Some faculty and students expressed dismay that a single encounter--one that occurred two years ago with a student who wasn't in a class taught by Dwyer--would lead to the dean's resignation.

"What you have here maybe is the university leaning over backward to be politically correct," said Stephen Barnett, a professor at Boalt Hall for 30 years.

"Ironically, one of the things [Dwyer] has been doing well at is healing some of the gender divisions on the faculty, building bridges between the men and women."

Boalt professors widely praised Dwyer's performance as dean. "Everyone I have talked to really feels sadness and shock," said Charles D. Weisselberg, a Boalt professor who runs the school's clinical education programs. "It feels really raw. It came completely out of left field."

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