Plagued by reports of sexual harassment in recent years, the University of California, Berkeley is again rocked by another sexual misconduct scandal.
Last Tuesday, a former student filed a lawsuit against UC Berkeley’s Star Philosophy Professor John R. Searle who allegedly groped her and then, after declining his further advances, eventually fired her.
The case, filed by 24-year-old Asian-American Joanna Ong at the Alameda County Superior Court, seeks damages for sexual harassment and assault, the creation of a hostile work environment, and wrongful termination, reports BuzzFeed News. Regents of the University of California were also listed as co-defendants.
“As a philosopher, Searle should be familiar with the concept of coercion,” Ong was quoted as saying. She alleges that the professor and the university instead have “used their power and platform to abuse others.”
Searle, who made his name in the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind, has since stepped down from teaching. He does, however, retain emeritus status at UC Berkeley.
The 84-year-old has taught at UC Berkeley since 1959. Just last year, the university unveiled the John Searle Center for Social Ontology, reportedly the first center of its kind in the United States.
It was the same year when Ong, Searle’s own former student, was offered a job.
A daily dose of Asian America's essential stories, in under 5 minutes.
Get our collection of Asian America's most essential stories to your inbox daily for free.
Unsure? Check out our Newsletter Archive.
Court documents stated that the offer included a $1,000 per month salary as a consultant for the center, plus an extra $3,000 per month supplemented by Searle himself so she could be his assistant.
With Searle’s reputation as one of UC Berkeley’s most esteemed philosophers, Ong willingly accepted the job in July 2016.
The documents further revealed that the first few days of her job went well. In one instance, Ong reportedly shared her worries about making ends meet while pursuing a career in the academia.
Searle gave Ong a reassuring response “that her living costs and other needs would be taken care of, and that they should have a relationship of ‘total trust’ between each other.”
Then things began escalating quickly just one week later.
According to the complaint, Searle allegedly groped Ong in his office after telling her that “they were going to be lovers.”
He then reportedly told the student that he had an “emotional commitment to making her a public intellectual.” He further added that he was “going to love her for a long time.”
When Ong rejected his proposal, Searle apologized and paid her the promised $3,000.
During the professor’s vacation, Ong reported the incident to the center’s director, Jennifer Hudin. However, no proper action was taken.
The complaint stated that “Hudin told Ong that she would protect her from Searle’s advances” and said Searle “has had sexual relationships with his students and others in the past in exchange for academic, monetary, or other benefits.”
The workplace then became “increasingly hostile and awkward,” upon Searle’s return, while pretending nothing had happened. She further claims that for the rest of her tenure, Searle watched pornography at work and made sexist comments while she was around.
Searle also asked her to log into a “Sugar Baby, Sugar Daddy” website for him and also ordered Ong to read and respond to his university emails, which includes “flirtatious” correspondence with young women, “including UC Berkeley students and foreign students from Europe” who were asking to be his research assistant, the same position Ong held.
Ong once brought up the topic of American imperialism, to which Searle quickly responded with “American imperialism? Oh boy, that sounds great, honey! Let’s go to bed and do that right now!”
Ong also reported this to Hudin, who initially said she would address the issue with the other department heads, but eventually admitted she didn’t “out of respect and loyalty to Professor Searle because she needed to ‘protect him.’”
Eventually, Searle cut almost half of Ong’s salary before finally firing her soon after.
Kristensen Weisberg, who represents Ong in the lawsuit, stated that Hudin and others at UC Berkeley were aware of Searle’s lecherous behavior because there was a “slew of evidence of sexual misconduct, including emails and complaints.”