A renowned philosopher and longtime University of California, Berkeley, professor groped a former student who worked for him, according to a lawsuit filed in Alameda County Superior Court, which also claims the student was fired after she declined his advances. The professor, John R. Searle, abruptly stepped down from teaching his undergraduate philosophy course in March but still enjoys emeritus status at the university, which has been rocked by professor–student sexual misconduct scandals since 2015.
In the lawsuit filed Tuesday, Joanna Ong, 24, is seeking damages for sexual harassment and assault as well as for wrongful termination and creation of a hostile work environment.
“As a philosopher, Searle should be familiar with the concept of coercion,” Ong told BuzzFeed News. Instead, she said, he and the university have “used their power and platform to abuse others.”
The lawsuit, which lists Searle and the Regents of the University of California as defendants, claims Searle groped Ong in his office after he told her “they were going to be lovers.” He also said he had an “emotional commitment to making her a public intellectual,” the complaint states, and that he was “going to love her for a long time.” Ong turned Searle down and reported him to other UC Berkeley employees, but they did nothing, the complaint states. Instead, Searle cut Ong’s salary and she was eventually fired, according to the complaint, which also claims Searle watched pornography at work and made sexist comments.
Searle, 84, is famous for his work in the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind and has taught at UC Berkeley since 1959. In 2016, the university unveiled the John Searle Center for Social Ontology, which says it is the first center of its kind in the country. That’s where Ong, a 2014 Berkeley graduate and a former student of Searle’s, was offered a job, according to the lawsuit.
The offer was unorthodox: Ong would make just $1,000 a month as a consultant for the center, but her salary would be supplemented by Searle, who would pay her $3,000 extra per month to be his assistant, the complaint states. Since the center’s director, Jennifer Hudin, was a “trusted advisor” of Ong’s from her undergraduate years, and because Ong wanted a chance to work for Searle, one of UC Berkeley’s most esteemed philosophers, she took the job in July 2016.
The first few days went well, the complaint states. As Ong transcribed notes and composed emails for Searle, she shared her concerns about pursuing a career in academia while also making ends meet.
Searle reassured Ong “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,” the complaint states.
After a week of working together, Searle locked his office door and "went directly to Ong to grope her," according to the complaint, telling her they were “going to be lovers.” She rejected his proposal, and Searle apologized, paying her the promised $3,000. When he left for vacation the following month, Ong reported the assault to Hudin, the complaint states. Instead of reporting her allegations to upper management, “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 complaint states.
When Searle returned from vacation, the workplace became “increasingly hostile and awkward,” the complaint states, as he pretended nothing had happened. Searle cut Ong’s salary in about half without explanation and continued to act inappropriately, according to the complaint. He openly watched pornography in front of her, the complaint states, and asked her to log into a “Sugar Baby, Sugar Daddy” website for him. The complaint says Searle also asked Ong to read and respond to his university emails, such as “flirtatious” correspondence with young women, “including UC Berkeley students and foreign students from Europe” who wanted to be his research assistant -- the position Ong held.
When Ong, who is Asian-American, brought up the topic of American imperialism, Searle responded “American imperialism? Oh boy, that sounds great, honey! Let’s go to bed and do that right now!” the complaint states.
When Ong reported this to Hudin, Hudin said she would address the issue with Searle and other department heads, but later admitted she didn’t “out of respect and loyalty to Professor Searle because she needed to ‘protect him,’” the complaint states.
Overall, Ong felt that Searle was untouchable due to his stature. “He's the department's biggest star,” she told BuzzFeed News.
On Sept. 23, 2016, Hudin told Ong she was no longer needed at the center, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit, filed by Los Angeles-based law firm Kristensen Weisberg, LLP, claims Hudin and other upper management at UC Berkeley should have known about Searle’s misconduct with Ong and others, “including his history of exchanging sexual conduct for monetary and/or educational advancements or other benefits” while employed by the school, due in part to “emails, prior complaints and other such documents.”
A university spokeswoman said the school's policy was to not comment on individual cases. In an earlier statement, before it had seen the complaint, UCB said that "campus leaders are dedicated to fostering a community where sexual harassment and sexual assault" are not tolerated. An attorney for Searle said she had not seen the complaint and was not in a position to comment. Hudin did not respond to a request for comment.
In September 2016, BuzzFeed News requested information from UC Berkeley on sexual misconduct claims against Searle after receiving multiple tips claiming the university knew Searle had been repeatedly accused of improper behavior. UC Berkeley rejected two BuzzFeed News public records requests, writing that it could not “confirm or deny” that any complaints against Searle had been made, but that it was not in the public interest to turn over records because “such disclosure, where there has been no finding of employee misconduct, would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
In early March, Searle’s students learned he would no longer be teaching his undergraduate “Philosophy of Mind” course. Beyond citing “personal reasons,” university officials provided no explanation for Searle's departure, according to a department source who asked to remain anonymous.
The lawsuit comes at a time when both the international philosophy community and the University of California system are grappling with widespread sexual misconduct scandals. Earlier this month, the University of California released records showing it disciplined more than 100 employees across 10 campuses for sexual misconduct from 2013 to April 2016, about a quarter of them faculty members. In August 2016, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks resigned after facing backlash over his administration’s handling of sexual harassment cases involving prominent UC Berkeley faculty. Last week, the Board of Regents voted to strengthen its Faculty Code of Conduct — among other changes, sexual misconduct is now a clear violation.
Katie Baker is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Katie J.M. Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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