UCLA professor sanctioned over sexual misconduct allegations returns to teaching, sparks protests

A UCLA history professor suspended over sexual harassment allegations returned to teaching Monday, but his classes were canceled after students launched noisy protests.

Gabriel Piterberg, a Mideast specialist, was accused by two female graduate students of repeatedly harassing them over many years by making sexual comments, pressing himself against their bodies and forcing his tongue into their mouths. In a settlement with UCLA reached in 2014 but released only last spring, Piterberg did not concede he had engaged in unlawful or inappropriate conduct but agreed to pay a $3,000 fine, accept a suspension without pay for one quarter and attend sexual harassment training.

UCLA also removed him as director of UCLA’s Center for Near East Studies and imposed restrictions on his contact with students, including a three-year ban on closed-door individual meetings with students.

The settlement was widely criticized by students, faculty and staff for what they viewed as weak sanctions and unwarranted secrecy. The two graduate students, Nefertiti Takla and Kristen Glasgow, filed a federal lawsuit against the University of California in 2015, alleging insufficient action on their complaints. They reached a settlement last September, with one student receiving $350,000 and the other $110,000 and a fellowship to support continued work on her dissertation.

On Monday, several students who protested Piterberg’s return said the sanctions he faced were not strong enough.

They hung a poster on his classroom blackboard saying, “Good morning sexual harasser” and placed informational fliers about his case on the seats. A campus official removed the fliers and sign before Piterberg arrived for his 8 a.m. class on the Ottoman empire but left intact a message written on the blackboard saying, “If a tenured professor sexually assaults his own students, it’s abuse of power,” according to Melissa Melpignano, a fourth-year doctoral student and member of Bruins Against Sexual Harassment.

Five of about 45 students in the classroom stood and held signs calling for his ouster, while dozens of others chanted protests outside his classroom. After about 20 minutes, campus officials entered the classroom and suggested Piterberg cancel the class, which he did, according to Melpignano, who witnessed the events.

Piterberg’s second class, a survey of Middle East history from 500 to the present, was also canceled.

“We wanted to send a clear message to the university and the history department that we don’t think someone accused of sexual harassment should be teaching undergraduate classes,” Melpignano said.

UCLA, Piterberg and history department chair Stephen Aron did not respond to requests for comment.

In its 2014 settlement with Piterberg, UCLA agreed not to pursue action with the Academic Senate that could force the professor out or jeopardize his tenure. The university also agreed to end its Title IX investigation into the harassment charges without reaching a conclusion.

UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein said the Piterberg case was handled under old university policies, which have since been reformed. While a few senior UCLA administrators decided the sanctions against Piterberg, proposed sanctions in cases against senior leaders and faculty today would be evaluated by campus peer review committees to make sure they were commensurate with the misconduct. The campus committees are modeled after one UC President Janet Napolitano launched systemwide last year to review and approve all proposed sanctions in sexual misconduct cases involving senior university leaders.

UCLA also has created a new Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion led by Vice Chancellor Jerry Kang, and hired Kathleen Salvaty, a well-respected civil rights attorney, as its Title IX coordinator.

Viola Ardeni, a fourth-year doctoral student in Italian who protested Piterberg’s return Monday, said campus advocates against sexual harassment are hopeful that Salvaty will be more open than the previous coordinator to student ideas for further improvement of sexual-misconduct policies. Students want more transparency in how cases are handled and resolved, among other things, she said.

“To obtain more transparency would be a bigger victory than having (Piterberg) removed,” Ardeni said.

The students said they would continue to protest Piterberg, and the campus Daily Bruin, which reported the story, quoted one student who said he planned to drop his class.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Twitter: @teresawatanabe

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