Sproul Plaza / Sproul Hall /UC Berkeley. Photo: Wally Gobetz
UC Berkeley Professor Blake Wentworth was fired following a sexual harassment investigation. Photo: Wally Gobetz

UC Berkeley has fired South and Southeast Asian Studies assistant professor Blake Wentworth after finding that he sexually harassed four students — tying up one case in a string of sexual misconduct controversies involving Cal faculty in recent years.

A UC Berkeley investigation found that Wentworth violated the Faculty Code of Conduct and its Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Policy, according to a statement released by the university today.

The investigators “found by clear and convincing evidence that Wentworth had engaged in the misconduct and recommended his dismissal,” according to the statement. Because Wentworth was not tenured, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks could make the decision to fire him without seeking approval from the Board of Regents, the statement says.

Between 2015-2016 two graduate students and an alumna, who said Wentworth touched them inappropriately and made offensive comments, filed complaints with the university and the state, and called on UC Berkeley to dismiss the professor.

According to one of the complaints, Wentworth told one of the students he was attracted to her and told her about doing drugs off a stripper’s body, The Guardian reported in 2016. At one point, the student alleged, Wentworth grabbed her hand and said, “I could lose my job over this… but I’m just so attracted to you.”

The alumna, in her complaint, said that she had been an undergraduate when Wentworth came to her, distraught about the allegations against him, telling her that if he did anything that made her feel uncomfortable, she should not report it because his job was at stake. She said Wentworth had called her a “gorgeous young woman” and said his male colleagues thought she was an “obvious target” for harassment, the Daily Cal reported last year.

In March 2016, other faculty in the South and Southeast Asian Studies Department urged the university to speed up its investigation into Wentworth’s behavior, and criticized the administration for ignoring or dismissing complaints by several students against him.

That June, the university investigation found there was probable cause that Wentworth had violated policy, the UC Berkeley statement says. Wentworth was placed on involuntary leave until disciplinary proceedings were complete.

In September Wentworth sued the two graduate students who had filed complaints against them, calling their allegations false.

Wentworth’s dismissal comes on the heels of a number of sexual harassment scandals at UC Berkeley, many including high-profile faculty members. In some cases the university was criticized for letting the faculty members off with light punishment. Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, who was found to have sexually harassed students, resigned in 2015 following an uproar over his continued employment. The former dean of the UC Berkeley law school, Sujit Choudhry, also resigned from that position after Cal determined that he had sexually harassed his assistant but allowed him to keep his job, infuriating his colleagues. Choudhry was placed on sabbatical until May 2018.

Most recently, in March, a former student filed a lawsuit against celebrated philosophy professor John Searle, alleging he sexually harassed her.

In 2015, UC President Janet Napolitano established a committee to review the UC system’s faculty sexual harassment and sexual violence policies. Last year she announced steps UC would take to improve the complaint process, investigations and discipline.

The UC Berkeley statement says those processes have improved at Cal:

“Over the past several years, the University has intensified and reformed its response to sexual misconduct; improved educational efforts aimed at faculty, staff and students; expanded its investigative capacity; and enhanced support and services offered to survivors. This includes additional resources in the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, expansion of the PATH to Care Center, which provides survivors with support and guidance, and creation of a new Peer Review Committee that will bring another layer of oversight to faculty sexual misconduct cases by July 1.”

Wentworth’s dismissal is effective immediately.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...