I Blew The Whistle On John Searle

The Email to BuzzFeed News

In September 2016, I sent this email to BuzzFeed News. It amounted to a request for an independent investigation into John Searle’s behavior around students. I provided some specific examples of misconduct, but I knew I had an incomplete picture of things:

As a grad student in the department, I’ve always heard whispers of his creepy behavior: lectures that include racial slurs and hints of misogyny, his weird penchant for hiring young asian women as assistants, and not-entirely-confirmed cases of sexual harrasment [sic] and unwanted sexual advances.

For years, grad students have voiced concerns about Searle through official channels, hoping for some official response.

I left that [Phil Forum event with undergrads] with a sense of urgency that I hadn’t felt before. …can’t something else be done? And if I didn’t do anything about this, what kind of advocate for inclusion am I? Perhaps any drastic actions would negatively affect the philosophy department and my own reputation, but if this were to play any significant role in deciding what to do, wouldn’t I be a coward?

It’s clear to me that the university won’t ever voluntarily take away the privileges it grants Searle in terms of institutional support and the opportunity to teach undergraduates. It’s equally clear to me that the university won’t, without outside pressure, make public their own investigations into Searle’s behavior. And, in my view, once someone has been identified as a serial harraser [sic], they ought to be named and shamed. The public conversation that ensues is often the only mechanism by which the public can force institutions to change in meaningful ways.

Maybe there’s less there than I expect. But the possibility of there being “only minor” transgressions here doesn’t absolve any of us from the reponsibility (sic) to do something when we think there might be something “major” going on.

…I reached out to another grad student who suggested to me, in the past, that he had been involved in bringing a complaint against Searle. In short, one of his undergrad students had told him that Searle had made a sexual advance on her. …An excerpt from her email to this grad student is copied below.

“At the end of our meeting, [Searle] asked me to go to another room, saying that there are more books that he could give me. I was perfectly innocent, following him without any doubts. Upon opening the door, he sprang at me, putting every effort to kiss me.”

Around the same time, I met with my department chair and had a phone call with Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention Harassment and Discrimination, to similarly express my concerns. At a follow-up meeting, I was told that the student at whom Searle ‘sprung’ was, to paraphrase, ‘not actually a Berkeley undergrad’. This was meant to explain why no action had been taken against Searle in this case? That didn’t really make sense to me.

In these meetings, and in other meetings I’ve had over the years, it was stressed that I needed to follow Berkeley’s confidentiality policy, and that I should err on the side of privacy. I was also told avoid conducting my own ad hoc investigation. Indeed, it was a because I felt a need for an external, independent investigation that I reached out to BuzzFeed in the first place.

What was important to me at the time was this: that I did what I could to ensure that Searle’s seeming-at-the-time-to-me-to-be-active sexual harassment of undergrads wasn’t passively accepted by UC Berkeley.

The BuzzFeed Articles

I first sent that email to Azeen Gohrayshi, who had previously reported on sexual harassment allegations against another UC Berkeley professor. She put me in touch with Katie Baker, who had more experience reporting on misconduct in academic philosophy. And so she was the one who took on the task of reporting out the Searle story.

After initially not finding much of anything, Katie emailed me on Jan 19, 2017 to say that she had gotten “another tip” that was “very promising”. Over the next few months, I helped out in the ways that I could. We exchanged a bunch of emails, chatted on Signal, and had a number of phone calls. I wasn’t privy to the specifics of what she was finding, but she told me about the sorts of things she was looking into. My role was to provide the POV of someone within the philosophy department, to better direct her attention.

(I now suspect Katie Baker was working more closely with Joanna Ong’s lawyers than I had known at the time. But this is pure speculation on my part. It remains unclear to me exactly what sort of relationship they had.)

The first article came out on March 23, 2017, which is when I first heard of Joanna Ong’s lawsuit against Searle. This was followed, on April 7, 2017, by a second article, which included more information about how the university responded to past complaints against Searle–including the complaint resulting from the student email I had passed on to BuzzFeed.

The Institutional Response

The grad students in the philosophy department responded by holding a meeting, and then writing a letter to the faculty based upon discussion at that meeting. In that letter, we requested to meet with the faculty, so that they could address some important questions.

But at that meeting, and at subsequent meetings, our questions went largely unanswered. Instead, in prepared remarks, our department chair focused on: 1) how the faculty never violated university policies requiring them to report complaints of sexual harassment, and 2) how confidentiality policies limited how much additional information they were allowed to share.

This was inadequate.

That they themselves didn’t violate university policies was beside the point. What I took the grad students to be asking for was some kind of reassurance that the faculty were committed to acting in a morally responsible way–that they took their obligations as leaders of our community seriously. But no such reassurance was provided. They instead wanted to shift focus from ethical responsibilities to employment responsibilities.

And when I pressed the faculty, in that meeting, to give a more precise characterization of what they were/weren’t allowed to share under the university’s confidentiality policies, they weren’t able to give me a clear answer.

I told them that, as I understood the policy–after carefully reading it–it required us to not disclose information communicated to us ‘from above’ (i.e. information collected by the university and then provided to an employee, so that they could do their job), but it did not preclude us from swapping stories and sharing our own first-person knowledge of Searle’s misconduct. The key idea being: it seemed to me like we had been misled into thinking we couldn’t talk about this stuff more openly.

That the professors themselves didn’t seem to have a firm grip on the confidentiality policy was revealing to me: they’d never gotten as far in their own contemplation of how to respond to rumors of Searle’s misconduct as I did. I felt that I had to send that email to BuzzFeed, to uphold my responsibilities. I could only presume that they did not feel similarly.

So I found the faculty’s position hard to understand. Weren’t they afraid of damaging their relationship with the grad students? Did they not see how, in the absence of transparency, we’d jump to an unflattering-to-the-faculty interpretation of events? Why were they showing such deference to the administration? Did they not worry about how this lame response would hurt the department’s reputation? On narrow self-interest grounds, shouldn’t they have taken a different stance? What exactly were their motivations?

In the days and weeks that followed, the sense of urgency in the community dissipated. An effort to compose a public letter from the grad students lost steam. The faculty effectively enforced a de facto norm of silence around the issue. We waited to hear back about the lawsuit, and about a rebooted university investigation into Searle’s misconduct. Maybe then, I thought, we’d get the sort of public accountability that I was after?

Disorientation, Alienation, Loss of Trust

That the faculty didn’t voluntarily provide more information was not especially surprising to me. But I was surprised when my efforts to push for more information were met with hostility. I was made to feel like some kind of weirdo, for thinking we needed to talk about what had happened and have more transparency. That faculty members thought I was being unreasonable angered me more than anything else.

This was disorienting. I had to update my understanding of ‘how the world works’. I started to find it difficult to develop and sustain trusting professional relationships. If academic philosophers passively accepted Searle’s abusive behavior, what else were they passively accepting?

I thought it prudent to remain mostly silent about my involvement in the BuzzFeed stories. (I had told just a few close confidants.) But, in retrospect, I think this just made it more difficult to work through my feelings and come to stable understanding of my relationship with academic philosophy. I felt more and more lonely and isolated.

I told my dissertation advisors about my involvement with the BuzzFeed stories at an end-of-year meeting in Spring 2018, before leaving to visit NYU for a year. And after getting my degree in January 2020, I shared some documents with younger grad students in the department, to make sure there was some institutional knowledge of what had occurred.

Only recently have I felt able to fully process things. (I had some false memories of what had occurred, and blamed myself for being unable to effectively cope with the situation.) My own secretiveness had become an ongoing source of pain and stress. I felt like I couldn’t be honest about who I was. I got used to pretending everything was fine, while quietly panicking on the inside.

This is what informed my decision to write this piece.

The Need for Public Accountability

In September 2018, the lawsuit against Searle was resolved via a confidential settlement.

In June 2019, it was announced that Searle “had his emeritus status revoked, along with all the privileges of that title, following a determination that he violated university policies against sexual harassment and retaliation”. But no attempt was made to provide a characterization of the facts that informed this determination.

What I was after, all along, was a more substantive public accounting of the history of sexual harassment allegations against Searle. The BuzzFeed articles were a step in that direction, but I continue to be disappointed that no one in a position of power at UC Berkeley pushed for the kind of public accountability I was after.

What exactly was I after? Let me make this super concrete:

“Over the course of John Searle’s 60 years at Berkeley, the administration received w formal complaints against Searle that were treated as sexual harassment complaints, and x formal complaints about other kinds of inappropriate behavior. Of those w sexual harassment complaints, y proceeded through some portion of the formal adjudication process, and z reached the end of that process without an informal resolution interrupting that process.”

I have some informed guesses about what w, x, y, and z are, and whether Searle interfered with the formal adjudication process. But they are, ultimately, still just guesses.

As best as I can tell, UC Berkeley is legally allowed to share such information. The fact that they haven’t suggests to me that they’d rather not bring attention to numbers w, x, y, and z.

By evading public accountability, they’ve shown that they don’t deserve public trust.