Gopal Balakrishnan, a tenured professor in the humanities division at UC Santa Cruz, has been fired after a months-long investigation into complaints of misconduct, the university confirmed to BuzzFeed News. The decision arrived after mounting pressure from students on campus.
Last year, a UC Santa Cruz investigation found that Balakrishnan broke the school’s sexual harassment policy when he had oral sex with an undergraduate student without her consent when she was drunk, in 2013. The former student, Anneliese Harlander, filed a complaint with the school last spring, triggering a formal investigation into Balakrishnan’s conduct.
At least three other complaints against Balakrishnan had also been filed with the university’s Title IX office, which handles issues of gender equity under a federal law meant to prevent sex discrimination.
“The misconduct, confirmed through our investigation and adjudication process, harmed the complainants, and that trauma rippled through our campus and university system,” said UC Santa Cruz spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason, in an email to BuzzFeed News.
"This is the only instance the Regents have dismissed a UCSC tenured faculty member in the last 20 years," said University of California Office of the President spokesperson Andrew Gordon, in an email to BuzzFeed News.
Balakrishnan was a tenured Marxist historian at UC Santa Cruz. He had been on paid leave since fall 2017 and was suspended without pay on Aug. 15 this year, according to a letter sent by UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Cynthia Larive to Harlander, and confirmed by Hernandez-Jason.
Balakrishnan’s case prompted growing campus demonstrations after it was made public in a BuzzFeed News report last year. Previously, rumors about his behavior toward students had sparked a Me Too–style campaign that split the campus community and led some to condemn the activism as “vigilante tactics.”
The Regents of the University of California voted on Sept. 19 to dismiss Balakrishnan, agreeing with Larive’s recommendation as well as that of UC President Janet Napolitano, Larive wrote.
“Respondent Balakrishnan’s behavior towards you was unwelcome, deeply harmed you, and interfered with your work prospects. The harm to you, alone, is sufficient to sustain the discipline against Respondent Balakrishnan,” Larive wrote in the letter, sent to Harlander on Monday. “Respondent Balakrishnan’s misconduct was not justified by the Ethical Principles found in the Faculty Code of Conduct and resulted in real damage to the University’s ability to carry out its mission and central functions."
“I’m grateful, though at the same time, there needs to be more that is done. Firing him is not enough of an action,” Harlander told BuzzFeed News. “I think that the university needs to ensure that their systems are drastically changed to ensure that this does not happen again, because Gopal Balakrishan is not the only one at that university or in the UC system that is a sexual predator. And there are many people who know that.”
In past comments to journalists, Balakrishnan has denied wrongdoing. His lawyer Jamie Dupree previously told BuzzFeed News that the university “botched” its response to student activism involving her client. Balakrishnan and Dupree have not responded to a request for comment for this story.
“It is rare for a university professor to be fired,” Kristina Larsen, an attorney who advised some of the complainants through the Title IX steps, told BuzzFeed News. “I’m not at all surprised that the university fired him but I can’t help think about how much damage had to be done to the individuals before it happened. This only happened because a group of coordinated activist students forced it to happen.”
Some students involved in the fight to prompt action from the university said that the process revealed serious gaps in the university’s processes to hold faculty accountable for harassment.
“The university fired him because we forced them to, through protests, through the open letter, through exposing ourselves to the media — which was a pretty big sacrifice for many of us. That’s why they fired him. They didn’t fire him because they have a mechanism for due process,” Beth Peller, a former UC Santa Cruz student who submitted a complaint to the university in 2018, told BuzzFeed News.
Peller told the university that when she attended UC Santa Cruz as an undergraduate in 2014, Balakrishnan sat across from her at a university café, stared at her breasts, and asked her to go to a bar with him. In a separate incident, according to her complaint, she had tried to prevent Balakrishnan from flirting with a drunk undergraduate at a bar, at which point Balakrishnan became verbally and physically aggressive.
In 2018, as part of the same Title IX probe into Balakrishnan’s conduct, an investigator concluded that Peller’s complaint was not a violation of the university's policy on sexual harassment and sexual violence. Peller’s complaint, along with the two others, was referred to then–Executive Vice Chancellor Marlene Tromp.
Rumors of Balakrishnan’s behavior have driven student protests on UC Santa Cruz campus for years. In the spring of 2017, graffiti that described him has a “sexual predator” appeared on campus bathroom mirrors, and faculty found flyers in their offices asking that they boycott his work.
That fall, just weeks after Harvey Weinstein made headlines, nine people published a letter online claiming Balakrishnan used “his position of power as a professor and influential academic to intimidate, harass, and even assault young women and gender nonconforming people.” It included seven anonymous accounts of interactions with Balakrishnan that shocked many UC alumni, who signed the letter and shared it widely.
Harlander was among the alumni who read the letter and was inspired to call the UC Santa Cruz Title IX office with her account. “If it wasn’t for the letter, we wouldn’t be where we are at today. I wouldn’t have spoken up,” she previously told BuzzFeed News.
In 2018, UC Santa Cruz hired a consultant, GayLynn Conant, to investigate Harlander’s complaint and at least three others. As BuzzFeed News reported, in September of last year, Conant concluded that Balakrishnan’s conduct in Harlander’s case “falls squarely within the definition of prohibited conduct.”
Conant’s decision followed months of protests online and on campus. In June 2018, an open letter to Santa Cruz administrators calling for Balakrishnan’s firing gathered hundreds of signatures — it’s now been signed by over 900 people. At a university graduation event that same month, protestors carried in a banner calling for Balakrishnan’s firing. In October that year, Harlander, Peller, and other students who filed complaints published an open letter to the university's leadership.
This March, Harlander sued Balakrishnan, claiming he sexually assaulted her. That case is ongoing in the Superior Court of California in the County of Santa Cruz.
This post was updated to include comments from former UC Santa Cruz student Anneliese Harlander, and attorney Kristina Larsen.
This post was updated to include comment from University of California Office of the President spokesperson Andrew Gordon.