Even Dr. Kathleen Treseder’s good days are bad. This might seem to be a non-sequitur, but it’s her life right now. You might think her life was great, considering that she just agreed to a fairly large settlement with the University of California over their handling of myriad complaints of sexual harassment–from Treseder and others–against former UCI Professor Francisco Ayala, a scientist esteemed around the world whose name adorned the library and school where she worked, until his resignation in disgrace this past summer.
But at the same time, Treseder has chosen step down as chair of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department at the UC Irvine School of Biological Sciences. In fact, she’s on a leave of absence right now that’s expected to last a few months.
“I don’t feel safe even on a good day,” she told me. The reason? Repeated acts of what she deems “retaliation” from people incensed over her prominent role in the investigation of Ayala.
“Retaliation can be inadvertent, unintentional,” Treseder said. “Someone says something they weren’t thinking could be hurtful. That doesn’t bother me. But it’s the planned actions that really have a negative impact. For instance, like the letter of support for Ayala that was published by Science Magazine. I consider that retaliation.”
(Click here for my Sept. 27. 2018 OC Weekly story on this letter, and on Ayala’s many supporters).
Treseder said she experiences some sort of retaliatory action every couple weeks or so. Though Treseder didn’t want to get into specifics, the Title IX definition of retaliation is an action aimed at deterring a complaining individual from doing something like speaking out.
We see this a lot in society–most pronounced now in the presidential candidacy of U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D–New York, who has been taking considerable hell from many fellow Democrats following her outspoken role in calling on fellow Democrat Al Franken to resign from the U.S. Senate over his multiple sexual harassment allegations. Though two dozen prominent Senate Democrats also called for Franken to step down, it was Gillibrand who got stuck with the label of betrayer of Franken.
This is retaliation, and Cornell Professor Kate Manne–an outspoken critic of all things misogyny–will have none of it.
“So it’s useful to remind ourselves that women are entitled to seek the presidency,” Manne wrote in The Cut on Jan. 17. “They are entitled to aspire to such positions of power and influence. They are also entitled to speak out in general, and to break the silence surrounding certain powerful men, in particular—men who betray themselves, via their inappropriate, abusive, and sometimes misogynistic behavior.”
As for the stress that now plays such a prominent role in Treseder’s life, that’s all too common, according to Joan Cook, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine who has extensively studied sexual harassment and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While Cook wouldn’t comment specifically on what Treseder may or may not be feeling, she did talk about the lasting effects sexual harassment can inflict on a person.
“Two psychologists, [Claudia] Avina and [William] O’Donohue (2002) argued that many forms of sexual harassment meet the psychiatric diagnostic criteria for PTSD,” Cook said in a Dec. 18 email to me. “They argued that some sexual harassment poses a threat to one’s physical integrity by: threatening victim’s financial well-being–it interferes with one’s ability to work efficiently and productively, could result in loss of employment or the person could voluntarily leave their job resulting in financial loss); their physical boundaries (violation of personal values and boundaries), and their control over situations that she should legitimately expect to have some control (e.g. they have no control over the harassment itself, may find that their assertive behaviors do nothing to stop it, experience retaliation, believe no corrective action will be or even can be done about it).”
But Cook says the research is far from definitive on this. “There are other health care professionals who argue that sexual harassment does not constitute a ‘big T’ trauma (that would produce PTSD) unless it is a rape or battery,” Cook said. “I can understand both points. Two of the biggest predictors of subsequent psychological distress post harassment are harassment severity and target self-blame. So the greater the dose and duration of the harassment and the more the target blames herself, the more psychologically distressed she is.”
In any case, Treseder’s legal fight against UCI over Ayala is now over.
“No lawsuit was filed,” Micha Liberty, Treseder’s attorney, told me, who added that her other clients in the Ayala matter–Dr. Jessica Pratt and graduate student Michelle Herrera–have also settled. “It was pre-litigation, and we handled it through the UC General Counsel’s office,” Liberty added. “All of my clients are extremely satisfied with the results.”
Pratt and Herrera didn’t respond to requests for comment on their settling with the university, and UCI Media Relations Director Tom Vasich declined to comment on the settlement. Assistant Dean Benedicte Shipley, the fourth UCI complainant who publicly accused Ayala of harassment, has apparently not pursued any legal claim against the university.
Treseder told me that she plans to use the settlement money (which she described as “in the six figures”) to pay her attorneys and fund a non-profit to help others at the school who’ve experienced sexual harassment.
“My non-profit will serve as a legal fund for people at UCI if they’re experiencing harassment or discrimination,” Treseder said. “It allows them to consult a lawyer. In my case, it was very hard–I didn’t know if I needed a lawyer, and if I did, what kind of lawyer I should get. And not too many people have the spare cash to hire a lawyer. My hope is that this will remove some of the burdens for people to get assistance. I’m so glad I hired a lawyer. I didn’t need the money for myself, but I want to make sure my lawyer gets paid. I really wanted to get Francisco [Ayala] to leave the university, and my lawyer made that happen.”
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.