Confrontations Between Student and Administrator Lead to Accusations of Racism By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR
An off-campus incident between a student and a UC Berkeley undergraduate advisor that led to explosive allegations of racist and sexist epithets against the student has a local activist organization calling for the firing of the employee and the UC officials conducting a review of the university’s initial response.
In addition, UC officials are looking into a related allegation that a student’s records were improperly accessed by a UC employee. The incident has raised questions about the limits of the university’s authority over an employee’s outside activities.
The situation began with a Berkeley bus stop confrontation in late September between UC sophomore Erika Williams, an African-American, and Sherman Boyson, a white undergraduate assistant in the UC Social Welfare Department. The two had a second confrontation in mid-October in the doorway to the apartment building where both Williams and Boyson live, and then a third, a week later while both were riding on a city bus.
It does not appear that either Williams or Boyson knew at the time of the confrontations that the other was connected to the university.
Williams alleges that during the course of the three confrontations, Boyson called her a “nigger” and threatened “to kick the shit out of” her, as well as calling her and her Asian-American roommate, Helen Kim, a “bitch.” Williams also alleges that during the confrontation in the doorway to their apartment building, Boyson physically assaulted Kim by bumping into her.
In an interview with the Daily Californian newspaper, Boyson admitted he called Williams a “nigger,” but said he did so only after she called him a “fat fuck.” The Daily Cal also reported that Boyson sent Williams a letter of apology for using the racist and sexist terms.
“I never should have used it, even indirectly,” the paper quoted Boyson as saying. “I know on my part I made a mistake and I apologized.”
Neither Williams nor Boyson could be reached in connection with this article.
During last month’s meeting of the UC Regents on the Berkeley campus, members of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration & Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) marched through the campus to the steps of Haviland Hall to protest Boyson’s actions. BAMN has also been circulated petitions calling for the university to fire Boyson. A BAMN spokesperson said that the petitions will be turned in to Chancellor Robert Birgenau on Monday afternoon.
Williams has also called for Boyson to be fired.
In a statement released last month, Birgenau condemned Boyson’s language.
“I cannot state strongly enough how much this university must deplore strongly and without question the use of racist language of any kind,” Birgenau said. “Use of racist language is so deeply hurtful to individuals and it is also hurtful to our community, violating the values that we share as a university. I share the outrage our students and others feel when such language is used.”
Birgeanu went on to say, “The university is examining this situation fully and the role that we can play in ensuring that our campus climate is welcoming to all.”
But in an indication that this examination would not include the confrontations themselves, the chancellor said that “the verbal exchange between one of our students and a staff member appears to have been a personal dispute which occurred off campus.”
UC Berkeley Public Information Officer Marie Felde confirmed that the university’s examination would not include the three off-campus confrontations.
Felde said that, following the confrontations, Williams made complaints to the university’s Employment Discrimination Office and UC Title 6/Title 9 coordinator, which handles sexual harassment and racial discrimination claims.
“Those offices tried to ensure that she got any needed help,” Felde said, adding that “the UC administration is conducting a review to see if these offices had any jurisdictional responsibility to do anything further.”
Felde also said that the university is looking into a second allegation of “student records improperly accessed.”
In a letter written last month to UC Dean James Midgley, Williams said that “apparently after finding out from a neighborhood store owner that I am a Cal student and that his harassment had potential professional ramifications, Boyson wrote me an ‘apology’ letter effectively acknowledging his harassment. He somehow learned my name (including its unusual spelling), where I lived, and posted the letter on my apartment door. It deeply disturbs me that he may have abused his access to school databases as an academic advisor to learn this personal information about me. I know of no other way he could have learned that personal information.”
A spokesperson for BAMN called the university’s decision not to include the initial off-campus confrontations in its review “disgusting.”
“Clearly anyone who threatens to physically assault women and uses the ‘b’ word and the ‘n’ word is not fit to work with students,” said BAMN Northern California Coordinator Yvette Felarca. “Whether it happened on or off campus has no bearing. If it was a black administrator who assaulted two white students and called them these names, we wouldn’t even be having an investigation. He’d be gone.”
Felarca said that Chancellor Birgenau “has said that his goal is to increase minority enrollment on the UC campus, if he is sincere, he will rid the campus of administrators who openly attack black and Latino students. We’re asking him to match his words with his deeds.”w