A lawsuit filed in Alameda County Superior Court alleges that UC Berkeley professor John R. Searle, who stepped down suddenly from his post in the philosophy department this month but has held onto a position as professor emeritus, groped a former Berkeley student who worked for him. According to the complaint, first obtained by BuzzFeed, which names Searle and the Regents of the University of California as defendants, the 84-year-old teacher assaulted Joanna Ong, 24, created a hostile work environment for her, and even cut her salary when she rejected his unwanted advances.
"As a philosopher, Searle should be familiar with the concept of coercion," Ong told BuzzFeed in a scathing comment, adding that he and the University “used their power and platform to abuse others.”
Ong, previously an undergraduate at Berkeley, took a job at the John Searle Center for Social Ontology, named for the professor. She did so in 2016 at the recommendation of its director, Jennifer Hudin, a "trusted advisor" of Ong's. Ong was to receive just $1,000 a month, but to get $3,000 a month extra directly from Searle himself.
A week into the arrangement, Ong entered Searle's office, where he allegedly locked the door and "went directly to Ong to grope her." They were “going to be lovers," he told her. He had an “emotional commitment to making her a public intellectual,” Searles told Ong according to the complaint, and he was “going to love her for a long time.”
Although Ong rejected Searle, he did pay her the promised $3,000 — on that occasion. When she reported the incident to Hudin, “Hudin told Ong that she would protect her from Searle’s advances” but admitted that Searle “has had sexual relationships with his students and others in the past in exchange for academic, monetary, or other benefits,” according to the complaint.
When Searle returned from vacation, the workplace became “increasingly hostile and awkward,” the complaint states, as he pretended nothing had happened. Searle cut Ong’s salary in about half without explanation and continued to act inappropriately, according to the complaint. He openly watched pornography in front of her, the complaint states, and asked her to log into a “Sugar Baby, Sugar Daddy” website for him. The complaint says Searle also asked Ong to read and respond to his university emails, such as “flirtatious” correspondence with young women, “including UC Berkeley students and foreign students from Europe” who wanted to be his research assistant — the position Ong held.
Once, at the mention of the topic of American imperialism, Searle allegedly told Ong, who is Asian-American, “American imperialism? Oh boy, that sounds great, honey! Let’s go to bed and do that right now!"
Ong continued to report Searle's behavior to Hudin, who later admitted she had never brought Ong's complaint to others at the University “out of respect and loyalty to Professor Searle because she needed to ‘protect him,’” per the complaint.
By September, Ong was dismissed from the center. BuzzFeed appears to have caught wind of complaints regarding Searle last fall, but UC Berkeley rejected two of the publication's public records requests.
Berkeley student newspaper the Daily Cal adds to the story some context regarding recent scandals that have rocked the school. "At UC Berkeley alone, 20 employees have been investigated for sexual misconduct since 2011, including former UC Berkeley School of Law dean Sujit Choudhry, former vice chancellor for research Graham Fleming and former astronomy professor Geoffrey Marcy," the paper recalls.
Ong's attorney, John Kristensen, tells the paper that "it's pretty egregious behavior, and the fact that (UC Berkeley and the UC Regents) still won’t clean up their mess is a problem.... “They’ve been all talk and little or no action.”