Dozens of members of the University community gathered in Maeder Hall on Monday, Nov. 27 for the first of three town hall meetings on the University’s handling of sexual misconduct cases, specifically the disciplinary actions it takes against perpetrators.
These town halls were scheduled in response to widespread outrage at the actions of Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering Sergio Verdú, who was found guilty of sexually harassing one of his graduate students, Yeohee Im GS, in a Title IX investigation earlier this summer.
Verdú remains a salaried professor at the University after the investigation. According to Im in a Nov. 9 Huffington Post article, Verdú's only punishment was an eight-hour training session. In the wake of this article, over 650 undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni have signed a petition demanding that the University elevate its disciplinary action against Verdú. Many of these signatories attended a meeting about the petition the week before Thanksgiving break, where they expressed their frustration that Verdú would not be terminated.
At the town hall, a panel of administrators and faculty members answered audience questions about the University’s Title IX process. These administrators and faculty members explained to the audience that they could not legally comment on specific Title IX cases.
Michele Minter, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity, said that complainants in Title IX cases are informed about disciplinary action such as termination or inability to advise students only when that disciplinary action directly impacts that complainent. Punishments like loss of pay remain invisible both to the complainant and to the broader university community. While unable to comment on Im’s case, Minter asserted that “training is never the only penalty” in these kinds of cases.
The town hall's audience was tense and seemed frustrated with the Title IX office’s numerous privacy constraints, including their inability to discuss specific cases or precedence. Many, like first-year electrical engineering graduate student Michael Soskind, appreciated the value of holding such meetings but said he had hoped that a town hall would generate “more tangible recommendations that can be implemented by the University.”
Im attended the meeting, circumventing Title IX privacy rules by discussing her own case in hypotheticals. Im asked panelists to “imagine” a hypothetical situation identical to her own. She asked panelists what kind of behavior, if not that of Verdú’s hypothetical counterpart, merited suspension or termination or other, visible punishments. Minter responded that every case is different and that there is no "chart” to match specific actions with different punishments.
The town hall's audience seemed surprised to learn that the Dean of Faculty alone decides punishments for faculty members found responsible for sexual misconduct. Many audience members raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest leading to more lenient penalties.
In addition to disciplinary action, attendees also discussed how faculty and administrators might identify and address inappropriate behavior in its early stages. To this point, electrical engineering professor Andrew Houck ‘00, who authored a Letter to the Editor in the ‘Prince,’ said that he felt faculty “could use a lot more training on being effective by-standers” in order to better prevent and intervene in abuses of power within their departments.
Moreover, Houck suggested that tight-knit research communities are often aware of “bad actors” before the University or other officials catch wind of inappropriate behavior. As such, Houck noted these communities themselves might become a resource in screening for faculty misconduct.
In careful hypotheticals, one member of the audience asked what she should do if a student of hers disclosed an experience of sexual harassment while simultaneously begging her listener not report the incident. In response, panelist and Title IX administrator Regan Crotty stressed that all faculty, staff, and RAs are obligated to report sexual misconduct. Crotty added that, while the Title IX office is “victim-centered,” it will nevertheless proceed with an investigation against a complainant’s wishes if it thinks there is a threat to the broader University community. Crotty “strongly recommended” that students who were unsure if they would like to make a report should go to SHARE, a confidential resource, for support and advice.