Letter to the Editor: In defense of women affiliated with Sergio Verdú| Feb 21, 2018
I would like to respond to a recent article in The Daily Princetonian detailing “new allegations'' against my colleague and mentor, Professor Sergio Verdú. It is troubling how this article constructs its narrative by enveloping Verdú, as well as all the women associated with him, in a fog of rumor, suspicion, and supposition. By publishing an article with such sensationalism and general lack of concrete facts the ‘Prince’ appears to be driven by a tunnel vision desire to vilify Verdú, and not by journalistic integrity, duty to inform the public, or concern for the women involved.
There are many troubling aspects to this piece. For example, all the ''new allegations'' mentioned seem to be based entirely on anonymous sources or hearsay. Moreover, the one person willing to put his name to these allegations is a former University assistant professor who has recently gone through an unsuccessful tenure process in the Electrical Engineering department. The apparent extensiveness of his involvement in this case should raise some serious questions. However, the truly shameful part is that, despite the quote — “Both of the graduate students named in these allegations also denied having any non-professional relationship with Verdú” — the ‘Prince’ sticks to its scandalous narrative. This quote should be the end of the story, yet this nonsense goes on for over a thousand more words and even makes the front page.
Why does the ‘Prince’ not offer the women named in these allegations the presumption of truthfulness that should be offered to all potential victims in sexual misconduct cases?
Why does the ‘Prince’ brush aside their voices in order to amplify rumors from anonymous and compromised sources?
Just like these women, I am used to not being believed about my experiences. At times, I have been asked by a certain faction of our academic community a seemingly benign question about what it is like to work with Verdú, and have found that my responses elicit incredulous and disappointed looks. What underpins these conversations is a clear sexist assumption that appears to also be shared by the ‘Prince.’ When a successful older man mentors a young man it is because he sees potential and talent in this individual; however, when a successful older man mentors a young woman, the default assumption is that it is for nefarious reasons. While our male counterparts get a bump up in their careers simply by being associated with a talented individual like Verdú, we, the women who have made the same intellectual connections with him as the men, have to fight an uphill battle to demonstrate through our work that yes, we too deserve to be mentored by the best.
By choosing to lend its platform to the regurgitators of gossip, the ‘Prince’ contributes to these inequalities and casts a shadow on all of our hard work. It positions itself as a supporter of young women; I am worried that it is actually being used as a tool by vindictive actors with professional slights and bruised egos. What's worse, the ‘Prince’ is not above publishing confidential information, apparently without the permission of the alleged victims. The reckless disregard for the two women named in these allegations sends me, should send all women, a chilling message.
Since Sergio's broader fitness as a mentor of women has been made an issue of public discourse I would like to persist in speaking to my personal experiences. From where I stand, Sergio has done more to build up female researchers in our field than many of the self-designated “mentors of women in engineering.” Personally, I have come to Princeton specifically to work with Sergio and found him to be a genuinely supportive and inspiring mentor. Our interactions have been personable and intellectually stimulating. His knowledge, as well as his creative and original approach, has laid the groundwork for my research to flourish. The bottom line is that he has been an overwhelmingly positive force in my development as a professional, my champion, and my ally.
It is frustrating for me to see so many people in our community lose perspective and jump at the chance to become conduits for harmful rumors. It is frustrating for me to feel like my work, as well as the work of other intelligent and dedicated female scientists, has been reduced to collateral damage of a former assistant professor's unsuccessful tenure case. I would like to make a plea to the ‘Prince,’ the University community, and the Information Theory Society community. Please, cease having this discussion on the level of innuendo and palace intrigue. Please, ground it back in facts and due process. It is important to continue a productive conversation about better professional norms. However, this conversation should be based on empathy, understanding, and a quest to build a more diverse and resilient academic community, rather than rumor mongering and a singularly obsessive desire to bring down one particular individual.
Dr. Yanina Shkel is a postdoctoral scholar in the Electrical Engineering department. She was a postdoctoral advisee of Professor Verdú from 2014-2017.