New allegations surface about Verdú’s relationships with students
Three months after Im accused Verdu of sexual misconduct, new information emerges about Verdu’s conduct with students
On June 9, found professor Sergio Verdú responsible for violating the University’s policy on Sex Discrimination and Sexual Misconduct. In a memo describing the investigation obtained by The Daily Princetonian, the Title IX panel wrote that Verdú had exhibited “highly inappropriate and unprofessional” behavior: Inviting his graduate student Yeohee Im to watch a sexually explicit film, “The Handmaiden,” in his home, and allegedly touching her on the stomach and thigh during the encounter. Although Verdú was disciplined, the University cannot state the details of the consequences due to the confidential nature of Title IX proceedings, and the decision did not result in Verdú’s termination.
Since the Title IX office’s of its decision not to terminate Verdú, two sources have alleged that, in the past 10 years, Verdú has had intimate relationships with two other graduate students in the electrical engineering department who were subject to his academic supervision and evaluation. According to former electrical engineering professor Paul Cuff and a confidential source, Verdú had intimate relationships with two students, and was seen romantically kissing one of these students at a conference. Cuff was an assistant professor in electrical engineering and a faculty member at the University from 2009 to 2017.
In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Verdú denied allegations of having relationships with students.
“I deny all of the allegations in the anonymous rumors that you have sent me. I am surprised that The Daily Princetonian is acting as an outlet for this evil whispering campaign. Publication of character-assassinating hearsay is irresponsible considering the severe damage it can do — and has done — to innocent individuals,” Verdú wrote.
Both of the graduate students named in these allegations also denied having any non-professional relationship with Verdú.
Verdú does have a number of supporters. A letter addressed to Dean of the Faculty Sanjeev Kulkarni was circulated among professors by University of Maryland professor Anthony Ephremides, defending Verdú’s “spotless reputation.”
The University has long discouraged any kind of romantic relationship between students and the professors who evaluate them because of what is often considered an imbalanced power dynamic between the two. Prior to 2016, a in “Rights, Rules and Responsibilities” termed these relationships “a clear and most serious violation of both University and professional standards, as well as a potential violation of state and federal anti-discrimination statutes.” In 2016, the language in “Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities” was to explicitly forbid relationships between professors and graduate students under their academic supervision.
The Title IX investigation that found Verdú responsible for sexual harassment focused only on Verdú’s behavior regarding Im. However, the Office of the Provost initiated a second investigation into allegations against Verdu concerning other students in September, according to emails among Im, Title IX administrator Regan Crotty, and Senior Associate of the Dean of the Faculty Toni Turano. Because of the confidentiality of these proceedings, the ‘Prince’ cannot confirm the results of this investigation (see timeline).
These allegations were brought to the attention of Michele Minter, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity, last February, when a professor sent her an anonymous email, alleging that Verdú had had sexual relationships with two graduate students over whom he occupied a position of power. In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ the professor who sent this complaint — speaking on condition of anonymity — explained that they had heard concerns from students who saw Verdú romantically kissing a female graduate student at the conference.
When asked to confirm whether she had received the professor’s message, Minter wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’ that she could not comment on actions taken by the University in any specific matter, and that the University has a limited ability to respond to anonymous reports without supporting evidence.
Cuff said that he learned of allegations about Verdú’s inappropriate behavior by speaking with professors and administrators in the electrical engineering department. Cuff first heard allegations on March 2, when a fellow professor said they had witnessed the same incident that was anonymously reported to Minter: Verdú kissing a graduate student at the conference. On the same day, Cuff spoke to a second professor, who said that Verdú had bragged about having a sexual relationship with a second graduate student. Cuff said that this second professor claimed that Verdú tried to plan a romantic getaway with his graduate student, inviting a third professor from a different university to come along and take his graduate student as well. The third professor rejected the invitation on behalf of himself and the graduate student.
All three of the professors did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.
On the evening of March 2, Cuff met with then-Dean of the Graduate School Sanjeev Kulkarni in Kulkarni’s home to discuss the allegations Cuff had heard earlier in the day.
Kulkarni did not decide to start an investigation immediately. Because the women named in the allegations were not current students, it wasn’t necessary for Kulkarni to initiate an investigation unless he received a complaint in writing, Cuff explained. In addition, Cuff had recently been through an unsuccessful tenure process, so one reason Kulkarni decided to wait before initiating any investigation so as to make sure that the allegations were not seen as a bitter response to the tenure process.
When asked for comment, Kulkarni referred to the . According to the policy, complaints about inappropriate relationships should be addressed to the dean of the faculty, who “normally conducts an inquiry and, if appropriate, submits his or her findings and recommendations to the President.” Kulkarni could not comment on Verdú specifically because of the confidential nature of faculty disciplinary proceedings.
In their March 2 meeting, Cuff and Kulkarni noted that Im was Verdú’s only current female graduate student, and planned to “watch out” for her when the department traveled to an international conference in the summer of 2017. Just one month after the meeting, however, Im went to Cuff’s office and told Cuff about the inappropriate behavior she’d experienced from Verdú. Cuff notified the Office of the Dean of the Faculty about Im’s experience, beginning the Title IX investigation that ultimately found Verdú responsible for sexual harassment.
On June 16, then-Dean of the Faculty Deborah Prentice met with Im to discuss the recent decision of the Title IX investigation. During this meeting, Prentice alluded to an investigation into allegations against Verdú beyond his behavior towards Im, which the University was unable to substantiate.
“There was your experience with [Verdú], and then there was a broader set of allegations that were — I don’t know whether you made them, but they came to us with about things in the past and so on and so forth, which we investigated but did not find,” Prentice told Im in an of their meeting. “There was nobody who was actually willing to come forth to substantiate any of the other allegations.”
On Sept. 19, however, Title IX administrator Regan Crotty emailed Im to let her know that they had received enough information to start a new investigation. On Sept. 28, the matter was passed from the Dean of the Faculty’s Office to the Office of the Provost (see timeline). Due to the confidential nature of the proceedings, the ‘Prince’ was unable to determine the outcome of the investigation.
In the past months, graduate students have held three , the Undergraduate Student Government has calling for further discipline of Verdú, and over 750 University community members have signed a asking the University to elevate its disciplinary actions against him. According to over 30 electrical engineering departmental emails obtained by the ‘Prince,’ the atmosphere has left many in the department feeling, in the words of one graduate student, “angry and vulnerable.”
University officials have taken steps to address these concerns. Title IX Coordinator Michele Minter issued a to the petition, noting that the University had begun a review of its sexual misconduct processes and policies and its training programs. On Nov. 27, the held an open meeting in conjunction with the School of Engineering and Applied Science. An email sent to the University community by Kulkarni, Vice President for Campus Life W. Rochelle Calhoun, and Vice President for Human Resources Lianne Sullivan-Crowley stated that the Faculty-Student Advisory Committee planned to release a written report of its recommendations.
A previous version of this article misstated that Crotty and Turano wrote to Im via email that they had enough information to start a new investigation. Crotty and Turano told Im in a meeting. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error.