Dozens of graduate students, undergraduates, and faculty members gathered on Monday, Nov. 20 in Maeder Hall to discuss a petition demanding that the University elevate its disciplinary action against Sergio Verdú, a Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering, who was found guilty of sexual harassment in a Title IX investigation earlier this summer. Over 650 undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni have signed the petition.
Verdú had invited one of his graduate students, Yeohee Im, to watch The Handmaiden, a sexually explicit film, with him in February 2017. During the movie, he touched her upper thigh and stomach.
Im said to The Huffington Post on Nov. 9 that Verdú was only required to take an eight-hour training session. Verdú is still a salaried professor at the University.
Students at the town hall, which was organized by graduate students in electrical engineering, criticized this punishment as a slap on the wrist, noting that the penalties for less heinous offenses like academic dishonesty are usually far more severe. Students also said that training and education were not enough to correct his behavior, since Verdú, like all faculty members, had already taken sexual harassment prevention training.
Nearly everyone at the meeting seemed frustrated. Many students were unaware of the mechanisms of a Title IX investigation and unsure who exactly held the authority to change University policy on disciplinary action against faculty. Sympathetic faculty members assured students that Verdú had lost their respect, but couldn’t promise any change to the University’s decision. Half-joking requests for faculty members to convey students’ stern messages to Verdú in person elicited ripples of tense laughter.
“It is very painful and emotional,” Claire Gmachl, another Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering, said of the University’s decision in an interview. Gmachl noted that many students felt outraged at how fast and how lenient the decision was, adding that their “frustration with what happened, and their pain, is very real.”
Several Electrical Engineering faculty members present at the meeting condemned Verdú’s actions, and said that they would not work with him in the future. Professor Andrew Houck, who recently submitted a Letter to the Editor to the ‘Prince’, emphasized that no graduate student should feel like they can’t report incidents of sexual misconduct without risking their funding or visa, and offered personal assistance to students from any departments who had such concerns.
The petition states that because of the nature of the sexual harassment, and the “flagrant abuse of power, and the irreparable emotional and professional damage he has inflicted upon his student,” these disciplinary actions taken by the University are “grossly inadequate.”
Yunhui Lin, a graduate student in the electrical engineering department, has had an active role in the push for a reform of the sexual harassment procedures currently in place.
“The students have been working really hard to force the entire department to take some sort of action, so it’s disappointing that we might not be able to affect actual changes on this specific case and that we can only make changes in the future,” Lin said. “There’s reasons for that, but it’s really disappointing to see someone who’s been hurt so much by this and not be able to tell them that we can do something about their situation.”
David Logan, a doctoral student in the Woodrow Wilson School, said that he signed the petition because, although the University has made necessary progress in promoting awareness of sexual assault and harassment issues, it is still insufficient.
“If you really want these [sexual harassment and assault cases] to stop, there has to be consequences,” Logan said. “The more you talk to students here, I think the more obvious it is that these are not isolated instances.”
In addition to graduate students and faculty, members of the undergraduate community also attended the meeting in an attempt to comprehend the University’s actions regarding Verdú.
“Although it was informative to learn more about the Title IX procedure, I feel like their inability to give any specific details about the case or any concrete action that they are going to be taking was very dissatisfying and gave no closure,” said Sreela Kodali ‘18, an undergraduate in electrical engineering. “This is very unsettling as a young female in STEM who wants to be in academia.”
Another three meetings will take place after Thanksgiving break for members of the community to continue to make recommendations and voice their concerns.