On June 9, a Title IX investigation found electrical engineering professor Sergio Verdú responsible for sexually harassing his advisee, graduate student Yeohee Im, over the course of two months. In a Nov. 9 in The Huffington Post, Im said that Verdú was required to attend an eight-hour training session after accusations of the assault emerged, but that he was not disciplined in any other way.
University spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss wrote in a on Nov. 10 that “penalties were imposed in addition to the required counseling.” Assistant Vice President for Communications Daniel Day wrote in an email that because the Title IX proceedings regarding the case were confidential, the University could not disclose what these penalties were.
Im recorded a meeting with Dean of Faculty Deborah Prentice and Title IX administrator Regan Crotty on June 16.
“We’re able to tell you that there is a penalty, that the penalty is not a termination, but we can’t tell you exactly,” Prentice said to Im in the recording. “There’s a whole range of things that can happen to faculty members.”
“It’s not just a letter in your file. There’s an actual impact,” Prentice added.
Im said the chance to work with Verdú, a prominent researcher in the field of information theory, was “one of the big reasons [she] chose to come to Princeton” from her hometown of Busan, South Korea, according to a memorandum from the Title IX panel.
While their relationship was professional when they began working together in January 2016, Verdú began acting inappropriately toward Im a year later, according to the memo. In February, Verdú Im to watch a sexually explicit film in his home, and on another occasion he allegedly touched her upper thigh and stomach while they watched a different movie. Verdú is 59 years old, and Im is currently 25.
In an email exchange obtained by the ‘Prince,’ Im told Verdú that she was uncomfortable with their interactions and wanted to set boundaries. Verdú agreed to speak to Im “to clear it up,” and the two continued to work together.
According to the Huffington Post, a few weeks after the incidents, Im told another professor about what had happened; this professor then notified the Office of the Dean of the Faculty. A two-month Title IX investigation began in April.
From this investigation, the Title IX panel determined that Verdú’s behavior had “unreasonably interfered with [Im’s] educational conditions by creating a hostile or offensive environment,” according to the memo. Verdú was found responsible for violating the University’s policy on ; he was charged with sexual harassment, or “unwelcome verbal or physical behavior which is directed at a person based on sex, gender identity or gender expression,” as well as “inappropriate conduct related to sex, gender identity, or gender expression.”
“I unequivocally deny any allegations of advances, let alone sexual harassment,” Verdú wrote in an email response to a request for comment.
In her meeting with Prentice and Crotty, Im asked why Verdú had not been terminated, according to the recording obtained by the ‘Prince.’
Prentice said in the recording that Verdú “clearly behaved highly inappropriately,” but he would not be suspended or terminated because his inappropriate behavior stopped after Im raised her concerns.
“When you indicated to him that he was behaving inappropriately, he stopped, and took no further action against you,” said Prentice in the recording. “Under those circumstances, and given that we were treating it as a first-time offense, it doesn’t warrant his suspension.”
“I think that’s a very unacceptable answer,” Im replied in the recording.
Im also asked whether Verdú could be moved out of the building in the E-Quad where they both currently work.
Crotty said in the recording that moving professors’ offices is typically not a disciplinary practice, but implied that Im could limit interactions with Verdú by changing her adviser or moving buildings herself.
The panel’s memo states that Im stopped attending Verdú’s class, sought to change advisers, and has decided to change academic fields as a result of the incident.
In the recording, Prentice also said that “there was a broader set of allegations” against Verdú, but no one else was willing “to come forward to substantiate any of the other allegations.”
In response to an in the ‘Prince,’ University spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss wrote in an email statement on Nov. 10 that “a range of penalties may be imposed” on a member of the University community who violates the sexual misconduct policy.
“We require counseling and training for every individual found to have violated our policy, with the goal of stopping inappropriate behavior,” wrote Hotchkiss.
Prentice and Crotty deferred comment to Day.
In reaching their verdict, the Title IX panel’s deliberations focused on two incidents that occurred when Verdú and Im were watching television alone in Verdú’s home.
On Feb. 17, Verdú invited Im to his home to watch the Korean film “The Handmaiden.” Although Im and Verdú had watched a soccer match together at his home three days before, Im was nervous because “The Handmaiden” is known for its explicit sexual content. Im expressed these concerns to a friend, according to published in the HuffPost.
In these texts, Im described the invitation as “weird” and wrote that “the weirder thing is that korean movie has some sexual part and I am not sure [Verdú] knows it.”
According to their email exchange, Im wrote to Verdú suggesting that they watch another movie because “[The Handmaiden] seems to have explicit contents and I am usually not good at watching those.”
Verdú responded that he wanted to watch a movie by Park Chan-Wook, the director of “The Handmaiden,” and was unsure if Netflix carried his other films. Having made sure Verdú was aware of the film’s graphic nature, Im felt that she “couldn’t resist any more” and agreed to watch the movie, according to the memo.
On Feb. 23, Im approached Verdú after class and asked if he wanted to leave then or later to watch the film. Before replying that they could meet in the parking lot, Verdú led Im out of the room — in the panel’s memo, Im said she believed this was because “he didn’t want anyone to hear.”
In the memo, Verdú said that he met Im at the entrance to the E-Quad before driving her to his home.
According to the memo, both Verdú and Im agree that once they had arrived at Verdú’s home, he poured them a small amount of Grand Marnier and they sat on the couch. Im said in the memo that their arms touched while they watched the film, and that Verdú put his arm around her for a short time. In the same source, Im said that she was “confused” by Verdú’s behavior and “very nervous” because of the graphic sexual scenes in the movie. Im said in the memo that Verdú asked her whether she had a boyfriend while they were watching the movie.
In the same memo, Verdú said he had not intentionally touched Im, and noted that while Im had talked about having a boyfriend, he did not ask her any questions about this. Verdú also said that the graphic scenes in “The Handmaiden” were “just violent” rather than sexual.
Verdú said in the memo that he sat “towards the middle” of the couch and that Im “was immobile,” although there was “plenty of space to her right.” According to the memo, Verdú also said that he rested his arm on top of the couch because he needed to keep it straight due to his medial epicondylitis, or “golfer’s elbow,” although the panel noted that when Verdú made this assertion it was unclear whether he was referring to when they watched “The Handmaiden” or when they watched a soccer match together three days earlier.
On March 9, Verdú emailed Im inviting her to watch “Oldboy,” a film about a kidnapped businessman by the same director as “The Handmaiden.” Im agreed to watch the movie the following day.
While watching the film, Im said in the panel’s memo that Verdú offered her red wine and commented that she was “drinking too slowly.” Im also said in the memo that Verdú wrapped her arm around her shoulders and was “softly brushing his hand up and down” her shoulder, “like [people] do when they want to arouse each other.” Then, Im said, Verdú put his left hand on her thigh close to her underwear for around a minute, until she stood up and went to the restroom to try “to get out of the situation.” According to the memo, Im said that at this time she was wondering whether “this was allowed in Barcelona,” where Verdú is from.
When Im later spilled wine on her white sweatshirt, Verdú attempted to clean the stain. Im said that Verdú tried to rub the stain off with soap and a napkin for “more than 30 seconds,” and that when she held her shirt out to prevent him from touching her stomach, Verdú put his hand inside her shirt and touched the bottom of her bra. Im told Verdú “you don’t have to do this” and stepped back.
According to the panel memo, Verdú said there “was absolutely no touching of [Im's] leg in any lewd way.” Verdú said that because of his golf elbow, he had to use his left hand to pour the wine, and when he reached across Im to get the bottle he put his hand on “the middle of thigh,” referring to the incident as “a misunderstanding.” He denied that he wrapped his arm around Im or rubbed her arm. Verdú also stated in the memo that he is “adamant that no advances occurred, wanted or unwanted.”
Later that afternoon, Verdú emailed Im a link to a Wikipedia article on a Korean movie that she had asked him to send. In his message, he wrote “Ps please call me Sergio” followed by a smiling face emoji.
The panel memo states that Im realized that Verdú’s behavior was inappropriate when she got home after watching “Oldboy.”
According to an email exchange between Im and Verdú, Im sent the following message on March 11 with the subject line “About yesterday”:
After I came home, I realized I wasn't comfortable with you touching my leg. I consider our relationship solely as advisor and student and would appreciate if you do so. I think it would be nice to set some boundaries.”
“OMG Yeohee, needless to say I totally agree about the boundaries,” Verdú wrote in his response. “Are you available on Monday at 10 to clear it up?”
Im recorded their subsequent conversation on March 13. According to the panel’s memo, the recording quality was poor, but Verdú could be heard saying “my job here is to create the best environment for you to succeed and you have a great career ahead of you ... I do ask my students, maybe not in the beginning, but eventually, to call me by my first name, so don’t think of anything.”
Following their talk, Im said that their relationship was “cordial” and Verdú described it as “fine, just professional.” They continued to work in the same building, although according to the panel’s memo Im plans to leave the field because she “would be too nervous to be in the same field as [Verdú] is.”
The memo shows that the Title IX panel based their decision on Im and Verdú’s accounts of the events, as well as an assessment of the credibility of their statements. The panel found Im to be “very credible,” noting that she hadn’t intended to report the matter but only wanted to switch advisers, and that the allegations could potentially have a lasting professional impact on her.
According to the memo, Im wrote in the statement she submitted to the panel that “[there] is no reason for me to do this. I was happy in research life and my work in this field, and [Verdú] is the biggest name in the field.”
The panel also noted in the memo that Im “may have initially downplayed her own efforts to foster a close relationship with [Verdú],” such as bringing him Korean snacks and sending him a song recording, but that “it is not unusual for an advisee to seek to develop a close relationship with their adviser” and that none of Im’s actions were inappropriate or sexual in nature.
The panel expressed “concerns regarding [Verdú’s] credibility” because of his assertion that “The Handmaiden” is not sexually explicit, and because of his statement that he needed to stretch his arm out and pour the wine bottle in a specific way due to his medial epicondylitis. The panel noted that Verdú could have positioned himself in order to stretch his arm “without impeding on [Im’s] personal space.” After obtaining photographs of Verdú’s couch, the panel did not credit his description of the couch as a “two-seater” that would require sitting close together.
Based on their assessments of Verdú’s physical conduct and the context in which his actions took place, the panel came to the conclusion that Verdú’s conduct “was severe in nature,” and that he was responsible for violating the University’s policy on sexual harassment.
Verdú will be teaching a on information systems in the spring.
In a previous version of this article, the 'Prince' mischaracterized a statement in the recording. The 'Prince' regrets the error.