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U.'s malfunction with the recent sexual misconduct

Sexual misconduct, and the University's inadequate response to it, has become a much-needed topic of discussion, in part because of Yeohee Im’s bravery to discuss it. As was reported this week in the Daily Princetonian, I was one of the people who gave reports to the University surrounding this incident. Notably, the reports began even before Yeohee’s unfortunate incident.

The responses and calls to action by fellow students, faculty, and staff have been remarkable. However, the University’s actions have been inexcusable. There are times when initiatives to educate and discuss, through meetings and training, are the appropriate response. And there are times, as now, when they are not only woefully inadequate, but possibly misguided and counterproductive. In context, this does not appear to be a situation where a professor did not understand what he was doing or was simply too casual with a student. One reason I answered questions about these events was to illuminate that point. The worst outcome of these last few months of activism on campus would be for the faculty to create a more sterile environment with students, as opposed to the warmth that is currently enjoyed, out of fear that they will be the next faculty member whose actions are misunderstood — or for the administration to simply add more meetings, training, and bureaucracy that will be resented. There is no replacement for appropriate punishment of a perpetrator.


In my opinion, much of the blame for the University’s inaction falls on Deborah Prentice. Her decisions have substantially reduced the likelihood that future victims will come forward in the event of sexual misconduct. Who would want to report such occurrences knowing that even after enduring all of the collateral damage that occurs for coming forth with this information (loss of advisor and funding, to start with), and even after the Title IX office investigates and finds the accusations to be truthful and the violations severe, the dean of the faculty, who was Deborah Prentice at the time, does not take the situation seriously and essentially lets it slide. She knew at the time all of the information that has now become public.

I visited Deborah in her office during the week after this decision was made in June. We had business to discuss regarding my decision to leave the University. I also mentioned Yeohee. Without me asking specifically, Deborah squirmishly offered justification for the mildness of the punishment to the professor — sexual harassment training — details she assumed I was aware of, even though I wasn’t. She described a range of severity of misbehavior, and explained that she couldn’t take away the professor’s tenure for this incident because “he stopped when she said stop.” Is this policy acceptable to Princeton?! Furthermore, she explained that this was being treated as an isolated incident for lack of evidence. It seemed to me that she had reached out to past victims and that they had not provided incriminating information. Since the reports that I had given were second-hand reports, I suggested that she may want to reach out to the previously anonymous witnesses directly, professors at other universities, for whom I could supply contact information, to shorten the chain of information. She said, “I would need a reason to do that.” At that cringeworthy declaration, it was apparent she was in her lame duck stage, not wanting to deal with this as she was being promoted to provost the following month. But the damage in the wake of these actions will persist long after the change in leadership.

When Dean Kulkarni took office, a real investigation began in earnest. Unfortunately, as soon as Princeton’s general counsel got word that Dean Kulkarni had received reports of violations prior to Yeohee’s incident, he recused himself from the investigation. Of all bad coincidences, it went straight back into the hands of Deborah Prentice as the provost. Ask Yeohee how happy she is about that. I think I know the answer.

Various departments at the University are doing things to address, remedy, and avoid sexual misconduct within the University. However, more than talk is needed. As an example, the dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences made a statement assuring graduate students that they need not be afraid of losing research funding if they report sexual harassment. I recommend that graduate students ask exactly how those assurances can be made. Yeohee did lose her funding, since in the electrical engineering department funding is provided by the research advisor. I know she lost her funding because I am now funding her with my research grants. The University’s support was underwhelming. She was offered funding through the summer after which she would be allowed to earn her financial support as a full-time TA in the fall. She was told that by the end of the fall she had to find financial support from a new advisor. For Yeohee, having already fulfilled the department requirement for TA’ing, and considering that most TAs are only half-time so they can still have time for research, this would have been a serious disruption to her research. Furthermore, funding constraints can be a hurdle in the way of selecting a new advisor. Is this the kind of assurance that the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is offering? Will things be different next time?

The student body should recognize and appreciate the cost of the decision Yeohee made to take this information public by talking to the media. These are heavy costs of time, emotion, career, and even money. Last fall, lawyers were jumping up and down to file a lawsuit on her behalf against the University, with the expectation of winning a lot of money. However, a likely requirement would have been to keep this out of public view. She decided that was not the right way to address a broken and harmful system. As a consequence of the publicity, lawyers have shied away. There are costs to doing the right thing. Thank goodness some people are willing to pay those costs.

Paul Cuff was a University Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering from 2009 to 2017.


Editor's Notes:

This letter reflects an account of the author’s private meeting with Provost Deborah Prentice. 

The ‘Prince’ cannot verify any of the allegations of what occurred in the meeting. 

Deborah Prentice has not responded to request for comment after several days. 

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In a previous news story, the ‘Prince’ has attempted to corroborate the allegations against Verdú with other sources. 

There is a news story with more details about Verdú’s administrative leave here.