Students and faculty members have called on Princeton to revise its sexual-misconduct policies after disciplinary actions against a professor found responsible for sexual harassment of a graduate student were widely seen to be insufficient. An advisory committee is expected to offer recommendations by the end of January.
Yeohee Im, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the electrical engineering department, told HuffPost in a story posted Nov. 9 that she filed a complaint with Princeton’s Title IX office last April, in which she claimed that her adviser sexually harassed her on two occasions in his home while the two were alone, touching her upper thigh and stomach. HuffPost published a letter to Im stating that a University panel formed to investigate the charges “found that the Respondent engaged in unwelcome verbal or physical behavior ... that was sufficiently severe to have the effect of unreasonably interfering with your educational experience by creating a hostile or offensive environment.”
Im told the online news site that the professor’s punishment was an eight-hour training session; a University spokesman said “penalties were imposed in addition to the required counseling” but that details are confidential.
“We must adopt a zero-tolerance policy, where violation equals termination.”
— Professor Andrew Houck ’00 in a Daily Princetonian letter
Im told HuffPost that she felt the penalty should have been more severe — and in a petition signed by about 900 Princeton community members and published in The Daily Princetonian, many students, faculty, and alumni said they agreed with her. “We the undersigned write to express our deep concerns regarding the University’s handling of the recent sexual harassment case against electrical engineering professor Sergio Verdú,” the petition says. It requests that the University “elevate its disciplinary actions” and “firmly establish that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in our community.”
According to University spokesman Michael Hotchkiss, the range of penalties for sexual misconduct includes but is not limited to warning, probation, loss of leave or other privileges, suspension, and dismissal. The professor, who has taught at Princeton since 1984, remains a salaried University employee.
Verdú said in a statement to PAW that he could not discuss the case other than to say “there was absolutely no sexual harassment.”
In a letter to the Prince, 16 electrical engineering professors said they “have no tolerance for such behavior and condemn it in the strongest possible terms. ... Victims must be able to report freely and with the confidence that penalties will serve as a strong deterrent.”
“The only way to protect our students is to ensure that these situations never arise,” said electrical engineering professor Andrew Houck ’00 in a separate letter to the Prince. “We must adopt a zero-tolerance policy, where violation equals termination.”
Emily Carter, dean of the engineering school, assured students that coming forward to report sexual misconduct would not jeopardize their financial support or visa status. She said the engineering school would hold a series of sessions on “fostering a welcoming and safe environment.”
In late November, open meetings were hosted by the University’s Title IX office and a sexual-misconduct advisory committee. At a Nov. 27 meeting, students and faculty members asked about transparency relating to Title IX investigations, the range of penalties, and the procedure by which the dean of the faculty decides the punishment in sexual-misconduct cases involving faculty members.
“All across the country, everyone is looking at what [the] norms were and saying, ‘Those norms are not acceptable anymore,’” Vice Provost Michele Minter said. “The University periodically has the opportunity to reset, and say ... ‘We’re purposely making a decision to move away from our previous precedents.’ That’s exactly the sort of thing that we’re looking at right now.”
Minter said there have been cases at Princeton “where faculty members are separated from the University based on a single [sexual-misconduct] case.”
The student-faculty sexual-misconduct committee is expected to issue a report with recommendations by the end of January. Suggestions can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Although it is not easy to share how I was taken advantage of, I am speaking out,” Im told HuffPost. “I hope this story can give the University a lesson on what kind of actions they have to take in order to protect victims and prevent this from happening again.”