November 29, 2017

University Stews Over Responses to Case of Sexual Harassment

By Donald Gilpin

Hundreds of members of the Princeton University community have been gathering this week in town hall meetings organized by the Faculty-Student Committee on Sexual Misconduct and the Title IX Office, responding with widespread frustration and criticism to the University’s handling of a sexual harassment case involving a distinguished electrical engineering professor.

Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering Sergio Verdu was found guilty in June, after a Title IX investigation, of sexually harassing one of his graduate students, Yeohee Im. A November 9 Huffington Post article (“Grad Student Says Princeton Prof who Sexually Harassed Her Was Given Slap On the Wrist”) reported that Verdu’s only punishment was an eight-hour training session. 

Verdu, according to the Huffington Post article, had invited Im to his house to watch a movie with sexually explicit scenes, and had touched her upper thigh and stomach during the movie.

Following publication of that article, the response on campus was strong and widespread, with many calling for sterner punishment and a more transparent, thorough University response.

Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Michele Minter said that privacy constraints prohibited her from commenting on the case, but that there are always punishments invisible to the University community and that training is never the only penalty in these kinds of cases.

On November 16 a petition signed by more than 700 undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni was delivered to University President Christopher Eisgruber and the administration calling for more stringent punitive action. “We ask that the University elevate its disciplinary actions against Professor Verdu and firmly establish that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in our community,” the petition read.

The petition also criticized the “opaque” handling of the case, urging the administration “to reconsider the University’s decision in this matter, and to deliver a punishment that is proportionate to the damage Professor Verdu’s victim has endured.”

School of Engineering Dean Emily Carter, who sent out a statement to the community last week on the issue of sexual harassment, indicated that improvements to the process of investigating Title IX inquiries and sexual harassment complaints might be in the works.

Commenting on Monday’s town hall meeting, she said, “I was pleased that the attendance was high and that everyone had a chance to ask questions, offer suggestions for potential process improvements, and to hear clear answers to their questions. The administration is being very responsive and will be considering process improvements in coming months.”

Carter’s November 20 statement to the community stated that “such abuse of power, whether it be what this victim endured or other forms of unacceptable behavior, including unethical actions, derails us from our mission in myriad ways …. This type of behavior has absolutely no place in our community.”

Minter, in a letter to The Daily Princetonian student newspaper, noted “concerns about the University’s sexual misconduct policy and processes, including questions about their transparency.” She added, “We have begun a review of our policy and processes, and are considering whether changes are necessary to ensure that they are as transparent and fair as possible to all members of our community.”

Nineteen members of the electrical engineering faculty also weighed in in a letter to the editor of The Daily Princetonian on Monday, expressing “anger, concern, and frustration,” calling for stronger University processes, and stating, “We have no tolerance for such behavior and condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

Electrical Engineering Professor Andrew Houck called for sterner measures. Also writing in The Daily Princetonian, he said, “We must adopt a zero tolerance policy, where violation equals termination. Following the news in recent weeks, we can see that the world is rife with unreported or unpublished sexual misconduct, particularly in fields where one person has the power to act as a gatekeeper.”