At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Preserving the Reputations of Sexual Harassers

August 27, 2019
 
Sally Deng/Special to ProPublica

By the time officials at the University of Illinois’ flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign found that an assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine had engaged in sexual harassment, three women had come forward to raise concerns about his behavior.

All three said he had showed up at their homes uninvited.

Though the professor, Valarmathi Thiruvanamalai, denied doing anything wrong, the university office that investigates harassment and discrimination claims ruled against him. “When three different complainants, who have no prior relationship and no significant commonalities other than the lab in which they work, all assert the same type of interaction, one must question Respondent’s credibility and honesty in responding to the allegations,” a specialist in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access wrote in February 2015 following an investigation. She recommended that Thiruvanamalai face discipline and possibly termination.

Instead, the university took a series of steps that helped keep Thiruvanamalai’s reputation intact.

First, the head of the Department of Comparative Biosciences placed Thiruvanamalai on paid administrative leave for the remainder of his contract with the school and banned him from the lab and other university workspaces.

Then in November 2015, the university, known as UIUC, signed a separation agreement with the professor, extending his paid leave through August 2016, at which point his resignation would take effect. He continued to draw his annual salary of more than $98,000, according to salary records and the agreement between the school and Thiruvanamalai, obtained by NPR Illinois and ProPublica.

Finally, as part of that agreement, the university agreed to keep secret the terms of Thiruvanamalai’s departure, easing his path to get a university job in another state.

Thiruvanamalai’s case, which has never before been reported, highlights the covert way in which the university has dealt with accusations of sexual misconduct against professors.

An NPR Illinois-ProPublica investigation found that the university helped several professors keep seemingly unblemished records even though they were found to have violated its policies: letting them resign, paying them for periods they weren’t working, promising not to discuss the reasons for their departures and, in some cases, keeping them on the faculty.

Professors found to have violated policies at UIUC, including Thiruvanamalai, have moved on to teaching positions at other universities and, in at least one case, secured a prestigious Fulbright grant.

Since last year, allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct have surfaced against three UIUC professors and one administrator. In each instance, the public wasn’t told by the university until news organizations or others brought the allegations to light.

The problem, however, runs deeper, our investigation found. On top of the four cases already known, NPR Illinois and ProPublica uncovered three more in recent years that have received no attention.

In two of the cases, professors were allowed to resign and the university agreed to keep it confidential. A third professor remains on the payroll but has been removed from the classroom, campus records show.

A person sits on the quad of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign campus.

Photo Credit: Pat Nabong/Special to ProPublica

We spoke with numerous staff members and students who raised concerns about the way substantiated cases are handled.

“The entire way that we engage with questions of perpetration on campuses is wrong and broken,” said Kathryn Clancy, a UIUC anthropology professor who is an expert on sexual harassment in academia. She worked on a report published last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that found that 20% to 50% of students in STEM fields have experienced sexual harassment. “So we are just doing what everyone else is doing. And it's the wrong way to be doing things.”

University leaders have said they are committed to change. For example, the UIUC provost and chancellor told NPR Illinois last week that the university has stopped using confidentiality clauses, which keep investigations and findings under wraps after professors leave. UIUC and the University of Illinois System have also created several task forces and committees to examine issues including faculty misconduct and relationships between students and professors.

“We want to be the best of the breed, in a way, on all of these issues, recognizing that it's a very important topic,” University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen said after a board meeting this spring.

But, he added, “Nothing’s broken.”

A Grilling Over a Little-Known Case at a #MeToo Panel

Concerns about sexual harassment at UIUC spilled into the open during a panel on #MeToo and academia at the College of Law in the fall of 2018.

At the lunchtime discussion in the law school auditorium, an audience member asked the panelists, two of whom were UIUC law professors, why more was not being done to protect students from a professor who had been investigated by the university for sexual misconduct. She pressed the panel about allegations that professor Jay Kesan had made students and faculty uncomfortable with inappropriate touching and sexual conversations, singling him out by name.

The claims against Kesan had not been widely known, even though allegations of inappropriate behavior against him dated back to 2002, only months after he was granted tenure, documents show. The law school’s then-dean warned Kesan in writing that she had been told details about his conduct that “would constitute a serious breach of appropriate behavior by a faculty member” if true. Kesan denied those claims. The dean gave Kesan suggestions for avoiding further allegations, such as not commenting on others’ appearance.

At the #MeToo panel last year, the woman’s questions focused on an investigation into claims made against Kesan in 2015. The investigative report, finalized by the campus Office of Diversity, Equity and Access in 2017, found that school leaders were concerned enough about Kesan that, at one point, an administrator was directed to watch Kesan’s interactions with female guests at a public event and intervene if the situation warranted. Investigators even recommended considering employment action. (The Office of Diversity, Equity and Access is now called the Office for Access and Equity.)

Ultimately, the school found that Kesan violated the university’s code of conduct, and as a result he would not qualify for certain salary programs or lucrative endowment positions for a limited time. He is currently on voluntary unpaid leave until 2020.

 
Photo Credit: Sally Deng/Special to ProPublica

Lesley Wexler, a professor and associate dean of UIUC’s College of Law, said efforts are underway to address the university’s handling of cases like the one involving Kesan, who was found to have violated the “spirit” of the sexual misconduct policy but not the policy itself.

“The definition of what might count as sexual harassment is up for debate,” said Wexler, who had told the audience at the #MeToo forum last year that she was not satisfied with the result of the Kesan investigation.

In a recent interview, Wexler said the current definition of sexual harassment under Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bans gender discrimination within federally funded educational programs, has “been interpreted over time in a very narrow way.”

The behavior must be severe or pervasive, she said, which “sets a very high bar.”

“So even touching breasts or buttocks, if it only happens once, some courts have said that didn’t meet the threshold.”

But Wexler said she’s unsure if universities are capable of adequately investigating their employees and holding them to account.

“The past does not provide a record that would make one particularly optimistic,” she said. “In speaking of my own university, I think the will is there. But like so many things relating to widespread social and institutional change, it’s hard to know at this sort of stage of things where it will end up.”

Kesan told university investigators that he may have touched people, but the intent was misconstrued. In a letter to the College of Law community last year, Kesan said the allegations laid out in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access report were described correctly.

In an interview with NPR Illinois, Kesan wouldn’t comment on whether he believes the university treated him fairly, but he credited the #MeToo movement with opening the door to conversations like the one that revealed the allegations against him. “I believe it’s a very good thing,” Kesan said, adding that he offered to disclose the investigation on his syllabus going forward.

Robin Kar, a professor in the UIUC College of Law, is chairman of a task force formed in the wake of the Kesan controversy to explore potential changes to the sexual misconduct policy as it relates to faculty. “I think we're witnessing a growing awareness of a problem that has been festering for some time,” he said in an interview, noting that women are increasingly confident in talking about harassment.

“I think institutions around the nation are starting to take note of what the problem is,” he said. Meanwhile, solutions aren’t easy to come by. “We haven't found there's a simple gold standard outlook there.”

Leaving With Their Records Intact

UIUC doesn’t often fire tenured faculty members, even for serious offenses like sexual harassment. Instead, the university allows them to leave quietly — and continue their careers.

That’s what happened to Amita Sinha, a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, who was accused by a colleague of harassment, including stalking, for over a decade, according to a report from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access summarizing its investigation.

University investigators concluded that Sinha, a woman, ignored directives about her conduct from her department head and had engaged in unwanted attention toward a male colleague “intermittently for fifteen years.”

Sinha agreed to “voluntarily retire” in October 2017, and the university gave her paid leave before her resignation took effect in August 2018. During that time, she was paid her nearly $102,000 annual salary, documents show. The agreement promised confidentiality and that both parties wouldn’t speak ill of each other. It also states she would not be disciplined. She now collects a pension from the university; her last reported monthly payment from May was nearly $5,000, documents obtained by NPR Illinois and ProPublica show.

In a letter to the then chancellor in June 2017, a lawyer for Sinha called the report’s findings “inaccurate.” The letter argued that the university had violated procedural guidelines and disputed its assertion that Sinha had caused a colleague “significant emotional distress.”

Through her current lawyer, Sinha maintained that most of her interactions with the colleague were professional.

Sinha was awarded a Fulbright scholarship for the 2018-19 academic year, during which she studied and lectured on the cultural landscape of an area of Bolpur, a city in India just north of Kolkata. On the Fulbright website, Sinha’s home institution is listed as UIUC, even though it did not offer her emeritus status upon her resignation. A spokesperson for UIUC “did not know” about the grant and Sinha’s listing the university as her host school.

An official with the Fulbright program told NPR Illinois and ProPublica in a statement that it has a “zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment” but declined to comment on what it knew or didn’t know about Sinha’s past before her selection.

Sinha’s lawyer said she applied for and received the Fulbright grant while still a faculty member at UIUC and that “she has complied with all its requirements.”

The Department of Landscape Architecture building at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

Photo Credit: Pat Nabong/Special to ProPublica

Lee Waldrep was an undergraduate student services administrator and instructor who also resigned in 2017 in the face of allegations — in his case, from eight female students. Their claims included that he had made inappropriate comments and “blocked their path on a stairwell, backed them into a railing or wall, pinned their legs between his … or stood uncomfortably close to them,” according to investigative documents.

Waldrep denied the allegations, according to an August 2017 report from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access, and declined to comment through a lawyer.

He went on to work as an academic adviser at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Last year, after the Kesan case made local and national headlines, reporters published details of Waldrep’s departure . The University of Tennessee subsequently fired him and acknowledged that its screening process had failed.

Still, a UT spokesperson told NPR Illinois: “Even if the university had attempted to contact an unlisted reference, that person likely would have been unable to mention the sexual harassment investigation because Dr. Waldrep’s separation agreement had a confidentiality provision. As a result, it is difficult to see how the university might have learned about the sexual harassment investigation without filing a public records request.”

Waldrep’s resignation agreement included a confidentiality clause for him, but it did not explicitly say that the university would keep the terms secret. The university threatened to charge him $10,000 if he spoke publicly about it. It also said he would owe $10,000 for each instance of speaking negatively about the university. The report analyzing the claims about him was labeled confidential.

Worries About Litigation — From the Accused

In dealing with staffers found to have committed harassment, universities, like other employers, are often constrained by concerns about litigation.

UIUC spokeswoman Robin Kaler said confidentiality expectations are common. She said that they are frequently “included to protect the privacy interests of third parties who have been impacted by the situation that led to the separation,” such as the victim.

In a subsequent interview last week, Provost Andreas Cangellaris and Chancellor Robert Jones said that going forward, they have decided to eliminate such confidentiality provisions.

Nicole Gorovsky, an attorney who specializes in representing victims of sexual violence, said it’s common for institutions to fear lawsuits from accused employees, who can claim that terminations violate their due process rights or that sharing the details of an investigation is defamatory. Gorovsky said confidentiality and nondisclosure clauses in agreements are a way to limit the liability of an institution.

She said she has seen it happen in churches, elementary and high schools, colleges and businesses.

With the clauses, the parties agree to not speak about the reasons for resignation. They keep the university from proactively sharing the investigation with an employee's future employer. (An exception is if someone files a public records request, which NPR Illinois did in these cases.)

Gorovsky said these agreements can be harmful to the victims.

“One of the classic things that I hear from survivors is ‘I didn’t want it to happen to anyone else,’” Gorovsky said.

Nondisclosure agreements aren’t just used to resolve allegations against professors. The Seattle Times reported how universities sometimes require them when resolving complaints filed by students. One woman told the newspaper that after complaining about her music professor sexually harassing her, and then being retaliated against, the university offered to cover her tuition for a year, so long as she agreed not to talk about the details of the settlement agreement. The student called it “literal hush money.”

Now, Washington state lawmakers are crafting legislation to make findings of sexual misconduct by university employees more transparent. Among the ideas: barring public colleges and universities from using nondisclosure provisions in the handling of sexual misconduct cases, and creating an interstate system to share findings of credible investigations among universities, Democratic state Rep. Gerry Pollet said.

Pollet, whose district includes parts of Seattle and who serves on the Legislature’s higher education committee said, “We shouldn't have to have the Legislature step in, but we have to because it appears that the institutions and their legal advisers are simply very fearful of liability to the employee who's been accused and found to have actually committed harassment or assault.”

Molly McLay recently left her position of assistant director at UIUC’s Women’s Resources Center to pursue a doctorate in social work with a focus on gender-based violence and prevention.

As an advocate for survivors, she said she struggles to see how allowing perpetrators to leave with their records intact gives them any reason to change their behavior.

“I understand that resignation versus termination is commonly used,” she said. But these cases are unique. “Other people are impacted. There is another person involved. There is a survivor.”

Cangellaris, the provost, said that terminations are rare because faculty have certain employment protections, which are in place to ensure professors’ freedom to pursue their research and speak their mind in the classroom without fear of censorship, discipline or termination.

“It is a process that is dictated by the bedrock of every university and that is academic freedom and shared governance,” he told NPR Illinois. “We process every case in a way that we protect academic freedom.”

After publication of this story, UIUC reached out to say it is seeking to change its policy going forward to prevent academic freedom from being used as a shield in sexual misconduct cases.

“Historically university disciplinary policies were created to protect the academic freedom of the faculty and be respectful of our shared governance processes,” Cangellaris said in an emailed statement. “We are working to revise our policies and practices in ways that appropriately separate issues such as sexual harassment or other egregious misconduct from those protections. Harassment of any kind undermines academic freedom.”

As for confidentiality agreements, Cangellaris and Jones, the chancellor, said they hope other universities join them in disclosing the reasons for professors’ departures.

“If others don't follow suit, then it makes it more difficult for us,” Jones said. With the discussion around #MeToo, this is “critically important in this particular point in our history.”

Remaining on the Payroll

NPR Illinois and ProPublica found a case similar to Kesan’s in which a professor faced multiple allegations of harassment. The university found anthropology professor Mahir Saul in violation of its code of conduct but not its sexual misconduct policy, and he has remained on its payroll.

In January 2018, a research assistant claimed that Saul invited her back to the apartment where Saul was staying while they were both conducting field research in Turkey, according to an investigative summary obtained by NPR Illinois and ProPublica. They shared dinner and drinks. After hours of conversation, the assistant claimed Saul pressured her to stay the night.

A complaint was filed and an investigation ensued. In August 2018, the university concluded that Saul violated its code of conduct by “pressuring his employee, a vulnerable junior academic, to spend the night with him,” but that his actions did not violate the sexual misconduct policy. The official recommendation was that Saul no longer be allowed to meet one-on-one with female students or junior female employees.

But later that month, the head of the Department of Anthropology, Brenda Farnell, went further, opting to take Saul out of the classroom entirely. In a letter , Farnell wrote to Saul, “As you are aware, this is not the first complaint that has surfaced regarding your interaction with women.”

Professor Kathryn Clancy in a University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign lab.

Photo Credit: Pat Nabong/Special to ProPublica

In 2016, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access opened a separate investigation into Saul after an international undergraduate student alleged that he had placed her in “situations where he could be alone with her, and sought to use his power and authority to encourage a romantic relationship with her.” Two other individuals also expressed their concerns about his behavior at the time, according to that report.

The office found that there was not enough evidence to support the claims of sexual harassment, but that the allegations “call into question Dr. Saul's judgment and the

perceptions that he is creating through his interactions with students outside of the classroom.” It recommended that Saul receive training on sexual harassment and Title IX. Saul was warned he could lose his job if the behavior continued.

As of this July, the university was still paying Saul as a professor, based on records obtained by NPR Illinois and ProPublica. His yearly salary is around $91,200, plus benefits, records show.

Saul told NPR Illinois that the allegations as conveyed by the investigative reports are false, and that he has been on medical leave, which he requested in January. He said he had dinners with the student who filed the 2016 complaint but there were no “romantic” topics of conversation. He said the 2018 allegations were the result of a labor dispute involving a disgruntled employee.

Clancy, the anthropology professor, had expressed concerns about Saul in an email to her colleagues in the spring of 2018. She said the administration had a decision to make: protect students and accusers or protect the professor.

"Rather than abdicate responsibility of our students' safety to the legal system, I think we can choose to set particular standards for appropriate conduct within our department regarding student interactions, safety, mentoring, and professional behavior,” she wrote.

A university spokesperson said the restrictions on Saul will remain in place, including a directive not to interact with students.

 
Photo Credit: Sally Deng/Special to ProPublica

Seeking Change

After finding that he violated university policies, UIUC gave Thiruvanamalai time to pursue other employment and paid him during his search. In September 2017, he started a job teaching at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

His last month there was this June, a month after NPR Illinois and ProPublica asked for records about his employment, including background checks and any possible new complaints. The university would not comment on the reason he left.

One of the students he was accused of harassing back in Illinois spoke with NPR Illinois and ProPublica after hearing that he had gone on to teach at another school. She spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

By going forward with a complaint and asking the school for a full investigation, she said she knew she was making herself a target.

She had watched as another student who had spoken up before her was taken out of the program and put on a track toward a lesser degree while the professor stayed without facing an investigation, a maneuver the university labeled an “informal resolution.”

The second student, who insisted that her own complaint be considered a formal one, said most students in her position wouldn’t feel secure enough to speak out the same way. “For me, I’m an international student. I knew nobody in this country when I got here,” she said. “So it took me a while to figure out what to do about the situation.”

Without speaking up, she figured others might be “suffering in the same situation” — having their concerns lead to minor or no consequences. A lab tech joined her in the complaint, saying she too repeatedly faced harassment. One woman told investigators that the professor had “made their lives hell,” according to the report from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access.

The woman said she considers herself a strong person, which is why she was able to continue on with her education. This is even after moving apartments in hopes she could prevent Thiruvanamalai from finding her as he had back in December 2014. She said UIUC failed when it helped Thiruvanamalai leave the school with his reputation intact.

“I think that's really bad. I think there should be a system that can track what he has done.”

Rachel Otwell is a reporter at NPR Illinois. Email her at rachel.otwell@nprillinois.org and follow her on Twitter at @MsOtwell .

Christine Herman, a reporter with Illinois Public Media, contributed to this investigation.

NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Media are part of the University of Illinois system. The university has no editorial control or oversight of news content produced by either. NPR Illinois was part of the Illinois Newsroom collaborative, which secured the initial grant for this project.

This story has been updated to reflect additional comments by Provost Andreas Cangellaris.

NPR Illinois and ProPublica have teamed up to investigate sexual misconduct at institutions of higher education in Illinois. Our reporting won’t stop here. Have you faced sexual harassment or violence from a faculty or staff member at a university, college or community college in Illinois? We need your help — here’s how you can get in touch.

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Story source: Illinois Public Radio