How the University of Minnesota hides its professors' sexual harassment

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Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

“You just want to be dominated.”

“I bet she’s a devil in bed.”

“When are we going to have sex?”

This is how University of Minnesota biochemistry professor Gianluigi Veglia often talked to and about the students and employees in his laboratory, according to two sexual misconduct investigations.

His name is well known in his field. His curriculum vitae is 39 honor-filled pages long and meticulously lists the millions of dollars in grant funding he’s received through the years. He has taught at the U of M, which has shared in the bounty of his grant money, since 2000.

“Take off your shirt so I can just see a little.”

Accusers and witnesses detail many other instances of misconduct. Among the allegations: He told lab members he only hired them for their looks; he suggested women’s presentations would be more effective if they dressed in more revealing clothing; he told his female lab members (whom he frequently called “Veglia chicks”) to flirt with prospective students to entice them to join the lab; he even threatened to withhold Ph.D.s if complaints were filed.

Veglia told investigators he simply hadn’t made many of these comments. Others, he said, were misinterpreted jokes or the vengeful lies of disgruntled and unsuccessful students. He declined to comment for this story.

Veglia by City Pages on Scribd

At the U, sexual misconduct complaints are handled by the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA). The office has concluded that employees violated the university’s sexual misconduct policy in 55 cases at its five campuses since 2013.

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But even when misconduct is substantiated, discipline at the U of M is all over the map. And though Minnesota public information laws made the reports public in Veglia’s case, many cases are veiled by privacy laws or settlement terms, allowing problem employees to avoid scrutiny or quietly move on to other jobs.

 

Raising the Red Flag

Kristian Lum had been warned.

“Right before I ever attended my first [academic] conference,” the human rights data scientist wrote in a December 2017 blog post, “one of the women who was a year ahead of me in my program pulled me aside to warn about [a professor]. She told me to do my best to avoid him at the conference but ‘every woman has a story about him, so it’s only a matter of time.’ Of course, she was right.”

Not long after her fellow student’s red flag, Lum encountered the professor while presenting part of her dissertation work. She says he touched her on the leg and commented that her dress was “way too sexy” for a conference. Eventually, she says, he took his inappropriate behavior to Facebook messages.

Lum finished her Ph.D. at Duke, but she wound up leaving academia, partly because of this and other sexual harassment at academic conferences. Then, in December, Lum heard that the professor’s amateur band had performed at a conference, and when the professor took the mic, he cracked jokes about sexual assault and Al Franken’s groping scandal.

Frustrated that this bad behavior continued unchecked, Lum took to her blog to express her disappointment and share a detailed list of the professor’s unsavory conduct. Following its publication, U of M professor and biostatistics division head Brad Carlin admitted he was the person being discussed.

In a Facebook post, Carlin apologized for his jokes about groping and assault and said he wouldn’t comment further because investigations were ongoing. He also said Lum’s other accusations were missing context. Lum shot back, providing screenshots of Carlin’s Facebook messages to her. In the messages, Carlin discusses sex and a particular genre of porn he watched, which was, in his words, “OMG my stepmom and I both fucked my bf.”)

Carlin is currently the subject of four active investigations at the U, as first reported by the Pioneer Press. Following the attention, Public Health Dean John Finnegan removed Carlin, who is on sabbatical, from his division head position.

Carlin had been investigated twice before and was reprimanded by Dean Finnegan in April 2016 for making inappropriate comments. Carlin was instructed to attend four hours of diversity training.

Carlin by City Pages on Scribd

“I’m saying this publicly,” Lum wrote in her initial blog post, “because whenever I have shared these stories privately with my colleagues, both men and women, they are appalled. It is time for us to be publicly and openly appalled, not just attempting to tactfully deflect inappropriate advances and privately warning other women.”

Without Lum’s action, the U’s investigations may never have started. And even if the U determines that Carlin misbehaved, those conclusions might never see the light of day. That’s because Minnesota’s laws say accused employees’ names and case files should be released only if the employee is disciplined. When there’s no discipline or when the employee resigns before discipline is made official, the findings are locked away.

Of the 55 sexual misconduct cases substantiated in the university system from 2013 through 2017, more than half ended in the shadows. In 23 of the cases, the responsible employee left the university either through “resignation, lay-off or non-renewal” after the finding but before being disciplined; their names and case files are not publicly released.

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In nine other cases, the employees remained at the university but weren’t disciplined. They may have received letters of expectation, been directed to complete training, or received coaching or monitoring, but these consequences are not severe enough to meet the university’s definition of discipline. Their names and case files also remain private.

 

A Clean Slate

The holes in this system aren’t unique to the University of Minnesota. Multiple prestigious institutions have been criticized in recent years for turning a blind eye or not investigating the history of new hires.

In 2015, University of California at Berkeley concluded Geoff Marcy, one of the biggest modern names in astronomy, had violated sexual harassment policies multiple times between 2001 and 2010. Four women alleged Marcy had variously massaged, kissed, groped, or pressed his erection against them. Some said they had been reluctant to report Marcy, a vocal advocate for women in science.

Berkeley gave Marcy a warning, until documents were leaked to BuzzFeed News, which later reported that Marcy also had a history of sexual harassment complaints at San Francisco State University. Three women said they filed official complaints against Marcy during his tenure there, but the school told BuzzFeed it didn’t keep harassment complaints dating back that far. (The earliest complaint against Marcy originated in 1995.) In a statement responding to the Berkeley allegations, Marcy wrote that he did not agree with each complaint that was made but “I take full responsibility and hold myself completely accountable for my actions and the impact they had.”

As public pressure mounted, Marcy left his Berkeley post, some 20 years after the first complaint was filed.

Thomas Pogge, a respected name in philosophy, also came with a track record of sexual harassment complaints when he joined Yale University in 2008, according to the New York Times.

Allegations of sexual harassment at Yale (groping, pressing his erection against a student, asking to stay at a student’s home and share a hotel room with her, inappropriate comments and emails) surfaced within just two years. Yale investigated Pogge in 2011 and found he had acted unprofessionally but not in a sexually harassing manner. None of this was made public until BuzzFeed News obtained confidential documents about the complaints in 2016. (Pogge later admitted to the New York Times that he had behaved inappropriately but said he had not gone as far as sexual harassment.)

Yale knew when it hired Pogge that he had a history of misconduct at Columbia University, the Times reported. He was hired anyway.

Katie Eichele, director of the University of Minnesota’s Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education, said screening for sexual harassment is difficult “because there are legal parameters of what you can or cannot look for and ask in those job searches.”

The U does a criminal background check and asks candidates to disclose any past findings of misconduct.

“[The system] provides an opportunity for them to continue the behavior at other places without having to disclose that information and without having to go through any rehabilitation processes,” says Eichele.

While staff and faculty, with or without tenure, can be fired for sexual misconduct at the U, terminations are rare. That may be because discipline takes so long to be decided that employees can choose to resign instead to protect their reputation. In the cases the University of Minnesota  made public, the delays between the EOAA finding and discipline being imposed were often significant. The timing was unclear in 11 cases, but the fastest disciplinary action took five days, while the longest took three months.

Of the 23 disciplined employees, seven were fired, and only three of those were in teaching roles.

 

A Mixed Bag

Gilbert Rodman, a communications professor, was found in a 2013 EOAA investigation to have repeatedly crossed boundaries with women in his department since 2009, starting with Facebook and text messaging even before incoming graduate students and postdoctoral candidates knew if they were accepted to the program. He scouted potential homes for one incoming postdoc and then invited her to stay at his house until her apartment lease began. While she was staying at Rodman’s home, the woman said Rodman left a condom lying out where she would be sure to find it.

According to the findings of the investigation, Rodman would frequently pressure students to spend social time with him, even when it was clear they were not interested.

Several students alleged if they asked Rodman questions about their studies, he would “nearly always” suggest meeting off-campus for drinks or a meal.

One complainant alleged he repeatedly asked her about her age. When she wouldn’t tell him, he decided to figure it out anyway by “inquiring at separate times” about her brother’s age and the age difference between them. She says he also asked about her past and secrets since “he could not learn about them” because she turned down his Facebook friend request.

In one alleged incident Rodman began making jokes about a dog to the complainant: “Maybe his wang smells like bacon. ... I don’t know, maybe you fellated [the dog].” Rodman didn’t recall that specific comment but said it matched his sometimes “off-color attempts at wit.”

The allegations continue in the document, including unwanted touching, late-night texting, and entering offices unannounced then watching silently until he was noticed. (Rodman declined an interview request for this article.)

Rodman by City Pages on Scribd

Multiple graduate students spoke up to their department about Rodman’s behavior. The department stopped assigning female graduate students to Rodman’s advising caseload. Because the graduate students felt they weren’t being heard, they “created an informal sexual harassment liaison position” to warn new students to “avoid social contact with Dr. Rodman,” according to EOAA.

“Dr. Rodman’s continuation of this conduct despite several warnings by the Department indicates that serious responsive action is necessary,” the investigators wrote.

The discipline? Rodman’s supervisors told him not to evaluate certain students and research presentations for two years, required him to attend sexual harassment training, and asked him to knock or announce himself before entering an office.

When discipline is meted out at the University of Minnesota, it’s left to the employee’s supervisor. While the EEOA makes recommendations, it doesn’t ultimately decide on disciplinary measures. Across the siloed academic departments, consequences are a mixed bag of length and severity.

According to a letter of reprimand obtained from the university, Jim Turman, the assistant vice provost at the Recreation and Wellness Center, received training and a two-week suspension without pay in 2015 for making a sexually inappropriate remark to an employee, for telling an offensive racial joke to the same employee, and for expressing frustration that the employee was offended.

Another letter shows that James Scroggins, who worked for facilities management on the West Bank campus in 2016, admitted to teasing a female employee about going on a diet for her tropical vacation, as well as repeatedly asking to see pictures of employees in their bathing suits when they returned from vacations. When EOAA asked about these comments, he said he appreciated people who “take care of themselves.”

Scroggins was given a written warning and sent to training.

Disciplinary letters from March 2014 show that four Dining Services employees at the Twin Cities U of M campus were disciplined for violating the sexual harassment policy. Gerald Pederson admitted to making explicitly sexual comments about female students using the dining hall and telling someone, “I’ve got a piece of meat you can unpack.”

Alejandrorey Vinson denied making sexual and derogatory comments about female students in the dining hall and denied discussing masturbation and the world-record largest penis, but multiple witnesses disagreed.

Jacob Lindgren discussed a female student’s apparent mustache, ranked female students by attractiveness, and told someone to “suck my dick,” according to multiple witnesses. He denied it.

Mike Sittler admitted to making a statement like, “If I ever got hugely rich, I would have a woman wash my balls.” He denied making other comments, including “I’m out like a gay boy at a pride parade,” and “The Vikings lost but at least I got my dick sucked.” However, multiple witnesses corroborated these statements.

The men each received one- or two-day suspensions without pay.

Turman, Scroggins, Pederson, Vinson, Lindgren, Sittler by City Pages on Scribd

These cases happen all over the university, with few overlapping personnel to account for them except EOAA staff. EOAA recommended discipline for each case in which it made a finding of sexual misconduct, but the university would not release those recommendations.

Tina Marisam, the director of EOAA, said her group tries to make recommendations consistent with other cases it has handled, “but ultimately it is the decision of the department or unit about what discipline to impose.”

Marisam said recommendations are usually pretty generic because each case is unique and supervisors know their departments best.

“I think the system has worked well and that individuals who have engaged in sexual harassment have received responsive action and sanctions, if appropriate, that are proportional to the conduct,” she said.

Others don’t think this system is doing enough.

“A lot of these policies are very much blind to real power imbalances that exist here in this university and the fact that usually sexual misconduct happens and is enabled by people in supervisory positions,” said Lena Palacios, an assistant professor in the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies.

Often, she added, “other faculty know about it, staff know about it, everyone’s mumbling about it. And if the department chair hasn’t done anything yet to address it, they’re not going to. They’ll protect that person.”

 

Blacked Out

In June 2017, Gianluigi Veglia received a formal reprimand from his supervisors, the deans of the Medical School and of the College of Science and Engineering, who were “deeply disturbed” by the conclusions of the two investigations. “Your behavior as described in the reports is patently offensive, unacceptable, and directly inconsistent with the principles of academic integrity and responsibility,” they wrote.

The comments he allegedly made were not limited to direct mentions of sex or intercourse, according to the investigation.

One complainant said that after she lost weight, Veglia gestured to her smaller breasts and said, “What am I supposed to do with those?”

During the investigation, “[Dr. Veglia] acknowledged noticing, worrying and talking with [the complainant] about the amount of weight that she had lost, but denied referencing the size of her breasts.”

Another complainant alleged that “Dr. Veglia told her she was very beautiful, she would be sexually harassed, and therefore, she should toughen up.”

“That’s why I say inappropriate things to you,” she reported him saying. “You need to be desensitized to it.”

Dr. Veglia admitted telling women in his lab they would have more challenges than men, but denied saying this in the context of a discussion about sexual harassment.

Veglia by City Pages on Scribd

Following the investigation, he was given typical sanctions, like attending sexual harassment training and meeting with his boss.

A bigger blow was his removal as the director of the university’s Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Center and the accompanying annual salary bonus of $10,000.

Other sanctions sound tough but are not as harsh as they might seem.

For example, Veglia isn’t allowed to supervise undergraduate students through the 2019-20 school year and was also removed from the two graduate programs he taught in, with his readmission to the programs contingent on his conduct, including “no reports of sexual harassment.”

Veglia can still do research with graduate students and others, which means his federal funding will keep flowing into the school.

The National Science Foundation announced in February that it would begin requiring institutions to report grantees who violate sexual misconduct policies, and it may even pull funding.

Congresswoman Jackie Speier, D-Calif., introduced a bill in September 2016 that would have made similar rules at several federal funding agencies. The bill stalled in committee.

The investigation of Veglia also offers a thought-provoking case study in the university’s handling of public information.

When an investigation ends, EOAA compiles the complainant’s allegations, the responses of the accused, the highlights of interviews with witnesses, and its ultimate finding into one big document.

When the university releases its conclusions, identifying information about the complainant should be removed so his or her identity isn’t known to the public.

The university regularly fields requests for public documents that need to be redacted before release. Stacie Christensen, the director of Minnesota’s Data Practices Office, said state laws leave room for public institutions to weigh privacy rights against the public’s right to know.

“It’s kind of left up to the entity that’s doing the redacting,” Christensen said.

Some redacted documents, like the findings against Rodman and other recent examples, are readable. Others, like files in the investigation against Veglia, quickly devolve into near-complete blackness. On some pages, only the page number and section heading escape the Sharpie.

City Pages obtained unredacted copies of the Veglia reports and redacted them to protect the privacy of the complainants.

Thirteen of the 19 pages in the two complaints provided by the university are mostly or completely black. Redactions include indisputably benign information like this: “Stephen Colbert is a comedian who appears regularly on TV.”

Redactions by City Pages on Scribd

Dan Herber, associate general counsel for the university, wrote that redactions are made based on whether the information could be used by “a reasonable person in the school community, who does not have personal knowledge of the relevant circumstances, to identify the student.”

However, the Veglia documents aren’t packed with any more identifying details than the Rodman documents, and even the U’s black-out versions identify the complainants as female.

Such rigorous attention to detail isn’t given to everything the U sends out. City Pages received two files from the U that included the names of two women who had complained. Both documents were immediately returned to the U to be properly redacted, but only one of them came back fixed. The other, a single-page summary, had to be returned a second time before the woman’s name was removed.

Meanwhile, heavy-handed redactions sanitize serious misconduct.

In an October interview with WNYC’s On the Media radio program, author Lin Farley, who coined the term “sexual harassment” in the 1970s, said she believes when the details of sexual harassment are glossed over, the story loses its impact.

“We have to tell the details,” she said. “People are shocked when they find out that the guy is coming in at noon and saying, ‘Okay, honey, meet me in the back room, I want a blow job.’ ... People do not understand how serious it is.”

 

Facing Forward

In May 2017, U of M President Eric Kaler announced an initiative to prevent sexual misconduct.

In typical academic fashion, responsibilities were delegated, leaders were appointed, and committees were convened to plan and make recommendations. So far, the actions taken mainly concern increased training and education. All faculty and staff will be required to have sexual misconduct training, and students will receive more instruction as well. Some of these trainings are now available for employees and students, and many have already taken them.

Karen Miksch, a co-chair of the initiative and an associate professor in the U’s College of Education and Human Development, said the training is an important place to start.

“We know that these types of trainings and other prevention measures like bystander intervention training—they work. They also tend to work for a certain period of time and then we need to do something more,” she said.

However, she added, broad culture change “isn’t something that you do in a year or two. This is a very long-term process. We know that some of our efforts may not see results for five or 10 years, but we have to keep going to make sure we get there.”

A new mandatory reporting policy is getting a lot more attention, and it hasn’t come from the initiative.

The policy, which went into effect January 1, requires nearly all university employees to make formal reports to EOAA when they learn of sexual misconduct.

Marisam, of EOAA, said she expects the policy will increase reports, but a letter signed by Palacios and about 100 other faculty, students, and staff cited public health literature that showed mandatory reporting policies could actually achieve the opposite.

“A lot of these students are just deathly afraid of reporting, and once they know that you’re a mandatory reporter, it chills the reporting,” Palacios said.

While she supports the policy, Eichele, of the Aurora Center, said the power differential between employees and students can already put a dent in reporting numbers, especially for grad students.

“For graduate students if [the perpetrator] were someone that’s advising them or in a faculty role, there’s a lot of risk. ... [Their] entire academic studies could be upended,” she said.

About one in four female undergraduate students at the U’s Twin Cities campus report having been sexually assaulted during their academic careers at the university, according to several campus climate surveys. Eichele said the surveys also show many students didn’t think what they’d experienced was serious enough to report, even in cases of rape. “And that carried through in all the different types of sexual misconduct, whether talking about relationship violence, stalking, or sexual harassment.”

In an emailed statement, Eichele wrote that the mandatory reporting policy was important because it shows the campus is getting serious about sexual misconduct. She also noted that the targets of misconduct “still have a choice in whether or not they want to participate in any university investigation.”

An investigation could still happen without a student’s participation, even if the complainant’s confidentiality couldn’t be maintained, but those situations are rare. “If we don’t have the participation of the complainant, we often don’t have enough information to investigate,” Marisam said.

Professors who learn about misconduct in class discussions or assignments are exempt from mandatory reporting as long as they report non-identifying information to EOAA and provide the student with resources. The policy does not exempt faculty or staff who learn about misconduct outside class. What’s more, if an employee is the one being harassed or assaulted and tells a supervisory employee like a department chair, that supervisor must make a report to EOAA.

“The university system nationwide has definitely had its hand slapped because it has mishandled so many cases of sexual violence on campuses,” Palacios said. “This is their way to protect themselves.”

Palacios said rather than vilifying each harassing individual, she’s interested in the systems.

“This is a culture,” she said. “People enable it, people dismiss it, they trivialize it. ... Real accountability would mean saying, ‘Okay, this guy got away with it, but what are the conditions in this department that allowed that behavior to go on for so long?’”


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