Sexual harassment allegations roil Princeton University

Blair Hall on Princeton University's campus in New Jersey. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

Blair Hall on Princeton University's campus in New Jersey. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

Another high-profile instance of sexual harassment has rocked a major institution — this time Princeton University in New Jersey. And students say administrators didn’t act transparently or strongly enough when disciplining the alleged perpetrator, a decorated professor.

A Title IX investigation, first revealed by HuffPost, found electrical engineering professor Sergio Verdu guilty of sexually harassing one of his student advisers. Yeohee Im told HuffPost Verdu touched her thigh and stomach and invited her to watch sexually explicit films at his house.

Im also said the university punished Verdu by mandating he take eight hours of sexual harassment training, but did nothing further.

Princeton officials said the discipline went beyond training, but won’t say how exactly Verdu was reprimanded.

The details of specific Title IX investigations are kept confidential to respect the privacy of parties involved and the witnesses who provide information,” said university spokesman Michael Hotchkiss in an e-mail. “In this case, penalties were imposed in addition to the required counseling.”

Verdu denies he sexually harassed Im, but declined an interview request, also citing the confidentiality of Title IX inquiries.

“I cannot comment, due to university regulations on the confidentiality of these matters, beyond the fact that I have denied unequivocally throughout this process that there was any sexual harassment,” said Verdu in an email.

More than 750 Princeton students, staff, and alum signed a petition asking the university to punish Verdu further and clarify how it adjudicates sexual harassment claims.

“In particular, we note that Title IX infractions committed by faculty members are particularly egregious, as the influence that faculty wield over students and their future careers — particularly students within their own departments — further discourages reporting of violations and makes sexual advances more challenging to combat,” the petition read.

A resolution before Princeton’s Undergraduate Student Government also calls for the university to discipline Verdu further, according to The Daily Princetonian, a campus newspaper.

Alexandra Werth, a fourth-year graduate student in the electrical engineering department, said the intimate and imbalanced relationship between graduate students and their professors can leave students vulnerable.

“For someone who’s not in the position of power, the graduate student, it can make it very difficult to tell what’s going on,” said Werth. “Is this proper behavior or not?”

Because graduate students often work in narrowly defined fields with few jobs, alienating an adviser, Werth said, can severely damage someone’s career prospects.

Town hall set to air complaints

Michelle Zheng, also an electrical engineering graduate student, feels the university didn’t do enough to protect other students who might have worked with Verdu.

If Im hadn’t publicized her story through HuffPost, Zheng said, students would still be in the dark about the professor’s behavior.

“We should have known about this five months ago,” she said. “You force your student to go public to raise awareness about this issue.”

Zheng said at least a couple of other students in the department cannot sleep well and are “very stressed about the incident.”

Student outcry over the university’s handling of the Verdu case prompted Emily Carter, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, to write the community a letter. Carter condemned Verdu’s behavior and acknowledged his guilt, but stood by Princeton’s process for investigating and punishing the award-winning professor.

Although I am not part of the disciplinary process and am unable to disclose certain information relating to outcomes under university policy and applicable law, I can say that I am convinced that the university promptly and properly investigates and adjudicates each case,” Carter wrote.

In comments to HuffPost, Im said Princeton investigators were aware of other, similar incidents involving Verdu, but that none of the other women came forward, and they were obligated to treat Verdu as a first-time offender. In a statement, Hotchkiss said those who violate the school’s sexual misconduct policy can be warned, put on probation, lose leave or other privileges, be suspended, or be dismissed “based on the facts of the case.”

In addition to crafting their petition, students have also requested meetings with university officials. The Daily Princetonian reported that electrical engineering graduate students held a town hall Nov. 20 to air complaints. 

Another town hall will take place Monday at noon, according to Carter.

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