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Despite much ado about the #metoo movement in recent years, the crisis of sexual harassment in academia persists without an end in sight. The academic sexual misconduct database now lists 1,051 cases, each of them a tragedy of trauma, unspeakable violations of victims, and dreams destroyed. I’ve written previously about two cases listed in the database (Yuval Peres and Terry Speed). Now, I feel compelled to write about yet another sexual harassment case.

Adrian Dumitrescu is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. I have known of his work for many years, as we have a shared interest in extremal combinatorics, having both worked on the Erdös-Szekeres “Happy Ending Problem”. Last week a Facebook post was brought to my attention, in which a graduate student describes a horrible case of sexual harassment by Prof. Dumitrescu that occurred during a conference in Boston in 2016.

This student filed a Title IX complaint with the University of Wisconsin, and I have a copy of the report. The Office of Equity and Diversity (EDS) that investigated the case found that “Based on the totality of the circumstances, the information obtained pursuant to this investigation, and for all the reasons set forth above, EDS concludes that there is sufficient evidence to support a finding, by preponderance of the evidence, of sexual harassment against the Respondent [Prof. Dumitrescu].” Furthermore, the report states that “based on the seriousness of the Respondent’s conduct, EDS believes that disciplinary action is warranted in this matter, and recommends that the Provost refer this case for imposition of discipline”. As I write this post, Prof. Dumitrescu is still listed as a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Notably, after being sexually harassed by the Respondent, and before filing a report with Title IX, the student consulted her Ph.D. advisor. The report describes his response as follows: “[he] told her that the Respondent had a ‘high reputation’ in the field and it was better to ‘avoid trouble’ and not to report her concerns.” And yet she had the courage to report the case, despite the attempt to silence her, and having being threatened by the Respondent, as he coerced her to sleep with him, that if she did not acquiesce to his demands he would not conduct research with her and he might prevent senior scholars at her university from working with her.

The report details how the sexual harassment impacted the complainant’s research progress and mental well-being. Yet again, a talented young scientist finds herself with debilitating trauma, a career in jeopardy, and powerless in the face of an establishment that excuses harassers.

The details of this case are of course different than every other sexual harassment case. Each is tragic in its own way. And yet elements of what happened here are to be found in all sexual harassment cases. Power imbalance. Coercion. Threats. Silencing of the victim. Inaction. Banal injustice. This will be case number 1,052 in the academic sexual misconduct database.

We must do better.

Update June 11, 2021: Adrian Dumitrescu left the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee in January 2021.

The post concerns Yuval Peres, a principal researcher in the Microsoft Theory Group [update Dec. 26, 2018: YP is no longer employed at Microsoft] and a former colleague of mine at UC Berkeley. Below is a copy of an email sent yesterday to numerous theory of computer science professors worldwide, and published on the Stanford Theory Seminar List. It corroborates information I heard about Yuval Peres a number of years ago when I was a mathematics professor at UC Berkeley. At the time I was asked to keep the information I heard confidential, and I did so because the person who discussed it with me was, understandably, afraid of retaliation. Now I wonder to what extent my silence allowed his harassment of women to continue unabated. I also wonder when the leaders of the statistics department at UC Berkeley, where Peres used to work, and where Terry Speed was a professor emeritus before I reported him, will end their culture of silence.

Hello all,

This is an email composed by Irit Dinur, Oded Goldreich and me. The purpose of this email is to share with you concerns that we had regarding the unethical behavior of Yuval Peres. The behavior we are referring to includes several recent incidents from the past few years, on top of the two “big” cases of sexual harassment that led to severe sanctions against him by his employer, Microsoft, and to the termination of his connections with the University of Washington. Together with two colleagues who are highly regarded and trusted by us, we have first and second-hand testimonies (by people we trust without a shed of doubt) of at least five additional cases of him approaching junior female scientists, some of them students, with offers of intimate nature, behavior that has caused its victims quite a bit of distress since these offers were “insistent”. While the examples that we encountered from the last few years do not fall under the category of sexual harassment from a legal point of view, they certainly caused great discomfort to the victims, who were young female scientists, putting them in a highly awkward situation, and creating an atmosphere that they’d rather avoid (i.e., they would rather miss a conference or a lecture than risk being subjected to repeated intimate offers by him). We wish to stress that his aggressive advances toward young women, usually with no previous friendly connections with him, puts them in a vulnerable position of fearing to cross a senior scientist who might have an impact on their career, which is at a fragile stage. We believe that the questions of whether or not Yuval Peres intended to make them uncomfortable, and whether or not he would or could actually harm their scientific status are irrelevant; the fact is that the victims felt very stressed to a point that they’d rather miss professional events than risk encountering the same situation again. Needless to say, it is the responsibility of senior members of our community to avoid putting less senior members in such a position.

Our current involvement with this issue was triggered by an invitation Yuval Peres received to give a plenary talk at an international conference next year. We felt that this invitation sends a highly undesirable message to our community in general, and to the women he harassed in particular, as if his transgressions are considered unimportant.

We sent an email conveying our concern to the organizers of the conference, suggesting that they disinvite him. With our permission, they forwarded a version of our letter (in which we made changes in order to protect the identity of the women involved) to Yuval Peres. They did not reveal our identity, rather they told him that this is a letter from “senior members of the community”. In our letter we included a paragraph describing a general principle that should be followed. The principle is:

A senior researcher should not approach a junior researcher with an invitation that may be viewed as intimate or personal unless such an invitation was issued in the past by this specific junior to that specific senior. The point being that even if the senior researcher has no intimate/personal intentions, such intentions may be read by the junior researcher, placing the junior in an awkward situation and possibly causing them great distress. Examples for such an invitation include any invitation to a personal event in which only the senior and the junior will be present (e.g., a two-person dinner, a meeting in a private home, etc).

Yuval’s reply was rather laconic, in particular, he did not address the issue of his behavior in the past couple of years. However, he did write:

“I certainly embrace the principle described in boldface in the letter. This seems to be the right approach for any senior scientist these days.”

The reason we are copying this to all of you (as opposed, for example, to using bcc) is related to the islanders’ paradox: we believe that the fact that everyone knows that everyone knows is a significant boost to holding Yuval Peres accountable for his future actions. We’re also bcc’ing several young women who already aware of Yuval Peres’s actions, in order to keep them in the know too.

We understand that sending this out to a large number of people without offering Yuval Peres the chance to respond may be considered unfair. However, after weighing the pros and cons carefully we believe this is a good course of action. First of all, because it is clear that the victims did not invent his offers and their ensuing feelings of anxiety and stress. Secondly, we know that Yuval Peres has been confronted in a face to face conversation by a senior colleague, and it did not end his behavior, so we think it’s important to stay vigilant in protecting the younger members of our community. Thirdly, the information in this letter will reach (or has already reached) almost all of you in any case, so the main effect of the letter is making what everyone knows into public knowledge. Finally, although his response to the organizers did include the minimum of declaring he accepts the guiding principle that we stated, it did not include any reference to the ongoing behavior we described- neither regret nor concern nor denial. So it’s not easy to assume that he truly intends to mend his ways.

We hope that our actions will contribute to the future of our community as an environment that offers all a pleasant and non-threatening atmosphere.

Sincerely,
Irit Dinur, Ehud Friedgut, Oded Goldreich

On April 11th 2016, I contacted the Office for Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination at UC Berkeley to report that Professor Terry Speed had sexually harassed a postdoctoral researcher in the UC Berkeley statistics department in the period 2000–2002. Two specific allegations were subsequently investigated:

Allegation One: Respondent, a professor in the Statistics Department, sexually harassed Complainant One, a post-doctoral student in the same department, from 2000-2002 by making sexual advances toward her, asking her for dates, telling her he had a “crush” on her, giving her hugs, and communicating with her, including by email, in an intimate or romantic manner, when such behavior was not welcome.

Allegation Two: Respondent, a professor in the Statistics Department, created a hostile work environment for Complainant Two, an Assistant Professor in the Mathematics Department, in 2002, through Respondent’s persistent discussions and emails regarding his romantic interest in Complainant One and by pressuring Complainant Two to persuade Complainant One to interact with Respondent.

The investigation took 14 months to complete, and the result was a 47 page report along with 89 pages of supporting evidence based on interviews, hundreds of pages of emails that I disclosed at the outset of the investigation, and letters and emails provided by Respondent. The report concludes as follows:

CONCLUSION
For the reasons stated above, I conclude that the preponderance of the evidence substantiates that Respondent violated the 1992 Sexual Harassment Policy in that he engaged in unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that created a hostile environment for Complainant One and Complainant Two, and conditioned an academic or personnel decision on Complainant One’s submission to his conduct. This report is being submitted to the Vice Provost for Faculty for review under the Faculty Code of Conduct.

I have waited since June of last year to hear from the Vice Provost for Faculty at UC Berkeley what action the university will take in light of the findings, however despite multiple requests for information the university has yet to respond as to whether it will enact any sanctions on Respondent.

My close-up encounter with sexual harassment was devastating. I never expected, when I arrived in Berkeley in 1999, that Terry Speed, a senior professor in my field who I admired and thought of as a mentor would end up as Respondent and myself as Complainant Two. However much more serious and significant than my ordeal were the devastating consequences his sexual harassment had on the life and well being of Complainant One. The sexual harassment that took place was not an isolated event. Despite repeated verbal and written requests by Complainant One that Speed stop, his sexual harassment continued unabated for months. The case was not reported at the time the sexual harassment happened because of the structure of Title IX. Complainant One knew that Speed would be informed if a complaint was made, and Complainant One was terrified of reprisal. Her fear was not hypothetical; after months of asking Speed to stop sexually harassing her, he communicated to her that, unless she was willing to reconcile with him as he wished, she could not count on his recommendation.

Speed has been an advocate for women in academia in recent years. However no amount of advocacy on behalf of women can cancel out the physical and mental harm caused by prolonged sexual harassment. Speed’s self-proclamation that he is a “male feminist” rings hollow.

Update on June 6, 2018: Terry Speed is no longer listed as Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley.

Update on June 22, 2018: This is the “notice of outcome” I received from UC Berkeley regarding the case:

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