Student protesters chanted “We all you love you ECE, we stand in solidarity,” as they marched up to Bascom Hall. Among them was Marcel, a graduate student at UW-Madison, one of many protesting today against the return of researcher and professor Dr. Akbar Sayeed to UW-Madison.
“We are protesting because professor Sayeed drove his grad student into suicide, and the university hasn’t done anything about it,” says Marcel.
In 2016, John Brady, a graduate student in UW-Madison’s engineering program, died from suicide while working as a research assistant in Sayeed’s lab. A report by the Wisconsin State Journal found that many students complained about the conditions in Sayeed’s lab, and some even left it altogether. Some students reported worked 60-70 hour work weeks while enduring Sayeed’s threats to their grades and careers.
Following Brady’s death by suicide, the university made mental health services more readily available to graduate students following his death. According to Kyle Daruwalla, a PhD student and the Vice President of the Graduate Student Association, these steps are welcome but don’t get to the heart of the issue.
“Having those resources is absolutely important, but that is not the problem here or the issue,” says Daruwalla. “This shouldn’t be treated as a mental health issue; it should be treated as a workplace abuse issue, and on that front the university has not taken any steps since this incident happened.”
Daruwalla says Sayeed should not be allowed back.
The university gave Sayeed a two-year suspension in 2017, after Brady’s suicide, for running a toxic lab. But now that suspension is almost up, and he’s expected to return to UW-Madison in January. Ian Robertson, the Dean of the College of Letters and Sciences, said in a November letter that he was assigning Sayeed to “administrative duties” in the Dean’s Office, and would not be teaching. Meredith McGlone, a spokesperson for UW-Madison, says the university is placing restrictions on Sayeed to prevent another incident.
“He will not be teaching in the spring semester, nor will he have any contact with students,” says McGlone. “He will not be allowed to resume any of those duties until oversight measures are in place that the college and the university are confident will prevent any further acts of misconduct.”
McGlone says that the university believes this was a sufficiently harsh punishment.
“This person is also a researcher,” says McGlone. “A two-year suspension effectively meant that his lab was shut down. All of his researcher was ended for a period of two years in addition to the other impacts as a professor and on his other areas of work.”
Students marched to Bascom Hall today to deliver a petition to the Dean of students’ office calling for Sayeed to be dismissed from the university entirely.
State Representative Dave Murphy, the chairman of the assembly committee on Colleges and Universities, told the Wisconsin State Journal that he believes tenure played a role in keeping Sayeed at the university. However, Matthew Finkin, a law professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who chaired two committees that terminated tenured professors, says that this wouldn’t make it impossible.
“The burden of proof shifts from a faculty member to the institution, and if the institution believes there is grounds to dismiss the professor, they should be able to prove those grounds to a faculty hearing committee,” says Finkin. “It is not impossible nor is it really all that difficult to dismiss a tenured professor so long as a, the grounds are actually factually presented and b, the professor has an opportunity to have the evidence presented to and heard by a duly constituted hearing committee. The standard for termination is, as it should be, quite high. The institution has to prove the case; it can’t be simply suspicion or hearsay.”
McGlone says that the suspension was the punishment suggested to the former provost of UW-Madison, Sarah Mangelsdorf, by the investigator who looked into the case.
In the meantime, people at the rally raised concerns about how UW-Madison’s policies could affect people in the future. Taylor Draheim, a UW-Madison student, told the assembled crowd that she believes the university needs to do a better job serving its students.
“John Brady is not the only one,” says Draheim. “There are so many of us struggling. What we need more than ever is support. With the title of professor comes a great responsibility. You hold the lives and development of countless students in the palm of your hands. The Wisconsin idea is to pledge to the state, the nation, and the world that our endeavors will benefit all students. I literally just went to the wisc.edu website and pulled this straight from the front page. How can Wisconsin benefit all students if it struggles to benefit even its own students? If we can’t trust our professors and go to them for guidance, where does that leave the student?”
Sayeed’s suspension ends on December 31st.