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NSF unwittingly hired a professor guilty of bullying, highlighting the ‘pass the harasser’ problem

The #MeToo movement has focused attention on an ugly tradition in higher education: having faculty members found guilty of bullying or sexual harassment move to a new job without their new employer being aware of their past conduct. The practice of “passing the harasser” is abetted by privacy and labor laws that limit how much prospective employers can be told about a job applicant.

In a bid to penetrate that veil of silence, two major research universities in the University of California (UC) system have launched pilot programs that require certain faculty candidates to agree to waive some privacy protections. But an incident in which the National Science Foundation (NSF) unwittingly hired a tenured faculty member who had been found guilty of abusive behavior suggests research institutions still have a long way to go before passing the harasser fades into history.

Punishment, then silence

The NSF saga began in May 2017, when the University of Wisconsin (UW) in Madison concluded that engineering professor Akbar Sayeed had created a toxic environment in his laboratory through an unrelenting barrage of derogatory and racial epithets and other intimidation tactics aimed at his students. The investigation was triggered by a query from the family of John Brady, a graduate student in Sayeed’s lab who committed suicide in October 2016 after enduring years of such abuse.

Soon after the university completed its investigation, Sayeed applied for a job at NSF’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. In October 2017 he started work as a program manager in its division of electrical, communications, and cyber systems. A few weeks later the university told Sayeed that he would be suspended for 2 years, without pay, starting in January 2018.

But UW officials didn’t tell NSF about the investigation when they signed a 1-year agreement with NSF. It allowed Sayeed to serve as a so-called rotator, a temporary employee who retains ties to their home institution, with NSF covering his $141,000-a-year salary while he worked at the agency. UW remained silent when the university approved a renewal of that arrangement in October 2018.

NSF didn’t get its first whiff of Sayeed’s misconduct until this January, after a reporter with the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison requested public records of all university investigations into alleged harassment by employees. “I informed [NSF] of the complaint against Dr. Sayeed and the death of the graduate student [John Brady],” Ian Robertson, dean of UW’s engineering college, said in a written response to questions from Science. “I offered to provide additional information upon request.”

NSF didn’t take him up on that offer, and the university maintains that it had no legal obligation to inform the agency about the investigation. But this April, the university shared its report with the agency after releasing hundreds of pages of documents to the Wisconsin paper, which last month broke the story of Sayeed’s suspension and temporary employment at NSF.

Robertson explained the delay by citing a state law that gives Sayeed the opportunity to appeal the release of any personnel records. Sayeed declined to appeal the newspaper’s request, however, and UW sent NSF its report on Sayeed “as a courtesy,” says Meredith McGlone, a UW spokesperson. Within days of receiving that material, NSF terminated Sayeed.

Sayeed wouldn’t have been hired had NSF known about his conduct, says an agency official who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss personnel issues. And once he was suspended, Sayeed was no longer eligible to work as a rotator, the agency says. That’s because an NSF policy requires a faculty member to have been on their home institution’s payroll for at least 90 days before showing up at NSF.

When Sayeed’s contract was renewed in October 2018, he had been on unpaid status for 9 months. Robertson acknowledges that “the university failed to provide NSF a timely update on [Sayeed’s] status” after his suspension began.

Sayeed did not respond to interview requests from Science. He remains a full professor after the investigation concluded that his behavior “was not serious enough to warrant dismissal.”

University officials initially said he would be free to return to campus and resume his duties once his suspension ended. But last week, Robertson announced Sayeed would not teach any courses during the spring semester and that he had been “reassigned to administrative duties” in Robertson’s office. “This assignment will remain in place until the department chair, the provost and I are satisfied that adequate measures are in place to provide oversight of the faculty member as a teacher, mentor and research advisor, as well as to prevent potential harm to students,” Robertson wrote in a 13 November letter to the UW engineering community.

Jim Brady, whose concerns about what his son endured in Sayeed’s lab prompted UW to launch its investigation, wonders why Sayeed was allowed to take a job at NSF. “Obviously, [the university] couldn’t prevent him from finding work during his leave,” says Brady, a Ph.D. chemist who works in private industry.

Brady says he isn’t familiar with the exact sequence of events but that “the timeline should make anyone queasy … Sayeed apparently took advantage of his relationship with NSF, based on previous funding from the agency, to follow a path that would mitigate [the university’s] punishment.”

In Brady’s view, what happened suggests that “something is awry and needs a bit of attention.”

NSF as a model

Ironically, when Sayeed became an NSF rotator, he joined a government agency that has won praise for its response to the growing number of reports about harassment by scientists carrying out federally funded research. In October 2018, NSF announced a new policy requiring institutions to tell it about any finding of harassment against anyone on campus with an NSF grant, as well as any administrative steps they have taken in response to an allegation of harassment that might hinder an investigator’s ability to work on the grant. This July, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill that proposes governmentwide policies to combat sexual harassment that are modeled on NSF’s rules.

“NSF holds all staff to the highest standards of professionalism and integrity and does not tolerate any type of harassment,” says Amanda Greenwell, head of the agency’s office of legislative and public affairs. “We will continue to have zero tolerance for harassment, discrimination, or bullying of any kind within the agency, at awardee organizations, field sites, or anywhere science or education is conducted.” NSF sees requiring disclosure of harassment investigations as one step toward stamping out the behavior.

A privacy waiver

In California, meanwhile, the desire to avoid hiring faculty found to have committed harassment has spurred two UC campuses to change their approach to vetting finalists for tenured faculty positions.

At UC Davis, a pilot project begun in July 2018 asks those candidates to allow their current employer to share with the school any findings of harassment against them. Anyone who doesn’t sign the waiver allowing the disclosure of such information, which is normally kept confidential, is considered to have an incomplete application and is removed from consideration.

The new policy appears to be having its desired effect, says Philip Kass, the university’s vice provost for academic affairs. Every one of the 21 finalists for tenured positions whom UC Davis has investigated since the policy was implemented has come up clean (based on responses from 30 of the 31 institutions that the university queried). His theory is that those with a negative finding in their files have chosen not to apply, and he’s not worried that self-winnowing will limit the talent pool available to the university.

“I’d rather err on the side of excluding someone with a history of harassment rather than allowing someone to sneak through,” Kass says. At the same time, he notes, discovering a finding of past harassment wouldn’t automatically trigger a rejection. UC Davis typically asks institutions to go back roughly 10 years into personnel records, on the assumption that rehabilitation is possible.

“It’s not a case of one strike and you’re out forever,” Kass says. “If someone has admitted they made a mistake and learned from it, that’s a positive sign.”

This summer, UC San Diego (UCSD) launched a similar pilot. It was spurred by a “false alarm” involving allegations of past harassment by a newly hired faculty member, says Robert Continetti, senior associate vice chancellor for academic affairs. After completing the investigation, Continetti says, “We found ourselves without any policy to guide us going forward.”

The new policy applies only to tenured positions, Continetti says, because “it’s a laborious process to remove someone with tenure.” In contrast, those seeking “tenure-track appointment are already on probation,” meaning any harassment finding could lead to a denial of tenure. Overall, UCSD officials expect the 3-year pilot will affect roughly 20% of the 75 to 80 tenured faculty searches that the university conducts in a typical year.

UCSD officials worked closely with the faculty senate in designing the pilot, Continetti says. One concern they addressed is that the additional vetting could slow recruitment to the point that the best candidates might choose to go elsewhere. “We’re committed to taking no more than 5 days” for the background information requests, he says, “so we don’t think it will be an impediment to making an offer.”

Privacy versus disclosure

Kass and Continetti believe the new procedures will weed out bad apples while maintaining an employee’s right to privacy. “It’s not going to be 100% perfect, but it is such a common sense approach that I’m surprised more universities haven’t adopted it,” says Kass, who this June testified before Congress at a hearing on ways to stop harassment in science.

The University of Illinois appears headed in that direction after its Board of Trustees last week embraced recommendations from a faculty committee to launch a pilot based on the UC Davis model. And this week, UC Davis officials will speak at a national symposium hosted by the University of Washington in Seattle. The meeting is a follow-up to a 2018 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on preventing harassment in higher education.

Another presenter will be the general counsel to the UW system, Quinn Williams. He will be discussing how, under a first-in-the-nation policy adopted in June 2018 by the state’s Board of Regents, all UW institutions must now share findings of harassment with other state entities—and any outside employer—that asks for it.

The new policy also establishes rules for what institutions must keep in their personnel files. The new standards are meant to ensure that institutions are properly documenting any findings of harassment, Williams explains, and also that they can answer questions about them from prospective employers.

Williams thinks the new policy signals a greater willingness by universities and other large organizations to overcome their natural tendency to preserve the status quo in the name of combatting harassment. “Institutions of higher education aren’t designed to change quickly,” he says. “But it’s no longer acceptable to mitigate risk by quietly letting someone leave.”

Wisconsin’s unique policy went into effect in January. But it wasn’t put to the test in the case of Sayeed and NSF. The policy doesn’t require the university to be proactive in passing along troubling information about a past or present employee to a prospective employer. And NSF never asked.

It’s possible that NSF might learn about a finding of harassment while talking to people about a job candidate’s scientific credentials, agency officials say. And there are no federal laws or policies that would prohibit the agency from asking a home institution such a question. But, in general, rotator candidates are subject only to the same screening as all other federal job candidates. That includes filling out a form that asks a candidate about any past criminal convictions. It does not, however, ask about having been investigated or found guilty of harassment.

In the wake of Sayeed’s firing, NSF moved quickly to prevent a reoccurrence. Within a few weeks, the agency had revised its standard rotator agreement with universities to emphasize their obligation to inform NSF of relevant personnel matters.

The form now reads: “If the employment status of this individual changes while on assignment, NSF MUST BE NOTIFIED IMMEDIATELY.”