One Campus. Seven Professors Facing Harassment Accusations. Few Consequences.

Aug 27, 2019

NPR Illinois and ProPublica found several sexual harassment allegations against University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign faculty that haven’t been publicly reported. Here's a rundown of the accusations, the consequences each faced and their responses.

This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica Local Reporting Network .

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Since last year, allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct have surfaced against three professors and an administrator at the University of Illinois’ flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign. In each instance, the public wasn’t told by the university until news organizations or others brought the allegations to light.

A review of public records by NPR Illinois and ProPublica revealed three additional, previously unreported cases in which professors facing similar allegations were allowed to quietly resign or remain on the payroll in lieu of being fired.

Some of the employees accumulated multiple complaints over a period of years. Here’s a breakdown of the cases reviewed:

Professor: Valarmathi Thiruvanamalai

Department: Comparative Biosciences

Allegations: Three women told the university’s investigative arm, then called the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access, or ODEA, that Thiruvanamalai had sexually harassed them. The allegations against him in 2014 ranged from lewd comments to efforts to create situations in which he would be alone with individual students. The unwanted behavior included calls, texts, inquiries about bathroom breaks and menstrual cycles, an invitation to a student to stay in the same hotel room, and unannounced visits to their homes.

Result: ODEA did not complete a full investigation or make conclusions about an initial complaint from one student. Instead, in an "informal resolution" in November 2014, Thiruvanamalai was directed not to contact the complainant, who was moved to a different lab. After a complaint by a second student as well as a lab tech, an investigation found that Thiruvanamalai violated the university’s sexual misconduct policy and he agreed to resign in 2015.

Professor response: Thiruvanamalai “vehemently refuted the allegations,” according to the informal resolution from 2014. He also denied subsequent claims but conceded he used terms like “sweetie” or “sweetheart” as terms of endearment. He did not respond to repeated calls and emails from NPR Illinois requesting comment.

Resignation terms: Thiruvanamalai signed a separation agreement in November 2015. The agreement did not mention the claims against him or the investigation's findings. It contained a confidentiality clause, barring both him and the university from discussing the details of his departure. Thiruvanamalai was put on paid administrative leave until his contract expired in August 2016 at his annual salary of about $98,600 plus benefits.

Where he is now: According to documents obtained by NPR Illinois and ProPublica, he began working at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in September 2017. UAB said his last day was June 10, 2019 — one month after NPR Illinois and ProPublica requested documents from the university, including any background checks it performed before employing him, and any complaints about him.

How this came to light: NPR Illinois/ProPublica investigation

Professor: Amita Sinha

Department: Landscape Architecture

Allegations: Sinha was accused of engaging in unwanted behavior toward a male colleague “intermittently for 15 years.” Sinha failed to comply with numerous directives to stop contacting the male colleague, whom she caused “significant emotional distress,” according to the claims.

Result: The university found that Sinha violated the stalking provision of the sexual misconduct policy. It suggested that her department “take appropriate employment action” and that department leadership undergo training on what constitutes sexual harassment. Her department head told the university he would pursue “appropriate employment action” if she did not resign.

Resignation terms: Sinha agreed to retire in October 2017 and her departure went into effect 10 months later. Until then, Sinha was placed on administrative leave, during which she was paid at her annual salary rate of about $101,700 plus health care benefits. The separation agreement contained a confidentiality clause and also a provision barring Sinha from speaking poorly of the university.

Professor response: Lawyers for Sinha disputed the report’s findings, saying most of her interactions with the colleague in question were professional. Her current lawyer said that she applied for and received a Fulbright grant while still a faculty member at UIUC.

Where she is now: She was a Fulbright scholar who taught in India starting in July 2018 through April 2019. Her host institution was listed as UIUC.

How this came to light: NPR Illinois/ProPublica investigation

Professor: Mahir Saul

Department: Anthropology

Allegations: In 2016, a student accused Saul of inappropriate touching and comments on her looks and repeated requests for one-on-one outings. The university spoke with two additional “individuals” who had similar concerns about Saul’s behavior but who didn’t wish to file formal complaints.

In 2018, a research assistant complained that Saul pressured her to stay at his apartment and sleep in his bed while they were in Turkey conducting research. She said another student had told her that she had acquiesced and slept in his bed, but that they did not have sex.

Result: In 2016, ODEA concluded that while Saul's actions didn't violate the sexual misconduct policy, supervisors should instruct him on appropriate student-professor interactions outside the classroom. It also recommended sexual harassment and Title IX training.

Two years later, the office again found that Saul did not violate the university's sexual misconduct policy, but this time that he violated its code of conduct. The office advised that he should not meet one-on-one with junior female staff or students in "university spaces."

The Anthropology Department head took the university’s recommendations further by taking Saul out of the classroom entirely. He has been on paid administrative leave since November of last year. His annual salary is around $91,000 .

Professor response: Saul has denied wrongdoing in both the investigative documents and in correspondence with NPR Illinois. He said that the claims were inaccurate and that the 2018 investigation was the result of a “labor dispute … with a disgruntled employee.”

Where he is now: Employed by the university

How this came to light: NPR Illinois/ProPublica investigation

Professor: Joseph Petry

Department: Economics

Allegations: In an April 2019 Reddit post , a student accused Petry of offering her good grades for sex.

ProPublica and NPR Illinois obtained complaint intake forms from October 2018 and April 2019 against him that were almost entirely redacted.

Result: Petry was put on paid administrative leave beginning in February pending an investigation. Students were initially told that Petry was on leave because of a “family emergency,” according to a report in the Champaign-area newspaper The News-Gazette .

Resignation terms: The university put Petry on paid leave until May 2019 at his annual salary rate of $96,300. Petry signed a separation agreement on April 11. One term of the agreement was that the university “will discontinue its investigation into the allegations that have been brought against Mr. Petry and no formal discipline will be imposed.” However, the university told NPR Illinois the investigation was continuing. The agreement did not include a confidentiality clause.

Professor response: According to media reports, Petry admitted sharing photos and communications of a social nature ” with a student, but he denied other claims. In a statement provided through his lawyers, he said that, had an investigation continued, he is confident it would not have found him in violation of university policy.

Where he is now: Unclear

How this came to light: Reddit initially, and subsequently reported by local and national media.

Professor: Gary Xu

Department: East Asian Languages and Cultures

Allegations: Public records obtained by NPR Illinois and ProPublica detail allegations against Xu stretching back to 2014 , and they include various claims of sexual harassment as well as assault. In one case, a student who said she was in an abusive relationship with Xu petitioned a court for a protective order.

Result: The university concluded, according to heavily redacted investigative findings, that Xu’s relationship with a student violated the student code, and that he violated directives from the dean not to contact a victim who came forward.

Resignation terms: Xu had been on paid administrative leave since January 2016 pending the outcome of the university’s investigation. He signed a separation agreement in June 2017 that allowed him to remain on paid leave through August 2018, when his resignation took effect. The agreement stated he would earn his salary of about $85,400 during that time. The resignation also came with a $10,000 lump-sum payment from the university. His separation agreement included terms that he keep the details confidential and not disparage the university.

Professor response: Xu had denied claims in reporting by The Daily Illini , the university’s student newspaper. He did not respond to requests for comment from ProPublica.

Where he is now: Unclear

How this came to light: Chinese media reports followed by Daily Illini reports.

Administrator: Lee Waldrep (He was an instructor and also an administrator for undergrad student services.)

Department: Architecture

Allegations: In March and April 2017, eight female students complained to the university that Waldrep made inappropriate comments and engaged in uncomfortable physical behavior, including that he “blocked their path on a stairwell, backed them into a railing or wall, pinned their legs between his while sitting across from them or stood uncomfortably close to them.”

Result: An August 2017 report by ODEA found that he had violated both the sexual misconduct policy as well as the code of conduct. Waldrep had already resigned by the time the investigation was completed, but ODEA suggested he never be rehired by the university.

Resignation terms: Waldrep was on paid leave from April to August 2017 at his annual salary of about $92,700 . He resigned before the investigation was completed, and when it did come out in the following weeks, it was labeled “confidential.” The resignation included terms that he could not speak of the agreement or disparage the university, and that any violations would come with a $10,000 fee.

Administrator response: According to the ODEA report, he denied the allegations. He declined NPR Illinois’ request for comment through a lawyer.

Where he is now: Waldrep began working at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in March 2018. He was fired later that year after details about his resignation from UIUC came to light through media reports.

How this came to light: The investigation was reported by The News-Gazette and the local public media station , and it was subsequently covered by the Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee.

Professor: Jay Kesan

Department: College of Law

Allegations: A student told law school officials in 2002 that Kesan sexually harassed her. The then-dean of the College of Law wrote a letter to Kesan in which she mentioned additional rumors about Kesan engaging in problematic behavior. No investigation took place at that time, according to records.

In 2015, three anonymous complainants said that Kesan had inquired about their views on sex while sharing details of his own sex life, and that he had inappropriately touched or tried to touch them.

Result: Following the 2015 complaints, ODEA found in 2017 that Kesan didn’t violate the sexual misconduct code, “as defined by University policy,” however, “his actions certainly have made the working and teaching environment uncomfortable for a countless number of female colleagues and students.”

ODEA suggested that the College of Law better publicize information on how to file sexual harassment claims, and that Kesan undergo professional coaching and training, among several other suggestions.

In 2017, the dean of the College of Law agreed to have Kesan undergo in-person sexual harassment training and noted he would not qualify for certain salary programs and lucrative endowment positions for a limited period of time.

Professor response: Kesan told the ODEA that the allegations lacked merit, but he later authored a letter admitting the conduct happened as described. He told NPR Illinois he had no further comment on the claims but credited the #MeToo movement with improving public discourse about sexual harassment. He said he plans to return to work in 2020.

Where he is now: Still employed with university and on voluntary unpaid leave until 2020.

How this came to light: A #MeToo forum in 2018 and subsequent media reports .

NPR Illinois was part of the Illinois Newsroom collaborative, which secured the initial grant for this project.

NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Media are part of the University of Illinois System. The university has no editorial control or oversight of news content produced by either. Reporters at NPR Illinois, however, are considered “responsible employees” under the university’s policies and are required to report allegations of abuse to the university. As a result, news tips should be sent to ProPublica staff. 

Our reporting won’t stop here. Have you faced sexual harassment or violence from a faculty or staff member at a university, college or community college in Illinois? We need your help — here’s how you can get in touch.

Update, Oct. 10, 2019: This story has been updated to reflect that the callout is being done solely by ProPublica and not in partnership with NPR Illinois. For more information, read this column from ProPublica.