Too Little, Too Late

Graduate student's suicide at UW Madison is a devastating cautionary tale about abusive lab environments.

November 4, 2019
 
UW Madison
Akbar Sayeed, left, and John Brady, in 2016

The University of Wisconsin, Madison, awarded John Brady a doctorate in engineering in 2017, following his seven long years in the campus’s Wireless Communications and Sensing Laboratory. But Brady was not there to receive his degree. He died by suicide the year prior, after trying to sound the alarm on his lab’s toxic leader, Akbar Sayeed.

Brady’s story came to light last week in a lengthy report by the Wisconsin State-Journal. Madison said that it made a number of important changes since Brady’s death, including introducing an anonymous rating system for faculty advisers. But a follow-up story in the State-Journal revealed that Madison had still failed to promptly inform the National Science Foundation that it suspended Sayeed for hostile and intimidating behavior -- allowing him to work there for much of his leave.

Sayeed, who did not respond to requests for comment, plans to return to teaching at Madison in January, following the two-year suspension. He’ll do so under increased supervision, but some say he shouldn’t be welcomed back at all.

In any case, Brady’s story has resonated with many current and former graduate students. It bears retelling for that reason alone. But it is also a cautionary tale of the highest stakes, for students contemplating graduate study or already working in abusive environments -- and those charged with their care.

Brady died in 2016, the year he started taking detailed notes about the lab climate and secretly recording Sayeed screaming at students, according to personal computer files later discovered by his family. He’d planned on meeting with a trusted faculty member in October of that year -- one he’d previously reached out to about Sayeed -- but died before he could. He was 28.

Hostile, Intimidating Behavior

For years, there had been frequent turnover in Sayeed’s lab. That left fewer and fewer students to do more and more work and absorb Sayeed’s rages and insults. But it took Brady’s death -- specifically a phone call to his family -- for Sayeed’s dean to become aware of the problem.

According to an internal report commissioned by the engineering dean, Ian Robertson, Sayeed regularly hurled the F-word at students, threatened to “fire” them and called them “monkeys,” “babies who do not use the brain to think,” “dumb asses,” “liars” and more.

“Epithets and derogatory comments were substituted for specific guidance or problem solving,” reads the report, written by Patricia Wolleat, professor emerita of counseling psychology. “Insults and fear were used in place of other, more productive, cognitive or motivational strategies.”

The behavior went on for at least four years, and students’ attempts to address the matter with Sayeed directly went nowhere. The report also notes that one student brought the matter to the then department chair’s attention, but that no action was taken.

Based on input from 11 current and former students and at least one faculty member, the investigation (first obtained by the State Journal) found that Sayeed insulted and made “ambiguous physical threats” at students, often in front of others. His alleged conduct also “limited academic goals and achievements of several students and caused emotional distress, and, thus, is serious enough to warrant discipline.”

‘They Were Too Tired’

A number of students in the lab left, even if it meant sacrificing their funding. Tellingly, a visiting scholar from another country who had planned to stay in Sayeed’s lab for 15 months but left early due to the climate said that Sayeed could not control his temper. There was “too much work, not enough people,” the scholar also said, according to Madison's report.

Sayeed expected too much out of Brady and the one other remaining student in the lab when he arrived, the scholar also said. “They were too tired.”

In addition to negative outcomes for individual students, the report reads, Sayeed’s behavior “was antithetical to the outcomes of the very project he directed.” The “energy drained from individuals to deal with interpersonal interactions affected their contributions to the project” and led to attrition of lab members.

“Not only was there difficulty in recruiting new members,” as current lab members would advise potential recruits against working there, “but remaining members had to spend a significant amount of time training new members, getting them up to speed … Training of new members fell particularly to [Brady], who had the longest tenure in the lab.”

The report includes excerpts from Brady’s own notes, including that “work in the lab has devolved to the point where all efforts are being made to deal with the latest problem that Prof. Sayeed has gotten angry and abusive about. This constant putting out of fires has led to an environment where no progress is made on longer-term projects, like writing papers.” As Brady was “the only student who has been a member of the group for more than 1.5 years,” he wrote, “I almost always have to help out with putting out the latest fire.”

Sayeed's Leave

Sayeed “purports to see how his behavior affects others” and “appears to be motivated to change for both professional and personal reasons," the report reads. He went to counseling for anger management and is reviewing his teaching strategies “to learn more effective ways to manage his research staff. This work, however, is not yet finished.”

The report specifically found Sayeed in violation of all four charges against him: hostile or intimidating behavior that does not rise to the level of dismissal, abuses of authority, using abusive expressions, and engaging in conduct that adversely impacts performance. It recommended discipline for Sayeed -- what ultimately was a two-year unpaid leave -- and various oversight mechanisms for his return to teaching. Suggestions include frequent monitoring of his lab climate and graduate students’ experiences, involvement in a teaching academy, appointment of a teaching mentor, continuing education, and possible modification of lab staffing so that students don’t need to supervise each other.

It’s unclear how much of the last two years Sayeed spent working to improve his teaching. Until April, he had a full-time job working as an engineering program director at the NSF. The agency eventually fired him after learning about his behavior at Madison, from the university. But the NSF said that Madison did not share the circumstances of Sayeed’s leave when it originally called to verify his salary information to hire him in 2017. The NSF told the State Journal that Sayeed's program there would have required institutions share employee status with it. As of 2018, the NSF also requires institutions to inform it when a principal investigator, co-PI or any other grant “personnel” are found to have committed sexual misconduct or harassment of any kind, or when the allegations are severe enough to warrant suspension during a campus investigation.

Making Changes

Robertson said in an email to Inside Higher Ed that “this was a heartbreaking loss for this student’s family, friends and all who knew him and we are doing our utmost to ensure something like this never happens again.”

Sayeed’s “behavior in this case was inexcusable,” he said. Immediately upon learning about it, “We responded immediately and following the procedure laid out in university policy: the college conducted the initial investigation and based on the severity, referred the case to the Provost’s Office for further investigation. Prof. Sayeed was found to have violated the policy on hostile and intimidating behavior and the investigator recommended a suspension.”

Should Sayeed return to campus in January, as he's indicated he will, Robertson said, "the department and college are required to put in place extensive oversight and monitoring of his interactions with any students choosing to work with him.” Anyone interested in his lab will be informed of those requirements “and the reasons for them so they can make an informed decision.” And for anyone who decides to work with him but changes course for any reason, “the department and college will ensure they can continue their studies at the university with minimal disruption."

Robertson said that the department, engineering college and the university as a whole have taken various steps to respond to hostile and intimidating behavior and to support graduate students since 2016. At the college level, those changes include providing training on addressing hostile and intimidating behavior to administrators and staff members. The training is currently being adapted for graduate and undergraduate students, as well. There is a new assistant dean of graduate affairs who has already developed a list of resources for grievances, met regularly with a student advisory group, hosted organized activities to foster a positive climate and connections, and adopted the annual advising assessment tool.

Regarding graduate student mental health -- a challenge across academe -- the college has made a list of resources available to advisers and students and cleared space for a mental health professional to work at the engineering campus part-time.

Across Madison, there is new communication and training about the university's policies against hostile and intimidating behavior, which were adopted in 2014. There are also clearer policies on employment-related matters for teaching assistants and project assistants, called Graduate Assistant Policies and Procedures. Similar policies for research assistants are in the works.

As for universitywide mental health concerns, Madison has launched a campus review with the Jed Foundation, which focuses on health and suicide prevention. There is also a new online suicide-prevention class, and an on-campus prevention specialist who works with faculty and staff members on fostering healthy classrooms.

“While we’ve made progress,” Robertson said, “following the reporting of this tragic event we’ve heard clearly from members of our campus community that there is more work to do.” Graduate students and faculty members in engineering, including in Sayeed’s department are “engaged and are developing additional processes and mechanisms that will complement and enhance those already in place.”

Robertson added, “We are fully committed to maintaining a supportive climate in which all members of our community treat each other with respect. We will not tolerate hostile or intimidating behavior.”

Susan C. Hagness, Philip D. Reed Professor and chair of the department of electrical and computer engineering at Madison, said that the program has taken “proactive steps over the last several years to foster a positive, supportive environment” conducive to graduate students’ well-being and research.

The department now has appointed faculty members who serve as primary points of contact for confidential support, advocacy and resource referral, Hagness said, plus grievance reporting and problem resolution. Professors have had training and made curriculum and program modifications to help “build community among our graduate students and ensure timely completion of key milestones towards the Ph.D. degree.” They’re now monitoring turnover in research groups and tell graduate students that they may change advisers, if necessary.

Even so, Hagness said, “arguably the most significant recent change is the heightened awareness that is fueling conversations with our graduate students and faculty about additional initiatives for ensuring a supportive climate and to empower them to speak up about any concerns without any fear of retaliation.”

The "community continues to grieve this tragic loss, and our thoughts remain with all who were touched by the student’s life.”

A Challenge to ‘Do Better’

Erika Marín-Spiotta, professor of geography at Madison and moderator of an NSF-funded project on workplace climate in geosciences, said that the kind of behavior detailed in the reports on Sayeed are unfortunately not confined to his lab.

“Bullying, harassment, abuse and other mistreatments that create toxic research groups are too common across academia,” she said. And while they’re “harmful in any discipline,” she said, they can be “especially pernicious in scientific disciplines given our current funding models, where graduate students and postdocs typically are dependent on one faculty adviser for their research funding.” That includes access to specialized equipment, samples, data, publications -- what Marín-Spiotta called “the currency of success” -- and letters of reference. Graduate assistants’ and postdoctoral fellows’ salaries are often tied to that research, she added -- meaning that their very livelihoods are linked to the lab, as well.

In short, she said, “this system, and the lack of oversight built into our academic system, is rife for abuses of power.”

Why does the system persist? Marín-Spiotta blamed an “overall culture that tolerates abusive behavior and creates a climate of impunity.” The current tenure and promotion system, in particular, “disincentivizes labor done to foster collaborative, positive workplace climates and good mentoring practices,” diminishing it as “service,” and instead promotes an individualistic, “mind my own business” attitude.

Institutions, for their part, don’t like to investigate or sanction anyone bringing in funding or recognition to the university through scientific awards or discoveries, she said. Even if they’re found to have violated university policies, these professors are rarely terminated. Instead, they may receive paid leaves of absence or reduced teaching duties, with continued access to research funding.

In the Sayeed case, for example, Marín-Spiotta said, he got an unpaid two-year suspension but was able to secure an “arguably more powerful job” at the NSF.

Given that Sayeed violated a hostile behavior policy that was in place even in 2016, Marín-Spiotta said it remained unclear to her why his behavior and its consequences didn’t warrant dismissal.

“Either the policies in place are inadequate or their interpretation is faulty,” she said. “This is not unique to [Madison], unfortunately, but as [the university] is my employer, I challenge us to do better.”

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