Bad Romance

May 5, 2014

Affairs between professors and graduate students aren’t usually advised, even when they’re not expressly prohibited. And a lawsuit due to proceed to trial involving a former University of Pittsburgh professor and a research assistant in his lab reads like one heck of a cautionary tale.

Tianyi Wang, former associate professor of infectious diseases and microbiology at Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, is suing his former research assistant, Aram Lee, for invasion of privacy, fraud and defamation, among other counts, in a U.S. district court in Pennsylvania. Wang alleges that Lee attempted to sabotage his career and relationships with his family and colleagues, in part by sharing a sexually explicit photo in a mass email and requesting that he be served with a petition for a restraining order during an out-of-state interview.

Lee and Wang began dating in 2012, court documents show. Wang was married to someone else and Pittsburgh had a policy against professor-student sexual relationships when the professor is teaching or evaluating the work or research of the student. Both denied the affair when initially confronted about it by their department chair in the middle of that year. In late 2012, Lee said she was pregnant with twins and moved to Washington State, where some of her family members lived. Wang helped her move and sent her money and gifts, according to the suit.

In early 2013, Lee sent emails to the department chair and other faculty members and administrators at Pittsburgh, in addition to campus police, saying Wang had used and manipulated her for sex, and that she had moved out of state to get away from him. She said he once broke into her apartment and, on another occasion, threatened to hurt himself if he couldn't see her. He denies the harassment claims, but admits to the affair.
 
"[I] wanted to let the public know what kind of character Tianyi Wang is, so that I can protect future, young, vulnerable females from becoming victims like me,” Lee wrote in the email. She said she began the affair in part because she was lonely in Pittsburgh and that she should have ended and reported the relationship much earlier.
 
Later that year, Lee sent another email to Wang's wife and more than 30 other contacts, including professors at Pittsburgh and elsewhere, disclosing details about their sexual relationship, according to the suit. Attached was a picture of Wang's genitals. (The suit does not expressly say that Wang previously had sent her the photo in question, but says that the pair during their relationship exchanged such photos.) She asked recipients of the email to make sure Wang stopped contacting her.
 
In May 2013, Wang applied for a position at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and told a fellow professor there that he was leaving Pittsburgh in part due to the affair, court documents show. Wang says the Alabama professor later told him that officials at that institution had contacted counterparts at Pittsburgh to discuss the affair, and that concerns raised during the discussion prevented the institution from being able to offer Wang a position. Wang alleges that Alabama officials were concerned about Lee's harassment claims, which he denies. 
 
Wang resigned his position at Pittsburgh in later summer 2013. A copy of an email to his department chair filed with the suit suggests that he was forced to resign. In that email, Wang references a conversation about his departure, and asks for two months' "leave without pay" before moving on to get his lab in order.
 
In July 2013, Lee, still in Washington, filed a petition for a restraining order against Wang, which was denied. The next day, she allegedly contacted the University of Maryland in College Park, where Wang was about to interview, suggesting she had obtained a restraining order against Wang and asking that the university deliver her petition to Wang while he was on campus.
 
Wang says that the university subsequently offered him a three-year, $400,000 contract. He says that was a "polite" way of not offering him a serious, tenured position, and he declined the offer. He alleges Lee's actions played a role in the university's decision.
 
A spokeswoman for the University of Maryland said she could not provide immediate comment on the matter.

Lee could not be reached for comment, and her lawyer, Frederick Frank, did not return a request for comment.

Wang resigned from Pittsburgh in June 2013, a university spokesman confirmed. But he declined to comment on the circumstances of Wang’s departure.
 
Late last month, a federal judge found denied Lee’s request for a summary judgment, determining that enough facts are in dispute for the case to move forward to a non-jury trial. Judge Arthur Schwab said many questions remain, including the purpose behind Lee’s emails; the basis behind Lee’s anti-harassment petitions against Wang (one was eventually granted); and if Wang was forced to resign from Pittsburgh. Schwab also wants to know what happened to Lee's alleged pregnancy.
 
Wang's attorney, Dennis M. Moskal, said it was a "good sign" that the judge took the claims seriously enough to move forward, especially the invasion of privacy claim regarding the explicit photo. Having a photo doesn't mean one has the right to distribute it to "maliciously hurt someone," he said.

Moskal declined to comment on his client’s current employment status.

 

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