Peer Pressure

Arizona State graduate student says that even after the professor who abused her left campus, her fellow students continued to harass and blame her for the disruption to their careers.

October 25, 2019
 
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Retaliation against students who report professors for sexual harassment is, unfortunately, nothing new. But even in the slew of misconduct cases that have come to light in the past few years, one at Arizona State University stands out. That’s because the graduate student involved says she was harassed not just by her adviser -- who has since left the university -- but also by students who remained in the lab.

Resentful over the departure of the adviser, with whom their academic success was so entwined, two students in particular allegedly retaliated against the student accuser. They allegedly took over her lab equipment, kicked her off projects and otherwise sought to turn the lab she spent so much time in into a kind of hell.

The student accuser has since moved to another Arizona State campus to finish her Ph.D., in the male-dominated field of engineering. But she wants the university to do more for her, and to prevent other graduate students who confront their abusers from having their lives continue to be so disrupted.

“I was shocked that fellow graduate students retaliated against me,” said the student, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her career. “These were people that I had worked with for several years and trusted.” They were also people who realized that something had been bothering her and who offered their friendship and support -- until they realized what that something was, she said.

After that, the men “revoked their support and instead maintained their relationships with the abuser, rather than supporting me or simply remaining neutral through the reporting process.”

To avoid the "toxic" situation, the student moved her workspace. But that came at a cost, namely lost research and professional opportunities. Those losses only compound the loss of the adviser recommendation she’d built her research aspirations around.

This “has been devastating to me personally and professionally,” she said. “My trust in people has been destroyed, and I felt abandoned in a time of need.”

OCR Gets Involved

Earlier this month, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights found enough merit in the student’s complaint about her lab environment to investigate Arizona State for violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender discrimination in education. The office's notification letter notes that a decision to investigate is not, of course, a finding. But it makes clear that the office is responsible for enforcing Title IX, and that the law not only prohibits discrimination but also protects individuals who have filed complaints from intimidation and retaliation.

The university declined to comment on the case, citing the “ongoing process.” But the stakes for the university are high: if OCR finds a violation of Title IX, the office will seek a remedy. But if can't secure one, it could seek the termination of federal funds to Arizona State or a referral to the Department of Justice.

Panagiotis Polygerinos, the professor involved, now lives in Greece. He did not respond to a request for comment through social media or the employer listed on his LinkedIn account, a global financial firm. The two graduate students at Arizona State named in the student's federal complaint, Pham Huy Nguyen and Saivimal Sridar, also did not respond to requests for comment over social media and email.

According to the student’s complaint and other emails and Facebook messages related to her case, she reported her adviser -- then an assistant professor -- to Arizona State for sexual harassment in January. Her allegations included being pressured into having a sexual relationship and being professionally shut out by him when she tried, over several months, to establish professional boundaries. The university eventually found the professor responsible for violations of its policy against relationships where a supervisory relationship exists. And while the professor told the university that the relationship was entirely consensual, it also faulted him for missing various "warning signs" that the student was in distress.

Almost as soon as the university opened its investigation, the professor informed his graduate students that he was taking an indefinite medical leave. The student might have felt some relief in his absence, but she never got the chance. Shortly after the announcement, Sridar and Nguyen allegedly stepped outside the lab to telephone Polygerinos to get more information about his condition. When they returned, they allegedly mocked their female colleague for asking what they had learned, and called her “FOMO,” short for “fear of missing out.”

Retaliation Begins

About a week after that, the student reached out to Nguyen to let him know that she’d listed him as a witness on her Title IX complaint about Polygerinos. The reason was that he’d allegedly witnessed some of Polygerinos’s coercive behavior during a 2018 academic trip to Spain. But when the student asked to talk to Nguyen, he told her he wanted to meet with her with Sridar.

Advised by ASU not to share details about her case, the student says she told her lab mates that “I’m not allowed to say much, but he did something bad to me.” Nguyen then allegedly declined to serve as a witness in the case, saying he did not want to be involved. He later followed up with a private Facebook message, saying, “if I’m goin to be honest with u, wat is the point now … Haha” and “U dunno how long this process will last it puts the lab in jeopardy. As well as most of our careers.”

As ASU’s investigation proceeded, the student says, Nguyen and Sridar began acting differently toward her, ignoring her in verbal and online conversations, not inviting her to lab social events and rejecting her offers to help with lab activities. All of that impacted her lab work, at least indirectly, she says. But then the men also allegedly began to withhold from her critical information and resources, such as updates and work times about a key project, along with purchase sheets and fabrics.

Then some of her research materials, such as valves and pneumatic control components, were given away without her permission or went missing, the student says. Nguyen also allegedly started to act more like her boss than her colleague, even though Arizona State had appointed a faculty member to temporarily run the lab.

The student reported what she was experiencing to the new faculty member. But she says that instead of addresses the alleged retaliation, he advised her to step down from projects she shared with Nguyen and Sridar.

In late February, Polygerinos resigned from Arizona State. The alleged retaliation did not let up, however. So the student again met with the temporary adviser to ask for his help. But that adviser again suggested that the student resign from all projects with her two peers, she says. This time, he also allegedly told her to find a new adviser at another Arizona State campus. She did so. Yet that new adviser soon left for another university, delaying the student's progress yet again.

In March, Polygerinos allegedly called the student’s adviser -- who didn't pick up -- and asked to meet, making the student worry that he wanted to discuss the case. Polygerinos also allegedly took both Nguyen and Sridar out for lunch. And following that meeting, the student says, lab equipment that she’d purchased with her National Science Foundation funding went missing or was given away without her permission. Someone also allegedly reported that the student's laptop was missing, forcing her to seek out special permission to use it part-time at her new campus.

In June, after learning that Polygerinos’s replacement put Nguyen and Sridar in charge of the lab through 2020, despite the fact that she still needed regular access to equipment there, the student filed a third retaliation complaint -- this time with the Title IX office. In the interim, Nguyen and Sridar published a paper with Polygerinos and his temporary replacement.

Unreasonable Accommodations

The student’s newest adviser suggested that she visit her old lab to use the equipment she needed during off hours and weekends. That disadvantaged her professionally, she says. Personally, she didn't want to spend late nights in the lab where she'd been harassed.

In July, the dean of students’ office contacted the student about her retaliation complaint but allegedly did not request additional documentation. An administrator in that office also allegedly rejected the student’s request that the communal equipment from Polygerinos’s lab be moved to a neutral area on campus. And later in the summer, the university determined that no one still in the lab had violated university policies. 

In September, according to an email exchange between members of the lab and patent lawyers, Sridar informed the parties that the student accuser should not be listed as an inventor the application for a patent. 

The student filed her federal complaint soon after. She is seeking the transfer of relevant lab equipment to a neutral location and other interim remedies. In the long term, due to her estimate that she’s lost a year’s worth of work fighting harassment and retaliation, the student wants reimbursement for one year of her tuition and attorney’s fees.

According to information from Arizona State provided to Laura Dunn, the student’s attorney, the university is currently investigating Nguyen and Sridar for discriminatory activities, including harassment and retaliation.

Damaging Dynamic

Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon who is known for her work on Title IX response and the concept of institutional betrayal, said that institutions should make reasonable accommodations for students while their complaints are pending. She said the Arizona State case also shines a light on how unprofessional behavior affects so many lab members' labs. 

Even with supposedly “consensual” relationships between faculty members and students, Freyd said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lab where there wasn’t damage, with students not in the relationship sometimes feeling discriminated against, because they’re not getting as much attention from the professor.” And the engineering student’s situation is “particularly poignant because the student is getting hurt, too.”

Freyd also drew a parallel between what alleged to have happened at Arizona State case and how what happens when a female undergraduate reports, say, a fraternity for sexual misconduct. The consequences of that -- reduced social opportunities -- can lead the student, especially if she’s in a sorority, to be ostracized. And that response only serves to reinforce silence and the problematic power structures at play.

Because she guessed the dynamics in the Arizona State case had never been studied, Freyd said she could only guess at best practices to head off a such a problem. Common sense dictates that institutional silence is a bad thing, however, she said -- meaning the university should have found a “creative” way to remind everyone in the lab that retaliation is illegal while maintaining the student's privacy.

“It seems the whole problem here is that the institution hasn’t even taken it seriously enough to be motivated to do that,” she said.

Dunn, the attorney, said that her client’s case highlights the importance of offering not only undergraduate Title IX complainants thoughtful accommodations but also graduate students. Beyond eventually paying for counseling, she said, Arizona State left the student on her own during the investigation and after. That’s despite handling the inquiry itself “very well."
 
The case also demonstrates that “even though we’ve had this [Me Too] movement, it doesn’t mean that scientists care at all,” Dunn said. "It’s still a boy’s club.” 

 

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