Letter: Vote ‘yes’ on UMN tenured faculty sexual misconduct referendum

As President of COGS, which sponsored the referendum, please allow me to explain why we urge you vote “yes.”

Letter to the Editor

Starting Monday, students can vote on this important referendum: “Should tenured faculty be held to the same standard as non-tenured faculty and staff when accused of sexual misconduct involving a student?” As President of the Council of Graduate Students, which sponsored this referendum, please allow me to explain why we urge you to vote “yes.”

In May 2018, City Pages reported that a University of Minnesota tenured faculty member allegedly committed appalling sexual harassment against students. These previously unknown cases demonstrated the great extent to which the power differential between tenured faculty and students can harm students.

Tenured faculty positions are among the most secure jobs in the U.S. Once granted tenure, faculty appointments are considered lifetime and cannot be terminated without a cause. The tenure system is designed in theory to protect academic freedom so that faculty can teach and conduct research without fear. I recognize the majority of faculty at the University are excellent teachers and mentors. 

However, some tenured faculty have abused their tenure status with behaviors ranging from bullying and verbal abuse to sexual misconduct. Particularly, tenured faculty hold tremendous power and discretion over the career progress of graduate students. For instance, the Minnesota Daily recently reported a professor was reprimanded twice for creating a work environment of “intimidation and fear” in his laboratory. 

Center to this referendum are the layers of protections those accused faculty enjoy. When a faculty member is found responsible for sexual misconduct, the college dean has to take extraordinary steps to give out sanctions, such as required consultation with peer faculty. Moreover, when termination is involved, that faculty member can appeal all the way to the Board of Regents. In contrast, for non-tenured faculty and staff committing a similar offense, the authority in charge can choose to not grant them tenure or not renew their contracts. Both these explicit and implicit protections of tenure can contribute to serious misconduct.

Within days after sponsoring this referendum, COGS collected over 600 signatures — a sign of strong will among students. The purpose of referendum is simply two-fold. First, we want to put those faculty who abuse their tenure and commit sexual misconduct on notice. No, you won’t get away without consequences and students won’t stay silent. Second, we hope to bring this serious issue to the attention of the wider University community, including the regents, alumni and state and local community leaders. Most importantly, work collectively to prevent another professor Gianluigi Veglia or professor Michael Lee situation.

The University launched President’s Initiative to Prevent Sexual Misconduct, and I want to fully acknowledge President Eric Kaler and his team’s commitment. Other students and I have been invited to be part of this important campaign. With broad-based experts and stakeholders, we hope to keep this conversation going and work hard to prevent future sexual misconduct. We won’t let this go until real policy and long-term cultural changes happen. Before that, let’s now vote “yes” to show our will and let us be heard. 

Sean Chen is President of the University of Minnesota’s Council of Graduate Students.

This letter has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.