UMN community members petition for stronger consequences for professor who reportedly sexually harassed students

Two investigative reports found that biochemistry professor Gianluigi Veglia violated University sexual harassment policies in 2017.

Hana Ikramuddin

Editor’s note: This article discusses sexual harassment. If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual harassment, the Aurora Center’s 24-hour helpline can be reached at (612) 626-9111.

Over 1,500 people have signed a petition asking the University of Minnesota administration to reconsider the decision made in 2017 to keep and sanction a professor who violated the University’s sexual harassment policies.

The University did not fire Gianluigi Veglia, a tenured professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics (BMBB) after multiple students came forward accusing him of sexual misconduct. Two investigations by the University’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office found that Veglia had violated sexual harassment policies in 2017.

Siu Yi Kwang, a chemistry graduate student, created the petition on March 20, which asks professors to “revisit the [Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action] reports and recommendations from 2017 and come up with appropriate actions against Professor Veglia.”

A March 15 article by Chemical & Engineering News prompted the petition. Veglia’s sexual harassment reportedly included making comments about students’ appearances and making sexual advances toward them.

The EOAA recommended that Veglia be fired, but the deans of the College of Science and Engineering and the medical school continued to employ him as faculty, while imposing sanctions on Veglia and banning him from supervising graduate students for three years, according to the article.

Kwang said she hopes the petition will prompt action from the University. She wants to see consequences that are “more proportional” to Veglia’s reported actions in his lab based on the EOAA’s recommendations.

“A lot of the time, it’s very easy to condemn sexual harassment, but what can you actually do when it happens?” Kwang said.

Despite the sanctions placed on Veglia, some chemistry department students and faculty say the University did not take strong enough steps to prevent Veglia’s alleged sexual misconduct because he was not fired.

University alum Katie Youmans, who helped create the petition, said instances like these represent a larger issue in academia: sexual harassment or discrimination that is insufficiently punished might be an explanation for why women may not feel welcome in academic communities, she said.

“They’re protecting him instead of the victims,” Youman said.

Veglia allegedly sexually harassed a student when he served as her principal investigator, a faculty member who guides and funds graduate student research. Students and faculty in the chemistry department said this can lead to a power imbalance between graduate students and their principal investigator.

Beyond advising a student’s research, students often need recommendation letters from their principal investigator after leaving graduate school, meaning students can be hesitant to speak out against inappropriate behavior.

Lee Penn, the director of undergraduate studies in the chemistry department, said there is a great deal of support for the petition among faculty.

“In terms of the faculty members I have directly spoken to, I would say there’s a large body of support for our students and a large body of support for not having professor Veglia teach in our department, and not having him advise graduate students,” they said.

Vice President and Provost Rachel Croson and President Joan Gabel have responded to concerns about Veglia’s alleged behavior and lack of severe consequences in an email to the students, faculty and staff of the chemistry department.

“We are committed to inclusive and meaningful restorative justice, so the University will hire an external consultant to ensure a robust restorative justice process,” the email read. “We are engaged with experts in the field who will be guiding this important work and will provide additional information as this initiative progresses.”

Kwang sent a letter to Croson and Gabel criticizing their response. The administrators responded, acknowledging her message.

“Your communication suggests that the University has the power to relitigate discipline previously imposed to send a message. That is not accurate. While we can reinforce the genuineness of the discipline previously imposed, we cannot wield authority to re-open individual employment determinations, regardless of how much we might wish to,” read the email from Croson and Gabel.

University spokesperson Jake Ricker said that because Veglia accepted his proposed discipline as dictated under the University’s tenure code, “[t]hat is the end of the process under the Tenure Code. There is no basis for reopening or redoing that process.”

While Kwang said that hiring an external consultant is a good first step, she said she hopes to see more action from the University going forward.

“It took me three separate sittings to read the [C&EN article] … I was in shock,” Penn said. “I would say there’s a lot of anger in the department right now. A lot of people are very angry. The situation’s done harm to our department. And, figuring out how we, as a department, move forward and heal from all of this is going to be a long process, but it’s our job to figure that out.”