As an Ohio University professor accused of sexual misconduct and retaliation against students continues to go through OU’s disciplinary consideration process, more details have come to light about the university’s case against him.
OU President Duane Nellis also last Tuesday denied an appeal filed by that professor, Sunggyu Lee, in OU’s Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department. Lee had appealed a decision by a University Professional Ethics Committee (UPEC) that found in a Nov. 9 report that the university has “adequate cause” to initiate loss of tenure and dismissal proceedings (meaning Lee can be fired).
The NEWS reported in early December that a university Title IX investigation, through a preponderance of evidence standard, had substantiated three students’ claims of misconduct against Lee, who is the Russ Ohio Research Scholar in Coal Syngas Utilization.
That investigation, conducted by OU’s Office for Equity and Civil Rights Compliance, found that Lee violated the university policy in multiple areas. The NEWS was provided a copy of the Memorandum of Findings in that case by a university source. OU previously has refused to provide this report, citing federal FERPA protections for student confidentiality.
According to that report, the university’s ECRC office interviewed three total student complainants, and substantiated most of their claims. Specifically:
• One student’s claims of harassment and retaliatory harassment were substantiated by university investigator Sara L. Trower. The student’s claims of sexual harassment by hostile environment were not substantiated, however.
• Another student’s claims of non-consensual sexual conduct were substantiated, as were her claims of sexual harassment by hostile environment.
• A third student’s claims of sexual harassment by hostile environment were also substantiated.
LEE, THROUGH HIS ATTORNEY, Julie Davis, of Columbus law firm James E. Arnold and Associates, LPA, has denied all of the allegations. He said in a statement issued last Tuesday that he believes ECRC investigator Trower erroneously reached the conclusions she made in her report.
“I look forward to working with my department regarding my serious concerns that the limited and erroneous findings of former ECRC investigator Sara Trower were not properly reached, and that the university process for reviewing her report has not been appropriately followed,” Lee wrote. “I have been falsely accused; I have never in my long and distinguished career been accused of inappropriate touching of students, and it did not happen.
“Ms. Trower decided to ignore the students who told her this, did not interview others who would have told her that, and did not consider evidence that these students took advantage of the current fear of sexual misconduct claims and made false accusations against a professor to benefit themselves,” he continued.
Lee added, “The environment in my lab is not hostile – on the contrary, I have supported the academic work and careers of many fine women and men from around the world in my labs and they can attest to that. I have confidence that my colleagues at Ohio University will render a fair and responsible decision as to my actions and accomplishments with our students generally, and that I will be vindicated.”
The NEWS also learned last week that OU President Nellis also denied the appeal of OU journalism professor Yusuf Kalyango on similar grounds to his denial of Lee’s appeal. In the appeal denial letters to the two professors, Nellis wrote “The grounds for appeal of a UPEC recommendation are limited to failure to follow appropriate procedures or arbitrary and capricious decision-making. With this standard in mind, I have decided that there is sufficient cause to initiate loss of tenure proceedings…”
Now, each of these professor’s departments or schools are responsible for considering what discipline they could face.
That process is confusing, so we’ll explain that in more detail below.
IN THE 83-PAGE memorandum of findings made available to The NEWS in Lee’s case (which was completed on Aug. 3, 2018) investigator Trower said that the investigation was initiated after a male graduate student alleged that Lee was engaged in “sexual misconduct” with female graduate students, and treated female students differently than male students.
“(Complainant 1) told the investigator that (Lee) takes students, primarily the female students, with him to coffee and lunch at nearby restaurants and spends a significant amount of time away from the laboratory on these outings,” Trower wrote.
That student became the first of three complainants in the case. In total, Trower interviewed the complainants, 13 witnesses and Lee, and conducted a review of multiple documents submitted by each of those groups of people.
In that review, Trower found it more likely than not that Lee did the following things:
• Lee would request and receive massages from female students, based on multiple student witnesses’ reports that he would do so, although Lee denied that allegation. Trower found that this constituted “harassment” under OU policies.
• Lee would request and receive hugs from female students in his lab “regularly,” and would request to hold their hands “regularly” (Lee also denied that allegation). In some of the instances of hugging, it would be accompanied by some physical action, with three students reporting that he kissed them on the cheek. Still, Trower did note that these female students said they did not perceive these actions as being “sexual in nature,” so this was not considered sexual harassment under OU policy, although it was considered “harassment” by Trower.
• Lee allegedly put his hands inside a female student’s shirt on the bare skin of her back when he hugged her. He also allegedly put his hands on several students’ knees.
• On one occasion, Complainant 2 reported that Lee grabbed her buttocks while hugging and kissing her, and on another occasion hugged her so closely and tightly that “his groin was against her body,” and that she could feel his erection against her (Lee denied both of these allegations). She also charged that Lee kissed her on the neck while hugging her on a few occasions (Lee denied this as well). “The stress and anxiety was so great that she sought medical attention to deal with it, and she also chose to change her academic program from a Ph.D. program to a master’s degree program so she could complete her degree more quickly and get out of respondent’s lab,” Trower reported.
• Lee allegedly regularly hugged and kissed Complainant 3 on the cheek, and on one occasion, put his hands on her rib cage and said ‘oh, I’m going to dangerous territory’ as his hands approached her breasts. He additionally was accused of hugging the student and kissing her on the neck and on the shoulder after trying to kiss her on the cheek on one occasion, Trower said. (Lee denied both these allegations.)
Moreover, Trower found that Lee allegedly created a substantially hostile environment in his lab by capriciously favoring those who were on his good side, and completely ignoring or treating poorly those who weren’t.
“The students’ statements that the investigator found credible report an environment in which every student repeatedly observed how very negatively respondent treated those with whom he became displeased – yelling at them, giving them the silent treatment, ignoring them for extended periods, and speaking badly about them to others,” Trower wrote.
Trower noted multiple instances of this allegedly happening in Lee’s lab, including one occasion when Lee allegedly requested that an email exchange with Complainant 1 be placed in the student’s official student folder in the department in which the student asked for a raise.
IN HIS OWN DEFENSE, LEE asserted that the students were either in poor academic standing or were otherwise disgruntled with him, and were engaging in a coordinated campaign to get him fired. He even alleged that one of the students (Complainant 2) cheated on her exams at one point with another student, although Trower obtained copies of the exam in question and found that the two students’ work was “substantially different”
“Respondent asserted that Complainant 3 is the pawn of a cabal of disgruntled students by whom she has been ‘coached’ and agreed to support in their fabricated allegations of respondent’s misconduct,” Trower explained.
Trower said she did not find that allegation to be credible.
The Ethics Committee formed to consider the allegations against Lee found that Trower’s investigation was thorough, and they affirmed the conclusions she reached.
“His sexual advances toward his female students and his non-sexual, but retaliatory, behavior created an environment where students believed that saying no was not an option, and that doing so would lead to negative consequences,” the UPEC group wrote. “This is especially disturbing because many of the students working in his lab were international students, who had their funding and visas tied to performing satisfactorily in his lab.”
After that UPEC finding and President Nellis’ denial of Lee’s appeal, Lee now faces another long process to consider what discipline he should receive.
Here’s how it will go, according to OU’s Faculty Handbook:
• Lee’s department chair will discuss the matter with him/her in a personal conference. “The matter may be settled by mutual consent at this point. If an agreement cannot be reached, the following procedure shall be observed: the chair will consult with the members of (Lee’s) department and prepare, with the advice of the departmental promotion and tenure committee, a recommendation to be forwarded in writing to the dean of (Lee’s) college.”
• “The dean normally will then consult jointly with the faculty member and chair: if the dean decides to recommend suspension from duty or dismissal, he/she will submit his/her recommendation in writing to the Provost, who will undertake to investigate and arbitrate the difficulty. If a settlement cannot be arrived at in this manner, the President shall be so informed, and may, at (his) discretion, initiate dismissal proceedings.”
• “Formal dismissal proceedings shall be commenced by a written statement from the president to the faculty member concerning the grounds for dismissal, specified with reasonable particularity. The faculty member shall be further informed that if he/she so requests, a hearing to determine whether he/she should be removed from his/her position on the grounds stated will be conducted by a faculty committee at a specified time and place. The faculty member will have thirty (30) days to notify the president in writing if he/she wants a hearing, and if a written request is made, in setting the date of the hearing, the faculty member will be allowed 60 days in which to prepare his/her defense…”
• “The committee shall make explicit findings with respect to each of the grounds of removal as presented. The president should transmit to the Trustees the full transcription of the hearing and the committee's decision for their automatic review…. The decision of the hearing committee should either be sustained or returned to the committee with objections specified.”