Peter Chen, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, was placed on administrative leave Wednesday following pending criminal charges for sexual conduct of the first degree with a victim under the age of 13. The offense is alleged to have occurred on April 1, 2017, and Chen is scheduled for a probable cause conference hearing on Feb. 4.
There is no information at this time that links Chen’s charges to his career at the University, an email to CSE students from Alec Gallimore, dean of the College of Engineering, said.
“Let me be clear — sexual misconduct is completely unacceptable in any form,” Gallimore wrote. “I encourage anyone who has any information about misconduct to report it. It is only when we are aware of issues that we can address them.”
Gallimore also wrote in the email he plans to work with CSE Chair Michael Wellman and the rest of the department to address its climate and culture. When asked how the CSE department will be handling this situation, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Michigan Daily there was no further information to share.
In an email to The Michigan Daily, Mariell Lehman, Chen’s lawyer, said Chen denies the charges against him.
“On January 26, 2021 Mr. Chen was made aware of the criminal sexual conduct allegations that had been made against him,” Lehman wrote. “He completely denies the allegations and has cooperated fully with the Ann Arbor Police Department to assist them in their investigation. Mr. Chen is confident that the truth will prevail and that he will be exonerated fully. Mr. Chen thanks the numerous people who have reached out in support of him over the last few days.”
In a statement to The Daily Wednesday evening, the Engineering Student Government wrote their assembly would be meeting with Gallimore to discuss the situation further.
“We hope to use this time to get a better understanding of the details surrounding this event,” the statement reads. “We patently abhor any and all sexual misconduct. Additionally, we will be publishing resources for students on our website promptly.”
Engineering sophomore Zaynab Elkolaly, an assembly representative in Central Student Government and Engineering Student Government, attended a pre-scheduled meeting with Gallimore on Thursday evening. She said Gallimore encouraged those at the meeting to not jump to conclusions before Chen has been proven guilty and expressed concern for the wellbeing of students.
“I could also tell that he was personally very enraged and worried for us,” Elkolaly said. “It just seems like he’s a guy that cares, but his hands are tied right now.”
University alum Siddhant Pagariya was enrolled in EECS 482 during his time at the University. He said he believes that students deserve more than just a follow up email on the issue because misconduct is a continuing issue in the computer science department.
“I guess for students’ peace of mind, they should allow for a lot more of a conversation, and listening to both sides would be much better than just, ‘Hey, here’s an email,’” Pagariya said. “They should … have more transparency. Obviously this is still a developing story, but even having counselors or some sort of conversation would be really helpful.”
Chen, who has taught at the University since 1993, was a professor for EECS 482 and EECS 498 this semester. He was the last person you would expect to do this, University alum Chris Combs said.
“It’s a very horrible situation where someone who, on the one hand, so many students looked up to and respected, may have done something truly evil,” Combs said.
Combs took two of Chen’s courses during his time at the University and also attended the same church as Chen, where Combs said he had gotten to know Chen and his family very well.
“When I saw the email I was like, this has to be a typo or something, this is just crazy,” Combs said. “I just wanted to read through the email three or four times to just process what they were saying and accept it.”
Engineering junior James Vidano is currently enrolled in Chen’s EECS 482 class and said he was also surprised when he found out about the allegations against Chen.
“In class, we talked about him as being a super smart, legendary figure who designs computer science courses and just knows an insane amount about the whole computer science world,” Vidano said. “It was really surprising, it was the last person we (would) possibly expect to be in this situation.”
EECS 482 is taught by three different professors, and Chen had not yet taught a lecture before being put on administrative leave, Vidano said. The lecture has not met since the news about Chen was released, according to Vidano, and the class has not yet acknowledged the situation.
On Ratemyprofessors.com, a site where students rank their professors in terms of difficulty, likability and quality, Chen receives a high rating of 4.6 on a 5-point scale. He also received a 99% rating on University of Michigan’s course atlas, which provides course information like enrollment numbers and instructor ratings based on data collected from previous semesters.
Chen has also been awarded the Eta Kappa Nu EECS professor of the year five times, which takes undergraduate and graduate students’ opinions and experiences into the selection of the award. The award is given to a professor who has made beneficial contributions to the community and had a profound impact on students.
Ross and Engineering junior Gloria Stach was enrolled in Chen’s ENGR 100 class a year ago, which she said motivated her to learn more about computer science.
“I was completely shocked and still kind of in disbelief, of the news that came out today, just because I remember from day one in class, he would talk about how he was such a religious man and he was also a family man, and he seemed to have very high morals and standards,” Stach said.
The announcement comes after recent controversy in the CSE department regarding the appointment of assistant professor Jason Mars, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct at his startup Clinc in Feb. 2020, to teach EECS 370 for the winter 2021 semester. An email template calling for Mars’ removal from teaching the course, which is required for all EECS majors, circulated over winter break, though Mars continues to be an instructor for the class.
Elkolaly said Gallimore emphasized in the meeting the rarity of two professors in the same department getting accused of sexual misconduct in one year, referring to both Mars and Chen. Elkolaly said she thinks the decision to keep accused faculty on staff has made it difficult for students to focus on learning.
“With Jason Mars, he was on tenure, and the administration basically said that he’s still teaching because he did not do anything to remove his status as a professor,” Elkolaly said. “A bunch of other women that are terrified to go to class now would say otherwise — I’m of the opinion that it shouldn’t even be an option to interact with him.”
Chen was appointed to interim chair of the CSE department after predecessor Brian Noble stepped down two weeks after the first public allegations against Mars. Only six months later, Chen also stepped down from the position, citing “personal reasons” in an email sent to COE faculty in July 2020.
Separate from the allegations against Chen, Combs reflected on the typical culture within the University’s computer science department, which he said is often focused around getting to one of the top five tech companies. To rebuild trust and community in a department that has now been rocked by two recent allegations of misconduct, it needs to be more than that, Combs said.
“I’ve been a personal believer for a long time that (the computer science department) in general really needs to get serious about ethics and just think as a profession taking the human aspect more seriously,” Combs said. “Obviously, there’s an aspect of diversity there and an aspect of empathy that’s necessary.”
And even outside of CSE, considering the string of sexual misconduct allegations against faculty and staff at the University within the last few years, Combs said he wishes the mentality at the University was more that everyone had a responsibility towards society as a whole and to one another.
“The University often talks about getting the Leaders the Best, we often pull ourselves up and think of ourselves as being different or special, because we’re a little smarter, or because you got into Michigan,” Combs said. “We have been given positions of power, either as faculty or students who have been given the opportunity to come here, and I really think there is a need to refocus our culture on using that power responsibly towards thinking about those who are marginalized or those who don’t have a voice in our community.”
This article has been updated to include comment from Peter Chen’s lawyer and from Engineering Student Government representative Zaynab Elkolaly, and to more accurately contextualize Chris Combs’s last two quotes.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Chen was elected to Theta Kappa Nu and was a lecturer for two EECS courses. He was actually elected to Eta Kappa Nu, an honors society, and was the professor for those two courses.
Daily Staff Reporter Shannon Stocking can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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