This article is the first part of a two-part investigation by The Michigan Daily’s Focal Point team into allegations of sexual misconduct against computer science professor Walter Lasecki and the University of Michigan’s handling of these allegations. It is based on emails, documents, notes and interviews with 12 individuals knowledgeable of these events.
Content Warning: Sexual harassment and misconduct
UPDATE: According to an email sent to CSE faculty on May 28, Walter Lasecki resigned from UM effective August 30. In the interim, he has been barred from “in-person interaction” with UM students.
Two investigations into four allegations of sexual misconduct against University of Michigan computer science professor Walter Lasecki began in November 2019. One was conducted by the University’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE). The other was conducted by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), a prominent computer science research association.
Despite receiving the same allegations, the two investigations reached vastly different conclusions.
OIE’s investigation ended on July 13 2020, with the finding that Lasecki’s behavior in all four cases did not violate the University’s sexual harassment policy, Standard Practice Guide 201.89 and with no sanctions against Lasecki. ACM, however, concluded in February 2021 that Lasecki had violated its Policy Against Harassment, and Lasecki was banned from ACM events for at least five years.
Hired to the University in 2015, Lasecki is an assistant professor in the Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) department of the College of Engineering. He also held a position in the School of Information until March 2020.
Three of the allegations against Lasecki came from non-University affiliated graduate students and involved his conduct at social gatherings and industry conferences from 2016 to 2019. The fourth allegation came from a student at the University, who alleges she had been harassed on campus, off campus and at industry events.
The four students requested anonymity in interviews with The Michigan Daily, citing Lasecki’s prominence in the industry and their fears of professional retribution.
All the allegations shared common characteristics: while joining the students for drinks, Lasecki allegedly made statements that made the students feel uncomfortable. In at least six instances, he allegedly touched them sexually.
Lasecki did not respond to multiple email requests for comment from The Daily. He denied all allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct in statements to OIE.
In a statement to The Daily on May 14, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald declined to discuss the specifics of this case, citing issues of confidentiality.
“It is university policy not to publicly discuss personnel matters out of respect for employee privacy. That also means we are unable to discuss details of any matters that may be reported to the Office for Institutional Equity for review,” Fitzgerald wrote.
When asked if Lasecki would be returning to the University to teach in Fall 2021, Fitzgerald wrote that “there has been no final determination at this time.”
The allegations against Lasecki are not the first to rock the University’s Computer Science and Engineering department. In Feb. 2020, an article in The Verge uncovered numerous previously undisclosed allegations of sexual harassment against CSE faculty member and former Clinc CEO Jason Mars, who continues to teach courses in the CSE department despite pushback from students and faculty. In January 2021, CSE faculty member Peter Chen — and interim chair of the department from January to July 2020 — was placed on leave after criminal sexual misconduct charges of the first degree with a victim under 13 years old were filed against him.
University spokesperson Fitzgerald offered a brief summary of the College of Engineering’s commitment to addressing matters of culture and inclusivity in a statement to The Daily.
“CSE is committed to fostering an inclusive environment, where all community members feel safe and welcome,” Fitzgerald wrote. “Efforts to broaden participation and improve climate in CSE have been underway for years, including mechanisms to improve climate, educate employees and students on inclusivity, increase representation and remove roadblocks. These can be seen in detail in the annual DEI Climate Report.”
Fitzgerald also highlighted a specific initiative by Alec Gallimore, dean of the College of Engineering, to improve the CSE department’s climate. This group, known as the CSE Climate Assessment Committee, investigates and manages the department’s culture, according to Fitzgerald.
The formation of this committee came after faculty members called for its creation in a Feb. 1, 2021 open letter. According to Fitzgerald, this climate assessment will be led by a third-party and a final report will be released this summer.
“CSE has not demonstrated that it can fully resolve culture and climate issues internally, and CSE would benefit from outside perspectives,” the open letter reads. “Michigan conducts program reviews for internal academic improvement. We propose a regular climate-related program review for CSE, similar to such academic or graduate program reviews.”
Sexual harassment and misconduct allegations at the University of Michigan are not unique to the College of Engineering. The School of Music, Theater and Dance has seen allegations against two former professors Stephen Shipps and David Daniels, while the School of Literature, Science and the Arts has seen allegations against English professor Douglas Trevor and former American Culture professor Bruce Conforth.
In January 2020, Provost Martin Philbert — who previously oversaw OIE — was placed on leave and later resigned after multiple allegations of sexual harassment against him were reported to the University. The allegations were later investigated and corroborated by law firm WilmerHale. Another WilmerHale investigation released earlier this month found hundreds of credible allegations of sexual abuse against former University doctor Robert Anderson over a 37-year period. The Anderson report concluded that the allegations represent a “devastating pattern” of abuse that was known to University officials.
‘My experience was part of a pattern of behavior’
One of the non-University graduate students that filed a complaint against Lasecki attended a group dinner after an industry conference in 2016. Lasecki also attended this dinner. In this article, this student will be referred to as Jane.
In the final report released by OIE, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily, Jane alleged that Lasecki encouraged her to drink throughout the meal, at one point asking the waiter to make her a “double.” She also alleged that he briefly placed his hand on her thigh.
Later that night, Jane said Lasecki helped her return to her apartment. He then touched her sexually, she wrote in her OIE statement. The OIE report notes that Jane said she “did not give any nonverbal cues to indicate that she was interested nor uninterested in physical contact.”
Jane shared her apprehension about the alleged incident in a text message to The Daily.
“When it first happened, I felt violated and disturbed but thought perhaps it was a miscommunication or misunderstanding,” Jane wrote. “I also didn’t know what to do about it, since we were not (and still are not) at the same institution.”
A second non-University graduate student — who will be referred to as Rachel in this article — attended four conferences that Lasecki also attended between 2017 and 2019. She alleged that he touched her sexually at all four conferences. In her statement to OIE, which was obtained by The Daily, Rachel described the pervasiveness of Lasecki’s alleged harassment.
“When [Respondent] is around me when he is drinking, he is consistently physically affectionate with me,” Rachel wrote. “I can’t count the number of times he’s touched me in intimate and inappropriate ways. I’m anxious at events that he will come up to me and start touching me — it bothers me so much that I’ve started scanning the room at poster sessions, receptions, and parties to watch where he’s at.”
A third non-University graduate student wrote in her statement to OIE, also obtained by The Daily, that she experienced similar harassment at an industry conference in 2016. In this article, she will be referred to as Alex. Alex alleged that Lasecki groped her while she was talking to a group of people.
“His behavior was overly familiar, touching me at first in small ways as we were talking to other people,” Alex wrote. “At some point, he leaned closer to me and essentially reached his hand between my legs. I was uncomfortable the whole time, but I distinctly remember knowing he was faculty and well-regarded, and so thinking I should be flattered. At the point where he groped my crotch, though, I knew that was past a line.”
In a text message to The Daily, Alex recalled struggling with how to respond to this alleged harassment.
“Despite having heard as much as anyone else about sexual misconduct in academia and beyond, when it happened to me I still naively assumed it was a one-off incident,” Alex wrote. “So I tried to put it out of my mind and do my best to avoid being around him as much as I could.”
The fourth student to file a complaint with OIE, who will be referred to as Lily in this article, was a University of Michigan student. Lily alleged that Lasecki harassed her between 2016 and 2019 on campus, in social settings and at outside conferences. She wrote in her OIE report that Lasecki was “a little too friendly for a faculty member” when she first interacted with him at a conference.
In 2017, when Lasecki joined Lily and a few other students for dinner, Lily alleged that he encouraged her to drink more alcohol.
“‘You have to celebrate a paper submission the right way. Come on, one more,’” Lily remembered Lasecki saying, according to her statement to OIE.
Lily wrote that Lasecki touched under her shirt later that night and that she repeatedly attempted to stop his advances. Despite these attempts, the harassment continued, she claims. She remembered how Lasecki tried to justify his behavior.
“Oh, sorry, from the way you were angling your body towards me during our meeting before, I figured you wanted me to,” she alleged that he replied.
Information graduate student Lindsay Blackwell told The Daily she knew these students and put them in touch with one another in Nov. 2019 through Signal, an encrypted messaging app.
“At that point, the four of them started talking, learning about each other and what had happened, and thinking about reporting,” Blackwell said.
Alex told The Daily learning about other women with similar allegations against Lasecki encouraged her to report.
“When I suddenly became aware that my experience was part of a pattern of behavior … I was immediately hit with the devastating realization that my naive and scared silence might have enabled years of abuse,” Alex wrote in a text message to The Daily. “I knew that filing a report could not do much for me — I’m not affiliated with UM, the incident was years ago, and I was mostly effectively managing to avoid him — and that going through with the reporting process would be arduous, time-consuming, and emotionally painful. I also knew it was the right thing to do.”
Lily recalled a similar realization.
“Finding out that I wasn’t alone in these experiences and that there were others who were willing to take action by reporting gave me some hope that the university would see the pattern of problematic behavior,” Lily wrote in a text message to The Daily. “That’s partially why we filed it as a joint report.”
‘OIE never gave an explanation for their change in rationale’
When OIE began its investigation after receiving all four complaints together on Nov. 19, 2020, all four students believed that their complaints would be processed together because they had similar allegations.
“We filed our complaints together with confirmation from OIE that it would help establish a pattern of behavior,” Jane wrote in a text message to The Daily. (Notes taken by an advocate during Jane’s OIE interview, along with correspondence between Jane, Alex and this advocate, corroborate Jane’s claim.)
But records obtained by The Daily indicate that Jane’s complaint had been separated from the other three complaints by the time her feedback was requested on the preliminary report.
A footnote in the “Investigative Process” section of Jane’s report mentions that her complaint was initially processed with Alex and Rachel’s complaints. This section offers no rationale for splitting these complaints.
In an interview with The Daily, Liz Abdnour, Michigan-based attorney and former Michigan State University Title-IX investigator, questioned OIE’s decision to split the complaints. (Abdnour has no legal involvement in these cases. Her comments are expert opinions based on information provided by The Daily.)
“There’s no rule about whether cases need to be handled together or not,” Abdnour said. “In my experience when I was doing it (at Michigan State) … we would generally do them together if they involved the same respondent as long as they were similar fact patterns, which it sounds like this is.”
Though he declined to discuss the specifics of Lasecki’s case, Fitzgerald explained OIE’s general policies toward separating and combining cases.
“If there are multiple allegations reported about the same respondent, OIE will assess the allegations individually to determine if one investigation or separate allegations is most appropriate,” Fitzgerald said. “Typically, allegations that are related to a specific incident or closely related are handled as one investigation. When the allegations are distinct, they are handled as separate investigations.”
Jane described the splitting of the complaints as the first of many instances that caused her to distrust OIE.
“The fact that this was reneged upon midway through the investigation without our consent does not engender trust,” Jane wrote in a text message to The Daily. “OIE never gave an explanation for their change in rationale … The decision to separate the reports made the very idea of determining what is ‘relevant history’ subjective and undermined the possibility of establishing a pattern.”
Though the reports were handled separately, toward the end of Alex, Rachel and Lily’s complaints, OIE added a section titled “Other Concerns.” The wording of this section in all three reports is nearly identical. (In Alex’s report, OIE omits the word “however” before “because.”)
“The initial report submitted to OIE and some concerns raised in the course of this investigation do not directly pertain to Respondent’s interactions with Complainant,” all three sections note. “Because some of these concerns may be relevant to varying degrees to Complainant’s allegations, information about these concerns … is summarized below.”
In subsections titled “Concerns Involving Witness (Alex),” “Concerns Involving Witness (Lily),” and “Concerns Involving Witness (Rachel),” all three reports contain brief summaries of the allegations brought by the other two students. The summaries are nearly identical across the three different reports, as are the summaries of the investigative processes.
Four of these sections across the three reports conclude with Lasecki’s response denying the allegations.
Abdnour noted that the University’s Professional Standards for Faculty, among other University policies, provide for consideration of “a pattern of behavior and interactions.”
“The way they define sexual harassment: ‘In evaluating whether the hostile environment exists, the University will consider the totality of the known circumstances, including the nature, frequency and intensity … of the behavior,’” Abdnour said. “The facts of the other three folks’ experiences seem directly relevant to that analysis of any one person’s case.”
Given the similarity of the four complaints, Abdnour also questioned the effectiveness of the University’s investigative process in preventing sexual harassment.
“If you look at them together, it’s pretty clear that this risk is definitely persistent, even if they don’t think it’s pervasive or clear,” Abdnour said. “I feel like they’re stretching beyond the spirit of the policy … You can do gymnastics to not make findings and still be within the words of the policy but you’re not within the spirit of the policy anymore.”
In an interview with The Daily, Alex challenged the impartiality of the University’s investigation. She noted that Lasecki’s wife, a University faculty member, was repeatedly referenced throughout the report as someone who established the consistency of Lasecki’s account. Similar wording appears in Lily’s and Rachel’s reports.
Though he declined to discuss the specifics of Lasecki’s case, Fitzgerald explained that OIE typically interviews all witnesses with knowledge of a case.
“OIE will interview any relevant witness provided by a party,” Fitzgerald wrote. “OIE would not refuse to interview a witness based on a relationship with either the complainant or respondent.”
Blackwell said she believes OIE’s decision to interview Lasecki’s partner undermined the credibility of the investigation.
“If she were just another faculty member in computer science at U of M who closely collaborated with (Lasecki), that would already be a conflict of interest,” Blackwell said. “But the fact that they are married on top of that professional relationship is just infuriating.”
Abdnour raised similar concerns about Lasecki’s partner being part of the investigation.
“If someone’s a spouse and a faculty member, those concerns should also be addressed with respect to that person,” Abdnour said. “There’s certainly potential that because of this relationship they may have a motivation to support their spouse.”
‘You will not be permitted to attend or participate in any (ACM) event’
Around the same time that the four students sent their complaints to OIE, they also sent them to the Association for Computing Machinery under their Policy Against Harassment.
Lasecki’s ties to ACM run deep. According to his curriculum vitae, he has authored or co-authored approximately 20 conference papers for ACM-affiliated conferences since joining the University. He has also participated in seven talks at ACM-affiliated events.
In the OIE report, the investigator wrote that Lily first met Lasecki at a 2016 ACM conference.
“She said that at that time they spoke about research, and she and a friend felt that Respondent was ‘a little too friendly for a faculty member,’” the investigator wrote. “She explained that she did not ‘have much experience with conferences at the time to flag this as a possible issue.’”
One of Alex’s allegations pertained to events at an ACM conference. Rachel’s complaint referred to Lasecki’s behavior at a conference about two years later.
Soon after filing complaints with ACM, the four students were contacted by Rachel Hochhauser, the managing director in the Sexual Misconduct Consulting and Investigations Division of T&M Protection Resources, a company focused on security and investigations. Hochhauser wrote in an email to Jane that T&M Protection Resources had been retained to investigate the complaints.
All four students were interviewed as part of the investigation into Lasecki’s conduct. Then they heard little from Hochhauser.
A little over a year after they were first contacted by Hochhauser, the four students received an email from Don Gotterbarn, a co-chair of the ACM’s Committee on Professional Ethics. The subject line read “Resolution of Harasment (sic.) Complaints against Dr Walter Lesecki (sic.).”
The email to the four students included a snippet of what was sent to Lasecki. Though it did not offer the determinations of T&M’s investigation or attach a report from the investigation, it stated clear sanctions that would impact Lasecki’s future connections to ACM.
“For a period of five (5) years following the notice of this decision … You will not be permitted to attend or participate in any event,” Gotterbarn wrote. “After 5 years you may be able to again participate in the above activities if you provide evidence to the ACM CEO … of completion of a pre-approved anti-sexual harassment course.”
Gotterbarn said ACM would not release Lasecki’s identity and also requested that the four students keep the sanctions confidential.
Though he declined to discuss the specifics of Lasecki’s case, Fitzgerald emphasized that investigative processes between the University and other entities frequently differ.
“It’s not possible to say that two investigations — conducted by two different organizations — into the same matter are identical,” Fitzgerald wrote in a statement to The Daily. “The investigative process can be different. The standards of proof can be different. The underlying policies and what constitutes a violation of a policy can be different. The definition of investigation can be different.”
‘OIE did not even issue a slap on the wrist’
On July 13, 2020, OIE released the conclusion of their investigations into Alex and Rachel’s allegations: a “preponderance of evidence” did not support the allegations that Lasecki violated University policies.
Abdnour said the preponderance of evidence standard meant “it is more likely than not, based on the available information evidence, that something occurred.”
“Another way of putting it is ‘50% plus a hair,’” Abdnour said. “If there is even the tiniest bit more than half of the evidence supporting a conclusion, then you have a preponderance.”
OIE’s conclusion in Lily’s case was more complicated: OIE found that an underlying event in Lily’s complaint was credible, though it did not violate the University’s sexual harassment policy.
“Respondent physically touched Complainant during one-on-one meetings and in public settings, including hugging, placing his hand around her shoulder, and tapping her knee,” OIE wrote in the executive summary of Lily’s case. “However, Respondent would not have reasonably known this contact was unwanted at the time the contact was made.”
In Jane’s report, OIE wrote that because her allegation occured at a social gathering after Lasecki provided paid consulting to a private company, it did not fall under the purview of the University policies. Nevertheless, OIE decided to issue a finding as if the allegations were under University purview: that, like in the other complaints, a “preponderance of evidence” did not support the conclusion that Lasecki’s behavior would have violated the University’s sexual harassment policies.
“This matter does not fall under the normal jurisdiction of OIE and had it been known at the outset OIE would not have pursued this matter,” the executive summary of Jane’s report notes. “Out of respect for the cooperation of all witnesses in this process … OIE will proceed with issuing a report in this matter.”
In an interview with The Daily, Abdnour struggled to understand the logic behind OIE’s actions in Jane’s case.
“That doesn’t make any sense to me,” Abdnour said. “They might be deciding ‘Okay, we can’t be considering this a party because it was a social event outside our jurisdiction under the new Title-IX rule.’ But I don’t know why you would then make a finding. You would normally just leave it at that.”
Jane was troubled by OIE’s decision in her case.
“I find that disturbing, given that the OIE did not even issue a slap on the wrist or acknowledgement that his behavior was inappropriate, let alone predatory,” Jane wrote in a text message to The Daily. “I don’t think it is up for debate how inappropriate his behavior is, and yet he will continue to work with unknowing students without any change.”
Eric Gilbert, an associate professor of information who has been critical of the University’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations, is aware of the two investigations into Lasecki and offered his thoughts in an email to The Daily.
“If you look at OIE’s statistics, almost never do they find that a faculty member acted inappropriately. How can that possibly be right?” Gilbert said. “In my opinion, the ACM looked at the same evidence but followed a much more thorough and independent process.”
Reflecting on the University’s investigation of the four complaints against Lasecki, Abdnour called into question the purpose of the University’s Title-IX process.
“If you’re not keeping your campus, to the extent that you can, safe for people, why even bother having a policy?” Abdnour said. “What’s the point if you’re just going to twist it that far?… Why bother with Title-IX?”
Gilbert wrote that he believed the University should overhaul its sexual misconduct processes.
“In my view, the University should just completely start over. OIE doesn’t work,” Gilbert wrote. “The University should design brand new processes that center and protect students.”
The second article in this series will be published on Friday. It focuses on the handling of these allegations by the School of Information and the College of Engineering’s Computer Science and Engineering department. (Up until March 2020, Walter Lasecki held a courtesy appointment in the School of Information.)
Daily staff reporters Nina Molina and Sammy Sussman can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: The student referred to as “Emily” in a previous version of this story has been changed to Alex.