This article is the second part of a two-part investigation by The Michigan Daily 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.
Part one focused on the allegations against Lasecki and the divergent conclusions of the University’s Office for Institutional Equity and the Association for Computing Machinery, an outside research organization.
CW: 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.
Though the University of Michigan’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) ultimately determined that a “preponderance of evidence” did not support four allegations of sexual misconduct against computer science professor Walter Lasecki, the School of Information (SI) faculty made their feelings very clear in the months before this finding was released: the SI faculty did not want Lasecki to remain one of them.
In February 2020, even before OIE had finished its investigation and made a determination, the SI faculty voted to revoke Lasecki’s courtesy appointment, which had allowed him to advise SI students and maintain an SI office space. According to emails obtained by The Daily, Lasecki resigned his courtesy appointment and forfeited these privileges before the results of the faculty vote could be enforced.
But at the College of Engineering, Lasecki maintains his position on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) department. He did not teach for this department during the 2020-2021 academic year.
In a CSE town hall meeting in February 2021, CSE Chair Michael Wellman told the department that OIE had not found Lasecki in violation of any University policies. According to three individuals present at the meeting, Wellman read a statement co-written by Lasecki in which Lasecki apologized for unspecified actions.
In February 2020 and again in August 2020, dozens of concerned faculty and staff sent letters to University President Mark Schissel and Provost Susan Collins regarding the allegations against Lasecki. Correspondence reviewed by The Daily confirms that Schlissel responded to the first one, while Collins responded to the second.
In November 2019, four students filed complaints of alleged sexual harassment and misconduct against Lasecki with the University’s OIE and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), a prominent computer science research organization.
Lasecki did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment for this article. In statements to OIE obtained by The Daily, he denied the allegations against him.
All University administrators mentioned in this article declined to comment, instead redirecting The Daily to University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald.
‘CSE could have done more, had they wanted to; they chose not to act’
Three of the four allegations filed with the University were from non-University students. They requested anonymity, citing Lasecki’s prominence in the field and their fear of retribution. As in Part One of this investigative series, they will be referred to as Jane, Alex and Rachel. These three students allege that Lasecki harassed them and touched them inappropriately at social gatherings and industry conferences between 2016 and 2018.
The fourth allegation came from a University student. This student also requested anonymity for the same reasons as the other three students. As in Part One, she will be referred to as Lily.
Though these four students’ allegations were the only allegations investigated by OIE, The Daily also obtained an OIE statement from a former labmate in Lasecki’s PhD program. (Lasecki studied for his PhD at the University of Rochester.) The former labmate wrote that Lasecki was warned about his alleged pattern of harassment during his doctoral studies.
“He has repeatedly been made aware that his behaviors towards women are inappropriate but did not seem inclined to change any of these behaviors during graduate school,” Lasecki’s labmate wrote. “I am saddened to learn that these behaviors may have persisted into his time as a faculty member at the University of Michigan.”
Over the past two years, allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against other CSE department faculty were reported publicly for the first time. An article in The Verge in February 2020 uncovered numerous previously undisclosed allegations of sexual harassment against CSE faculty member and former Clinc CEO Jason Mars, who has faced pushback from students and faculty because he continues to teach in the department. CSE faculty member Peter Chen — the department’s interim chair from January to July 2020 — was placed on leave in January 2021 after criminal sexual misconduct charges involving a victim under 13 years old were filed against him.
In response to growing student discontent over department climate, CSE began holding town hall meetings in January 2020. Notes from these meetings remain on the department’s website.
According to interviews with three individuals present at these meetings, a reference to the allegations against Lasecki was first made in a meeting on April 16, 2020. (Notes from that meeting refer to allegations against “Professor B, who is not listed as teaching in Fall 2020.”)
This was before OIE had concluded its investigation — Alec Gallimore, the engineering dean, said that he could not “provide more specificity” on the case, according to the notes. Chen, who was still chair at the time, concluded the discussion of Lasecki by reminding students that “the department truly cares about student safety and will do what is necessary to ensure it, based on the evidence available,” according to the notes.
Ten months later, in another department town hall, Michael Wellman, the current CSE chair, began speaking about the allegations against Lasecki. He began by stating OIE’s finding that Lasecki had not violated any University policies.
According to the notes of that February 2021 meeting, Wellman listed steps the department had taken: all of Lasecki’s graduate students were provided with funding and advising options during the investigation, and the College of Engineering oversaw a study of the situation and of how to better address student concerns when they happen. He also said the CSE department would be “open to facilitate discussions” with Lasecki.
“Speaking personally, (Wellman) acknowledged the hurt and harm associated with this situation, regardless of the findings, the notes read. “… Finally, while some took actions during this investigation that were counterproductive, he discussed how students may have felt afraid to disagree or pressured regarding their connections, calling for respect for the process and the individuals involved in such cases.”
Wellman then read a statement that had been written with Lasecki’s consent. According to three individuals present at the meeting, the statement involved an apology for untold actions. It also involved vague statements about boundaries that Lasecki would now observe involving alcohol in the workplace.
Members of the town hall asked Wellman questions about this case. He declined to answer, citing his confidentiality obligations. According to the notes, Wellman concluded by emphasizing that “many such questions need to be answered by that professor.”
Despite the department’s town halls, School of Information PhD student Lindsay Blackwell wrote in a message to The Daily she was skeptical of the CSE department’s decision to keep Lasecki on their faculty.
“CSE could have done more, had they wanted to; they chose not to act,” Blackwell wrote. “They chose not to protect their students. If he comes back, if he is allowed back into the classroom or to advise new students, if he causes any additional harm … CSE will be to blame.”
Lily, the University of Michigan student, was present at the second town hall. She told The Daily that Wellman said she and the three other OIE complainants had approved of the statement about Lasecki in some way, a claim she disputed.
“Though Dr. Wellman claimed that he had also reached out to the students involved for approval … this wasn’t the case. He villainized the students who reported Lasecki,” Lily wrote in a text message to The Daily. “He also repeatedly noted that Lasecki was not found in violation of any university policy and was regretful that his actions ‘unintentionally’ hurt students, that he was making changes like reducing alcohol consumption and financially supporting the department’s DEI efforts.”
‘SI’s and CSE’s handling of the situation could not have been more different’
When the allegations were first reported to the University, Lasecki was serving in a “dry” appointment in SI. He was paid by the College of Engineering and taught College of Engineering undergraduate courses, but he advised some SI students and maintained a shared office space in the school.
Lasecki’s SI appointment ended in March 2020, months before OIE released their reports. According to an email from the school’s dean, Thomas Finholt, Lasecki resigned after the February 2020 SI faculty vote but before the vote could go into effect.
“He made a decision to resign,” Finholt wrote of Lasecki in the March 2020 email. “Effective with his resignation, Walter’s information was removed from the UMSI web site and his official U-M record no longer indicates an affiliation with UMSI. He was simultaneously removed from our mailing lists, he was taken off the building access authorization list, and he returned his office and building keys.”
According to interviews with five SI faculty who requested anonymity, citing the confidentiality of these proceedings, the voting began with questions over the voting procedures. There was little precedent for a vote to remove a faculty member’s courtesy appointment.
When the issue was finally put to vote, all five faculty members said that a majority of the faculty voted to remove Lasecki’s appointment. Two faculty members characterized the vote margins as “overwhelming.”
Even before the faculty vote occurred, Lily and three other faculty members familiar with the circumstances of Lasecki’s SI appointment said that Lasecki was banned from the SI’s North Quad facilities.
In contrast to the response by the CSE department, Lily said she was thankful for the support she received from SI faculty.
“SI’s and CSE’s handling of the situation could not have been more different,” Lily wrote in a text message to The Daily. “SI faculty rallied behind the students involved. The support was obvious in things like banning Lasecki from physically being at North Quad … and their vote to remove his SI appointment. These actions were taken soon after the investigation had started.”
Though he declined to discuss the specifics of Lasecki’s case, Fitzgerald explained in a statement to The Daily that faculty governance policies vary between schools and colleges.
“Each school or college on the Ann Arbor campus has its own bylaws that govern faculty votes,” Fitzgerald wrote. “The faculty members of each school or college follow the school faculty governance bylaws on voting, so there is no routine action that would apply to all schools and colleges.”
In a text message to The Daily, Blackwell said that she was impressed by SI’s handling of the allegations.
“In these situations you often hear ‘our hands are tied’-type excuses from department and university leadership,” Blackwell wrote. “This case is unique in that SI’s actions underscore CSE’s failures.”
Blackwell added that Walter’s status as a “prominent scholar” in his field made SI’s decision even more impactful.
“SI faculty used their collective power to ensure that their students would be protected above all else, and the magnitude of that decision cannot be overstated,” Blackwell wrote. “I’m very grateful SI took action, and so quickly. All departments talk about putting students first. Few actually do.”
‘We sent a letter to President Schlissel and Provost Collins because we were concerned’
About two weeks before the School of Information faculty vote, a letter landed in President Schlissel’s inbox. It was signed by 66 faculty members and PhD students at the University. (This letter was first reported by The Detroit News, though the outlet did not name Lasecki).
The Daily obtained a copy of this February 2020 letter. Though OIE had not yet reached any findings, the signees already expressed concern over the University’s handling of the allegations. They urged Schlissel to “make the immediate and structural changes necessary to protect survivors — and the broader University community.”
“Overall, the University of Michigan’s institutional response to date has been unsatisfactory and harmful,” the letter read. “Repeatedly, the institution has failed to protect its students, and failed to meet its obligations under Title IX.”
The letter summarized the allegations against Lasecki before expressing concern about Lasecki’s continued work at the University.
“Due process should not be incompatible with protecting students,” the letter read. “Lasecki had approximately 50-70 students in his lab, most of whom were undergraduates and many of whom were women … As far as we are aware, Lasecki continues to meet with the remaining students 1-on-1. He is teaching classes and advising students. He is hosting faculty candidates. We believe all of these affected students (and likely junior faculty) could be in danger. The University has done little to protect them.”
The letter listed four “necessary steps” to protect survivors and the community. Two were immediate: “Lasecki should be placed on administrative leave” and “students need support and protection.” Two were “structural”: the “University needs a dramatic overhaul of sexual misconduct process (sic.)” and the “University should formally consider sexual misconduct in hiring and tenure proceedings.”
According to records obtained by The Daily, Schlissel responded to the authors of this letter the day after it appeared in his inbox. (Individuals who shared these communications with The Daily requested The Daily not make Schlissel’s response public.)
Mark Newman, professor in the School of Information and EECS, said he signed the letter because he believed Lasecki should not be allowed a SI courtesy appointment.
“My primary motivation for signing the letter was to add my support for the students who were affected by Walter’s alleged conduct, both victims and other students who were now not willing or interested in working with him,” Newman said. “I felt that the institution wasn’t doing enough to support both the victims who had come forward and the students who are now displaced by this situation.”
Schoenebeck was one of the faculty members who signed the letter and said she did so to stand up for survivors.
“We sent a letter to President Schlissel and Provost Collins because we were concerned about the abysmal statistics for OIE processes,” Schoenenbeck said. “We need new systems that start with the harms and needs of survivors.”
According to an OIE report released in 2021, OIE investigated 15 sexual misconduct claims total under the “preponderance of evidence” standard applied to Lasecki’s case. In six of those instances, OIE concluded that the respondent violated University policy. In six other instances, OIE found that the respondent had not violated University policy. (Two complaints were withdrawn before a finding was reached, and one complaint was still being investigated when the report was released.)
Months after the first letter regarding Lasecki, in July 2020, the University released a report from the law firm WilmerHale on multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against former Provost Martin Philbert. Philbert — who previously oversaw OIE — was placed on leave and later resigned after the allegations against him were reported that past January.
Schlissel emailed the University community upon the release of the WilmerHale report. Soon, multiple SI faculty drafted a second letter contrasting Schlissel’s statements about the allegations against Philbert versus the University’s handling of the allegations against Lasecki. This August 2020 letter was sent to Schlissel and Collins later that week.
“In the August 3 email about the Philbert investigation, President Schlissel wrote ‘the university has fallen far short of creating a culture that rejects harassment and misconduct,’ the second letter read. “We are watching in real time as that happens again.”
The second letter summarized OIE’s findings in the four Lasecki cases before voicing concerns over the effects of these findings.
“These students tried to follow the rules to create an environment free of harassment and misconduct, and to prevent another Philbert from rising through the University,” the second letter read. “OIE is deeply part of the problem; it fails survivors, time and time again.”
The second letter ended with another reference to Schlissel’s email about the WilmerHale report.
“You wrote today that ‘we should make any changes necessary to prevent this from happening ever again,’” the second letter read. “It is happening again, right now.”
According to an email obtained by The Daily, Collins responded to the senders of the second letter later that week. (Individuals who shared these communications with The Daily asked not to make Collins’ response public.)
It is unknown if Schlissel or Collins took any further steps to address the concerns raised by the two letters.
‘We need more accountability for how people in positions of power treat the people they work with’
In an interview with The Daily, Blackwell said Lasecki held particular power in the CSE department — she once heard him claim that he had one of the “largest undergraduate computer science labs in the world.”
“He has a list of these students on a CV (curriculum vitae) and you’ll see that many of them are women,” Blackwell said. “And he has won awards and various accolades for his commitment to diversifying the field of computer science, because he does work with so many women.”
According to Blackwell, faculty such as Lasecki have significant power as gatekeepers to future work in the industry.
“If you want to stay in academia and you want the job market as a PhD student, you’re at the mercy of faculty,” Blackwell said.
Soon after Lasecki joined the University in 2015, Blackwell alleged that a whisper network began to form about his supposed patterns of harassment.
“People are always trying to protect each other, especially female students and younger women faculty members,” Blackwell said. “So (Lasecki) was someone that was on all of our radars that people had been talking about quietly as someone to be wary of. I estimate at least 50 people knew about this.”
In an interview with The Daily, Sarita Schoenebeck, associate professor in the School of Information, spoke of the whisper networks common in the computer science industry.
“We need more accountability for how people in positions of power treat the people they work with,” Schoenebeck said. “Whisper networks are harmful because only people who are ‘in the know’ can take steps to protect themselves. People outside of those circles remain in the dark and harmful cycles continue.”
Former CSE PhD student Matt Bernhard was close to some of Lasecki’s graduate students and heard some of these rumors.
“I think people were aware, it was sort of an open secret,” Bernhard said. “There are lots of those kinds of things (harassment allegations), and certainly in our department that’s not uncommon.”
Lasecki remains listed among the CSE faculty. In a statement to The Daily, Fitzgerald wrote that “there has been no final determination at this time” regarding Lasecki’s teaching in 2021.
Despite the four allegations, OIE’s investigations, the SI faculty vote, ACM’s five-year ban and two mass letters to Collins and Schlissel, Lily fears that the CSE department plans to bring Lasecki back to teach students in Fall 2021.
“While (Wellman) didn’t outright say it, it was pretty clear that the (CSE) department supported Lasecki,” Lily wrote in a text message to The Daily. “A lot of us felt that he was trying to pave the way for Lasecki coming back to teach.”
Daily staff reporters Nina Molina and Sammy Sussman can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this story contained potentially identifying information removed at Lily’s request.