In July 2021, Rackham alumni Matthew Bernhard heard that the Georgia Institute of Technology was considering offering a job to then-University of Michigan professor Daniel Genkin.
Bernhard had repeatedly made UMich administrators aware of Genkin’s alleged academic bullying in the Computer Science and Engineering department. He decided it was worth making his concerns known one more time, this time via a Twitter direct message to an acquaintance and faculty member in Georgia Tech’s School of Cybersecurity and Privacy.
“Hey, so word on the street is that (Georgia Tech) is making an accelerated tenure offer to Daniel Genkin,” Bernhard wrote in messages obtained by The Michigan Daily. “That’s possibly a really bad idea. Daniel is horrifically abusive to students and other faculty, a fact pattern that has followed him from Penn to UMich.”
After receiving this message, the Georgia Tech faculty member sent a screenshot of it to the interim chair of the School of Cybersecurity and Privacy, Rich DeMillo, according to emails obtained by The Daily under a Freedom of Information Act request. The Georgia Tech faculty member introduced Bernhard to DeMillo via an email, obtained by The Daily, sent later that day.
Within hours, Bernhard sent DeMillo a multi-paragraph description of Genkin’s alleged bullying at UMich.
Bernhard never heard back. But DeMillo included Bernhard’s allegations in a document obtained by The Daily detailing the numerous warnings Georgia Tech had received about Genkin’s alleged behavior.
Two weeks later, DeMillo announced Genkin’s hiring to Georgia Tech’s School of Cybersecurity and Privacy.
A Michigan Daily investigation found numerous previously undisclosed allegations of abusive behavior against Genkin. These allegations span Genkin’s time at the University of Pennsylvania, where Genkin was previously employed as a postdoctoral researcher, and at the University of Michigan, where Genkin was a faculty member in the Computer Science and Engineering department from 2018 to 2021.
The allegations range from pressure to falsify data to comments and actions insinuating physical violence. They also include alleged misogynistic and racially charged comments, emotional manipulation and unprofessional workplace behavior.
The Daily’s investigation also found that administrators at UPenn, UMich and Georgia Tech were repeatedly made aware of these allegations, according to dozens of emails, messages and other documents obtained by The Daily.
The Daily also found that complaints against Genkin were reported to UMich’s then-Office for Institutional Equity (now the Office for Equity, Civil Rights & Title IX). At least one of these complaints prompted an investigation into Genkin’s behavior. The status of this investigation remains unclear.
In an email to The Daily, Genkin disputed these allegations.
“These [allegations] were investigated by Michigan’s CSE and found to be inaccurate or exaggerated,” Genkin wrote. “As a result, no disciplinary actions were taken. I was never contacted by OIE and have a clean disciplinary record across Penn, Michigan and Georgia Tech.”
Blair Meeks, Georgia Tech’s Assistant Vice President of External Communications, wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily that “all of (Georgia Tech’s) typical hiring procedures including background checks, criminal record checks and reference input” were followed when hiring Genkin.
DeMillo declined numerous interview requests, writing in an email to The Daily, “I am unclear what story you are asking me to share my side of.”
“Some of your questions refer to past events at Michigan about which I have no first-hand knowledge,” DeMillo wrote in a later email to The Daily. “Other questions appear to be based on allegations that are flatly untrue.”
DeMillo declined to comment on specific allegations and didn’t note which ones he believes are untrue.
Michael Wellman, the current Chair of UMich’s Computer Science and Engineering department, said in an interview with The Daily that the department effectively addressed complaints against Genkin.
“In this case, the actions … we implemented to address concerns about faculty behavior were effective,” Wellman said. “We investigated immediately, we supported the students, we set clear expectations for the faculty member for correction and improvement. We took decisive action, CSE did, in this case as soon as relevant information was brought to our attention.”
This is not the first allegation of improper workplace conduct to be raised against professors in UMich’s CSE department. In February 2020, The Verge reported allegations of sexual harrassment against CSE professor Jason Mars. In May 2021, The Daily published an investigation regarding UMich’s handling of allegations of sexual misconduct against former CSE professor Walter Lasecki.
The CSE department has also experienced rapid turnover in leadership. Chair Brian Noble stepped down in February 2020, weeks after allegations were reported against Mars. Later that year, Interim Chair Peter Chen abruptly stepped down in July 2020 for “personal reasons.” In January 2021, Chen was charged with criminal sexual misconduct, and that case is currently pending trial.
Wellman told The Daily that CSE is more committed to improving the department’s culture than ever before.
“CSE is, based on our experience, arguably more aware than just about any other departments about the necessity to ensure and to establish a strong community with a positive climate,” Wellman said. “And our faculty and staff are working on many fronts to achieve this.”
Wellman also expressed his commitment to the faculty mentorship process.
“But it’s also important to realize we do not discard people the first time they make mistakes, but rather we attempt to correct the problems,” Wellman continued. “In this case, the system we put in place to mentor a new faculty member to address identified concerns worked.”
In an email on June 24, 2021, a Georgia Tech faculty member stressed the importance of getting Genkin to sign Georgia Tech’s offer letter for a tenure-track faculty position.
“Michigan is also trying to make things better for him and we should not give them unlimited time to work on him to stay,” the faculty member wrote to DeMillo.
On August 9, 2021, Genkin wrote in an email to a Georgia Tech administrator that he was “being pushed to resign UM” and that he “had his lab packed up.”
Wellman said that he did not push Genkin to resign.
“As I said, we made clear to him that he needed to correct the problematic behavior,” Wellman said. “We provided advice and mentoring about how to improve as a research advisor, including how to eliminate all the problematic behavior, how to reduce the stress that he was perceived as imposing on students. And we also introduced vigilant monitoring of his lab and paid attention to the well-being of students.”
Angel Rodriguez was an undergraduate researcher in a cybersecurity lab when Genkin joined UMich in 2018. According to Rodriguez, Genkin was intriguing: young and eccentric with a flashy research history.
“He basically disrupted the whole security field,” Rodriguez said in an interview with The Daily.
A few months after arriving at UMich, Genkin allegedly approached Rodriguez about working for him in exchange for a spot in the PhD program.
“I knew that I had a harder chance of getting into the PhD program because I didn’t have the grades for it,” Rodriguez said. “He told me that he could basically guarantee that I’d get in.”
Rodriguez said he was enthusiastic about his “trial run” working for Genkin during the summer of 2019. But by the end of the summer, Rodriguez had reported Genkin to OIE twice.
Genkin’s alleged bullying began with inappropriate comments. Rodriguez said he witnessed Genkin insult the speaking skills of non-native English speakers. Genkin allegedly called Rodriguez, an African American man, a “monkey” and allegedly made frequent comments about his weight.
Once, Rodriguez said he watched Genkin keep a student feeling ill in the lab until the student started crying. In an interview with The Daily, Rodriguez said he filed his complaint with OIE because of this alleged incident.
“I think that was the straw that really pushed me to report,” Rodriguez said to The Daily. “ (The student) really was afraid of leaving early because if (Genkin) saw … he would go into the office and then criticize (them) and belittle (them).”
On July 20, 2019, Rodriguez sent an anonymous email to OIE, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily. He asked about protections of students who report about the behavior of professors.
“I have witnessed concerning actions from a faculty members that have made myself and others uncomfortable,” Rodriguez wrote. “Myself and others have refrained from reporting them because of the risks imposed on the students and faculty working directly or indirectly under them.”
Elizabeth Seney, then-Senior Associate Director of then-OIE & Interim Title IX Coordinator, wrote back that the University’s policy “prohibits retaliation against an individual for reporting or otherwise sharing information about concerns of discrimination, including discriminatory harassment, on the basis of any protected class identified in the University’s Nondiscrimination Policy Notice.”
Nine days after that, Rodriguez responded with a detailed anonymous complaint about Genkin’s alleged behavior.
“Daniel will frequently insult, belittle, and generally not be conscious of the negative effects his words and actions have on the feelings of wellbeing, safety, and respect, of his peers and underlings,” Rodriguez wrote to Seney. “I respect his work, but I do not respect the hostile work environment he has created.”
Seney replied, thanking him and writing that OIE would address the concerns which fall within OIE’s scope.
Filing the anonymous complaint did not seem to improve Rodriguez’s working conditions, Rodriguez said. Genkin persisted in making “unreasonable” demands on Rodriguez’s work hours and research output, Rodriguez told The Daily. On August 12, 2019, Genkin questioned the 80 hours Rodriguez reported working over a two-week period in a message on Slack reviewed by The Daily.
Later that week, Rodriguez said he went to Genkin’s office to ask him to approve his timecard. Rodriguez said that Genkin showed him what he claimed to be an unapproved lock on his door. Rodriguez said he cautioned Genkin against doing things he shouldn’t be.
“If you tell anyone about it, I’ll get in trouble, and I’ll hang you,” Genkin allegedly replied, according to the second OIE complaint Rodriguez later filed.
“I look back on it now and I still feel like I under-reacted to a lot because of how much I had on my plate at the time,” Rodriguez told The Daily.
On Nov. 4, 2019, Rodriguez sent a message to graduate students about a new concern: Genkin was allegedly encouraging colleagues to falsify data before a fast-approaching academic paper deadline. Copies of this chat were obtained by The Daily.
With Rodriguez’s approval, Bernhard wrote to Noble about this pressure to falsify data. Three other graduate students, four faculty members and one administrator were cc’d on this email, obtained by The Daily.
Rodriguez responded in the email chain that Genkin often pressured others to bend the rules. He wrote of the “numerous times” Genkin pressured him and his colleagues to circumvent “the safety committee … to cut costs and save time.”
On Dec. 10, 2019, Rodriguez replied to the previously anonymous complaint to Seney by claiming it as his own. He included new allegations against Genkin in his reply.
“I kept feeling a deep fear that I was burning bridges I may need during or after my undergraduate career,” Rodriguez wrote in his email to Seney. “The news of this report reached Daniel, and I strongly believe he knows it was me. I fear for retaliation.”
Five days later, on Dec. 15, Rodriguez decided not to apply to the PhD program.
Five days after that, on Dec. 20, Genkin submitted an application to a tenure-track faculty position in Georgia Tech’s School of Cybersecurity and Privacy.
By April 2019, Bernhard was becoming wary of Genkin’s alleged behavior in the student office space he shared with Genkin’s advisees. He met with then-CSE chair Brian Noble to discuss this on April 19, 2019.
“The first meeting, I felt good,” Bernhard said in an interview with The Daily. “I sort of laid out…my concerns about the department were not just Daniel-based. It felt good to have someone who seemed at the time like they were listening.”
After that meeting, Genkin allegedly followed Bernhard out to his car to find out what information had been shared with Noble.
“I couldn’t tell at the time if it was just total lack of awareness of social norms or … like, ‘I’m going to physically intimidate you and follow you around until you tell me what you’ve been telling other people’,” Bernhard said.
Bernhard later initiated email chains, obtained by The Daily, with multiple graduate students and faculty members to discuss concerns about Genkin in Sep. 2019.
Genkin’s alleged conduct severely disrupted the graduate student workplace, according to Bernhard’s email chains. In one instance, he allegedly used the shared graduate student office to drill into his Segway battery, filling the space with noxious fumes, Bernhard wrote in the emails.
In another instance, Bernhard wrote in the emails that he witnessed Genkin yell at a graduate student until they cried. When Bernhard spoke with Genkin about this, Genkin allegedly replied that, “I can either go in there and scream at (the student) until (they cry) and then (they’ll) do the thing, or I can just do it myself.” (Italics in original text)
In the same conversation, Bernhard wrote in the emails that Genkin allegedly said, “The only thing that gets professors fired is sexual impropriety and academic dishonesty.”
In early Sept. 2019, Bernhard heard rumors of Rodriguez’s OIE complaint.
“He’s been asking people if they want to go hunting for rats, apparently,” Bernhard wrote in a message to a peer obtained by The Daily.
Over the next four months, Bernhard repeatedly met with Noble and other CSE faculty. Bernhard said that they consistently declined to take substantive action to address student concerns.
In one specific instance, Noble responded to Bernhard’s email to ask if any of Genkin’s behavior could be proven with something in writing.
“The most common response from (Noble) was that his hands were tied,” Bernhard told The Daily. “Legally, (he) couldn’t do anything. There was nothing he could do to stop (Genkin) from abusing us. It’s just the system. It’s not really his fault, which was the one that really got to me.”
Bernhard recalled to The Daily that Noble established rules in one of these meetings that Genkin would have to follow going forward. One of these rules was that Genkin could not enter the shared graduate student office space.
After Genkin allegedly continued to enter the graduate student office space, Bernhard wrote to Noble. Noble responded via email to say that he had not yet spoken to Genkin.
After months of meetings but little improvement in Genkin’s behavior, Bernhard told The Daily he and other graduate students had lost confidence in the department’s ability to address Genkin’s alleged bullying.
“By this point, we were pretty upset that not only have we had to go through these fairly traumatizing experiences, but also that nothing was done,” Bernhard said. “The University as a whole didn’t seem to care.”
Nevertheless, Rodriguez and Bernhard continued to make administrators aware of Genkin’s alleged conduct. In Feb. 2020, Rodriguez had individual meetings with Noble and Alec Gallimore, Dean of the College of Engineering.
Rodriguez followed up with an email to Gallimore listing his recommendations to improve reporting to OIE.
“Thank you for coming in and for this message,” Gallimore wrote in an email reply. “I’m also sorry. The behavior you describe has no place at Michigan.”
In March 2020, Bernhard forwarded then-chair Peter Chen the previous emails between him, Noble, other faculty members and other graduate students regarding Genkin. Chen replied that he was “trying to get up to speed on this situation as fast as I can.”
In a video chat later that month, Bernhard said that Chen acknowledged he wasn’t sure if he could do anything to help the situation with Genkin.
“He seemed receptive,” Bernhard said. “It was obvious he was in fact finding mode. I felt really good after my one conversation with (Chen). And then nothing happened as per usual.”
Even prior to his time at UMich, Genkin faced allegations of bullying.
In 2017, Genkin worked in UPenn’s Cryptography and Information Security department as a postdoctoral researcher. According to emails sent by a student in the department between Jan. 2017 and Sept. 2017 and obtained by The Daily, Genkin was allegedly “passive-aggressive,” “manipulative,” “disruptive,” “toxic” and an “intellectual bully.”
The UPenn Office of University Communications did not respond to repeated requests for comment by The Daily. Current CSE chair Wellman denied knowing about these allegations during Genkin’s hiring.
“I had heard about (the UPenn emails) recently that some students were saying that there were these known allegations, but we never received those and I can tell you as someone involved in the hiring, there was nothing in the record about that,” Wellman said in an interview with The Daily.
In 2019, the Max Planck Society in Germany conducted a survey of workplace harassment of over 9,000 employees, 17.5% of whom said they had experienced bullying in a period longer than 12 months. Also in 2019, the science journal Nature reported that roughly 20% of the 6,000 PhD students surveyed said they experienced bullying. Of those, 57% said they felt “unable to discuss their situation without fear of personal repercussions.”
In an interview with The Daily, Wellman said that Genkin’s alleged behavior had changed.
“We did not receive any reports of incidents or problematic behavior of this sort after 2019,” Wellman said.
Bernhard told The Daily he believes that the remote research requirements of the pandemic prevented Genkin from engaging in further alleged bullying.
“We were all remote so it’s not like (Genkin) could have done the things he was doing,” Bernhard said. “It’s hard to say, was it even really a problem anymore?”
Bernhard and Rodriguez both graduated from U-M CSE with their respective degrees in the spring 2020.
On Nov. 17, 2021, Rodriguez requested a copy of OIE’s investigative report regarding his complaints, according to details obtained by The Daily. Rodriguez was told via email that it would take up to 45 days for him to receive this report. He has not yet received a reply.
Though Bernhard contacted Georgia Tech administrators July 6, 2021, Genkin had received his first offer letter in May. Genkin signed a second offer letter on June 26.
Wellman confirmed that he spoke with DeMillo, the Georgia Tech interim chair, on July 13, 2021, as indicated in emails obtained by The Daily.
“So I had a phone call with the chair of the department that hired him, and I guess what I’ll say is that we did not withhold any information about his situation or his performance at Michigan,” Wellman said. “I answered any questions that he had.”
Georgia Tech completed a background check on Genkin on May 24, 2021. The background check, reviewed by The Daily, included a standard screening of any history of criminal, credit, driving or substance abuse.
In response to continued concerns over his previous alleged behavior, Genkin wrote to The Daily that his current students are happy with his mentorship style.
“The allegations raised are in stark contrast to positive feedback from students that are currently in my research lab,” Genkin wrote. “They have enthusiastically chosen to keep working with me despite being offered other options since I transitioned to Georgia Tech.”
Daily Staff Reporter Elissa Welle can be reached at email@example.com.
Nina Molina and Sammy Sussman contributed reporting to this article.