Faculty in the University of Michigan’s Computer Science and Engineering department published an open letter Monday afternoon condemning all misconduct and outlining actions they want the department and the University to take to address instances of misconduct. The letter comes after criminal sexual misconduct charges against CSE professor Peter Chen surfaced last week.
“We are joining together in writing this letter because we believe that the faculty and administration need to earn back trust from students and community members and need to work to improve the CSE climate for ourselves, our students, and the broader community,” the letter reads. “Through this letter, we hope to express some of the sentiments we have heard as well as to ask for a set of changes that we believe will allow us to work to rebuild that trust.”
Despite its time of release, the letter emphasized that faculty were writing out of concern for the general climate within the CSE department, rather than directly responding to the Chen allegations.
“This letter discusses concerns that have arisen about the climate and culture in the Computer Science and Engineering Division and is not related to any specific incident,” the letter reads. “This letter is by no means implying the confirmation or guilt of a recent allegation which has shocked the CSE community. Our system of laws and adjudication must make such a judgment and decision.”
The letter, which acknowledges that “multiple instances and allegations of misconduct can suggest overarching concerns,” also comes after CSE assistant professor Jason Mars faced allegations of sexual misconduct last February. More recently, CSE students circulated an email template calling for Mars to be removed from teaching EECS 370 during the Winter 2021 semester in December, though Mars continues to be one of the class instructors.
While the charges against Chen are not linked to his work or research at the University, CSE faculty emphasized in their letter the allegations against CSE faculty members are a point of concern.
“We see, through community perceptions of treatment and calls for transparency and concerns about safety, that we must work to improve our entire climate, not just focus on individual incidents,” the letter reads.
The letter, signed by more than 50 CSE faculty members and 50 community members at the time of publication, explicitly condemns all forms of misconduct, specifically sexual and gender-based.
The allegations against Chen — a beloved professor who has taught at the University since 1993 — surprised and concerned students, unsettling those in the CSE community. The CSE department acknowledged in the letter that these allegations may have an impact on students’ ability to focus and learn.
“We do not have any more information about these cases than students do, but we acknowledge that just hearing allegations is distressing: it is harder to concentrate, focus, and work,” the letter reads. “Faculty, students, and staff alike are distraught. Students feel marginalized, and it is not clear to them that their voices matter.”
The letter calls for the University’s administration and the College of Engineering to take concrete, constructive action to address instances of sexual misconduct, including that the University publicly clarify processes for investigating these allegations as well as be as transparent as possible.
“Students may be familiar with similar cases in other parts of the University and may have heard of other investigations of sexual misconduct by faculty and may not be certain about the future,” the letter reads. “The University, the College of Engineering, and CSE owe transparency in communication. This includes explaining why cases appear to be handled non-uniformly. Recent incidents may appear, to the community, to have resulted in different immediate responses.”
Additionally, the letter asks that the department make good on plans to institute and expand bystander intervention training, with a focus on academic settings. It suggests tailoring existing University resources such as Change It Up to focus on CSE, and says all CSE faculty should participate in such training when available to “demonstrate the CSE faculty’s commitment in a way that goes beyond simple words.”
“We believe that bystander training can help identify incidents and support student safety, but we request training that goes beyond existing web-based tools,” the letter reads. “Training that forces us to have meaningful and difficult discussions about what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and that focuses on student-faculty interactions is necessary.”
The letter also suggests the CSE department hire outside investigators to resolve culture and climate issues in the department.
“CSE has not demonstrated that it can fully resolve culture and climate issues internally, and CSE would benefit from outside perspectives,” the letter reads.
CSE Chair Michael Wellman wrote in an email to students Monday before the letter was released that though there have been multiple CSE faculty members alleged to have committed sexual misconduct, there is no indication that is due to climate issues within the department.
“Many have drawn connections among these distinct cases to suggest that our Division’s faculty culture somehow breeds or enables misbehavior,” Wellman wrote. “It is fair to raise that concern, but I personally want to dispute the assumption that this is a phenomenon specific to CSE. I believe it to be a larger societal issue which we are striving greatly to address within our own microcosm.”
The email also shared that the School of Engineering CARE Center, a Counseling and Psychiatric Services partnership, is providing facilitated debriefs to engineering classes throughout the week with counselors, where no faculty or staff will be present.
Wellman wrote it is important that students treat the cases separately and acknowledge the distinctions between the two.
“This comes at a time when CSE is already reeling from accusations and findings of inappropriate conduct by other faculty members and controversy about how the University and Division are handling those cases,” Wellman wrote. “It is essential that we consider and deal with each case of alleged misconduct on its own terms – each have their own contexts and facts, calling for individualized investigative processes with disciplinary and corrective measures tailored to the situation.”
This is a developing story.
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