U-M EECS professor Jason Mars faces allegations of sexual misconduct, abusive behavior

Monday, February 17, 2020 - 8:10pm

Former Clinc CEO Jason Mars, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at U-M, has been accused of sexual harassment and verbal abuse.

Former Clinc CEO Jason Mars, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at U-M, has been accused of sexual harassment and verbal abuse. Buy this photo
Danyel Tharakan/Daily

Notice: This article was originally published by The Daily on February 17, 2020.  As part of its ongoing reporting on these issues, The Daily has republished this article to clarify certain statements and to remove certain allegations. 

The co-founder and former CEO of Clinc, an Ann Arbor artificial intelligence startup with ties to the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering, is facing claims of sexual harassment. Jason Mars’s behavior was investigated after Clinc received two official complaints from employees in December. He stepped down as CEO, which was effective Feb. 10, in response to the investigation.

An article published by The Verge on Feb. 13 detailed reports of sexually inappropriate behavior from Mars, who is currently a tenured associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University and the co-director of the University’s Clarity-Lab, an AI research group. The Verge based its reporting on accounts from 13 current and former employees, including some who studied under Mars at the University, in addition to leaked phone calls, emails and documents.

Mars founded Clinc in 2015 with his wife Lingjia Tang and University alumni Michael Laurenzano and Johann Hauswald. The company, which creates intelligent chatbots, has worked with clients including Ford, Sprint and USAA and has raised approximately $60 million in investments. 

Clinc has a close relationship with the University. Mars currently teaches EECS 498, section 3, a conversational artificial intelligence class that uses Clinc’s platform. Tang is also a computer science professor at the University. 

The claims against Mars published by The Verge describe verbal and physical harassment of Clinc employees and business partners, as well as misuse of company funds. 

One allegation detailed in The Verge comes from one of Mars’s former employees, who worked at Clinc alongside his girlfriend. He claimed Mars made inappropriate comments about his girlfriend at an event at Revel and Roll bowling alley. Allegedly, Mars said she had a “nice ass,” asked if she “shaved” and said, “She can sit on my face.” 

The source, identified as Ryan in The Verge’s article and kept anonymous due to fear of retaliation, spoke to The Daily and corroborated this story. He also clarified that, when he and his girlfriend left Clinc in June 2017 after the incident, his girlfriend explained to Mars and Tang why she was leaving. In a letter provided to the Daily, Professor Tang denied that any employee ever reported such an allegation to her.

Another Clinc employee told The Verge she was groped and verbally harassed by Mars at a bar during a business trip to San Francisco. She said she did not report the incident out of fear of losing her job. 

Employees claimed a comparable incident happened on a business trip to San Antonio, during which Clinc was working on a project with one of its clients, USAA. At a social event at a bar, Mars allegedly groped a female USAA employee and told her, “I want to do nasty things to you.”

The female employee did not report the harassment to USAA. She told The Verge she did not want an HR investigation on her employee record. 

The Verge’s article also described some instances of conversations that crossed professional boundaries. For instance, Mars allegedly asked employees to name their sexual fetishes at a social event at his and Tang’s house. 

Mars provided The Daily with a statement Saturday, Feb. 15. In an email to The Daily, he denied all accusations and emphasized the findings of the investigation into the two legal claims against him. 

“I vehemently deny any and all allegations of sexual misconduct,” Mars wrote. “Moreover, many of the allegations made about me are without merit or are fabrications. The outside investigator hired by Clinc’s board concluded that certain events that were alleged did not happen as claimed, and that allegations of retaliation were without merit. I valued my relationships with my colleagues and have the utmost respect for the men and women with whom I worked on a daily basis.”

Mars added there have been no complaints against him from University students. 

“To date, there are no complaints at the University of Michigan from anyone who was/is my graduate student nor undergraduate students in my class,” he wrote. “As there’s been no complaints from my students, there also isn’t and has never been any investigations into my conduct with students at the University throughout my years of service.” 

The recent investigation was prompted by two legal claims against Mars. One of these claims came from Brian Rider, vice president of innovation and strategy at Clinc. According to a letter from Rider’s lawyer, on a November 2019 business trip to San Francisco, Mars showed Rider pornographic videos and asked Rider to watch him receive oral sex from a prostitute. In its article, The Verge published a recording of a conversation between Mars and Rider regarding this incident.

In response to the official claims that surfaced in December, Clinc retained an independent outside professional to conduct a five-week, independent investigation into the allegations against it, interviewing 17 current and former employees and reviewing materials such as emails and company reports. 

According to a statement from public relations firm MWWPR, the specific allegations being addressed did not occur as claimed, but the investigation did illuminate some misbehavior.

“The investigation did highlight instances where behavior has been a distraction to the success of Clinc and also concluded that complaints concerning such behavior were promptly addressed by Clinc leadership,” the statement reads.

After stepping down as CEO in a Feb. 9 email, leaving Tang and Laurenzano as interim co-CEOs, Mars criticized the allegations but acknowledged he had crossed some boundaries.

“Although the allegations against me are rife with embellishments and fabrications some of which came out in the investigation, the truth is there were cases where I drank too much and partied with employees in a way that’s not becoming of a CEO,” the email reads. “I’ve learned a hard lesson about seeing my employees as friends and the importance of setting proper boundaries when socializing outside the workplace.”

Commenting on the workplace dynamic at Clinc, Ryan said Mars and his wife would manipulate employees by playing “good cop, bad cop.”

“Once you’re on their radar, they choose which of them is going to be nice and which is going to be mean to you, so that they can always have one of their unit on your side,” Ryan said. 

Ryan said he thinks Mars used alcohol as an excuse for inappropriate behavior. Ryan added he was unimpressed by a statement Mars made in a company email, saying he had stopped drinking.

Referencing the incident at Revel and Roll, Ryan said he does not believe Mars’s inappropriate actions can be completely pinned on alcohol. According to Ryan, Mars winked knowingly at him the day after the incident.

“As far as I know, on bowling night, he was only just drinking beer, so unless he slammed down 15 beers, he shouldn’t have been so out of control,” Ryan said. “It’s definitely not that he was blackout drunk the night before. It’s pretty clear that he knew he was trying to manipulate me, and then the wink was some sort of signal.”

Sexual harassment and alcohol abuse aside, Clinc was rife with professional issues, according to the sources who spoke to The Daily. For instance, Ryan said, Mars and Tang would cite themselves in their research papers to inflate their citation counts.

Moreover, Ryan said, Mars would exaggerate to potential clients about the capabilities of Clinc’s conversational AI platform. Mars’s exaggerations meant workers would have to pull all-nighters to deliver on his promises.

“When an investor or client would come in and they’d be like, ‘Oh, it would be cool if we could do that,’ as soon as that would happen, Jason would be like, ‘Oh, we already have that done, it’s so super intelligent, just give us two days to get it ready,’” Ryan said. 

In addition, Ryan said Tang and Mars would select graduate students from their University lab that they knew they could easily manipulate into working overtime. 

“That’s their perfect worker, someone you can pressure into working 70 hours a week, basically unpaid, for the company and for their own research,” Ryan said. 

Ryan, who quit shortly after the bowling alley incident and left his doctorate program, said it took him time to process how unhealthy the workplace environment at Clinc was. 

“It’s so multidimensional how toxic it is,” Ryan said. “Once you’re there, it kind of infects your brain and it takes you like two months to actually withdraw from it and get back to normal.”

In the wake of the allegations, University students and administration are reflecting on Mars’s role at the University. 

In an email to The Daily Friday, Feb. 14, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald clarified Mars’s status as an associate professor remains unchanged. He re-confirmed Mars’s employment Sunday, Feb. 16.

“The behavior reported in this story is inconsistent with the values in the College of Engineering and entire University of Michigan community,” Fitzgerald wrote in the email on Feb. 14.

In addition to retaining his employment status, Mars stayed on as a speaker at the TEDx event on Feb. 14. 

The day The Verge published its reporting, an EECS 498 instructor made a post on the class’s Piazza page, acknowledging the article and clarifying the course has in no way been restructured.

An EECS 498 instructor made a Piazza post assuring students the class would not be restructured following the allegations against Mars.

An EECS 498 instructor made a Piazza post assuring students the class would not be restructured following the allegations against Mars. Buy this photo
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On the morning of Feb. 14, Engineering professor Westley Weimer sent out a lengthy statement to his EECS 481 class, addressing students’ concerns in light of the allegations against Mars and other University administrators and faculty. 

In his statement, Weimer said though he cannot personally address investigations into sexual misconduct claims, he has set up an anonymous dropbox and wants students to feel comfortable coming forward. He also noted there are many other issues, like wait times at office hours, transparency in hiring processes and disrespect towards students from course staff, that the CSE department needs to address. 

“I may not be able to personally affect university-level policy about sexual harassment allegations, but I am working with a number of faculty members and administrators who have generously volunteered time or money to address some of those other climate concerns,” Weimer wrote.

Also on Feb. 14, computer science and engineering faculty released a statement calling for Mars to take a leave of absence, according to The Verge. The School of Information announced it would be suspending its recruiting relationship with Clinc.

Late in the afternoon of Feb. 14, the Dean of Engineering Alec Gallimore sent out an email condemning the recent allegations of sexual misconduct and stating the college would soon take action.

“Let me state in the clearest terms — the reported behaviors are not consistent with our values,” Gallimore wrote. “Although I do not have details to share today, I want to assure you that we will address these matters and take action as appropriate. We are working toward solutions to not only address immediate issues, but to also support a culture of respect within the entire College.”

In an email to CSE undergraduates in the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 15, CSE Chair Brian Noble said he had taken a few steps to address the allegations. He said CSE faculty had discussed the department’s climate issues. In addition, he said he asked Weimer to accept a position as Associate Chair of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and had launched two new student committees. 

“There are profound problems with CSE’s climate. I know that there is a lot of frustration, pain and anger, and I share it,” Noble wrote.

CSE Chair Brian Noble sent an email to undergrads Sunday addressing the climate in the program.

CSE Chair Brian Noble sent an email to undergrads Sunday addressing the climate in the program. Buy this photo
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Reporter Alice Tracey can be reached at atracey@michigandaily.com