Graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison plan to rally Thursday afternoon for better workplace conditions and voice demands about an abusive professor who will return to campus in the spring in an administrative capacity.
The petition calls on UW-Madison to open a new investigation into the behavior of former engineering professor Akbar Sayeed. After one of his graduate students died by suicide in 2016, university investigations found that Sayeed had violated university policy on hostile and intimidating behavior and suspended him for two years.
In November, Sayeed was reassigned to administrative duties in the dean’s office for the spring semester. Graduate students will gather Thursday at 12:30 p.m. at Engineering Mall to pay respects to victims of workplace abuse and speak about the incident’s widespread impacts, according to a press release.
“The news of Dr. Sayeed’s return has caused deep concern about the safety of students on this campus,” students wrote in a petition. “According to the University’s own policies, we believe Dr. Sayeed’s behavior was grounds for dismissal, and we are unsatisfied that this was not the punishment he received.”
They will deliver the petition, which has collected over 2,000 signatures, to the provost’s office on Thursday.
After a Wisconsin State Journal investigation uncovered further evidence of abuse and toxic behavior, Provost Karl Scholz said in October that the university takes such reports seriously and will continue to hold Sayeed responsible should he return to campus. He added that the university has devoted additional resources to graduate students, mental health and hostile and intimidating behavior.
Students demand that Sayeed be prevented from returning and that the university further interview sources who have come forward with information about him. Sayeed’s return to campus sets poor precedent and places “an undue burden on the students and faculty forced to work with him in the future,” the petition says.
While the disciplinary action that led to Sayeed's suspension is complete, university spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said in an email that "if previously unreported or new events come to light, these additional allegations would be investigated."
"When he returns in January, Dr. Sayeed ... will not be teaching or otherwise having contact with students," McGlone said.
The Electrical and Computer Engineering Graduate Student Association and Teaching Assistants’ Association also call for an increase in shared governance, mandatory reporting of student grievances and more student representation in drafting new policies, according to the release.
Graduate students further pushed back against the university after University Health Services sent an email Thursday morning about a new online suicide prevention training course. As “part of a broad campus-wide strategy to build a culture of care, support student mental health, and prevent suicide,” it aims to train bystanders on how to support peers who may be in distress, according to the email.
In response, the TAA condemned the university on Twitter for making the announcement while allowing an abusive professor return to campus.
While suicide prevention resources are important, the email’s “timing is particularly tone-deaf, and in context, we found it pretty insulting,” said international relations PhD candidate and TAA member Anna Meier in an email.
McGlone responded that the timing of the UHS email was in no way related to the protest. The university has been communicating information about the program throughout the semester and it would be "irresponsible to delay communicating about a potentially life-saving program," she said.
"In no way has the university suggested that the training is a response to hostile and intimidating behavior or any other form of misconduct," McGlone said.
Meier said in an interview that graduate students have seen an outpouring of support from graduate students across departments and at other universities.
"I'm really looking forward to seeing people turn out from across campus and also community supporters to be there to join us," Meier said. "That's really exciting to see that groundswell solidarity."