UI law school dean: 'I'm deeply sorry'

UI law school dean: 'I'm deeply sorry'

Weigh in: Submit a letter to the editor

CHAMPAIGN — Challenged by a student leader, the dean of the University of Illinois College of Law apologized to law students Wednesday for the sexual-harassment case involving Professor Jay Kesan and its aftermath.

At a packed town hall meeting at the UI Law Building's library, Dean Vikram Amar and other administrators answered questions for two hours about the school's handling of the case against Kesan, who was sanctioned last year following a two-year sexual-harassment investigation.

Students complained that they didn't learn about the case until an audience member talked about it publicly at a law-school forum on sexual harassment last week, and that administrators didn't do enough to protect them during or after the investigation because they allowed Kesan to continue teaching and advising students.

About halfway through, Illinois Student Bar Association President Ashley Kennedy told Amar that she sensed students felt "disenchanted and downtrodden" after hearing about the procedural hurdles involved in taking more-serious actions against Kesan, a tenured law professor. The student group has demanded Kesan's resignation, and Kennedy later presented Amar with a letter signed by more than 220 law students, faculty, staff and alumni.

"We feel that students are being put to the side," Kennedy told Amar. "I think we want an apology for not doing enough to protect us."

Amar responded, "On behalf of the university, I apologize that any creepy behavior ever happens."

"Whether I did anything wrong or not, I feel an obligation on behalf of the university and the law school, so I'm deeply sorry," Amar said.

Kennedy said students understand the restrictions imposed by university policies designed to protect tenure and due process, as well as the confidentiality of accusers, which Amar outlined in his opening remarks. But she pressed him to make a statement saying administrators would "do better for our students," adding, "Could you have done more, perhaps?"

Amar said he was sorry that he didn't appreciate how much the process needs to be reformed, adding that he cares about student and faculty welfare. "I'm sorry that this happened," he said.

Law faculty have called on the university to overhaul its policies on sexual misconduct, which use a difficult-to-prove federal definition of sexual harassment. Campus investigators ruled that Kesan’s behavior didn’t meet that definition but that he created an uncomfortable work environment for women and violated the spirit of the policy and the university’s code of conduct. Kesan has denied any sexual motives or ill intent and issued an apology last week.

Law Professor Robin Kar, vice chairman of the Senate Executive Committee, said the chancellor's office is already reviewing statutes governing discipline in these cases, and the Senate Executive Committee will be doing the same.

"This is one piece of a much larger puzzle," Kar said, inviting students to give him feedback and suggestions.

Amar and others said they'd like to see a policy that would allow more significant sanctions short of those triggering lengthy hearings required by Article 9 and 10 of the University Statutes for tenured faculty.

The provost's office is also studying a possible policy governing personal relationships between professors and students, said Bill Bernhard, vice provost for academic affairs.

But students appeared unsatisfied.

"As a student, I felt that the university failed me and failed my friends, especially people who were in class with him," said second-year law student Rachel Forbes. "What is the university going to do about Professor Kesan now? Policy changes can take years."

Amar said he wasn't sure, but encouraged students to get involved in the process to create new standards.

"I can't promise a solution will be perfect," he said. "In the real world, remedies fall short. That doesn't mean we don't do the best we can."

Students noted that Kesan was able to teach a required first-year class last year even though the investigation wrapped up in September 2017. Amar said it was too late to make changes for that semester, but noted that Kesan isn't teaching a required course this year.

After the investigation became public last week, the law school also gave students in Kesan's elective intellectual-property class the option of moving to a new section and limited his contact with students in a digital-forensics class.

One student characterized that as a "face-saving move."

The first questioner asked why Kesan wasn't placed on leave during the investigation.

Amar said the college didn't have the option of doing that, though procedures allow the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access, which conducted the investigation, to request it through the provost's office if warranted. That would still have to go through processes involving the faculty senate, as removing a professor from the classroom or placing him on suspension are considered serious sanctions under the University Statutes, he said.

Law student Brittany Wiegand said students suggested other options, including not allowing Kesan to advise law students in the advanced-degree JSD program, have interactions with junior faculty, participate in the professor-student lunch program, be in the building with students outside of normal business hours, advise a student technical journal at the law school or have any nonprofessional relationship with students.

Amar called that a "helpful list," but added, "Some of the things may not seem like they would be big deals, but they very well could."

He repeatedly urged students to bring their concerns to him and other administrators, promising they would make accommodations wherever possible.

"It's imperative that students have options," Amar said.

He promised, for instance, to connect students interested in intellectual-property law, Kesan's specialty, to other faculty at the UI or across the country if they were uncomfortable working with him.

Administrators also said they would be meeting Monday with student editors of the Journal of Law and Technology Policy to consider other options.

Eric Johnson, associate dean for academic affairs, said the college also talked to JSD students to make sure they aren't uncomfortable with Kesan's supervision, and a student who worked with Kesan was offered an alternative position as a research assistant.

"We're doing our best to accommodate the concerns that people have," Amar said.