UI lecturer to oppose school's budget request over harassment scandals

UI lecturer to oppose school's budget request over harassment scandals

URBANA — A University of Illinois lecturer who also sits on the Illinois Board of Higher Education says he will oppose the UI's state budget request because of recent sexual-harassment controversies at the university.

John Bambenek, an adjunct UI faculty member, said he will withhold his vote until the UI enacts "strong policies that actually prohibit unwanted physical touching and/or highly charged unwanted sexual talk."

He emphasized that he is not speaking for the IBHE or other board members.

Bambenek, a cybersecurity expert, co-teaches a digital-forensics class with UI law Professor Jay Kesan, who recently announced he will take a one-year unpaid leave of absence following an outcry from students and faculty when his sexual harassment investigation became public.

UI trustees approved the school's budget request for fiscal 2020 at their meeting Thursday in Chicago.

The university is seeking a 16.5 percent increase in state taxpayer support, or $97.9 million more than this year, to cover faculty and staff salary increases, undergraduate scholarships, new faculty hiring, renovations and other needs.

The request must be approved by the IBHE before it is forwarded to state legislators and the governor for action. Bambenek holds an ex officio seat on the 16-member board, representing the Illinois Community College Board.

Kesan's case prompted the UI to reconsider changes to policies that set a high bar of proof in harassment cases, based on legal standards. Chancellor Robert Jones announced that he is appointing a task force, in cooperation with the Academic Senate, students and other employee groups, to address that issue and eliminate unnecessary delays and "administrative gaps" in how investigations are managed.

The campus has also increased staffing to investigate sexual-misconduct cases, added new training programs and reorganized reporting lines for offices dealing with that issue to provide more oversight and ensure that employees have access to resources when they need them, according to Jones.

And UI President Tim Killeen created a systemwide task force, headed by Executive Vice President Barbara Wilson, to examine the UI's policies, education and prevention efforts and response to sexual misconduct, and make recommendations for improvements.

In Kesan's case, and another involving a UI police officer, campus investigators found that their conduct, while inappropriate, did not technically violate the sexual misconduct policy because it didn't create a hostile work or school environment for their accusers.

However, they said Kesan violated the spirit of the policy and the campus code of conduct. After students and faculty demanded more action, the college worked out Kesan's leave of absence and took additional steps to curtail his interactions with students and inform them about the allegations.

However, a document released under the Freedom of Information Act also showed college administrators were aware of similar accusations against Kesan as far back as 2002.

Similarly, investigators found UI Police Officer Brian Tison, who was accused of harassing female officers, did not violate the sexual misconduct policy but called his behavior highly inappropriate and criticized the department for allowing it to continue. He is still on the force, though no longer supervises recruits, and went through unspecified corrective action allowed under the police union contract, according to Chief Craig Stone.

"In both cases, the conduct was an 'open secret' that was discussed in fairly wide circles and was well-known to the leadership of the units involved," Bambenek said in a statement. "There is no greater responsibility a university has than to protect its students and employees from sexual harassment and misconduct, and in these cases, the university has utterly, completely and inexcusably failed.

"The idea that faculty or staff can engage in unwanted physical contact and it not be sexual harassment is farcical, and that's an understatement."

Bambenek said schools too often respond to misconduct by appointing task forces, only to see the same problems recur. Changes shouldn't take a "years-long study to remediate," he said.

"If they want my support, they need to enact serious measures immediately that truly ensure that legitimate complaints are investigated and just outcomes are achieved," he said.

He also said he will ask the General Assembly for legislation to allow "true independent investigations of sexual harassment complaints on campus that will truly protect the rights of students and staff to have an academic environment free of sexual harassment."

UI spokesman Tom Hardy said Thursday that "someone from the Urbana campus will be in touch with Mr. Bambenek to get a full understanding of his concerns."

IBHE spokeswoman Melissa Hahn said she didn't know of any board members who planned to vote against the UI request on those grounds, adding, "He has every right to his beliefs."