UI lecturer takes concerns about sexual-harassment cases to trustees

UI lecturer takes concerns about sexual-harassment cases to trustees

SPRINGFIELD — An outspoken University of Illinois lecturer called on UI officials Thursday to be more transparent about employee sexual harassment and other misconduct and allow outside police agencies to investigate those cases.

Speaking to UI trustees, John Bambenek of Champaign, a former member of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, criticized the UI's handling of several recent cases involving sexual-harassment allegations against law Professor Jay Kesan, UI police Officer Brian Tison, former academic adviser Lee Waldrep and economics Professor Joe Petry.

"Some of the accused maintain their positions, others were attempted to be dealt with quietly, so they could get a job somewhere else and continue the same. In all cases, the victims did not feel they were taken seriously and that the focus seemed more on managing a PR issue than protecting students from faculty-staff sexual harassment and misconduct," Bambenek said in his prepared remarks.

He called on the UI to publish the number of complaints filed against faculty and staff members and how many of those result in any finding of fault.

"I believe transparency is an important piece of this," Bambenek said.

Bambenek also said misconduct by faculty or staff members should be investigated by the Illinois State Police or another outside agency, not UI Police, arguing it poses a potential conflict of interest.

"No other police department investigates misconduct of its own officials," he said.

In a statement later Thursday, Chancellor Robert Jones said the UI Police Department is made up of "skilled professionals and sworn officers who follow all the same laws, regulations and protocols for criminal investigations as any other municipal police force in this state."

He also said the department is "uniquely qualified to investigate sexual offenses involving victims who are students." Detectives in its special victims unit are trained on the best practices for handling evidence in cases involving sexual offenses and in interviewing techniques designed to avoid causing more trauma for victims during investigations, he said.

Jones also said the UI reporting of campus crime data and statistics is "public and transparent" and complies with all applicable laws and regulations.

The UI's Annual Security and Fire Safety Report, which includes data on rapes, stalking incidents and other sexual offenses, is clearly posted on the police department's website, along with other data on campus and community crime, he said.

Data on sexual misconduct cases is also maintained by the Office of Access and Equity, which investigates complaints filed against employees. But it just started collecting the numbers in a database in 2014, and until 2016, it didn't include information such as whether or not a case was investigated.

Jones and other administrators have pledged to improve the way these cases are handled.

The campus appointed a committee in January to review policies on faculty sexual misconduct, and it's expected to make preliminary recommendations to Provost Andreas Cangellaris by the end of May. The panel hopes to get feedback from the wider campus community next fall before finalizing the recommendations, according to its chairman, UI law Professor Rob Kar.

Separately, the UI system appointed a task force led by Executive Vice President Barbara Wilson to examine system-wide policies, education and prevention efforts, to ensure they follow best practices.

Bambenek, a onetime Republican state Senate candidate, teaches cybersecurity courses at the UI, holds two degrees from the Urbana campus and is now a doctoral student in informatics.

He has been commenting actively online on recent UI sexual misconduct cases and used his vote on the Illinois Board of Higher Education last fall to try to block the UI's state funding request, citing his concerns about the issue.

Until recently, he was a member of the Illinois Community College Board and served as its voting representative on the IBHE. He was appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2017, days after the governor withdrew Bambenek's controversial appointment as the lone faculty representative to the IBHE. Faculty across the state had objected because Bambenek is not a tenure-system professor, and some objected to his views on academic freedom and other issues.

Bambenek also has criticized how the UI handled the case of Professor Jay Rosenstein after a recording incident involving Chief Illiniwek supporters in a State Farm Center restroom.

Bambenek referenced both issues when he ran for chair of the campus Senate Executive Committee last month. He lost to Kar, 118-7.

Bambenek said the recent string of cases represent a "pattern" of faculty-staff misconduct. He said some of the women subjected to misconduct were students in his classes. "In most of these cases, the women involved expressed fear that they wouldn't be taken seriously and that they would face reprisals for their complaints. The actions of the campus leaders show they were very right to fear," he said.He said the administration has "fallen short" in its primary duty to protect students and make them feel safe coming forward to report misconduct.

Bambenek said he's concerned about current and future students, including his daughters, who are not yet of college age."Surely, we can do better than leave those subject to these kinds of behaviors feeling like they were ignored. Surely, we can do better than keep those who engage in gross misconduct on the payroll and maintaining their access to students," he said.

UI Board of Trustees Chairman Don Edwards and other trustees declined to respond to Bambenek's general remarks after Thursday's meeting, deferring to UI administrators.

"If you knew what's going on internally, you'd be at rest that this university is doing everything in its power to make sure we keep students safe," said Trustee Ricardo Estrada.

Thumbs up

Meeting on Thursday in Springfield, UI trustees approved:

— The newly named Grainger College of Engineering, in recognition of the Grainger Foundation's $300 million in support.

— The Nick Holonyak Jr. Micro and Nanotechnology Lab, named for the UI engineering icon.

— The Sidney Lu Mechanical Engineering Building, named for the UI alumnus and CEO of FoxConn Technology, who donated $21.5 million for the project.

— Agreements allowing the Urbana campus to reassume control of the Research Park from the UI System.

— A $7 million budget increase for the Demirjian Park soccer and track complex, to $21 million.