URBANA — Alleged victims of former University of Illinois Professor Gary Xu plan to sue the university Friday unless the two sides can agree to ignore the statute of limitations, an attorney for the potential plaintiffs said.
In a federal lawsuit filed last week against Xu, two of his former students alleged he used his position to sexually and emotionally exploit his young female Chinese students, who depended on him for their visas.
One former undergraduate alleged she was raped and beaten multiple times by Xu from 2013 to 2015, while a former graduate student alleged she performed countless hours of work for Xu’s commercial art projects, only to receive little or no pay.
They also faulted the UI for not moving more quickly to remove Xu, who resigned in August 2018 with a $10,000 exit payment, more than two years after he was placed on paid administrative leave.
“They reached out to us on Friday. We are willing to negotiate with UIUC, but we have not yet agreed upon the terms of a tolling agreement, which would extend our time limit for filing suit,” said Alison Wilkinson, an attorney with the New York-based law firm that filed the suit.
A tolling agreement would waive the statute of limitations, allowing the plaintiffs to sue the university after the usual deadline.
“If we do not get a tolling agreement in place before Friday, we will be filing on Friday,” Wilkinson said.
In interviews with News-Gazette Media, Chancellor Robert Jones declined to discuss the Xu case in detail, as he wasn’t at the university during much of the investigation.
He became chancellor in September 2016, after Xu’s January 2016 removal from the classroom but before he left campus last year.
Asked whether the university should have taken action against Xu sooner, given multiple complaints or contacts the two women made with various UI officials, Jones said: “I can’t say specifically about whether there were any gaps or things that could have been done differently,” other than the obvious need to add staff to the Office of Access and Equity to speed up sexual-harassment investigations.
Jones: A 'complex' case
Jones said he has a “general overview of different things that happened that tied in to the whole decision-making process being extended.”
The case was “complex,” he said, with “fits and starts” as it worked its way through the UI system.
The student who made the most serious accusations filed several complaints that were later withdrawn, though she said it was because Xu had threatened her and her family.
Jones said the UI was responding to “the wishes of the survivor.”
Part of the reason the details came to light now is that the survivor decided to speak out through the lawsuit, spokeswoman Robin Kaler said.
“It’s not as simple as some folks want to make it,” Jones said, adding that the university has to protect the rights of the accuser.
“The privacy issues are there for a reason, and they really do define in many ways what we can say, when we can say it and how we can say it,” he said.
Jones reiterated that the campus didn’t always sign confidentiality agreements barring it from discussing sexual harassment allegations when it negotiated an employee’s departure.
Xu signed a confidentiality agreement that prevented him from talking about the case, but that didn’t bar the UI from discussing it.
“In many cases, the university negotiates these things, and the accused person may not be allowed to say anything disparaging about the university, but we’re left to say anything we want to say if we’re asked,” he said.
'Privacy is tantamount'
Jones said these kinds of agreements are set up to protect the survivor.
“That’s our core principle. It’s not about trying to hide anything under a bushel basket to keep the world from knowing about it. At the end of the day, I care greatly about folks that survive this very, very traumatic experience. We will always do what we can to protect their privacy,” he said.
“I know there’s a public need-to-know aspect, but their privacy is tantamount.”
A campus committee is reviewing procedures for handling faculty sexual misconduct and is expected to produce recommendations this fall.
Jones said the UI’s new vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion, Sean Garrick, is considering “structural changes that absolutely have to be made.”
“We’re kind of restructuring our whole review process for these kinds of cases to make sure that we have the staff and the appropriate process to move them through as quickly as possible,” Jones said.