CHAMPAIGN — When economics Professor Joe Petry abruptly stopped teaching in early February, his students at the University of Illinois were told that he was tending to a family emergency.
That explanation stood even as the university was investigating Petry for misconduct and making arrangements for him to resign later this spring, documents show.
Emails released to News-Gazette Media under the Freedom of Information Act also indicate that the investigation into Petry, a former Champaign mayoral candidate currently on leave from his UI job, is linked to recent social-media posts accusing him of sexual misconduct.
Petry announced his resignation from the UI on Friday evening following questions from The News-Gazette about the case. It will take effect May 31, according to a statement from his attorney, John Thies.
In the statement, Petry said his resignation was part of a binding agreement signed April 11 with the UI in exchange for the investigation being dropped, without specifying the nature of the inquiry.
He said he has cooperated fully with the investigation and feels "strongly" that it would have concluded that he did not "violate the policies in question. Nonetheless, the process of confronting these allegations has taken its toll on my family and me," prompting his decision to resign, Petry said.
But UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the investigation is "ongoing" and that Petry remains on administrative leave while the UI "investigates accusations regarding his conduct."
And The News-Gazette has also learned that the investigation, prompted by a complaint last fall, was recently referred to an outside lawyer, Peter Land of Husch Blackwell in Chicago, to expedite the inquiry, based on emails provided by the student who lodged the initial complaint, who asked not to be named. The student said she met with the outside investigator Tuesday.
The UI has not confirmed the nature of the allegations, citing its practice of not commenting specifically on personnel matters. But Kaler said the "safety and security of students and employees is our top priority, and we work hard to ensure that. When we receive accusations involving an employee, we investigate and act to prevent future behavior of any type that could harm our students."
Petry, who has developed and taught a half-dozen economics classes at the UI since 2001, has not been in the classroom since early February, prompting intense speculation on social media.
The 63 pages of emails released Thursday reveal administrators' concerns about what to tell students and teaching assistants assigned to Petry's two large classes this semester, how to respond to the online posts about him, and who would handle his classes this summer and fall.
Professor Martin Perry, head of the Department of Economics, emailed an unnamed recipient on Feb. 5, saying, "Joe will not be able to teach his two sections of Econ 103 tomorrow, and probably for several weeks. He has a family emergency that will require all of his attention. So he will not be coming to the office and will also be unavailable by email, for his TAs or students."
About 10 days later, on Feb. 15-16, there was an email exchange between David Tewksbury, executive associate dean for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Kaamilya Abdullah-Span, senior associate director for the Office of Access and Equity, which handles complaints about discrimination, sexual misconduct and accessibility. The contents of those emails are almost entirely redacted, but the subject reads, "investigation concern."
The documents also include a link to an April 9 thread on Reddit in which an unnamed student accused Petry of sexual misconduct.
The following morning, Tewksbury emailed Perry, Brooks and LAS Dean Feng Sheng Hu, saying, "We just received word of a discussion string on Reddit related to Petry," and telling them to refer any media inquiries to Kaler.
About an hour later, Tewksbury asked Perry if he'd sent any messages to students or staff to explain Petry's absence from the classroom. Perry replied that he didn't think so, adding, "But in the classes, we announced that Joe had a 'family emergency' and might not be back."
Later that afternoon, Perry wrote back, "The students all know now. So my staff now knows. I need to advise my Staff and TAs about what to say when the students ask about this. We cannot refer all of the students to Robin Kaler??"
Tewksbury then forwarded a statement Kaler had prepared for the press for Perry to use in fielding student questions: "We don't comment on ongoing personnel matters, but we take the safety and security of our students very seriously. When we learn of allegations of misconduct, we take appropriate measures to maintain a safe learning and working environment for all students, staff and faculty."
The following day, Perry wrote to Tewksbury, copying a UI lawyer, saying he had informed his staff and adding that it is "now more stressful because several of the staff knew Joe well. He was good to all the staff. So yes, we will need some group counseling at some point."
Later, Perry wrote to another unidentified person saying, "You surely know that much of the history has been revealed. We cannot talk about this and I have the University response," adding that other TAs needed to be informed.
"If students press you about Reddit post, say 'Yes, we are aware of those posts, but since this is a university personnel matter, we have no comment about them,'" Perry told the unidentified recipient in another email.
Job opening posted
Kaler wouldn't speak about Petry's case but said Saturday that in situations where instructors are placed on administrative leave, the university's practice is to share only that the employee is "unavailable to teach."
Online posts by students and TAs on a classroom bulletin board, which were shared earlier with The News-Gazette, show that students continued to ask about Petry and were told as late as March 27 that Petry was "still on a family emergency leave."
By then, UI administrators were already discussing Petry's plans to retire at the end of the semester and making arrangements for other instructors to teach his economics courses in the summer (online) and fall, documents show.
"Do not say anything to anybody, but it appears that Joe is going to retire," Perry wrote to an unnamed recipient on March 8.
That same day, Perry wrote in another email that, "If Joe retires, it would be at the end of the semester."
A few days later, on March 14, Claire Sharples Brooks, assistant university counsel, promised Perry and Tewksbury an update on "where we stand with the Resignation Agreement."
According to the documents, the three had been working together to determine what rights Petry might still hold over any videos, exams and other course materials he had developed for several courses, including online. In the end, they decided they could use other materials and wouldn't need his.
On April 12, the same day that the UI was finalizing its separation agreement with Petry, it posted an opening for his job for next fall: teaching introductory macroeconomics, economics statistics, and intermediate macroeconomics.
Until Feb. 5, Petry was teaching the Econ 103 macroeconomics class and the Econ 203 statistics class this semester. But they are now being taught by a lead TA and another professor, according to the UI.
In emails in mid-March, administrators had outlined plans to search for a new lecturer or teaching assistant to teach his statistics class next fall and ask the Ph.D. student now teaching the two sections of Econ 103 to handle that course again next spring. They planned to ask other faculty members to take over Petry's two online summer classes, Econ 203 and Econ 303, intermediate macroeconomics.
"So, the bottom line is this: Can we tell Petry's lawyer these things?" Tewksbury asked.
Perry replied, "Yes. That would give us some summer leeway."
"Ok. We will talk with the Provost's office about this. We will still need to get rid of Petry's image and name from the summer online class, if that can be done," Tewksbury said.
'Excellent teacher' honors
Asked Saturday why Petry wasn't removed from the classroom until February, Kaler said, "Investigative processes take different amounts of time depending on their complexity."
According to his resume, Petry has been consistently ranked as an excellent or outstanding teacher by his students, as recently as fall 2018. He has developed and taught courses in macroeconomics, financial markets, principles of real estate, microeconomics, managerial economics and business statistics.
"During my tenure at the University, I was fortunate to teach thousands of undergraduate students, and work with many fine graduate students and fellow faculty members within the Department of Economics and the Gies College of Business. I am proud to have been consistently rated as an excellent teacher by my students," Petry said in his statement Friday.
He also held adjunct professorships at New York University, John Caroll University in Cleveland and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
Before joining the UI, he worked as an economist at a number of financial institutions and corporations from 1991 to 2001, including General Motors in Indianapolis, Eaton Corp. in Cleveland, and Chemical Bank, Citigroup and Credit Suisse First Boston in New York. At both Citigroup and Chemical Bank, he was an economist for the Latin American division.
He's also been active in the community, serving on Champaign's Historical Preservation Commission, the East Central Illinois Community Foundation Board, the Illinois Association of Park Districts board and the Champaign Park District board.
He ran for mayor in 2015, finishing third in a four-way race won by Deb Feinen.
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UI signed deal with Petry, then reconsidered terms
CHAMPAIGN — Three days after signing a resignation agreement with embattled economics Professor Joe Petry, the University of Illinois backtracked and said it was no longer willing to drop its misconduct investigation, documents show.
On Saturday, a day after announcing his resignation, Petry released to News-Gazette Media through his attorney a copy of the four-page agreement, signed on April 11 by the professor and UI Assistant Counsel Claire Sharples Brooks and on April 12 by three other UI officials — Vice President and CFO Avjit Ghosh; VP for Academic Affairs Bill Bernhard; and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Feng Sheng Hu.
According to the terms of the agreement, Petry would resign from his $98,500-a-year position effective May 31 and the UI’s Office of Access and Equity would "discontinue its investigation into the allegations that have been brought against (him) and no formal discipline will be imposed against him."
It also presumably means he would forgo the two-year terminal contract he was due — unless found to have violated UI policies — as a member of the non-tenure-track faculty union.
However, on April 15, Petry said in a statement, "my attorney was notified ... of the University’s request that the 'current agreement be superseded and replaced with another resignation agreement that does not reference nor seek to limit the investigation of' the claim against me.
"The University sought to justify the need for a new agreement on the basis of 'important regulatory and institutional goals and obligations,'" he said.
Asked Saturday about the reason for pulling back the separation agreement, UI campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said: "It is our practice to not comment specifically on pending personnel matters."
For his part, Petry said Saturday he hadn’t agreed to any revisions to the original agreement, adding: "Any continuation of the University’s investigation is a clear violation of" its terms.
In a statement, he added: "It is significant that the University made its request after I had agreed to retire, and after I was no longer teaching my classes or having any contact with students."
He repeated the UI's public statement on the reason for conducting an investigation into his behavior, saying: "Accordingly, the 'safety and security of students and employees' does not necessitate the University's current position."