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CHAMPAIGN — When allegations of sexual misconduct against former Professor Gary Xu were first made public last year on Chinese websites, one of Xing Zhao’s colleagues sent her an email with Xu’s name as the subject line.

Xu had encouraged her to come to the University of Illinois, where he would be her adviser from 2013 to 2015 as she pursued her doctorate.

But she quickly felt like she was being sexualized, and in a federal lawsuit filed last week, she alleges Xu forced her to work on his paid commercial projects for little or no compensation.

So when she saw the email last year, Zhao initially mistook the subject line for the sender and thought Xu was emailing her.

“It almost gave me a heart attack,” she told News-Gazette Media last week. “I jumped out of my bed in the middle of the night.”

Even though it had been years since she’d last seen him, she said she still has lingering anxiety and trouble sleeping.

“It’s a haunting feeling,” she said. “It’s still bothering me now.”

She left the UI in 2015 with her master’s and is now studying at the University of California-San Diego.

When she first met with her Ph.D. adviser there, she was startled that he left his door wide open.

“We were talking about books and book reviews. It was a very normal conversation,” Zhao said. “He told me after: What happened to me? Why did you look so happy? Why’d you have a big smile? I didn’t realize that and almost cried at that moment.”

She didn’t know how to answer and said “nothing.”

“I realized that’s the best answer,” she said. “I’m happy because nothing happened during the conversation.”

It was in stark contrast to how Xu allegedly treated her at the UI.

The lawsuit alleges he took credit for hours of translation work she did, paid her minimally for work on his art exhibits, threatened her for talking with a female professor in the department, attempted to kiss her and belittled her intelligence.

When she sought feedback on her thesis, Xu ignored Zhao, according to the lawsuit, eventually only providing blanket criticism and nothing constructive.

Zhao said she joined the lawsuit to prevent Xu — or professors like him — from abusing their power in the future.

“I feel that Gary Xu, if he stays in academia or anywhere, he would be a potential harm to junior faculty or whoever works as a subordinate for him,” Zhao said. “So as I have experienced this, I don’t want that to happen anymore anywhere.”

She also hopes this lawsuit improves academia overall.

“If I want to stay in academia, I’ll become a female international junior colleague who has little leverage,” she said. “And I want the surroundings to be better, healthier, before I can even join academia and feel safe, not having what was done to me happen again when I become a junior colleague.”

A call for change

Zhao is one of three plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit against Xu, who served as head of the UI’s East Asian Languages and Cultures department from 2012 to 2015.

The lawsuit alleges he took advantage of his position to sexually and emotionally exploit his young female Chinese students, who depended on him for their visas.

Zhao was joined in the lawsuit by a Chinese woman who said she was raped and beaten by Xu multiple times from 2013 to 2015, when she was dating him as an undergraduate.

The woman is named in the court filing, but News-Gazette Media has chosen not to publish her identity in accordance with its policy not to identify alleged rape victims.

In March 2018, about two years after graduating, a professor at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, Ao Wang, publicized allegations against Xu on Chinese websites.

Xu allegedly made death threats toward him, tried to bribe him and sued him in China for defamation, causing him emotional distress, according to the same suit which Wang joined.

“He really tried many, many ways to threaten me, to silence me, to discredit me,” Wang told News-Gazette Media last week.

He said he spoke up in 2018 because “I thought Gary Xu was an extremely dangerous person. I wanted to make sure no one else got hurt. I had heard what he had done for a long time, through former colleagues and teachers.”

And like Zhao, he said he joined the lawsuit to make long-term changes.

“There’s definitely something wrong in the system,” said Wang, who hopes the suit helps “people pay more attention to what happens in universities, so in the long term we can have some systematic changes in universities, in higher education or everywhere.”

Plans to sue UI

The plaintiffs are also planning to sue the University of Illinois for not doing enough to remove Xu more quickly.

“Xu abused this power; the University let him,” the lawsuit states, repeatedly faulting the UI for not following up on complaints and moving too slowly.

The woman he is accused of raping made her first Title IX report with the UI in April 2014, according to the lawsuit.

In January 2016, Xu was placed on paid administrative leave. That continued until he resigned in August 2018, according to the UI.

On his way out, Xu received $10,000 from the UI, according to the separation agreement.

The woman, then a sophomore at the UI, later recanted under what she described as pressure from Xu.

And when she was allegedly beat and raped by Xu that summer while in China with him for an art exhibit, she sent a picture of her bruised eye to the UI.

The UI issued a no-contact directive to Xu, but the lawsuit states that the woman was never notified of it and later withdrew this report, as well — again, allegedly after being pressured to do so by Xu.

“He told her that if she did not do as he said, he would not let other professors write letters of recommendation for her and would do all he could to hinder her college education and prevent her from graduating,” the lawsuit states. “He threatened to send her back to China.”

The following summer, after Xu allegedly tried to run her over in his car, she spoke with UI officials again, according to the lawsuit.

After the UI issued its final report in May 2016, Xu allegedly again pressured the woman to recant, which she did, the suit states.

Xu: ‘Preposterous’

That 24-page report wasn’t released to the media until last month, when News-Gazette Media received it through an open records request filed more than a year earlier after Wang first publicized the allegations on Chinese websites.

But the report was heavily redacted.

It hints at the woman’s allegations of rape and assault in a section titled “Violence,” but that entire three-and-a-half-page section was redacted.

In the report, the UI’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Access concluded that Xu violated the no-contact directive and dated someone he supervised without letting his boss know.

In his response to the UI during its investigation, he called the allegations “preposterous” and “full of speculations, imaginations, unfounded accusations, and false statements.”

And in April 2016, he called the UI’s draft report “full of factual mistakes, logical inconsistencies and fallacies.” He said he followed the no-contact directive “with a few exceptions” and said the report relies on “words that were thrice recanted.”

Xu could not be reached for comment about the lawsuit.

University officials are reviewing the lawsuit, but can’t comment on its contents, spokesman Chris Harris said.

“Issues of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment threaten every aspect of our university missions, and they inflict personal and professional harm on members of our community,” Harris said in a statement. “The university investigates and takes appropriate action whenever conduct is reported that may jeopardize or impact the safety or security of our students or others.

“The current administration is reviewing and revising disciplinary processes to allow us to take quicker and more forceful action when employment misconduct is proven.”

Criminal charges?

A campus committee led by UI Law Professor Robin Kar is reviewing procedures for handling faculty sexual misconduct and is expected to produce recommendations this fall.

Kar said the recommendations will address many of the concerns raised in the lawsuit against Xu.

“We are indeed aware of concerns about past practices about handling sexual misconduct cases arising from the extensive time that it can take to impose some sanctions; from the use of paid leaves without any apparent sanctions for lengthy periods even after some policy violations have been found; and from settlements that may have involved non-disclosure agreements in the past,” Kar said in an email. “We do have recommendations that should help with all of these potential problems, and many more.”

And he said these issues have been considered by the committee all along.

“Some of these problems are hard to solve due to larger systems of rules and special procedures that are in place to protect tenure and academic freedom,” he said. “But we believe we have been able to identify real advances that would help with all of these problems, even while still protecting academic freedom and shared governance.

“So I strongly believe many of the concerns we are still seeing publicly about how some cases have been handled will soon be a thing of the past.”

The allegations of rape and assault in the civil suit would be criminal, if prosecutors could prove them.

But Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz said her office wasn’t aware of the allegations until last week, when the lawsuit was filed.

“The State’s Attorney’s Office has never received any reports regarding Gary Xu or the allegations” in the suit, Rietz said.

Alison Wilkinson, one of the attorneys for the New York-based law firm that filed the suit, said the alleged victims are considering their options.

“We are looking into options with regard to pursuing criminal charges, but have not made any decisions on this yet,” she said.