CHAMPAIGN — Saying he wants to "set the record straight," a University of Illinois economics professor is responding in detail for the first time to sexual-harassment allegations raised publicly online.
Joseph Petry, who is under investigation by the UI, admitted he used poor judgment by sharing photos and having "communications of a social nature" online with a former student, but he insists it was consensual and he did not violate any UI policies.
Petry is also denying more explosive allegations that he offered to improve a student's grade in exchange for "sexual favors."
"This allegation is not true, and I want to set the record straight," Petry said in a statement released by his attorney late Tuesday, after News-Gazette Media inquired about the allegations posted by UI senior Summer Sundas Naqvi on her Facebook page Sunday. Previously, they had only been posted anonymously on Reddit.
According to Petry, the interactions are the subject of an investigation by the university that prompted him to be placed on leave Feb. 4, when he says he learned of the allegations. The UI has confirmed the investigation is ongoing but refused to comment on most aspects of the case.
The News-Gazette's attempts to reach Naqvi for a response to Petry's statement were unsuccessful Tuesday and Wednesday. She was arrested Tuesday along with a roommate and charged with intimidation and aggravated unlawful restraint for allegedly threatening another man with a knife so they could delete information from his computer.
Her attorney in the criminal case, Tom Bruno, said he could not respond to Petry's statement on her behalf, as he hasn't spoken to her about the harassment case.
But he said earlier that "all this started" because she had been victimized by a university employee, and "it has caused a great deal of disruption in the life of an otherwise exemplary student."
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In her Facebook post Sunday, Naqvi identified herself as the student behind the anonymous April 9 Reddit post accusing Petry of sexual misconduct.
She said Petry "relentlessly" sent her messages and photos and encouraged her to send pictures back, offered "sex in exchange for an A+ in his class," and even offered to pay her to have sex with him.
She said she had shared photos and texts with UI police last fall and criticized the UI for allowing him to continue teaching until February, saying he could have harassed other female students during that time. She said other women have contacted her since the Reddit post with similar stories about Petry.
In his statement, Petry did not name Naqvi but did not deny having "an interaction with the student in question after meeting on an internet social media platform" last September.
But he said it didn't take place until nine months after she completed his course in late 2017, and he didn't know when they started communicating socially that she was a former student, though he eventually did. He said his classes average more than 1,000 students each semester, and he didn't recognize her.
Petry said any messages sent through the unnamed internet platform or texts were "always consensual."
He said she asked him to send her pictures via Snapchat, assuring him that they disappear so it would be "safe to use."
"At no point did I demand sex from her, and at no time did I offer to change her grade, nor did I ever do so," he said.
His statement does not admit to a sexual relationship and indicates they met only once.
They met in person in his office in late September, he said, several days after the initial communication. At that point, he said, it became clear to him that she was "focused on convincing me to change her grade from the prior year, or to provide assurance that, if she retook my class, I would give her an A."
"I said I was not willing to do either of those things," Petry said, adding that she left the office, and he didn't hear from her again.
He said he was told the student claimed she came to his office as a "typical student inquiring about her grades, and that thereafter I began sending harassing photos to her without permission." But he said their first contact on social media was before their in-person meeting, claiming that proved any exchange of photos was "consensual."
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The university does not currently have a policy regulating consensual relationships between faculty members and students, though it is "in the process of developing one," spokeswoman Robin Kaler said.
Petry also said the UI has examined grade changes he made over the past few years, and it did not find anything "suspicious." That could not be independently confirmed with the UI; Kaler said the university can't comment on an ongoing investigation.
The "evidence does not support a violation of university policy," Petry said.
But he expressed "sincere regret that my participation on this internet platform was the start of events that eventually led to my retirement. I exercised poor judgment and placed myself in a compromising position harmful to many."
"The toll on my family and me has been immense, both personally and professionally. My actions have been far below the standards that I hold for myself, and for this I am profoundly sorry first and foremost to my wife, but also to the others who have been negatively affected," Petry said.
In the Facebook post, Naqvi said she initially posted the information on Reddit because the university had told students that Petry was on emergency family leave, and she was worried other students could be harassed.
She said that she was encouraged by her sister and close friends to come forward to make a complaint.
"I was unsure about reporting this to the police because he was a well-liked figure at the university and had previously (run) for mayor of Champaign as well. I am thankful that I had this support because I would've never spoken up about the issue without it, and Joe Petry would still be a professor at the university," she wrote.
She initially had no desire to be publicly linked to the story, according to the Reddit post.
But the thread went viral, and last week, Naqvi included a link to an email exchange with a UI lawyer that included her last name as proof that the investigation was still active.
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In her post, Naqvi said other women have sent her messages on Reddit and other social-media platforms saying they had been harassed by Petry in similar ways, and she said some have come forward to the UI. University officials would not comment on whether they have received other complaints.
Petry did not address questions about other allegations in his statement.
His attorney, John Thies, declined to respond to those claims or expand on Petry's statement.
"Professor Petry felt it was important to set the record straight on a number of points," Thies said.
Naqvi also said she had received online messages from Petry's family or friends, which she reported to police, urging her to "be silent about the matter." She shared an email on Reddit from a UI investigator acknowledging that those contacts were inappropriate.
Naqvi said the experience has made her senior year "pretty distressing" but expressed relief that Petry would no longer be teaching at the UI.
She said she was proud that she had spoken up and for "protecting other girls/future students from his actions." She signed the post, "You are not alone #metoo."
The Facebook post had been shared more than 330 times as of Wednesday evening.
On April 27, Petry announced his retirement from the UI, effective May 31, as part of a resignation agreement he signed with the UI in exchange for the investigation being dropped. The university, however, maintains that the investigation continues and that Petry remains on leave. Documents show the investigation has been referred to an outside law firm.