I guess I’ve been failing to keep up with the educational literature, because I haven’t seen any articles that recommend screaming at your students until they break down and obey your will. I think I might be reading the wrong journals — is there a “Journal of Pedagogical Bullying” that I’ve missed?
Somebody’s been reading it, anyway. Like a certain engineering professor at UW-Madison.
Graduate students described the work environment under engineering professor Akbar Sayeed as “toxic” and “abusive.” The professor called students “monkeys” and “chimpanzees.” One said he compared them to “slaves” who must learn to endure pain because it would last only four or five years.
Turnover seemed constant. Some students joined his lab only to leave within a few months, even though it meant losing their financial stipend.
The churn put more pressure on Brady, who came to UW-Madison in 2010 to pursue a doctorate in electrical engineering and worked as a research assistant in Sayeed’s lab. Despite Brady and others’ attempts to address how Sayeed’s behavior drove students away, the tirades continued and Brady’s responsibilities mounted. He trained new student workers on top of his own research, pushing his degree further into the future.
“Exploitation may not be too strong a word to describe how (Sayeed’s) behavior impacted (Brady) in his position as grad coordinator,” a report on Sayeed’s conduct would later say.
How can such a situation arise? How can it persist? If I heard that kind of story from a student or witnessed a colleague doing such things, I’d be be bringing it up to the chair, or to an HR committee, or straight up to the chancellor. If this behavior were brought up in a tenure review meeting, Sayeed ought to have been out on his ass. But UW-Madison let this untenable situation fester for years, until something happened that required the university to sit up and pay attention.
In 2016, Brady’s seventh year on campus in a program that typically lasts five or six, he started secretly recording Sayeed screaming at students in the lab. He hammered out his thoughts in a Microsoft Word document, describing a siege mentality among students in the lab. He arranged a meeting with a trusted faculty member that fall, one he had turned to the year before with concerns about Sayeed.
Brady never made the meeting. In October 2016, at age 28, he killed himself.
Jesus. You’ve got a professor who is driving students to suicide. What do you do?
If you’re the University of Wisconsin, you put him on a two year leave, during which time he is snapped up by NSF to work there. They also declared that this death was an “extreme and isolated” case. It doesn’t sound isolated at all to me — this is a systemic problem where an abusive, bullying professor could function without oversight or correction for years and years, until he pushed it just a little too far. It shouldn’t take a student suicide to set off alarm bells.
Sayeed is returning in January, which I find unbelievable. This is the kind of outrageous failure and persistent ethical lapse that ought to end his career. He’s even confessed and admitted to serious anger management problems!
In response to the university’s investigation, Sayeed admitted and apologized for his unprofessional conduct but denied abusing his authority as professor, making threats or intentionally delaying Brady’s degree. He said that if the department had taken action in response to students’ complaints, it may have “altered some of the outcomes.”
If only the administration had prevented me from bullying, this wouldn’t have happened, says the bully, placing the blame elsewhere.
If you’re wondering how he had a job in the first place, all is explained.
Since he started working for UW-Madison in 1997, Sayeed said, he has done everything he can to advance his students’ careers and secured millions in research money.
I hope, since the university won’t take appropriate action, that the whisper network among students at UW-Madison guarantees that he never gets another graduate student, and that this disgraceful behavior means NSF never trusts him with another penny.