Sayeed, and UW-Madison, take another hit

To recap: Akbar Sayeed is a University of Wisconsin engineering professor whose training methods were so abusive they led to the suicide of a graduate student, John Brady. This was a bit too blatant for the university to look the other way, so they punished him with a two year unpaid leave, after years of screaming fits and tyrannized students. He used his time off to apply for a research position at NSF, which he left abruptly 8 months before his appointment at UW-Madison would be restored.

More information is trickling out now, and it’s not good for the university. UW-Madison failed to inform NSF of Sayeed’s salary status and why he was going to be available to work there, which are facts required for his temporary position. And now we know why he left NSF.

…NSF provided an additional statement that said the program under which Sayeed was hired requires institutions to report employee status.

“Unfortunately, the institution did not accurately disclose that information,” said Amanda Hallberg Greenwell, head of NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. “When NSF received complete information, we terminated Dr. Sayeed’s assignment.”

I can imagine what happened here. If it were disclosed that he had driven a student to kill himself and that the university placed him on unpaid leave, NSF wouldn’t have hired him (probably — I’m beginning to develop a jaundiced opinion of institutional concern about humane behavior). Sayeed certainly would have avoided reporting himself, and sympathetic admins at the UW would have been reluctant to sabotage his opportunity at employment, so they conveniently neglected to mention certain salient facts.

After all, he’d been getting paid $166,650 per year to yell at students, and it would have been so mean to slam him down to $0 abruptly, just because one student had died on his watch.

Funny how all that works. Also funny: that he was a bad teacher getting paid 2½ times what I do, probably with a much lower teaching load. There are some remarkable inequities within academia.

NSF sets some standards, at least.

NSF imposed a new requirement last fall requiring institutions to disclose if any faculty members with NSF grants committed harassment, including sexual harassment or sexual assault. Depending on a university’s policies and codes of conduct, bullying may be included in the policy.

The policy is not retroactive, applying only to researchers who received an award after Oct. 22, 2018.

Universities seem to be falling behind. There are rules underlying tenure; I would think that “harassment, including sexual harassment or sexual assault” ought to warrant revocation of tenure.


  1. waydude says

    Is this how grad school is? I never went, kept thinking about it, even now I consider going back for my masters (just to get it, too late I’m an airline pilot). But all my professors in the anthropology department at the University of Utah were great, never did grad work under them tho
    Also, we used to have this kind of attitude/ bullying in the airlines but from the early 2000s we put an end to it. Mostly it was a leftover artifact from when many pilots came from the military and brought their miserable learning experiences with them mistaking loudness and bullying as an effective teaching tool, as well as a culture of unquestioned leadership. Fun fact! Military pilots and that particular mode of learning does not translate well to the airline industry as we have learned from too many accidents

  2. says

    In my experience, most professors are fine, well-motivated individual who want the best for their students. A few self-promoting assholes exist and manage to rise up in the ranks far further than they should.

  3. damien75 says

    Tht story is surprising coming from the US, well, from the US as I see them, but Sayeed’s behavior would be bana lin some other countries, and the professor would run no risk of deing sent home on an unpaid leave. I have seen it with my own eyes.

    I cannot open the lnink : Unavailable due to legal reasons.

  4. PaulBC says

    I had a great PhD advisor, but he wasn’t running a lab, and the bulk of my dissertation consisted of mathematical proofs. I am a little confused about how you get from students as a cheap source of labor to tomorrow’s researchers. I suspect that for many of them, you don’t. They fall into a death spiral of deadend postdocs and adjunct positions. Or leave academia.

    While, I don’t regret getting a PhD, it made little sense as part of any rational career trajectory.

    Also, PZ is way underpaid! (Sorry if that’s in poor taste, but absolutely true.)

  5. komarov says

    NSF imposed a new requirement last fall requiring institutions to disclose if any faculty members with NSF grants committed harassment, including sexual harassment or sexual assault.

    Hm, and will it be up to the same old internal mechanisms within universities to decide whether someone has, in fact, committed any of those things that need to be reported to NSF? You know, those internal reviews and so forth that seem to fail a lot. Or, if you want to be harsh and cynical, succeed a lot at ignoring misconduct because acknowledging it would make the institution bad.
    Setting these standards is good but whether they can be maintained is a different matter.

  6. unclefrogy says

    it is almost as if they do not really want to really change and learn to do some things differently
    uncle frogy

  7. kome says

    You know, if the NSF really wanted to send a message, I’d suggest that basically black list the entire UW-Madison faculty from being considered for NSF positions or grants or whatever for like 5 years. After all, if the university failed to disclose that information about Sayeed, what reason is there to trust the university if there are no consequences? Give the faculty there something to think about in terms of how their employer tolerates abusive behavior and protects abusers, and maybe that could encourage more of them to step up to the plate to address these problems instead of hunker down in their labs, look the other way, and pretend that the problem doesn’t concern them.

  8. lumipuna says

    I understand Sayeed’s students mostly didn’t get their PhDs, at least not while staying with him. So what’s the point of supervising them in the first place? A sadistic hobby? Or do you get some professional credit from students even if they quit (or commit suicide, as it is)? Does it say in some book of rules that every professor, including Mr. Bigly Grant-Money, must also supervise graduate students?

  9. wzrd1 says

    Sounds more probable that the NSF initially vetted him with the university, whitewash was applied by the university and an incident or two ensued.
    Then, HR at the NSF called the university and made a blunter inquiry, warning that full disclosure would have dire consequences.

  10. Jazzlet says

    Iumipuna I don’t know about the requirements at UW-Madison, but it is not unusual for there to be some teaching requirement for even the most senior academics, it might not be undergraduate teaching so supervising grad students might be it.

  11. PaulBC says


    I don’t know how experimental science works, but I guess you get people to work in your lab, churn out results, contribute to published papers and then use these to apply for more grants. I agree that it’s usually a sign of prestige to have PhD students, siring new academics like vampires in the Buffyverse (sorry the image just popped into mind), but I can think of researchers in my old field that are more known for publishing results than having a lot of PhD students. I’m not even sure who’s supposed to be keeping score.

  12. PaulBC says

    Actually, the Joss Whedon analogy is better than I thought. Think how much hassle it is to sire a new vampire, plus you’re creating new competition. It’s easier just to hunt for ready blood meals. Professors work out the tradeoffs and decide what kind of vam^H^H^Hacademic they want to be known as.