SOCIAL ISSUES

Incident at Princeton spotlights sexual harassment in NJ

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

In between the recording of Donald Trump bragging that he groped women and the avalanche of accusations and admissions that followed revelations about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, there was Sergio Verdu, a renowned Princeton University engineering professor who was accused of making inappropriate advances towards graduate student Yeohee Im, inviting her to his house to watch a soccer match in February.

Im told NJTV News by phone what happened.

“He put his arm around my shoulders, but at that time I couldn’t find anything sexual,” said Im.

Im claims the professor invited her over again in March. She had reservations when he told her it was to watch “The Handmaiden,” a film with strong sexual content.

“He made a sexual joke about the film, and not only that, he touched my shoulders and my upper thigh near my underwear and also my stomach. I stood up to use his bathroom to get out of that situation. He showed me his bedroom,” she continued.

Im filed a complaint. Princeton University investigated and found Verdu “responsible for sexual harassment.”

In an emailed statement, Verdu wrote, “From the beginning, I have unequivocally denied any allegations of advances, let alone sexual harassment.” 

Im expressed her dismay at the university ordering eight hours of training for Verdu and an unspecified penalty. She recorded a conversation with the then-dean of faculty and current provost, Deborah Prentice.

“You could imagine somebody engaging in sexually harassing a graduate student one time in a long career, somebody who’s made a mistake in relationship to a particular graduate student, we wouldn’t terminate them under those conditions. We would give them another chance once warned,” said Prentice.

Prentice said it was the school’s first complaint against Verdu. And another reason for no suspension or termination?

“… He did indeed stop the unwanted behavior when you told him about it and he didn’t retaliate after that,” continued Prentice.

“Yeah, I think that’s a very unacceptable answer and I think the university has to come up with a better excuse,” replied Im.

In a statement, Princeton University says it “… takes any accusation of sexual misconduct very seriously” and requires counseling and training for violators “with the goal of stopping inappropriate behavior… [and] exploring harmful attitudes and behaviors … to empower them to actively contribute to a healthier and safer campus community.”

Im says she’s getting counseling and taking anti-depressants, and she’s switched to another field of study, but still in the same building where Verdu teaches. Sexual harassment charges reported to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission show a roller coaster pattern the last several fiscal years, but increasing in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

“One of the reasons we see conduct sort of sometimes crossing the line in workplaces is because many Americans, we spend most of our time at work. We spend more of our time at the workplace and with our colleagues and people develop very comfortable relationships, or they get very comfortable ‘being themselves’ in the workplace,” said Ciana Williams, employment counsel, Midatlantic Employers’ Association.

Williams conducts sexual harassment training at MidAtlantic Employers’ Association for hundreds of companies in New Jersey.

“You never estimate the power of your employees to take those tools you give them, that awareness and that information, and then implement it and help you kind of act that out and kind of help you prevent that kind of conduct in your workplace,” said Williams.

One business professor at Rutgers University says preventing sexual harassment has a lot to do with the ethical culture that a company establishes for the workplace.

“Three particular tasks: creating a mission for the company, creating values for the company and creating a vision for the company. And if your mission, visions and values are aligned with your strong ethic most likely it’s going to permeate throughout the organization,” said Chris Young, assistant professor of professional practice at Rutgers.

Young says millennials seem to embrace business school’s modern-day teaching of the nuances and concerns of ethical behavior more so than some previous generations.

“Hopefully this is setting the ground work for more ethical business culture in the future,” said Young.

The head of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, Michele Siekerka, agrees and says sexual harassment so severe and pervasive should be reported. But, she issued some caution.

“Someone who is accused with something as significant as sexual harassment needs the opportunity to address that and have the opportunity to speak out on that because cultural norms have changed. There’s a big difference between a man and woman giving each other a hug because they’re familiar with each other, we do it every time. A kiss on cheek, that warms our relationship. Let’s not lose the ability to have warm relationship because business is tough enough. But we know the line between that and pervasive conduct that crosses that line, and unfortunately we’ve heard about that pervasive conduct,” said Siekerka.

Indeed, nearly every day for the past several weeks.