The Graduate Student Association of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department released a statement yesterday stressing the need for better work environments for graduate students, after details emerged surrounding a hazardous lab environment which may have correlated with engineering graduate student John Brady’s suicide in 2016.
The lead scientist of Brady’s lab, Akbar Sayeed, was suspended from the University of Wisconsin, but expects to return in January, according to reporting from the Wisconsin State Journal. Reports filed described his lab environment as “toxic,” and included audio files of Sayeed yelling at and insulting lab members.
The GSAECE released a letter on Reddit yesterday addressed to ECE faculty, in which they outlined several systemic changes the organization believes need to take place for improved work environments. They also requested “faculty support” as they work to block Sayeed’s return to campus.
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The GSAECE requested increased graduate student involvement on department committees and in processes such as policy drafting. They also requested more faculty reviews, which include student and advisee input to earlier recognize patterns of hostile behavior.
They also requested graduate orientation to the department be focused on student rights, and include information about reporting inappropriate behaviors.
“The key to a welcoming environment is trust and equal footing among members,“ the letter said. “The purpose of this letter is to initiate systemic change in order to protect the well-being of students in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.”
Dean of the College of Engineering Ian Robertson released a statement expressing his remorse about Brady’s death. He listed steps the College of Engineering plans to take, including training faculty and staff on addressing hostile behavior, providing students with more information about mental health resources and creating an Assistant Dean of Graduate Affairs position.
“As the dean and a parent, I was shaken by the heartbreaking details of this loss,” Robertson’s statement said. “We have resources available to you.”
Robertson said the Assisant Dean of Graduate Affairs Chris Brace has begun to work with students to address issues and host events which encourage “the creation of a positive climate among peers.”
A statement released by the ECE department chair Susan Hagness the same day as Roberson’s echoed the sentiment. Hagness said the ECE department also created a position to work more closely with graduate students and address their concerns: the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies.
“It is our collective responsibility to foster a climate that is safe and welcoming for every member of our community,” Hagness’ statement said.
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Hagness said ECE implemented a “cohort model” for incoming ECE graduate students during their first year to build community, and began to host departmental events to encourage connections and collaboration following Brady’s death.
The ECEGSA said a positive community isn’t achieved alone, but through collaboration and systemic changes. They also said students need to know faculty will handle their concerns and follow through with them.
“While we appreciate all the steps the department has taken to address issues, the solutions place the burden on the students,” the letter said. “Since a student speaking up takes a lot of courage and risk, the result of that complaint should ensure full protections for the student. These protections must be codified and communicated to all students.”
At a Faculty Senate meeting this week, Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced a new system to oversee complaints, where central campus administrators will track complaints in order to identify potential patterns and avoid incidents and address issues when they arise.
No specific details have yet been released about the system.