Note: This article includes mentions of suicide.
Graduate workers and community supporters gathered on Engineering Mall on Thursday to protest the return of abusive engineering professor Dr. Akbar Sayeed to campus and demand stronger workplace protections for grads.
“We’re demanding that graduate assistants have a meaningful voice in crafting policies of the kinds that would help prevent future tragedies like this one,” TAA co-president and history graduate student Robert Christl said.
After unfurling a banner in support of graduate students in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering on the bridge over Lake Street, ralliers headed to Engineering Mall for speeches and solidarity in remembrance of John Brady. Brady, a graduate research assistant (RA) in Sayeed’s lab, died by suicide in 2016 after enduring six years of abuse.
Representatives from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Graduate Students Association (ECE GSA), the TAA, numerous campus departments, and United Faculty and Academic Staff (UFAS) emphasized that the university’s refusal to take responsibility for exploitative conditions continues to endanger graduate workers.
“When it comes to student safety, most of us is not enough,” physics graduate student Susan Sorensen said, referencing university communications referring to conditions in Sayeed’s lab as “isolated.” “We call on faculty to be active allies.”
Following the rally, 350 supporters marched to Bascom Hall and delivered over 2,000 petition signatures calling on the University to prohibit Sayeed from returning to campus and to open a new investigation into his conduct.
An October 2019 article in the Wisconsin State Journal (WSJ) revealed that Sayeed referred to his students as “monkeys” and “slaves” and regularly made them work 60- to 70-hour weeks. Sayeed plans to return to campus this January following a two-year suspension, which he spent on fellowship at the National Science Foundation.
“The provost’s decision to suspend, rather than dismiss, Sayeed for his behavior sets a dangerous precedent, signaling that abusive professors will be protected at UW-Madison,” members of the ECE GSA wrote in an op-ed in the WSJ.
Following media coverage, Sayeed was later removed from teaching duties but will continue to collect his $141,859 salary in an administrative capacity, the College of Engineering announced in November.
Graduate RAs at UW–Madison currently lack policies governing their appointments and working conditions, after provisions for RAs and lecturer SAs were unilaterally removed by administrators from the Graduate Assistant Policies and Procedures (GAPP) handbook. There is also no university-wide procedure by which RAs can file grievances against their supervisors.
“The university wants us to believe that it knows what’s best for us,” English graduate student Jon Isaac said. “But we know what’s best for us.”
All grad workers interested in helping carry momentum from the rally over into the spring semester are invited to the TAA’s General Membership Meeting on Thursday, Dec. 12 at 5:30 p.m.