Bullying and harassment University Affairs

Akbar Sayeed affair: bullying kills

How a student's suicide finally brought down an abusive narcissistic psychopath, after two decades.

In October 2016, John Brady killed himself. The PhD student found himself unable to further cope with the constant bullying, humiliations, threats, insults, and exploitation by his boss, Akbar Sayeed, professor of engineering at the University of Wisconsin (UW) in Madison, USA. Brady’s bereaved parents complained, and the university’s leadership initiated investigations. More students spoke out. In 2017, Sayeed was found guilty and in 2018 suspended without pay for 2 years. As Sayeed kept meddling and even bully employees while on unpaid leave, the university kept investigating.

It ended with Sayeed, who insists to have been the real victim of bullying and harassment himself, getting the sack just before his triumphant return; the heavily funded professor resigned by August 2021. I quote from the investigative reports, and many of you will have a deja-vu of your own lab experiences.

The take-home message is: when the victims remain silent, it allows their abusers to continue, and even to ratchet up the abuse, strengthened in their belief in their own entitlement and unassailability, and in the worthlessness of their victims. The colleagues will look away unless attacked themselves or at least asked for help, which none of Sayeed’s victims did before Brady’s suicide, the students merely warned each other and prospective new lab members. If Brady didn’t kill himself, and if his parents weren’t American and if they didn’t go to the university leadership to protest, Sayeed would most likely be still abusing those he openly described as his “slaves”.

If you find yourself in a situation like Brady: speak out, seek support, and leave the lab if you can. The times when academic bullies could rule as they please are finally coming to the end. These days, universities are afraid of employing abusers for fear of being sued by their victims. In most cases, the bully will be forced to resign and asked to find a new job far away, their bullying becomes someone else’s problem, and nobody from outside will ever know what went on. My regular readers will recall such a case in US which once prominently featured on For Better Science.

The abuser with his victim. Sayeed (left) and John Brady. Source: UW

UW Madison acted exemplary here, I must say. Sayeed was not quietly passed on to terrorize people somewhere far away. He was banned for two years, while the university kept investigating and preparing his dismissal. UW Madison did not hush it up, the full investigative reports reached the media, and the story became a national affair.

The documents I quote here were originally reported by Wisconsin State Journal on 4 December 2021 (here archived copy for those having trouble accessing). there were also earlier coverage, here by Inside Higher Education in 2019.

The story is somewhat reminiscent of the suicide of another graduate student of computer engineering in US, Huixiang Chen, who hanged himself in June 2019 in a campus building. He was bullied into research fraud by his professor, Tao Li, the suicide letter (published here) is a sad testimony to a desperation from being trapped into total servitude and dependency by an all-powerful abuser. In April 2021, Li was made to resign by the University of Florida, as a local newspaper reported, quoting a spokesperson:

“Fernandez said the university would not comment about the ongoing investigation but that it is still being pursued. She did say UF’s two prior investigations into Li “raised significant concerns,” but, “before the University could fully evaluate these concerns, Dr. Li chose to resign.”

One looked at concerns about “disruptive and abusive conduct” by Li to his students, ultimately clearing him. A second found he had destroyed documents and improperly used non-UF communication methods, she said.”

Meaning, Li almost got whitewashed. Despite his bullying, his research fraud and the suicide death he was responsible for. Li was sacked for an administrative offence, for deleting files by the National Science Foundation (NSF) which sponsored his research. Another newspaper published the investigative report:

But Sayeed was sacked for bullying and harassment. This UW Madison professor may have spent his childhood abroad, but his entire adult life took place in USA. Sayeed graduated at UW Madison with BSc in 1991, went on to do MSc and PhD at University of Illinois-Urbana, and after a short stint as postdoc at Rice University he returned to UW Madison to become assistant professor in 1997, associate professor in 2003, and full professor (and US citizen) in 2008. For 20 years he terrorised students and colleagues, even a written reprimand in 2003 had no effect. When Brady committed suicide in 2016, Sayeed was sitting on around $3.5 million running research grants, all awarded to himself as PI (see Sayeed’s CV on p 133). In July 2016, his newly awarded NSF grant was celebrated in an UW Madison article. Sayeed was quoted:

““This is a really exciting time,” says Sayeed. “A lot of new innovations, like smart cities, autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things, rest on very fast wireless connectivity.”

It was an exciting time for him for sure. The sadist was at the peak of his power, joyfully abusing his subordinates, and nobody said a word. Someone had to die first before something changed.

The Wolleat Report

Let me start with a long excerpt from the 2017 investigation by Patricia Wolleat, emeritus professor and former UW Madison Ombudsperson. It was originally published by Inside Higher Education in 2019.


BACKGROUND OF THE INVESTIGATION

Provost Mangelsdorf initiated this investigation at the request of Ian Robertson, Dean of the College of Engineering. In October of 2016 Dean Robertson had a conversation with the parents (P) of a recently deceased graduate student (GS) in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). [blackened] P had concerns regarding the behavior of Prof. Akbar Sayeed (AS), a professor in ECE and the director of The Wireless Communication and Sensing Laboratory (WCSL). GS had been employed as a research assistant in the WCSL for seven years. P’s concerns related to AS’ “abusive” behavior toward GS as well as toward other students employed in the WCSL, resulting in a stressful and “toxic” work
environment (Exhibit F). […]

The Jankoski Investigation

The Jankoski Investigation took place roughly during the last two weeks of October and early November 2016. Thus, interview data from current and past members of the lab was collected in close proximity to the death of GS.

Dean Jankoski received data from 11 current and former students who had worked in the WCS in the past 5 years. […]

SUMMARY OF FINDINGS

Charge 1A: Unwelcome behavior resulting in hostile environment

A framework for looking at “hostile and/or intimidating” behavior is provided in a GS email attachment dated October 20, 2015, captured by P (Exhibit I). This document is titled “LabEnviornment.docx” and was shared by Gmail as “Written down thoughts.”
Because of its now posthumous status, the critique will be supplemented with data gathered in October 2016 and January-April 2017. The document was shared with at least one other student.

The working environment in the lab has become increasingly toxic and dysfunctional. This has resulted in the current situation where the lab is in the process of completely imploding. The root causes of this dysfunction are the
anger management issues and extremely abusive behavior exhibited by professor
Sayeed when interacting with the students in the lab. Although professor
Sayeed has exhibited such behavior in the past, since June 2013 when prototyping
work on the CAP-MIMO system began it has massively increased in both
intensity and frequency. The students in the lab have had discussions with
Professor Sayeed on several occasions in the past 7 months. However, this has
not led to any noticeable improvement in the situation and if anything Professor
Sayeed’s behavior has gotten worse in the past few months. This has led to a
breakdown in the lab…
(Exhibit I). […]

Charge 1B: Inhospitable behavior impairs members’ ability to carry out responsibilities

Communication

Students found it difficult to communicate with AS, their discussions often resulting in yelling and verbal abuse. As one student reported:

Professor Sayeed is always shouting…mostly at group meetings. If he is not satisfied with answers, he will scream and use dirty words…(Exhibit R).

Another student offered this example:
Would lose temper and blow up over small things—would scream, yell, curse.
Weekly meeting—almost every week he would yell…Would come to lab to check on progress –would scream, curse, and use personal insults….Language
and behavior weren’t constructive—being abusive with no purpose…
(Exhibit J) […]

Students dreaded attending lab meetings, where the presenter of the day was often interrupted, berated, and humiliated.
One student described a situation where GS was the presenter in a group meeting:

…in the middle of a presentation by GS, AS kept interrupting without giving GS a
chance to get to that part of the presentation. AS got frustrated with GS and then
proceeded to look up and say, “God give me the strength to deal with this shit.”

(Exhibit Q).

Another type of incident was observed:
In meetings he would pick on one student—he would be working on parts of the
Prototype work. Would focus anger on him during meetings in front of the
others. Summer 2013-2014. Would threaten to fire (a particular student) if he
didn’t work harder (Exhibit J).

A typical interaction illustrating the vicious cycle of communication was reported by an international student and the effect it had on him. He reported that these did not occur when he was working on an independent study, but escalated once he became a paid research assistant:
We had an individual meeting every week to discuss my research program. In the meetings he always yelled at me when he was unsatisfied with my work and
sometime call me with insulting words like ”monkey” and like “babies who do not use the brain to think.” Occasionally he even shouted the F-word to me. I felt
nervous in the meeting every time and could not express my work clearly as a
result and it made him even more angry. It became a vicious circle and I felt
stressed and even could not sleep at night. So I decided to quit after the one-year
RA contract (Exhibit K).

Collaboration

What GS labeled a “siege mentality” stifled collaboration, a necessary component of advancing the project. Instead of working toward project goals, much of the students’ collective energy went toward trying to determine how “to avoid future episodes of abuse” (Exhibit I).

Progress

Progress toward desired outcomes had interrelated project and individual implications.
There were four important negative outcomes for individual lab members attributable to AS’ conduct:

  1. They left the lab, sometimes mid-contract, even if they had no other promise of support. At least 4 of these defections were due to self-described extreme stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns (Exhibits K, L, M, Q.2). A student, who often worked 40-60 hours a week in the lab, reported that working inthe lab was one of the most stressful experiences of his life and that he quit after 7 months because of mental breakdown (Exhibit Q.2). He emailed GS about his intent to leave:
    I’m going to be leaving the research group in the immediate future. I’m 9 not really cut out to handle the stress that working with Professor Sayeed
    entails, and for my own mental/emotional health, I’m going to seek work
    elsewhere
    (Exhibit” Q.2).
  2. They changed their degree objective. At least two students, who had planned to work toward the Ph.D., gave up those wishes or plans and left the University with an M.S. degree (Exhibits L and Q.2).

One such student described his experience this way:
Every Monday the lab had a meeting with Professor Akbar Sayeed, and
honestly I was always afraid of this meeting because of his yelling
screaming and anger. The situation just got worse and worse….and
[blackened]. He used to tell me that he didn’t want to waste his funding for me and wanted me to go back to my home country, I finally did not see any good thing about continuing my PhD studies for my health.
I had to make a difficult decision to quit the RA position and leave the
College with only my master’s degree although getting my PhD. had been
my dream of my life.
” […]

The dysfunction in the lab was particularly difficult for GS. He felt he had to run
interference for the younger, less experienced members as well as constantly train new members. He said in his Written down Thoughts memo:

The work in the lab has devolved to the point where all efforts are being made to deal with the latest problem that Professor Sayeed has gotten angry and abusive about. This constant putting out of fires has led to an environment where no progress is made on longer-term projects, like writing papers. Since I am the only student who has been a member of the group for more than 1.5 years, I almost always have to help out with putting out the latest fire. This has been particularly detrimental to completing my PhD, since it feels like I am constantly working toward putting out the latest fire to avoid more abuse from Professor Sayeed
rather than working towards finishing my PhD.

…turnover has led to a situation where the students who do not leave must spend a significant amount of time. In particular, since I have been the only student who has been in the lab more than 1.5 years, a large portion of this work has fallen on my shoulders. This results in slower progress on the lab’s work, which in turn leads to more anger and abuse from Professor Sayeed resulting in yet another exodus of students (Exhibit I).

[…]

Charge 2. Abuse of authority

Three sets of observations evidence an abuse of authority—unreasonable expectations of loyalty, threats of physical harm, and inhibiting academic progress.
Several students expressed the belief that they were expected to subordinate their
academic progress, time and energy, and personal relationships to their responsibilities in the lab. On several occasions members were advised that their academics were not as important as their work in the lab. Students’ perceived that if there was a conflict it was to be resolved in favor of the lab. These perceptions of loyalty were based on statements such as “no one looks at grades after you get your degree” (Exhibit J). […]

Further indications of abuse of authority were unreasonable expectations of time to be spent in the lab. Because of the necessity of doing work on hardware it was necessary that work be done on the premises. Some members talked about spending 60 to 70 hours a week in the lab (Exhibits I, L, and M). Others expressed that 40-60 hours were expected for a 33% appointment. Prof. Sayeed countered that it is not at all uncommon for labs in the College of Engineering to require considerably more time than contracts specify.
Several text messages sent among members of the lab indicate they were sent late into the evening or after midnight. In one of the last communications P had with GS, P noted it came from the lab at 1:40 am (Exhibit E). One member (Exhibit L) reported that AS had said grad students are “slaves” who must learn to endure pain because it would last only 4 or 5 years. Another member reported that AS threatened to pull his contract if he complained about his hours (Exhibit J). GS’parents reported that he took only 1week of vacation a year and that he spent most nights and weekends in the lab (Exhibit E).

[…]

Charge 3. Abusive expression

Nearly all of the informants reported being the target of or had observed others being targeted with abusive expression and insults. These comments were made in the context of an environment where there was already an excessive amount of screaming, yelling, and cursing. In addition, few student members of the lab or associates were immune from these insults, including a professor colleague (Exhibit V) and a visiting scholar (Exhibit U)

An international student recounted a particularly distressing incident in a meeting, which included the observer of the incident, GS, AS and Prof. . When the discussion got heated, AS banged hands on table and called a f****) twice (Exhibit O).

Also damaging to the students was the fact that the abusive expressions were delivered in front of others, e.g., in group meetings. To a large extent constructive feedback and critiques were replaced with personally directed insults. No detail was too small to be excluded from his attacks, e.g. formatting of a slide.

Following is a list of epithets that were experienced or witnessed by informants: animal themes (Exhibit M) chimpanzee, monkey–, stupid, dumbass, incompetent, babies, and fucker. Among the derogatory statements were: a student left the lab because he “shit his pants;” “God give me the strength to deal with this shit;” “What are you guys pissing on your brains?” graduate students are “slaves” who must endure any pain because such pain would last only 4 or 5 years; compared intelligence to that of his two-year-old son.

In an email to Dean Robertson, P recounted several examples of abusive expression that GS had experienced directly in summer 2016:

sack of shit
you guys have betrayed my trust
you walked out on me like a no integrity moron
I’m a bully, yes and you are the liars
get your head out of your ass
incompetent
sloppy, lazy

[…]

An international student expressed how deeply these offensive words affected him:

…he was always criticizing tiny details of tasks, Importantly, his
Criticizing was not academic at all, He usually screamed and yelled
in front of other students with swearing words and offensive gestures.
Also, he didn’t hesitate to swear in front of other professors. I honestly felt
insulted every time he swore in front of others. I also asked him to quit swearing
but he said students should endure such expression
(Exhibit L).

Charge 4. Adverse effects of behavior

[…]

The stress and anxiety the students experienced is only part of the picture; they report that AS did not offer either appropriate guidance or constructive feedback. His primary motivational technique when there was a mistake was to yell and scream rather than to guide them through a problem-solving process. One student noted that he used fear as a primary motivator (Exhibit J). Another noted: …”honestly, I was still sitting at my desk in the lab because of fears rather than my interest in research” (Exhibit L). […]

Prof. Sayeed’s Perspective

For the most part, Prof. Sayeed does not deny that his behavior toward members of his lab is problematic. He admits to screaming, yelling, calling people out with invectives, and throwing nearby small objects. He was once observed saying, “I run on an emotional circuit on steroids” (Exhibit F). […]

Moreover, Prof. Sayeed reports growing up in a patriarchal, militaristic family and culture. He has not been aware recently that he may be replicating many of the interpersonal behaviors that his father had used with him. He states that he has sought counseling for anger management. […]

DISCUSSION

This investigation took place following the [blackened] death of a senior graduate student in the Wireless Communication and Sensing Lab in the College of Engineering. Without the urging of his/her parents it may never have taken place. In the College of Engineering and the Graduate College there is no oversight of the mentoring function neither of faculty nor of the climate or work environments for students. Although students are notified in a handbook of how they might proceed in the case of a problem, they rarely do so ([blackened]This investigation has produced plenty of evidence that lab members informally confronted AS about his behavior several times. None, however, filed a formal complaint. […]

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of AS behavior is the extent to which expected
challenges in a lab of this type were compounded, particularly the attrition due to stress and the difficulty in recruiting new members. As AS’ behavior escalated, more students left, and more burdens fell to the remaining members, particularly GS. Exploitation may not be too strong a word to describe how AS’s behavior impacted GS’ in his position as grad coordinator. […]


Truth is, universities hate it when people start leaving a lab en masse. It means a bully is losing control, the university starts suffering reputational damage, drop-out lab members are seen as investment failure and financial loss, the funding agencies won’t be happy either. All this makes the bullies unpopular with their colleagues and superiors in the university. And Sayeed’s bullying got so bad that everyone was leaving, new recruits rarely arrived and didn’t stay long. Brady was the only one who stayed, for which he paid with his life.

The Palmenberg Report

In 2020, as Sayeed’s two year leave was drawing to an end, biochemistry professor Ann Palmenberg was commissioned to do a follow-up investigation, because Sayeed was about to return from his unpaid 2 year leave.

“Specifically, I was asked to confirm or deny 5 new charges related to violations of FPP 9 or associated Faculty Legislation:

Ch1. Whether Professor Sayeed engaged in behavior, both prior to and after the events investigated by Professor Wolleat (2017), that could be described as “unwelcome…pervasive or severe enough that a reasonable person would find it hostile and/or intimidating and that does not further the University’s academic or operational interests” and/or “is unacceptable to the extent that it makes the conditions for work inhospitable
and impairs another person’s ability to carry out his/her responsibilities to the university” in violation of Faculty Legislation 11-332, Part I,

Ch2. Whether, through unprofessional behavior and conduct in the period prior to the events investigated by Professor Wolleat and afterwards, Professor Sayeed engaged in conduct that adversely affects the performance of his responsibilities to the university as defined in FPP 9.02 and 9.03,

Ch3. Whether Professor Sayeed received previous warnings regarding his behavior that occurred prior to the matters investigated previously in a FPP Ch. 9 complaint by Professor Wolleat,

Ch4. Whether Professor Sayeed’s behavior in the period before and since the events investigated by Professor Wolleat demonstrates a pattern of conduct that suggests he has been unsuccessful in his ability to satisfactorily engage in teaching duties, which includes advising and mentoring graduate students, as required by his employment contract as faculty member,

Ch5. Whether, on at least one occasion after having been placed on a two-year suspension for prior misconduct
and receiving notice of his prior violations of university policy, Professor Sayeed engaged in verbally abusive behavior directed toward a staff member in the College of Engineering.”

All 5 points were fully confirmed. Palmenberg’s full report (194 pages) can be downloaded here, as originally posted by Madison State Journal on 4 December 2021.

After the 2017 investigation by Wolleat, there was a follow-up investigation by the assistant dean Jason Jankoski, which the Palmenberg report refers to extensively. Like here, a letter from Dean to provost from 2019 (page 22/194):

  • Since the beginning of his tenure at UW-Madison (1989), Dr. Sayeed has had numerous outbursts with his research assistants, with faculty colleagues, staff and department chairs. The assessment of the environment that must have persisted in his laboratory may not have been as extreme as during the period investigated previously, but it was similar and the type of environment that persisted in his research group was one that was not conducive to learning and scholarship. (relevant to Ch1, Ch2, Ch4 )
  • A recurring theme that appears throughout his tenure at UW-Madison, is that following an outburst, shouting, swearing, berating students, staff and colleagues, etc., Dr. Sayeed will apologize to the individuals and will modify his behavior for some period and then it will regress. Faculty in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, at least one department chair and students in his research group all approached him about his behavior and he always claimed he would reform but the change in behavior did not appear to be long lasting.
  • Dr. Sayeed was informed in writing by a department chair to apologize to staff members after they had witnessed a verbally abusive outburst by Dr. Sayeed at the department chair. This information suggests that Dr. Sayeed has received prior warnings about his behavior and these occurred prior to the period covered by the recent investigation. (relevant to Ch3)
  • The common approach adopted by students was to get a co-advisor. fn some cases, these co-advisors often became the de facto advisor of the research assistant. This also appeared to be the solution used by the faculty members to enable students to continue their studies. (relevant to Ch2, Ch4)
  • While back on campus in 2018, he verbally abused a member of the ECE [Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering] staff. This outburst was overheard by a faculty member. Again, Dr. Sayeed apologized to the staff member. Initially, this incident was reported as being relatively minor by the member of staff but the fact it occurred while he was suspended is troubling as one would have thought the fetter from then-provost Mangelsdorf would have been sufficient to drive a change in behavior (relevant to Ch5).

The latter was about Sayeed demanding urgent renovation to his new office, while he was on unpaid leave. Also this is from Jankoski’s investigation of November 2019:

  • Professor Sayeed’s behavior of anger towards colleagues and students dates back to the early 2000’s when he was ajunior faculty member.
  • Received notification from former Department Chair regarding his behavior. (See Addendum 4) He apologized but the notification did not appear to modify his overall behavior.
  • Yelling at students could be heard 4 to 5 doors down the hall.
  • Shows repeated behavior of apologizing for negative behaviors, and then repeating them over the course of2 decades.
  • Even after receiving a letter from the Provost in 2017, he had another outburst. (See Addendum 5)
  • Individuals indicated that while Professor Sayeed could be very nice, when angry he was vicious and unpredictable. Multiple individuals indicated they just wanted to avoid Professor Sayeed’s wrath of anger.
  • Many students sought out co-advisors as a way out of his lab.
  • Many students indicated moving from the PhD program to a M.S. due to the endless revisions of their papers and the environment in the lab.
  • Repeated patterns of interruptions and calling students “stupid”.
  • Former students still have apprehension to this day.

SUMMARY:

The individuals we spoke with stated that Professor Sayeed was very critical of research tasks and yelled frequently when results did not meet his standards. The yelling could be heard by colleagues down the hall. Professor Sayeed continuously criticized work and demeaned students that had ideas or solutions that were not aligned with his thoughts. Instead of encouraging students, he often publically criticized their work in the tab and during weekly lab meetings. The form of the criticism was frequently through yelling in front of other students in the lab. The students across 2 decades indicated that his tirades included swearing and offensive gestures. Students during the past 10 years dreaded the weekly lab meetings with Professor Sayeed. The meeting almost always included swearing and public humiliation of students. Students expressed fear and apprehension going to this meeting because of his yelling, swearing and his anger. This behavior resulted in some students [blackened] in Professor Sayeed’s lab. Other students quit, left with a MS degree or found co-advisors. Some stayed in the lab, but the experience in the lab was described as being a negative environment.


Palmenberg re-interviewed the witnesses and confirmed all past findings. She also performed additional interviews, with “at least 9 new witnesses, in addition to the 9 cited in Dean Jankowski’s 2nd report offered testimony supporting this charge‘” of being bullied and threatened. In particular there was the issue of Sayeed’s new office renovation where he verbally attacked a department employee while actually barred from the campus for 2 years.

FINDING: This incident did occur and was injurious to W2. Dr. Sayeed’s behavior was loud, aggressive, profanity-laced bullying (regardless of the semantic specifics laid out in various e-mails), intended to express his anger towards a subordinate over a situation that displeased him. This “ballistic” display exactly parallels those alleged by many other witness throughout the career of Dr. Sayeed. This event occurred while on suspension imposed because of multiple confirmed behavior violations of a similar type. There are no mitigating circumstances that warrant calling this hostile confrontation a misunderstanding.” Any reasonable person reviewing the evidence in Ex1 and Ex5 would confirm Ch5.

Sayeed did not care he was suspended. He continued to abuse his lab members and other UW Madison employees:

FINDING: Dr. Sayeed either did not understand, or did not respect, the professional limitations or consequences of his disciplinary suspension. His repeated contacts with ECE staff for multiple unauthorized activities was in violation of that suspension. One sanctioned exception to this ECE ban was the invited walk-through of dept. office rearrangements and as cited above, this resulted in a verbal altercation with a staff member.

The heavily-funded computational engineering professor was always a bulling psycho:

FINDING: This quote from Dean Jankowski’s report (2019) embodies the evidence related to me about Dr. Sayeed’s career-long unsatisfactory engagement in mentoring graduate students: “Everyone we met with shared at least one experience highlighting Professor Sayeed’s temper and yelling. Even those former students supportive of Professor Sayeed indicated that it takes a very strong individual to be able to learn in the type of environment they experienced. Based on the experiences shared the majority of former and current students would not recommend Professor Sayeed’s lab, or him as an advisor.

Most stated the mental strain that was endured at that stage in their life was beyond anything they had experienced previously or since. “Experience was overwhelmingly negative.”Experience was miserable, immensely stressful.” (Sayeed) students had a difficult time.” “(Dr. Sayeed) could be really hurtful.” Any reasonable person sharing this body of testimony would conclude that Dr. Sayeed has not satisfactorily engaged in this duty (confirms Ch4). These student experiences span his full career timeframe, including prior to the events of the 1st investigation.

A toxic and dangerous character whom everyone avoided, if they could afford it. But in academia it only counts how much grant money you bring.

FINDING: Dr. Sayeed pushes very hard, loudly and aggressively to get what he wants or to get jobs entrusted to others done exactly the way he wants, regardless of whether he oversteps personal or professional boundaries.

Frequently the person(s) being confronted finds this totally disrespectful and rude if not demeaning. His demands for special treatment, which is the goal of bullying, have led several students and faculty to state (Ex5) that they now avoid future interactions, even to the point of changing engineering arena directions, mentors or jobs, so as not to be further targets. I did not interview a single witness who would characterize Dr. Sayeed’s career at the UW as welcoming, civil, or collegial. Again, the totality of collected evidence confirms Ch2

Sayeed’s main defence was that during these two decades at UW Madison he was allegedly never confronted or sanctioned for his behaviour, meaning his bullying couldn’t have been that bad. That was a lie, and he knew it, in 2003 he even received a written reprimand.

FINDING: Dr. Sayeed by his own admission (Ex4) and in his public response to the 1st report (Ex4) is now, and has been long aware that his behavior towards others in ECE was inappropriate, loud, profane and frequently hostile. Multiple witnesses accounted to me verbally, or through the questionnaire that they had on numerous occasions spanning his career confronted him to stop individual incidences of abuse and mitigate the damage.

Such personal chastisement, like that of the specific written letter in 2003, were ignored, as evidenced by the historical subsequent escalation of aggressive confrontations culminating in the tragic experiences of the graduate student in 2016. It is inconceivable for any reasonable person to believe, “At no other point in my career was I given any meaningful warning or advice regarding my behavior.” By his own admission Dr. Sayeed acknowledges his bad behavior impacted those around him “for a long time” but he ignored everyone who called him on it. Ch3, as a specific allegation, is confirmed.

Sayeed also seriously maintained that it used to be perfectly legal to terrorize people before UW Madison issued a new Code of Conduct in 2014. And that it was illegal for UW Madison to investigate him twice for the bullying of the same people, citing “double jeopardy”. Palmenberg explains in her report why these arguments are wrong.

Sayeed now describes himself on his personal website as “an Independent Technical Consultant“. He declares to be the real victim and hero:

“I feel blessed and liberated to announce that today I officially retire from my position as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison after nearly 25 years. […] What enabled my escape was the gradual realization that countless “mini-black holes”, entangled and united in their conformity and insidious groupthink, is what created the false impression of the seemingly inescapable pull of the academic black hole. Being an engineer, with a “divide and conquer” mind set, I started neutralizing the pull, faculty by faculty, department chair by chair, dean by dean, and provost by provost. The chancellors and presidents, the “top mini-black holes”, are too afraid to directly interact with faculty like myself, who have seen flickers of the “light” at the edge of the event horizon, lest they may be stripped naked of their delusionary powers right in front of their eyes and lackeys.”

Not one word about Brady.


Update 11.12.2021

Sayeed now commented under this article, first under an assumed name, then under his real name, both from same IP address (he denies having done this). Most nauseatingly, he insists he was very kind and generous to John Brady:

The fact is that Brady was a loner – and one of my most diversely talented students – and my family was his closest contact in Madison. In fact, he had been to our house many times, and the last time weeks before he took his own life.

Sayeed seems to be constantly projecting his own bad behaviour onto others and he always seeks to humiliate people. So at some point I had to edit his comments, and then ban him completely.


29 comments on “Akbar Sayeed affair: bullying kills

  1. Sacking someone for “administrative offense” might not be whitewashing but a way to sack that is easier to defend in case it goes to the court. I am not saying it’s what happened, but from the lawyers I know it’s actually a common strategy: when the most horrible offences are at the same time hard to proof, find another one easier to proof. It might also be whitewashing or mitigation strategy, indeed. But I thought it was interesting to add. Also for the victims, sometimes there is more than one way to get to the abuser.

    Like

  2. NMH, the failed scientist and incel

    A bully with man-boobs at that.

    My last advisor (who I worked for 3 months total) would yell at me in his office, but he was smart enough to keep his cool in the presence of others. If Sayeed had done that, their would be less evidence against him and he would still have his job.

    Like

  3. Yes, students and postdocs have the power to leave a toxic boss and should use it. Leaving a job is of course not an easy decision, but no one should become mentally or physically ill or even die because of a toxic work environment.
    I think that working in such a difficult environment during postgraduate studies may also be seen as a training for what happens outside academia. From postgraduate studies to assistant prof I spent nearly 20 years in academia in several countries. I’ve been outside academia and science for the last five years. I can tell you’ll meet the same people there. The colleagues you can trust and the ones you cannot, they are there, too. The managers who know best, the ones who manipulate people to get what they want, they are there, too.
    I quit my last job in IT after 4 weeks. That was really my dream job and I worked hard to get a relevant training. I honestly think I was doing good. After I received several times orders and counter-orders in two days on a specific task, I asked my boss for clarification because I felt lost. The guy said I was asking “a stupid question”. It came in addition to generally impolite behavior on his end I had to experience in the previous weeks. When he said that, my mind instantly remembered everything I witnessed and went through with my worst bosses, colleagues and collaborators in academia and felt sick. I asked my father who’s retired whether in his 40-year+ career in construction he had once an employer telling him he was asking stupid questions. “No, never”. The day after, I said to my boss “Yesterday, you crossed the red line. Here is my resignation letter.” No second chance because I know by experience (20+ yrs) that such people do not change, especially if they have run a business for decades. When the HR manager learnt I was leaving, she said “I think that project might be cursed” because I was the fourth person in a short period to leave.
    That was the third job I quit in five years and I am jobless, again. You might say it is a lot and given my age, it’s not gonna be easy to find something again. But I do not see why we should be treated like idiots by people who cannot handle pressure, who are unable to manage their employees decently or have other issues for which we have no responsibility. And I do not see why we should have to carry a mental load that affects our family back home every day.
    Because we perform the work that produces value, we are entitled to be treated with respect. The fear should be on the side of those whose career and reputation depend on us.

    Like

    • Problem is, for foreign PhDs and postdocs in USA (and other countries) losing your job means losing your visa and being sent back home. And for Asian and other developing world scientists, these miserable postdoc jobs are the only option to get work experience abroad. Also, when you anger your academic boss, they will make sure you will never get ahead in academia, no-where in the whole world, one phone call and your job application ends up in trash.
      All this creates dependencies of the kind non-academic employees can’t even imagine.

      Like

      • I guess that when they go back to their home country after having lost a job, people are blamed for having “failed” to seize an opportunity. Even more revolting.
        I hope your regular reporting helps prospective students who read you understand they should perform research on a possible future advisor or think of a plan B. A research topic and the scientific reputation of a group might look cool, people matter a lot as the cases you report illustrate it.

        Like

  4. Kevin Rielly

    Your article sounds desperate, please do focus on your own intellectual research. And if you think that you need to post articles about actual professional researchers, do your research first to get the entire story, “For Better Science.” God help the shameless hacks.

    Like

    • Go on, Sayeed, tell us how you enjoyed killing your student by your bullying.

      Like

      • That was not Sayeed, this is Sayeed. Calling me a killer for someone committing suicide makes you a complete moron. And watch your words – they may come to bite you in your butt. The fact is that Brady was a loner – and one of my most diversely talented students – and my family was his closest contact in Madison. In fact, he had been to our house many times, and the last time weeks before he took his own life. You call yourself a “scientist” and yet you did not even bother to include my responses in your biased one-sided post. If you really care about what is happening in academia, as you claim to, you may want to read my responses carefully and see for yourself how the spineless UW-Madison administrators bastardized their own processes outlined in the faculty policy and procedures. The fact is that academic administrators, and UW-Madison is no exception, are the most overpaid incompetent, power-hungry, idiots I have encountered. You would be doing service to your website by digging into it and shining a light on it. I also posted on my website some of the salient facts of the two investigations they did on me – you and others can check it out: https://amsayeed.wordpress.com/2021/12/10/on-the-shamelessness-of-scientists-academics-journalists-and-science-journalists/. Unfortunately, despite what you claim, you are acting in the same biased ways in cherry picking what you want to post. Perhaps it is due to your own experience in academia and I don’t blame you for that. But grow some balls and report with integrity otherwise you are just another hack who is trying to benefit from the mistreatment of others.

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      • How did you ever become professor of computing?

        Like

  5. Kevin Rielly

    LEAVE A REPLY
    sounds desperate, in the name of “For Better Science” you should least present both sides of the story as a real scientist would. And if you are not a scientist anymore, don’t pretend to be a science journalist.

    Like

    • Hi Sayeed. Your IP address is in Madison.

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      • Kevin Rielly

        What? Is that what you think? Just goes to show that you have no idea what you are talking about.

        Like

      • Kevin Rielly

        I do not know Sayeed personally, but I do know a biased, hate monger when I see one, and your “For Better Science” posts are just that! Let’s work towards better science and instead of working towards spreading hate. May god have mercy on your soul.

        Like

      • Are you threatening me, Sayeed? How do you imagine killing me, by “anonymous” distance-bullying via my comment section, you unhinged psycho?
        You send this again from same IP address (97.88.43.135).

        Like

  6. Kevin Rielly

    You sound like a total loser that deletes scientific comments that don’t agree with your un-scientistic narrative. Haha! Good luck with your “For Better Science.” Hahaha!

    Like

  7. I have nothing to hide you twit. And I was a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, not computing. Perhaps you can’t even read. I did not post the earlier comment – stop making assumptions. Not very scientific again.

    Like

    • Patrick J Brady

      Chiming in on this because I googled it, saw it, and hate everything so much that I am posting in the comments. This is Patrick Brady, Johns Brother, UW alum, and recent PhD graduate (to give context). Your actions robbed my of my brother of his life and happiness-whether directly or indirectly, it doesn’t matter really now does it? Calling my brother a loner makes you seem like a sad piece of shit who cant deal with the fact your behavior lead to a tragedy. Loners dont get to be abused, forced to work ungodly hours, and insulted. You may have been his closest contact in Madison, but that was because you alienated him from anyone else by working him to the god damn bone. Any somewhat moral person would at least be able to admit that they contributed to something horrible and then regret it, but you deflect and try to be outside of it. I can never be outside, which is why I googled his name (Yep, its super sad, I sometimes google his name to read the stories about how he killed himself, because thats one of the ways I can keep him in my life) and found this clusterfuck. I have long since forgiven you, because holding hate in my heart for you wont change anything, but sincerely fuck you for making my brothers last few years a living hell. You are such a tough guy, bullying a grad student who doesn’t know where their life is going, fucking pathetic. One of the last times I saw John we sat up drinking, him telling me how much of an asshole you were, and I was just trying to tell him to get the hell out but he didn’t see any way but graduating (which at least from my side-you 100% prevented to keep your ONLY worker-what a fucking horrible mentor you were-I know as I said above I just went through this process). My biggest regret in life is not reporting you to UW when it was going on and believing the take your chops mentality of academia had any merit. The fact that this article thinks UW handled this well is insulting, if only because it applauds them for doing the right thing years too late when they could have saved my brothers life if they even just paid attention to abuse or cared at all. The fact there was a second investigation instead of having those findings immediately after my brothers death is a stain on their record. I hope you find peace and aren’t such an asshole moving forward, it will be better for everyone.

      Like

  8. You wonder how I became a professor? Well through the sheer brilliance of my hardwork. Something you apparently never were able to accomplish – perhaps that is what it’s all about. Get a life man! Move on.

    Like

    • Brilliance in arse-kissing and bullying is how people like you get professorships.
      Too dumb to hide his IP address or at least use a different device before trolling.
      “Get a life”? Tell it to John Brady, you unhinged psycho.

      Like

      • I have done a lot of arse-whipping but no arse-kissing. [Section removed] One of the reasons the administrator were after my ass is because I would not tow their stupid lines and drink their insidious kool-aid. [Section removed]

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      • We all know you are a psychopath and a sadist. That is why you killed John Brady with your bullying and even now you take pride in that.
        This is however where you went too far and now you spend your days searching your name on internet and screaming in the comment sections.
        I could tell you “Get a life”, but you already took someone’s. Get lost, Sayeed.

        Like

      • By which I mean you are banned from commenting here, Sayeed. Your perverse glee at having abused so many people and finally taking someone’s life is disgusting. Go write a self-pitying blog post on your own site, then read it to your fridge for audience.

        Like

    • NMH, the failed scientist and incel

      This, er, “conflict” kind of reminds me of this classic scene from the original star trek. Guess who is Kahn? Guess who is Kirk?
      Im sure Sayeed (if he cannot find another planet to colonize with his superhuman intelligence) there are other countries that will take him which don’t value human freedom and dignity too much, like, er, China, or Pakistan, or Iran. There, he probably could cane his subordinates if he wanted.

      Like

  9. smut.clyde

    Looks like the anger-management counselling worked out well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “I would hear the same thing from other program managers during my stint at the NSF, when I would challenge the academic reviewers in a panel discussion when they would make sweeping asinine statements. “

      At that time, John Brady was dead and Sayeed suspended from UW Madison for bullying. But NSF didn’t care and let Sayeed destroy even more careers.

      Like

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