The professor seemed a bit flirtatious, but she didn’t think too much of it at the time. It was August 2012, and Chelsea was interviewing for a job as a lab manager in the research group of biochemist Gianluigi Veglia at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Chelsea had just graduated with an undergraduate degree in biology, and this position would give her the work experience she needed to decide if she wanted to launch an academic career.
After enduring years of sexual harassment, two members of biochemist Gianluigi Veglia’s lab filed complaints with the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Investigators corroborated their accounts and recommended that Veglia be fired. University administrators decided to impose lesser sanctions instead. The university kept the decision quiet until a Minneapolis newspaper revealed details. Universities often don’t disclose information about harassment cases, but sexual harassment experts say this practice is harmful. The lack of transparency about the sanctions against Veglia, who continues to work at the university, catalyzed reforms intended to protect against sexual harassment and improve decision-making. But distrust continues among faculty and graduate students.
Within months of starting the job, however, Chelsea realized that her new boss was uncharacteristically demanding. “I was expected to be proficient immediately at things that I had no training in,” says Chelsea, who asked C&EN to use only her first name for personal reasons. “When I wasn’t, he would be verbally abusive. I was afraid to go into work.”
The harassment soon took on a sexual tone. “I lost some weight, and he gestured to my chest and said, ‘What am I supposed to do with those now?’ ” Chelsea recalls.
In 2016, Chelsea and then-graduate-student Alysha Dicke filed complaints against Veglia. A university investigation found that he violated university policy and harassed them. But the university deans and department heads overseeing the Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics (BMBB) and Chemistry Departments, where Veglia had a joint appointment, decided to sanction rather than fire him for the harassment. Five years later, fallout from the case continues.
Increasing awareness about sexual harassment in the US has spurred a national dialogue about how to deal with harassers that extends to the chemical sciences. Universities regularly choose between firing professors who sexually harass their students and disciplining them but letting them stay. Veglia’s case is one example of how a judgment to sanction and retain a faculty member, combined with a lack of transparency, can fuel controversy long after the decision was made.
“I think there is a hope amongst some circles that if we ignored this, it would just go away. I’m not of that view,” says Valery Forbes, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, which includes BMBB. “The grad students are clearly—and I think justifiably—upset at the way this whole thing has been mishandled.”
Veglia, who ran the university’s nuclear magnetic resonance center, made no attempts to hide his inappropriate comments from those outside the lab, as if he knew there would be no repercussions, say former lab members who spoke with C&EN.
Chelsea remembers one instance in which Veglia was in his office with a visiting professor—she doesn’t recall the visitor’s name—and Veglia called Chelsea into the room with them. “He told me to turn around, and I thought there was something on my back. I didn’t know why, but I turned around, and then he said to the visiting professor, ‘Now don’t say I never gave you anything.’ ”
Chelsea was so shaken by the encounter that she ran to the bathroom, accompanied by a few friends with whom she shared what happened. “I just sat on the floor and cried for like 15 minutes,” she recalls. “It’s something so small it doesn’t seem like it should be that impactful, but it’s just so degrading.”
On another occasion, Chelsea was in Veglia’s office, and they were toasting her acceptance into medical school. “He reached out and he put his hand on the back of my neck, and he said, ‘Come on’ a couple of times. His vocal intonation and his facial expression and his body language all indicated to me that he was making a sexual advance,” she says.
Over time, the sexual advances became more direct. “There were stretches where at least weekly he’d jokingly ask me when we were going to have sex,” Chelsea says.
Like Chelsea, Kailey Soller didn’t have any reason for concern during her interview with Veglia in 2012 to potentially join his lab. “He was very convincing and charming in terms of the kind of research that the group was doing,” she says. For example, he pointed out that his ample funding would ensure she didn’t have to work as a teaching assistant and could go to multiple scientific conferences. Plus, as head of the university’s NMR lab, he was working on the research she wanted to pursue—understanding how enzymes’ structures contribute to their cellular function. It was “an attractive situation for a first-year graduate student coming in who wanted to be very productive and publish a lot of papers,” Soller says.
In her second year in Veglia’s lab, Soller started noticing sexually harassing behavior from Veglia. At first, she brushed it off as isolated incidents, but then it became more pervasive.
One time, Veglia was having lunch with a male visiting professor. She doesn’t recall who the visiting professor was, but Veglia handed her the visitor’s phone number. “I was given that with a wink and something like, ‘Just in case.’ It was implied that here’s the phone number for this guy.”
▸ June 2015: Gianluigi Veglia’s lab manager, Chelsea, departs the university, leaving a sealed letter with the human resources department reporting Veglia’s harassment.
▸ November 2016: Graduate student Alysha Dicke files a formal complaint with the University of Minnesota Twin Cities’ Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA). Chelsea later files a separate complaint. The office begins an investigation and interviews more than 20 people inside and outside the lab group.
▸ March 2017: The EOAA Office sends two reports to Veglia, as well as deans and the heads of the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics (BMBB) and the Department of Chemistry. The reports say the preponderance of evidence shows that Veglia had sexually harassed lab staff. A separate letter sent to administrators recommends that they fire Veglia.
▸ June 2017: After deciding not to fire Veglia, the dean of the Medical School and dean of the College of Science and Engineering send him a letter sanctioning him for his harassing behavior. Veglia loses his position as head of the university’s NMR center and cannot supervise graduate students for 3 years.
▸ May 2018: A City Pages newspaper article comes out about sexual harassment at the University of Minnesota. The story leads with Veglia’s case. After a meeting in which the BMBB Department head appears to defend Veglia, almost 50 graduate students sign a letter to administrators saying the situation was handled poorly.
▸ Fall 2019: The BMBB Department cancels a class Veglia was scheduled to teach after students protest. He continues to teach in the Department of Chemistry throughout his sanctions.
▸ Fall 2020: Veglia becomes eligible to reapply to enter the graduate program so he can have graduate students in his lab. As of C&EN’s deadline, he had not done so.
Veglia also regularly harassed Soller about the fact that she was married. He said, “Why are you missing out on all of these experiences you could be having in grad school because you’re married?” Soller says. “I was also told that I couldn’t be a successful scientist and also wife.”
She also recalls one time when Veglia commented on a lab mate, saying something to the effect of, “I bet she’s a devil in bed.”
Veglia referred to the female graduate students in his lab as “Veglia chicks,” Soller says. “When you’re constantly being referred to as that, and you’re trying to be taken as a serious scientist in the field, it’s degrading.”
Dicke, who joined Veglia’s lab in 2012, says he would frequently tell her that the only reason he hired her was for her looks.
“At one point he told me that I was very beautiful and that I was going to be sexually harassed and that’s why he said inappropriate things to me—because I need to be desensitized to it,” Dicke says. “At some point he told me that I just want to be dominated. He meant that in a sexual way.”
Another time, “he tapped my arm with his elbow and said, ‘Don’t order anything with garlic so we can get close later’ in front of this other professor. The other professor responded by saying that we should order more wine because the ladies need to loosen up,” Dicke says. The other professor was not from the University of Minnesota, Dicke says, though she declined to give C&EN his name.
In the beginning, Dicke brushed off the sexual comments and others that made her feel bad about her lab work. “When you first start, you’re a naive grad student. You don’t know what grad school is supposed to be like; you don’t know what your adviser is supposed to do,” she says. “You keep trying to fix it yourself, and you don’t really understand the situation. And then at some point you have this realization that ‘No, I don’t think the problem is me.’ ”
She sought out a female faculty member in the department for advice. Dicke told her about harassing behavior but not its sexual nature because the faculty member would have been required to report it. Dicke says the faculty member was at a loss for how to help her and didn’t have funding to take Dicke into her lab. The faculty member said she hoped the situation in Veglia’s lab would improve over time. Her lack of power to help was disappointing, Dicke says.
Others in the department also saw what was going on. “He definitely acted inappropriately,” recalls Jonggul Kim, a male graduate student in Veglia’s lab from 2010 to 2015. “I remember one time we walked by a shaker in another lab. It wasn’t secured properly, and he would make a comment about how that sound sounded like having sex,” Kim says. “He would joke with some of the female students, asking when they were getting married to some person inside the lab. I had an undergrad who was working under me just for a year and a half, and he would come up to her and ask her when we were getting married. She would just brush it off as him making a joke.”
Val Vossen, who joined the lab as a postdoctoral researcher in June 2011, remembers a group of new, female graduate students rotating through the lab. During rotations, Veglia’s behavior could have been interpreted as just enthusiasm about the research, he says. But “soon after they formally joined the lab, it began to escalate toward more and more suggestive and sexually oriented comments,” Vossen recalls.
Kim says people would make excuses for Veglia’s behavior, saying that he’s from Italy and doesn’t understand the culture in the US. “But he’s also been in the States for over 30 years,” Kim says.
When C&EN asked Veglia via email for an interview about the harassment complaints and sanctions, Veglia responded with a list of his teaching evaluation ratings for several classes from 2017 to the present, as well as a list of his 182 peer-reviewed publications.
“My teaching, my work and the results of the lab are the extent of any comments I will make,” Veglia wrote.
Chelsea left the lab in 2015 to start medical school, but before she left, she wrote a sealed letter detailing Veglia’s inappropriate actions and submitted it to the human resources department. She remembers saying, “If anyone brings a complaint against Gianluigi Veglia, please use this letter as evidence.” She also gave a copy to the assistant to the BMBB head to be shared with the head anonymously. As far as she knows, nothing came of those letters, she says.
Then, in late 2016, Dicke filed a formal complaint against Veglia with the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA). Around that time, Dicke contacted Chelsea. Dicke asked Chelsea if she would support Dicke’s complaint and suggested that Chelsea file a complaint herself, which she did. Following university procedure, the EOAA Office investigated the complaints against Veglia independently, interviewing more than 20 people. Afterward, the lab split between those who thought Veglia’s behavior was wrong and those who supported him. Several students who supported Veglia or stayed in his lab did not reply to requests for comment from C&EN.
The EOAA Office also notified the deans and department heads who oversaw Veglia. The specifics of Veglia’s multidepartment appointment dictated whom the office informed. His appointment was 75% in BMBB and 25% in chemistry. In addition, the BMBB Department is shared between the university’s College of Biological Sciences and the University of Minnesota Medical School. Veglia’s BMBB appointment was through the Medical School. Because of that, accountability for Veglia’s case fell under two deans—medicine, and science and engineering—and two department heads—BMBB and chemistry. As a result, the people involved in the investigation included Brooks Jackson, dean of the Medical School; Samuel Mukasa, dean of the College of Science and Engineering; David Bernlohr, head of the BMBB Department; and William Tolman, head of the Chemistry Department, as well as some associate deans (Tolman is a member of C&EN’s advisory board). Forbes, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, heard that the investigation was happening, but she was otherwise not included.
When the EOAA investigation was complete, the office gave the deans and department heads its findings in the form of two EOAA reports, which C&EN obtained through public records requests (copies of documents are available at cenm.ag/veglia). EOAA investigators found that Veglia violated university policies, including those involving sexual harassment. The reports say that he made comments of a sexual nature, including comments about lab members’ appearance, their romantic or sexual life, and other things that could be considered gender based or sexual harassment. He also made comments to or about other faculty and talked about retaliation, the reports say.
“Given its egregious and repetitive nature, Dr. Veglia’s conduct created an intimidating, hostile, and offensive working environment,” one of the reports says. The parts of the reports that included Veglia’s responses to the complaints were redacted.
In a separate letter, the EOAA Office recommended that Veglia be fired, according to several of C&EN’s sources.
“A very vibrant, protracted discussion” ensued to determine Veglia’s fate, according to one administrator, who asked not to be named because the person was not authorized to talk about the proceedings. According to the administrator, the people involved had different opinions about the facts of the case, as well as whether firing was an appropriate punishment for the harassment. Everyone directly involved in the discussion was a man, except for EOAA representatives.
In the end, Jackson and Mukasa decided not to fire Veglia, the administrator says. “We just didn’t see it the same way” as the EOAA office.
“A simple punishment, like firing, which students often think is what you should do, is not always the right thing. That’s why there are different punishments for different crimes,” the administrator says. “I think that is one of those very tricky cases” in which it wasn’t clear whether the harasser should be fired.
In a June 16, 2017, notice of proposed discipline sent to Veglia, Jackson and Mukasa say they were “deeply disturbed” by the EOAA Office’s findings. “Your behavior as described in the reports is patently offensive, unacceptable, and directly inconsistent with the principles of academic integrity and responsibility,” says the letter, which C&EN also obtained through a public records request. “We expect more and better from our faculty.”
The notice lays out eight specific sanctions against Veglia. These include terminating him from his position as director of the Minnesota NMR Center and removing a salary supplement he received as director. The deans suspended him from the graduate programs in both BMBB and chemistry for 3 years, through the 2019–20 academic year. That meant he could not supervise graduate students. In addition, Jackson and Mukasa prohibited him from supervising undergraduate students for 3 years and required that he attend sexual harassment training “as directed by” the EOAA Office. They also told Veglia to refrain from “any further sexual harassment.”
The deans concluded, “It is our sincere desire that the concerns expressed by the [EOAA Office] in its report can be addressed, and that no further action will be necessary.” But they warned that if Veglia failed to correct his behavior, he would be subject to further discipline, “up to and including the termination of [his] University appointment.”
Forbes was particularly disturbed that while the sanctions prohibited Veglia from having graduate students, “that did not apply to postdocs, who I would argue are in an equally vulnerable position.” Veglia has kept his lab running with postdocs; several graduate students also continued working on projects with Veglia, but another faculty member served as their formal adviser.
The administrators who decided how to sanction Veglia also decided to tell almost no one. Personnel regulations restricted them, at least in part. Universities commonly keep information about sexual harassment cases secret, but experts on sexual harassment say this practice is harmful.
For example, a 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report on sexual harassment in science says one important step universities can take to change the culture around sexual harassment is to improve transparency. That helps show that academic institutions do not tolerate harassment. “Doing so requires making the community aware that perpetrators of harassment are being held accountable and that the institution takes the matter seriously,” the report states.
But in Veglia’s case, even administrators who feel as if they should have known what was going on were not told the details. “I feel like I should have been consulted, and I was not,” says Colin Campbell, who was assistant dean and is now associate dean for graduate education in the Medical School.
After the news got out more broadly, Campbell heard a colleague say that Veglia’s harassing behavior was “just words” and not a physical assault. Campbell wonders if that attitude played a role in the decision not to fire Veglia. “That’s a distinction, but that doesn’t make wrong right,” he says. “You can harm someone very gravely through words.” Campbell sees Veglia’s behavior and the minor consequences he faced as part of the larger US culture—and scientific culture—of devaluing women.
For Forbes’s part, she says she was “deeply horrified” when she found out—nearly a year later—that the other deans didn’t follow the EOAA recommendation. They had told her they were working with the Title IX office and the general counsel’s office and taking appropriate actions, but she did not know that the EOAA Office recommended he be fired. “I think I was also misled by the department leadership,” she says. “In my view, ignoring the recommendations of the EOAA is not the same as working with them.”
Some faculty and students heard rumors about Veglia through the student whisper network. Former graduate student Ashley Arthur, who was in BMBB’s sister program—Molecular, Cellular, Developmental Biology, and Genetics—says all communication was “just basically through the grapevine. You didn’t get any direct communication from the department about what was going on.”
Alina Zdechlik, a BMBB graduate student, learned of the harassment after she was 6 months into her studies. She took courses with Veglia—the sanctions did not prohibit him from teaching—and says she “would have really liked to be aware what was going on.” She might have chosen other classes, she says.
Christy Haynes, associate head of the Chemistry Department, didn’t hear about the case until a new department head, David Blank, decided to start a series of talks on improving the culture of the department, including a talk on sexual harassment in December 2017.
“That was not an accidental pick, of course,” Haynes says. “The department head knew that there had been this case and was trying to do some good.”
During the talk, speakers from the university’s Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education, which provides survivors of harassment and assault with confidential support, referred to the fact that there had been a case at the university without talking about specifics. That mention spurred more conversation in the department, and additional details came out from faculty and students who knew about Veglia’s sanctions. “There was a lot of angst about [the harassment] among faculty and among graduate students,” Haynes says.
On May 2, 2018, nearly a year after Jackson and Mukasa sanctioned Veglia, the City Pages, a now-shuttered newspaper, released a long feature on sexual harassment at the university. The story led with Veglia’s harassing comments and included documents the newspaper obtained through a confidential source.
Before the story was published, Campbell had known that someone in the Medical School was sanctioned but not who it was. “I learned the details when City Pages came out,” he says. “I was horrified.”
“It was really hard to read,” Haynes says. She understands why the administrators did not announce Veglia’s sanctions, but when people get blindsided by a shocking news story, “you get a knee-jerk reaction from people. The faculty were very upset. And the graduate students and undergraduates were really upset.”
Laurie Parker, a BMBB professor, wouldn’t talk with C&EN about Veglia’s case specifically. But she says that when bad things come out about a department, it is difficult for everyone, especially students. “There is a broken trust that occurs when this sacred relationship between trainee and adviser is abused,” she says.
A few days after the City Pages story came out, BMBB Department head Bernlohr held a meeting with grad students to talk about the fact that Veglia was allowed to stay in the department. The meeting didn’t go well.
“It came across as Bernlohr defending Veglia to a degree, just trying to dismiss student concerns,” says Michael Lopresti, a graduate student who attended the meeting. It seemed like Bernlohr didn’t understand why students were upset, Lopresti says. “He wanted to move past it, which was frustrating.” C&EN spoke with several other graduate students and faculty who attended the meeting, and they described having the same reaction. Bernlohr did not respond to C&EN’s request for comment for this story.
Rather than reassuring students, that meeting seemed to make them more concerned. Subsequent meetings, including one with the new Medical School dean, Jakub Tolar, didn’t help.
A group of students, including Lopresti, eventually wrote a letter expressing their frustration to seven administrators overseeing the BMBB Department, the College of Biological Sciences, and graduate education. Twenty-seven graduate students signed their names, and another 22 signed anonymously.
“The weak punitive measures, lack of transparency, and absence of follow up with the graduate student body indicates that the BMBB department does not sincerely seek to provide a safe and welcoming environment for all graduate students,” the letter says. “The University and the BMBB department should have acknowledged the situation and reinforced their commitment to protect graduate students. We, as BMBB students, find the lack of acknowledgment of Dr. Veglia’s conduct by the department head extremely disappointing,” the letter reads.
Lopresti says, “It just didn’t feel like, from a student perspective, that the department cared that this had happened.”
Campbell, who has spent 30 years in academia, calls the letter “the finest act of academic bravery I’ve ever witnessed.”
“I’ve never seen anybody being more forthright and honest in confronting the power structure,” he says. “I think that has really had an impact.”
The Chemistry Department also called two meetings—one for graduate students and one for undergraduates—after the City Pages article came out. While they didn’t seem to go as badly as the one Bernlohr led, students didn’t get the answers they were looking for, Haynes says. Because of restrictions related to personnel privacy, department leaders could tell students only about the investigation process and what was in the official letter of reprimand from the deans. “Essentially the things we could say were, ‘None of the findings in the case involved conduct that would constitute a criminal offense,’ ” Haynes says.
What administrators could do was try to make sure things wouldn’t turn out the same way next time. Forbes couldn’t change the decision not to fire Veglia, but she could change how things would be handled in the future in the College of Biological Sciences. Forbes created a task force of faculty, students, and postdocs to suggest policies that would prevent harassment of all types, including sexual harassment.
The group came up with a series of policies to clearly explain the rights of students and postdocs; expectations for students, postdocs, and professors; unacceptable behavior; and how people should respond if they are harassed. These policies now appear in handbooks for graduate students and postdocs in biological sciences. The task force also created a contract that describes expectations and acceptable behavior by students and supervisors, who must discuss and sign the contract.
The focus is “not just on sexual harassment but how you can expect to be treated by your mentor,” says graduate student Zdechlik, who was a member of the task force.
▸ Wrote guidelines on respectful and responsible conduct, including how to respond to inappropriate behavior, and included them in all program handbooks
▸ Created and distributed College of Biological Sciences Community Standards, a document that outlines expected conduct, unacceptable conduct, and possible sanctions, as well as how to report misbehavior
▸ Designed a mandatory compact between adviser and advisee to be discussed and signed by both parties; it outlines respectful and responsible conduct
▸ Committed to 1 year of financial support for students who may lose stipends as a result of reporting harassment
With the reforms, the College of Biological Sciences is trying to help graduate students and postdocs recognize when they’re in a bad situation and learn how to address it, says Robyn Rebbeck, a BMBB postdoc who was also on the task force.
Perhaps more important for students who are harassed, the College of Biological Sciences now guarantees financial support for students and postdocs who report harassment but rely on their advisers for stipends.
The big concern for people reporting harassment is losing their positions. And if that happens to international students, especially postdocs, they have 10 to 60 days to leave the country. “That’s scary,” says Rebbeck, who is Australian. “Having that safety net to say that the university will cover their wages for a year and help them transition is a massive incentive to enable people to come forward if they need to.”
The College of Biological Sciences has advertised these changes with posters on campus and Q&A sessions. Forbes is also committed to monitoring how the reforms work and making further changes as needed. “It’s not one and done. We have to continue to work on this,” she says.
Campbell says the importance of the new policies was emphasized for cases of racial discrimination after a White Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man, not far from the university.
The University of Minnesota also changed its overall sexual harassment policies in response to the Veglia case and others at the university. In 2017, the university president created the President’s Initiative to Prevent Sexual Misconduct.
The goal is to change the university’s culture so that harassment of any kind is not tolerated, says BMBB professor Parker, who is on the initiative’s advisory committee. “Until there are consistent, clear, and meaningful, serious consequences, we’re not going to see the shift in culture that we need to see,” Parker says.
The new reforms would not allow a department or college to go against the EOAA Office’s recommendation without approval from university leaders, including the provost. “That has to go all the way up the chain of command and be discussed more broadly and approved,” Forbes says. “That is an improvement for sure.”
Parker, not talking about Veglia’s case specifically, says there are still improvements to make to address sexual harassment at the university. For example, discipline in sexual harassment cases has been decided just by small groups. “I believe different stakeholders in the community really do need to be involved, in at least an advisory role, in making those decisions,” she says.
“I think one of the best practices is to have more transparency,” she adds. “That is important because it helps us hold each other accountable, from the ground up, from the beginning to the end.”
Dicke says these changes are not enough to counteract the fallout from how the administrators handled her complaint against Veglia. “Students are not going to want to come forward after what happened,” because the sanctions that Veglia received perpetuate “a culture that tolerates sexual harassment,” she says.
Just when the situation seemed to be calming down, it was stirred up again in the fall of 2019 when BMBB students and many faculty learned through the course catalog that Veglia was scheduled to teach classes. This was a year before his sanctions were scheduled to end, but those sanctions didn’t prohibit teaching.
Students had been feeling better about the BMBB Department’s response, but slating him to teach without announcing it set that progress back, graduate student Lopresti says. “It just felt underhanded, like, ‘Oh, we can just sneak him back in there,’ ” he says. “As grad students, we’re left with this lingering distrust.”
The BMBB Department canceled Veglia’s class after students protested. The Chemistry Department has kept him on the roster: he taught Spin Dynamics in spring 2018 and Interpretation of Organic Spectra in fall 2019 and fall 2020.
Haynes says the Chemistry Department felt hamstrung by the consequences doled out by the deans. “We cannot assign extra consequences by not letting him teach when that’s not what is in the letter,” she says. “This is really hard. He wasn’t fired, right?” Through it all, Veglia has continued to receive his full salary, which was $194,000 in 2020.
Even now, with sanctions officially lifted as of July 2020, the departments continue to wrestle with how to reintegrate Veglia. He was eligible in the fall of 2020 to apply to reenter the graduate program so he can start supervising graduate students in his lab again. But so far he hasn’t applied for readmission, and it’s not clear when or if he will.
▸ Education: PhD, University of Rome, 1994; postdoctoral fellow, University of Pennsylvania, 1995–99
▸ Position: Professor of biochemistry, molecular biology, and biophysics and professor of chemistry, University of Minnesota Twin Cities; joined the university in 2000 and received tenure in 2010
▸ Sanctions for sexually harassing lab members: Removed from position as director of the Minnesota NMR Center; suspended from the graduate programs in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics and Department of Chemistry for 3 years; prohibited from supervising undergraduate students for 3 years; required to take sexual harassment training
▸ Research program: Three current R01 awards from the US National Institutes of Health funding three postdocs and one or two staff researchers; one additional postdoc funded by the American Heart Association
▸ Salary: $194,000 in 2020
▸ Memberships: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Chemical Society, Biophysical Society (ACS publishes C&EN)
Sources: veglia.chem.umn.edu, University of Minnesota, US National Institutes of Health.
The university and departments “finally did put together a kind of reintegration plan on paper. But to my knowledge, they’ve not really implemented very much of the plan,” Forbes says.
What’s worse, she says, is the BMBB Department hasn’t talked to students and faculty about what is happening with Veglia now. “I think that graduate students have been very disappointed by the lack of communication from the department leadership and the program leadership about what’s being done,” she says. “I think the department had a chance to learn from this and learn from what they got wrong. And they just didn’t.” Although Forbes oversees BMBB in part, her influence over the situation is limited because Veglia reports to the Medical School dean.
If Veglia does reapply, the graduate faculty in BMBB and chemistry would have to vote to allow him to have graduate students again. Campbell thinks that the university’s culture has changed for the better and that there is heightened awareness among faculty and administrators of the damage that harassment can do to students. “Nobody can see the future, but I would say just because he’s eligible doesn’t mean he’s going to apply. And even if he applies, it doesn’t mean that he’ll be voted in,” Campbell says.
Forbes isn’t sure. “Most faculty don’t really know the details of what happened,” she says, noting that some faculty members haven’t even read the EOAA reports, which are publicly available.
“I’m surprised there was not more outrage,” Forbes says. Some faculty are upset, particularly those who focus on graduate education. But others “are not upset enough to cause more noise about it. I find that disappointing.”
Forbes says most faculty don’t realize the damage Veglia’s harassment and its fallout could do to the BMBB Department. “Reputation is everything in this business,” she says. If the department developed a reputation for not taking sexual harassment seriously, “that could hurt their ability to recruit.”
Campbell agrees. He points out that the Medical School regularly has more graduate school applications from women and accepts more female than male graduate students. “Many of our top students are female,” he says, noting that women might be more likely to avoid a department where a harasser works.
At the same time, current and former BMBB graduate students are particularly concerned that new students are being exposed to Veglia without knowing his history. Veglia taught Interpretation of Organic Spectra in fall 2020, he is currently teaching the NMR class that the BMBB Department canceled in 2019, and he is scheduled to teach the organic spectra class again in fall 2021. But the departments aren’t telling new students about the harassment case.
“Nothing good ever happens in a graduate program where students have to pass down through generations of students that a faculty member is bad,” Lopresti says.
And Dicke is especially worried for any students who study under Veglia if he rejoins the graduate program. “I couldn’t bear to think of future students coming in and having to endure what I did, having their soul crushed like mine was,” she says.
While not talking about Veglia’s case specifically, Parker from the BMBB program believes that reintegration can happen, but only if harassment survivors’ needs are put first. “In some cases, there may be a possibility for a productive reintegration and rehealing of relationships. There may be more cases where that is not possible,” she says. “It comes back to transparency and talking about it.”
If Veglia applies to rejoin the graduate program so he could have graduate students, Campbell would not get to vote on the decision. But if he did vote, Campbell would want Veglia to acknowledge that he hurt people and that his behavior was wrong; he would have to demonstrate that he had taken steps to grow. “I do believe in forgiveness,” Campbell says.
Haynes says the process of successfully reintegrating someone into the graduate program is unclear, but the university has to have a way to deal with people who harass students. The other option is firing everyone who commits harassment, and harassers may go on to work at other unwitting universities. “Honestly, I think that’s worse for everybody,” she says.
The former lab members that Veglia harassed are still recovering, and some chose new career paths. “It’s been over 3 years since I left the lab, and yesterday I was having pretty horrible anxiety” talking about this, Vossen said when he spoke with C&EN. “It definitely affected my personality and my work,” he said.
Both of the students who formally reported Veglia’s sexual harassment have left lab science. When Chelsea first came to Veglia’s lab, she thought she might get a PhD. Her experience turned her off to academia, and she ended up going to medical school. “I decided after year 1 that there was no way I was staying in academia,” Chelsea says. She is now in a residency program.
Dicke finished her PhD in May 2017 and is now working for a patent law firm. “I went into grad school wanting to do research, and I didn’t want to do it anymore,” says Dicke, who served on a US National Institutes of Health working group to stop sexual harassment. “I was so focused on surviving and trying to figure out how to interact with Gianluigi in a way that was productive that I couldn’t even focus really on science. I was robbed of that. We’ll never know what I could’ve contributed to science, and that’s sad.”
“For 3 years, I was afraid to speak up in a toxic work environment, encouraged to tolerate and ignore behavior that I now know was unacceptable,” Chelsea says. “It took the courage of another survivor for me to give myself permission to speak up. As hard as it is to relive it, it’s worth it a hundred times over if sharing this story protects even one other person from having to go through this experience.”