Students protest return of professor suspended for exploitative lab conditions.

Protestors gather on Engineering Mall. Photo: Sam Buisman

Author: Sam Buisman

Students and activists gathered on Engineering Mall on Dec. 6 to protest the reinstatement of Dr. Akbar Sayeed. 

The crowd of over 200 protesters demanded that the University reverse its decision to keep Dr. Sayeed on staff after his two-year suspension for abusive behavior that may have contributed to a student’s suicide ends this January. 

For Marie Fiori, a fourth-year chemistry PhD student, this type of conduct should be intolerable at Madison.

“If you abuse your students, you shouldn’t have a job at a top 10 research university,” Fiori said. 

Protestors then marched to Bascom Hall to deliver a petition demanding Dr. Sayeed’s dismissal. According to the Teaching Assistants’ Association, who helped organize the protest, over 2 thousand people signed the petition. 

The University of Wisconsin, Madison, suspended Dr. Sayeed in 2016 for two years after concluding an investigation into his behavivor spurred by the suicide of one of his research students, John Brady. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, Dr. Sayeed would insult his researchers, calling them “monkeys” and “slaves,” and often require them to work 70 hour weeks, despite their positions being part-time. 

However, the details of this report remained private until the Wisconsin State Journal published them in late October. By that time, the College of Engineering had already decided to allow Dr. Sayeed to return to the University after his suspension in a non-teaching, faculty position. 

Kyle Cushman, a human ecology Masters student, said that for many students, this obscurity felt like deception.

“The University never told them what had caused John’s death,” Cushman said, “and they rightfully don’t feel safe with this professor here.”

After Dr. Sayeed’s suspension, the College of Engineering did take steps in the hopes of improving the climate within the college. According to a blog post from the Dean of the College of Engineering Ian Robertson, the college provided harassment training to its employees, hired an Assistant Dean of Graduate Affairs in the College of Engineering and distributed lists of mental health resources among other efforts in the wake of Dr. Sayeed.

Yet, for these protestors, the return of Dr. Sayeed to campus flies in the face of these goals. Many of them, including TAA member Alex Sharfin, are hopeful that the University will heed their demands.

“I feel like I want to be optimistic,” Sharfin said, “and I want to give the University a chance to do the right thing.”

Some organizers thought that this protest has implications beyond the specific issue of Dr. Sayeed’s return. Cushman saw its interdisciplinary nature as a milestone in campus organizing. 

“This is really the first time we have had a rally of this size on engineering mall,” Cushman said,  “especially in such equal collaboration between the east and west sides of campus, the social sciences and the hard sciences.” 

At press time, the University has not changed its decision to bring Dr. Sayeed back on staff, although according to the Office of the Chancellor, the University will improve communications surrounding concerns and centralize its oversight of reporting.