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Recap: NUS staff dealt with for alleged inappropriate behaviour, sexual misconduct this year

Recap:  NUS staff dealt with for alleged inappropriate behaviour, sexual misconduct this year

File photo of the National University of Singapore (NUS). (Photo: Alif Amsyar)

SINGAPORE: The dismissal on Tuesday (Dec 1) of Professor Theodore G Hopf by the National University of Singapore marked the third time in less than two months that the institution had taken action against a member of its staff or a former staff member over allegations of inappropriate behaviour or sexual misconduct.

Here is a recap of the three cases:

DR JEREMY FERNANDO

Jeremy Fernando was dismissed from NUS on Oct 7, weeks after the first complaint against him was received by NUS on Aug 27.

A lecturer and fellow at the residential Tembusu College, Dr Jeremy Fernando was sacked by NUS on Oct 7 following an internal investigation of two complaints alleging that he had “behaved inappropriately as a teaching staff”.

Staff and students at Tembusu College were informed of this decision on Oct 18, and NUS later made a police report against Dr Fernando on Oct 21.

"The university’s internal investigation established that Dr Fernando had an intimate association with an undergraduate,” NUS said in a statement. This behaviour was “found to have fallen short of the standards of professionalism that the university expects of a teaching staff”.

The university first received a complaint against Dr Fernando on Aug 27, and he was suspended on Aug 31.

Dr Fernando was interviewed by the university regarding the first complaint on Sep 1, and this investigation was concluded on Sep 5. On Sep 7, NUS received a second complaint from another student, it said in a statement. 

In both cases, a no-contact order was issued to prohibit him from contacting the complainants. The students were also interviewed regarding their complaints on Aug 31 and Sep 9 respectively.

NUS’ Victim Care Unit (VCU) care officers twice “explored” the option of making a police report with both students, and assured them of “continued support” by the VCU if they chose to do so. This would include accompanying them to the police station.

The director of Tembusu College also advised the second student similarly, said NUS. The students both later decided not to report the matter to the police.

NUS completed its internal investigation of the first complaint on Sep 5, and the second complaint on Sep 21.

Dr Fernando was informed of the alleged misconduct on Sep 21 and given seven working days to “respond with additional information/mitigating factors”, said the university. He responded on Sep 30.

Staff members and students of Tembusu College were informed of Dr Fernando’s dismissal on Oct 18 via email, said NUS. The next day, the care officer contacted both students who had filed the complaints to “check on their well-being”.

NUS filed a police report on the allegations on Oct 21.

READ: Student group calls on NUS to show 'transparency and accountability' in handling case of professor sacked for inappropriate behaviour

READ: NUS has 'fallen short' in handling Jeremy Fernando's dismissal, says Tembusu College rector Tommy Koh

CRITICISM, PROMISE TO DO BETTER

NUS received criticism for its handling of the dismissal, with some questioning the gap between the dismissal of Dr Fernando and the dismissal being reported to staff and students at Tembusu College.

In a statement posted on Facebook on Oct 19, Students for a Safer NUS (SafeNUS) said the university's initial remarks on the matter were “sparse” and urged it to take “proactive measures” on this case.

“It was sparse on providing information on follow-up measures, and released only after individuals on social media had already made light of this incident,” it said.

“While we fully understand the importance of confidentiality in such cases to protect survivors’ identities, it is not the same as silence on the subject. Accountability and support are needed for students to feel safe.”

Responding to the criticism, the university noted on Oct 21 that it “has to balance interests of privacy and confidentiality”, especially for the victims involved.

“We recognise that we could have shared information about the dismissal with Tembusu staff and students in a more timely manner and we endeavour to do better,” it said.

The university also published the Code of Conduct for Staff, which was not previously available to the public, in response to a request from the NUS Students’ Union.

The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) also spoke out against NUS’ decision to make a police report against Dr Fernando as it ignored the wishes of the complainants.

“From a trauma-informed, survivor-centric perspective, it is not ideal to file a report if a sexual assault survivor is reluctant,” it said in a statement on Oct 22.

“A crucial component of healing from trauma is regaining a sense of control - a sense that is often eroded during an invasive, violating assault

“Survivors should, as much as possible, be allowed to exert their own autonomy and agency in their own cases.”

Speaking at a press conference on Oct 23, Tembusu College rector Professor Tommy Koh said NUS had “fallen short” in its handling of the case.

“Going forward, NUS will be more open, more transparent, more willing to disseminate information in a candid manner to the stakeholders,” he said.

The incident was addressed in Parliament on Nov 3 by Minister of State for Education Sun Xueling.

“In the course of addressing allegations, (the Ministry of Education) expects institutions to be open and timely in their communications, while taking into consideration the facts of the case, the need to ensure the safety of their communities and safeguard the well-being and privacy of victims and other members of the community who are directly affected, and the need to ensure that police investigations are not impacted,” she said.

PROFESSOR ZHENG YONGNIAN

The East Asian Institute is located at NUS' Bukit Timah campus. (Photo: Google Street View)

On Nov 17, NUS announced that it had completed its review of a complaint made against former East Asian Institute (EAI) director Professor Zheng Yongnian and found that he had behaved inappropriately towards a colleague in May 2018.

The university said that "in the absence of evidence", the inquiry was unable to verify all the allegations except that Prof Zheng had hugged the member of staff without her permission during a meeting.

As such, the "appropriate sanction" was a written warning.

NUS said it established a committee of inquiry (COI) to begin investigations after becoming aware of the allegations in May 2019.

A member of staff alleged that Prof Zheng behaved inappropriately on a number of occasions in 2018, including putting his hands on her shoulder and head, hugging her and patting her rear, and holding her back while taking a group photo.

She lodged a police report in May 2019, accusing Prof Zheng of outrage of modesty. Following investigations and in consultation with the Attorney-General's Chambers, the police issued Prof Zheng a stern warning in April this year.

READ: Former East Asian Institute director hugged colleague without consent, NUS inquiry finds following complaint

NUS said it suspended Prof Zheng on May 20, 2019, and required that he work from home and stay off the NUS campus for the entire duration of the investigations. He was also issued a no-contact order prohibiting him from contacting the EAI staff member.

"The COI concluded that Prof Zheng had admitted to hugging the EAI staff member without her consent during a work meeting on May 30, 2018, but the allegation that Prof Zheng had at the same meeting patted her buttocks could not be established conclusively," the statement read.

"The COI further determined that it is inappropriate for a male senior colleague in a supervisory role to hug a female junior colleague without her consent at a professional meeting in his office," said NUS, adding that it thus concluded Prof Zheng had breached its code of conduct for staff.

"APPROPRIATE SANCTION"

"In accordance with the university's guidelines on staff discipline matters, the appropriate sanction for a breach of this nature is a written warning.

"As Prof Zheng is no longer a staff of NUS, the university will instead place on its staff records the outcome of the internal review," the institution said.

Prof Zheng stepped down as director in June and was replaced by former World Bank country director Bert Hofman. Prof Zheng left EAI in September.

In its statement, the university said: “NUS and EAI expect all staff to treat each other with dignity, consideration and respect, and we take a strong stand against all forms of inappropriate behaviour."

PROFESSOR TED HOPF

Professor Theodore G Hopf was from the Department of Political Science at NUS. (Photo: NUS)

On Dec 1, NUS said in a media release that it had dismissed Professor Theodore G Hopf - better known as Ted Hopf - over a case of sexual harassment against a student following an anonymous complaint sent to the university in August.

Professor Hopf was part of the Department of Political Science in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS). NUS did not indicate the gender of the student.

"The university immediately commenced investigations," said NUS.

Setting out the timeline of events, NUS said that a no-contact order was issued to him on Sep 15, prohibiting him from contacting any NUS student. This was done after interviews with the student and Prof Hopf.

He was later suspended and told to stay off-campus while investigations were ongoing.

A COI, which was appointed on Oct 7, interviewed the student. The student was accompanied by a care officer from the NUS Victim Care Unit at the interview held on Oct 21.

As Prof Hopf needed to seek treatment for "a serious medical condition", the COI interviewed him on Nov 13 after his medical leave.

The student alleged that at a meeting on campus in August, Prof Hopf offered and drank alcohol with the student. He also allegedly made "an offensive remark" about certain parts of the student's anatomy.

Prof Hopf admitted to the COI that he made the remark.

At the same meeting, Prof Hopf allegedly "pulled the student forcefully towards him twice, during which the student resisted, moved back and told him to stop", said NUS.

Prof Hopf admitted to placing his hands on the shoulders of the student while facing the student, but denied pulling the student towards him.

The COI found the student’s account of the unwelcome physical contact to be "credible", said NUS.

The university said that the COI also found the consumption of alcohol in the workplace, the offensive remark and the unwelcome physical contact to be in contravention with the NUS Code of Conduct for Staff on professional behaviour.

The student also alleged that Prof Hopf had sent a "sex-text message" to the student in October 2018.

Prof Hopf admitted to sending the message to the student but explained to the COI that the message "was meant for someone else", said NUS.

"As Prof Hopf did not clearly inform the student that the message was meant for someone else, and he also did not apologise for sending the message by mistake, the COI established that this was a serious professional misconduct," said NUS.

"The COI determined that Prof Hopf had failed to act with propriety, respect, and decorum expected of a staff of the university. He had sexually harassed the student in physical, verbal and written forms. His conduct was a serious breach of the NUS Staff Code of Conduct."

NUS dismissed Prof Hopf on Dec 1 "given the serious nature of the offences", said the university.

The COI concluded its inquiry and submitted its report to the university on Nov 18.

READ: NUS dismisses professor over sexual harassment of student

INVESTIGATIONS ONGOING

NUS also made a police report on Nov 27, after informing the student that the university would be proceeding to do so "in line with its legal obligations", NUS added.

Responding to CNA's queries, the police confirmed that a report had been lodged and investigations were ongoing.

NUS said: "The Victim Care Unit and FASS have been providing care and support to the student since the allegations were first brought to the University’s attention, and will continue to do so."

The university also said that "to protect the privacy and well-being of the student, some details of the allegations and findings have been withheld to prevent the identification of the student".

Source: CNA/kg(rw)

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