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On recent events in the Information Theory Community

“The time is always right to do the right thing.”  -Martin Luther King

I am inspired by my colleague and friend, Professor Tsachy Weissman, to take a public stance on the Title IX case involving my mentor, collaborator, and (once?) friend, Professor Sergio Verdu. I agree with Prof Weissman’s post that the refusal of our academic community to go on record publicly is increasingly problematic. In addition, I am very very disturbed by the choice of some members of our community to act as “defenders” of Professor Verdu at all costs. 

Let me get to my main point first: Nothing about Ms Im’s recollection of the events she reported seems unbelievable even though Prof Verdu has been considered a valuable and supporting mentor and friend for/by some women, including Dr Shkel and myself. There has been a long history of Prof Verdu's often unorthodox and less than appropriate interactions with colleagues, even though he has also been trusted by some, including myself, as well-meaning and supportive. As a result, the number of women information theorists that chose to stay away from him or had to “artfully” work around his off-color remarks and boundary issue is not zero. These facts collectively are why Ms. Im’s narrative and Dr. Shkel’s can seem consistent with each other and the truth. Some of these facts, however, have been neglected by the “defenders” of Prof Verdu. 

Had the “defenders" of Prof Verdu appealed to a Catherine-Deneuve-ian sensibility in defense of what Deneuve would call Prof Verdu’s “freedom to bother,” it would have felt less urgent to take a public stance (despite my fundamental disagreement with such line of thinking). Unfortunately, though, the “defense” of Prof Verdu, most notably a letter submitted to Dean Kulkarni by Prof Ephremides, signed by some 40 or so, primarily has been formulated in terms of Prof Verdu’s “spotless reputation” and questioning the credibility or the intention of Ms Im and even the media. Given the multitude of factors that complicate the fight against harassment, leaving this factually flawed “defense" unchallenged would be irresponsible. Questioning the motives of Dr Cuff, who reported the Title IX violations, is also problematic; Dr Cuff has merely followed his legal obligations under Title IX. 

Inspired by Dr Shkel’s plea for “empathy and understanding” as we move forward with building a "a more diverse and resilient academic community,” I would like to ask if we (Information Theory Society and Prof Verdu) could have done better. Time is right to note and understand the demands and dreams of a new generation who refuse to burden a young brilliant student like Ms Im with the “art” of subtle boundary setting with a mentor.

I wish the IT Society had collectively helped Prof Verdu by giving him a harder-to-digest yet more constructive critique throughout the years but in particular in the aftermath of Princeton’s Title IX Committee’s decision. Our research community seems to have fractured without engaging in a transparent dialogue regarding harassment. The first unfortunate outcome of this is the misguided “defense” letter whose sole impact was to amplify Prof Verdu’s power differential with Ms Im’s and to further render the judgement of the Title IX Committee at Princeton inconsequential and the prescribed training inadequate! The second unfortunate outcome is a division in our community sending the wrong message about the ramifications of reporting harassment among our members (after all many rumored signatories of Prof Ephremides’ letter of “defense” hold positions of power while Ms Im has found herself outside of our field). Finally, our response has made us and our field look outdated and unwelcoming to the younger generation of scholars, especially in contrast to the response of our sister fields of Statistics/Machine-Learning to the reports of misconduct at NIPS 2017! Now with Professor Weissman’s public statement, I hope the IT society moves forward to value our conversations about harassment, equity, and diversity, beyond just protecting the young and vulnerable at the moment of crisis, but also as a steady force of good to better equip the celebrated and the elite to recognize and scrutinize one's blindspots and privileges in the hierarchical world of academia. This is especially relevant to the mission, role, and value of IT Society’s newly formed ad hoc committee on diversity and inclusion.

I wish Prof Verdu would have gone into the Title IX hearing and the subsequent trainings with humility and acknowledgement of Ms. Im’s precarious position. In the short term, that would have helped him adjust his demeanor at Princeton and various conferences/workshops and avoid giving the impression that he is/feels above the laws and regulations. Medium term, such an outcome would have spared us all the media spectacle and public pressure campaign—admittedly and unfortunately what became the sole force for change. And in the long term, it would have helped Prof Verdu to be a better mentor and promoter of a broader group of women in the field. I wish Prof Verdu refused to surround himself solely by those who superficially “defend” him. Prof Verdu that I know and admire is no fan of Trump-style mediocrity. He is known for setting and achieving meticulously high research goals tackling the hardest problems in Information Theory. I wish him the courage to do the same in this very challenging moment in his and his loved ones’ lives.