Photo Credits: QUINN SPOONER / AGGIE. Professor Yuval Peres, facing allegations of sexual harassment, recently gave a lecture hosted by Mathematics Department at the Mathematical Sciences Building on the UC Davis campus.
Peres, who worked at UC Berkeley for over a decade, left position at University of Washington under threat of investigation
Updated at 11:21 p.m. on Dec. 5, 2019
Yuval Peres, a mathematics professor known for his work in the probability research field, gave a lecture at UC Davis on Wednesday, Nov. 6. Peres, who previously worked as a professor at the UC Berkeley from 1993 to 2006; as an unpaid affiliate at the University of Washington (UW) from 2006 to 2012; and as a researcher in the Microsoft Theory Group from 2006 to 2018, has been publicly accused by three women of sexual misconduct.
Peres did not respond to The California Aggie’s requests for comment regarding the allegations against him. He had previously addressed his behavior in an email from November 2018.
“I regret all cases in the past where I have not followed this principle [of not making invitations to junior researchers that may be viewed as intimate],” he said in a recently publicized letter to a group of mathematics professors. “I had no intention to harass anyone but must have been tone deaf not to recognize that I was making some people very uncomfortable. As I wrote above, I promise to adhere to this principle in the future.”
Abigail Thompson, the current chair of the math department at UC Davis, which advertised the lecture on its website, said that the department is currently “addressing this issue.” She said she did not know who in the department knew about the allegations against Peres before he was invited to campus, though she did acknowledge via email that “some people in the department were aware of the allegations several days before the event took place.”
Peres’ accusers include Dana Moshkovitz, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Texas, Austin; Animashree Anandkumar, the Bren professor of computing and mathematical sciences at CalTech and Lisha Li, the founder and CEO of Rosebud AI, a company that produces tools to create and edit photographs and videos.
The UW Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action confirmed that Peres resigned from his affiliate position in 2012 “after receiving notice that the university would be investigating allegations of sexual harassment.” A source stated that Peres had left the Microsoft Theory Group and that the company had nothing further to share about his time there.
Moshkovitz said that she was harassed by Peres while still a Ph.D. student at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel in 2007. In a 2009 public statement, Moshkovitz said that she had first met Peres as an undergraduate student in 2004 while touring the U.S.
“[The trip] influenced my life in many ways I did not expect,” Moshkovitz wrote. “Some of those ways were quite unfortunate.”
While in the U.S., Peres was friendly and introduced her to his family and his colleagues, with no indication of the behavior that was to come.
In 2007, Moshkovitz received an email from Peres saying that he was in the U.S. and wanted to meet regarding her postdoctoral studies. Moshkovitz agreed to the meeting. In her statement, Moshkovitz wrote that Peres moved their meeting from a coffee house to his home, where he offered her wine, even though she told him she did not drink alcohol. He then sat close to her on the sofa and repeatedly grabbed her hand, insinuating that her behavior in 2004 had led him to view their interactions in a romantic light.
When Moshkovitz tried to leave, he followed her out of the house.
“He told me that he was sorry, he misinterpreted my behavior,” Moshkovitz wrote. “I was quite stunned by this last remark. That man had invited me to a ‘job interview.’ He had pretended it was a job interview for almost the entire meeting. I acted like a person in a job interview, which I thought I was, until I realized otherwise. This ‘I must have misinterpreted your behavior’ is outrageous.”
Moshkovitz said that although she was supported by friends and family after the incident, the experience “undermined her trust in people.” She added that “sexual harassment is not about sex. It is not about love. Sexual harassment is about hunting down.”
Moshkovitz said she contacted officials at the Microsoft Theory Group in Redmond, Wash., where Peres was working at the time. She received an email saying that they were “concerned about what happened and that [they] were looking into it,” however, she said she never heard from them again. She later learned that Peres had been promoted shortly after the incident.
Microsoft has faced criticism for its treatment of women. According to a 2018 article in the Seattle Times, it remains a predominantly male-dominated tech company, compared to Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and LinkedIn. In the company’s “engineering ranks,” the higher the pay grade, the fewer women there are. Between 2009 and 2018, 16 women sued Microsoft in both state and federal courts for “gender discrimination, sexual harassment, or gender-related retaliation.” Microsoft won only one of the cases that went to trial. And, according to The Guardian, “Between 2010 and 2016, women in technical jobs at the company lodged 108 complaints of sexual harassment, 119 complaints of gender discrimination, eight complaints of retaliation and three complaints of pregnancy discrimination.”
In the Seattle Times article, one Microsoft intern said no charges were filed after she reported to both the company and the police that she was raped by another intern after an event. Another woman alleged that her manager repeatedly propositioned her and sent her inappropriate emails. After she reported the behavior, she was moved to a different unit, only to find that her office was “just two doors down from her harasser.” Another female employee was confronted by her supervisor after reporting his “demeaning behavior” and “unfair performance reviews.”
Following the publication of the Seattle Times article, Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith provided a summary of the company’s efforts regarding diversity and inclusion, citing the progress the company has made in the last several years.
Christopher Hoffman, a current professor at UW who frequently visited the Microsoft Theory Group to work on projects, had heard from several sources that Peres was attempting to “re-integrate himself back into the mathematical community” following the allegations.
“I am a big believer in forgiveness, but before we get to a stage of forgiveness there has to be some honesty about the women who he harassed and the lies that Yuval told to enable their harassment,” Hoffman said. “I think the math community would be making a big mistake if they re-integrated someone and started the forgiving progress before there was any honest appraisal of what had happened.”
Hoffman did postdoctoral studies with Peres at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem from 1996–1997, and later worked with him at UW. He said that Peres was “very generous towards [him],” and found his later resignation from UW abrupt, adding that he received no explanation from the university for his departure. He did not hear about the sexual misconduct allegations until later.
“The more information I heard and the more detailed [the allegations have] become, definitely, the more upsetting they’ve been,” Hoffman said. “The first things that I heard were all very vague and third-hand and now I’ve read statements that people have written and that was definitely much more upsetting than just hearing rumors.”
Peres’ pattern of behavior was not limited to his time at UW. In November 2019, Lisha Li, a former Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley, said on Twitter that she and another graduate student studying probability both experienced similar harassment. “About time it is called out so that no more students are harassed,” Li wrote. Animashree Anandkumar, a professor at CalTech, wrote on Twitter in November 2018 that she “had a nauseating experience with Peres when [she] was younger,” adding that at the time she “was junior and felt powerless.”
Lior Pachter, who worked as a mathematics professor at UC Berkeley from 2001 to 2017, and who now works as a Bren professor of computational biology, computing and mathematical sciences at CalTech, said via email that concerns were raised in the equity committee of the math department at UC Berkeley after Peres had left his full-time position at the university.
When asked why he did not immediately file a report regarding Peres’ behavior, Pachter said that he felt the report was already being adequately addressed by the committee handling such concerns. Following a public records request by The Aggie, UC Berkeley said it had no information regarding any sexual misconduct by Peres.
Thomas Scanlon, who currently chairs the equity committee in the math department at UC Berkeley, said in an email that he heard about Peres’ behavior only after Peres had gone to work at UW and his position at UC Berkeley had converted to adjunct status. The departmental website indicates that Peres held an adjunct position at Berkeley until 2011.
“It is not the role of the equity advisor to address complaints of misconduct,” Scanlon said. “In practice, most complaints pass through the Department Chair. Since I do not have firsthand knowledge of how such reports were investigated by our administration, it is best that I not speculate on what may have happened.”
After he was contacted by The Aggie, Michael Hutchings, who was recently appointed as mathematics department chair at UC Berkeley, wrote that he “would not help […] try to dig up rumors and allegations about the Berkeley math department.”
Later, after Peres resigned from UW and no longer worked at Microsoft, Pachter chose to publicize a November 2018 letter written by computer science, applied mathematics and mathematics professors Irit Dinur, Oded Goldreich and Ehud Friedgut, who currently work at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.
The letter warned the mathematical community about allegations that had been made about Peres and alleged that Dinur, Goldreich and Friedgut knew of “at least five additional cases of him approaching junior female scientists, some of them students, with offers of intimate nature, behavior that has caused its victims quite a bit of distress since these offers were ‘insistent.’”
Goldreich said via email that he disagreed with the publication of the email. When asked why he had chosen to publish the letter, Pachter said that “it corroborated for me what I had heard. When I saw this letter from a lot of these colleagues, I thought I should make this public […] because it’s dangerous to have a sexual harasser working with students. I thought that students should know.”
In December 2018, the Centre de Recherches Mathématiques at the Université de Montréal released a statement condemning Peres’ actions. They said they were not aware of the allegations against him when he was the André-Aisenstadt Chair at the Centre.
Goldreich clarified in an email that while he and his colleagues have no official documentation about Peres, “We acted based on information revealed to us, in person and privately, directly and indirectly, by several of [Peres’] victims. The dilemma we were facing was whether or not to remain [silent] in [the] face of this information, which we considered reliable although it was not subjected to any formal legal procedure.”
Goldreich wrote that this feeling was not unique — others had faced the same moral dilemma.
“We believe that many others in the research community, who have (directly or indirectly) heard of similar [incidents] involving Peres or other people, faced the same dilemma,” Goldreich said. “The choice of doing nothing is a default one, but it has a huge cost in a reality in which there are no adequate ways of handling such instances, which are not [in the] realm of criminal law.”
Goldreich noted that many victims have legitimate reasons for choosing not to file complaints. He said that the current social climate in academia affects who chooses to formally complain to supervisors about this behavior.
“The aforementioned refusal [to file a complaint] should not cast doubts on the allegations nor should it be viewed as a personal (moral or ethical) failure on the part of the victims; it is actually the rational choice given this reality,” Goldreich wrote.
Karen Kelsky, founder and president of The Professor Is In, “which provides advice and consulting services on the academic job search and all elements of the academic and post-academic career,” wrote to The Aggie about the impact that sexual harassment can have on women pursuing careers in academia.
“What my research on sexual harassment in the academy revealed to me is that harassers (almost entirely men) have multiple kinds of impact on their victims (almost entirely women),” Kelsky wrote. “They might impact career options, in that women are forced to change programs or institutions or fields, to their own detriment (perhaps losing grant support or mentorship or years of credit along the way).”
She noted that such experiences can have serious effects on women’s mental health and can deter them from pursuing job opportunities at institutions of higher education. According to Kelsky, “a strong, unequivocal response” is necessary to ensure that survivors are not those who end up facing professional and personal consequences because of their choice to, or not to, report.
“Time and again, these perpetrators, even when found guilty, are permitted to rehabilitate themselves after just a few months or years, and given the chance to reclaim their authority and status,” Kelsky wrote. “That not only re-victimizes victims, but gives the perpetrator access to new victims, and tells other vulnerable individuals that they are not safe, and that they do not really ‘belong’ in academic spaces.”
She described the ripple effect that this kind of institutional decision-making can have.
“In the end we are all impoverished because one perpetrator often silences scores or hundreds of people whose scholarly contributions the world will never get to know,” Kelsky said. “This is why I created the #MeTooPhD hashtag.”
Hoffman similarly believes that academic institutions need to be more proactive in the way that they handle allegations of sexual misconduct.
“I hope that [universities] do not just try to end their affiliation but try to actively make sure that the complaints of victims are investigated,” he said.
Written by: Rebecca Bihn-Wallace — email@example.com
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly characterized Mathematics Department Chair Abigail Thompson’s understanding of the department’s knowledge of the allegations levied against Peres. Thompson did not state whether or not anyone in the department was aware of the allegations before the event took place. When asked if “anyone in the department [was] aware of these allegations before [Peres] was invited,” she responded, “I do not know who was aware.” Thompson additionally clarified that “some members of the department were aware of the allegations several days before the event took place.” The Aggie regrets this error.