Campus News

UW-Madison grad student suicide overlooked amid ‘toxic’ lab environment

Akbar Sayeed is set to return to his position after a two-year suspension due to hostile and intimidating behavior. 

Akbar Sayeed is set to return to his position after a two-year suspension due to hostile and intimidating behavior. 

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

John Brady, a graduate Engineering student died by suicide in 2016 after spending seven years in a toxic lab environment under Akbar Sayeed. 

Brady killed himself Oct. 28, 2016 at the age of 28 after working as a research assistant under Sayeed for seven years. John’s father, Jim Brady, believes the lab environment played a role in his son’s suicide. 

An email from the dean of the College of Engineering Ian Robertson was sent out Saturday addressing a Wisconsin State Journal article yet never mentioned Sayeed or Brady by name. Engineering and Computer Engineering Chair Susan Hagness echoed Robertson’s message in a press release Saturday. 

Sayeed’s lab environment has been described by students as “toxic” and “abusive,” oftentimes referring to his students as “monkeys,” “chimpanzees” and “slaves.” 

The amount of turnover in comparison with other labs on campus, with a multitude of graduate students giving up their financial stipend in order to leave. 

The university investigated and determined that Sayeed violated the university’s policy on hostile and intimidating behavior and took what they considered the necessary disciplinary action, according to a statement made by Provost Karl Scholz. 

The definition of a hostile and intimidating environment as constituted by UW-Madison is “unwelcome behavior pervasive or severe enough that a reasonable person would find it hostile and/or intimidating and that does not further the University’s academic or operational interests.” 

“At UW-Madison, we expect faculty members to treat students with respect and to always support their educational and personal well-being,” Scholz said. 

Originally, Brady’s name was redacted from documents reporting Sayeed’s misconduct. It was not until his father spoke out about his son’s death and asked what UW-Madison has done to prevent work environments like these from reappearing on campus.

UW-Madison responded to Jim Brady’s accusation by stating that this was an extreme and isolated incident that does not represent the conditions of the majority of research labs on campus. 

Sayeed admitted and apologized for the unprofessional behavior that occurred in his lab during Brady’s employment. However, he denied abusing his authority or making threats towards students. 

Recently, there has been consideration of allowing Sayeed to return to the university after his two-year suspension when he worked at the National Science Foundation. 

According to Ian Robertson, Sayeed will return in January 2020. 

The university awarded Brady a posthumous degree in engineering at the 2017 Spring Commencement, leaving his family with mixed feelings towards the university. 

Faculty members in the engineering school refused to comment. 

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