Former director of NUS East Asian Institute had behaved inappropriately with subordinate: NUS

Various sexual harassment allegations involving Professor Zheng Yongnian had surfaced in October on social media.
Various sexual harassment allegations involving Professor Zheng Yongnian had surfaced in October on social media.PHOTOS: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The National University of Singapore (NUS) has determined that a former director of its East Asian Institute (EAI) had behaved inappropriately with a subordinate by hugging her without her consent during a work meeting.

In a statement issued on Tuesday (Nov 17), the university said that Professor Zheng Yongnian's behaviour "was inappropriate in a professional setting" and had breached the university's code of conduct for staff.

He would have been given a written warning accordingly, but as Prof Zheng has left the university, NUS recorded the outcome of its internal review in its staff records, said the university.

Various sexual harassment allegations involving Prof Zheng had surfaced in August and September on social media, with social media users, who identified themselves as NUS staff, accusing Prof Zheng, 58, of harassing them.

Responding to the statement, the academic, who spoke through his lawyers, maintained his innocence and said it was a “consolatory hug”, given as the staff member was leaving his office in May 2018.

He said the staff member had looked disappointed after he told her that his daughter was not in Singapore. She had expressed interest in befriending his daughter, said Prof Zheng, who left the university in September. 

He has said his resignation had nothing to do with the sexual harassment allegations and complaints. 

In its latest statement, NUS said they "became aware" of the allegations in May 2019 and suspended Prof Zheng on May 20 that year.

He was required to work from home and stay off the NUS campus while the police and the university carried out their investigations. Prof Zheng was also issued a "no-contact order", which prohibited him from contacting the EAI staff member, said NUS.

The police subsequently administered a stern warning to Prof Zheng in April 2020 for outrage of modesty relating to this case.

Following this, NUS appointed a committee of inquiry (COI) in July this year to review the complaints , and determined that at least one of the staff member's allegations had occurred.

Prof Zheng admitted to hugging the staff member without her consent during a work meeting on May 30, 2018, in his office, said NUS.

However, the COI could not establish the "veracity of the allegation that Prof Zheng had patted or touched her buttocks in the absence of evidence", said NUS.

It also could not establish that Prof Zheng had held the staff member's back while taking a group picture, and had placed his hands on her shoulder and head during a meeting between the two in his office - as the affected staff member had alleged.

The university said it informed Prof Zheng and the affected staff member of its findings on Monday and Tuesday.

"NUS and EAI have been extending assistance to the affected EAI staff member since she had first raised this matter, and we will continue to provide her with the support she needs," said NUS in its statement.

However, both Prof Zheng and the social media user who claimed to be the affected staff member have expressed disappointment in the university’s actions.

Prof Zheng said “it is extremely regrettable that NUS would provide (support to) and tolerate someone who has falsely accused others and has frequently attacked others in social media”.

The affected staff member had made what he said were defamatory remarks about him in e-mails sent to the Chinese Ministry of Education, various universities and scholar communities.

He added that he had treated her politely and professionally, and noted that the police report against him was made a year after the incident, "only after" he declined to be her PhD supervisor and co-author for a paper.

“Why isn’t NUS protecting its own professor who has worked for the university for more than 20 years? Did NUS ever consider the pressure and distress I suffered during this period of investigation as a result of the false accusation mounted by the EAI staff?”

Meanwhile, the social media user who identified herself as the affected staff member posted on Twitter that she was disappointed with NUS’ investigation. 

She said NUS was still trying to protect Prof Zheng, and noted that the university is "trying to blur the boundaries of 'sexual harassment' and 'inappropriate behaviour'". 

"This is not 'inappropriate behaviour’' it is illegal," said the Twitter user.

The university, in its statement, said it takes a strong stand against all forms of inappropriate behaviour, and expects all staff to treat others with dignity, consideration and respect.