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U of M professor placed on administrative leave after criminal sexual conduct charge

Katie Raymond
Michigan Radio
The University of Michigan

Computer science engineer professor Peter Chen, who has been with the University of Michigan for 27 years, was arraigned Wednesday on a criminal sexual conduct charge. 


According to court documents, the victim was under 13 when the alleged abuse occurred in April 2017. The investigation is being handled by the Ann Arbor police. 


Chen, who is 55, is scheduled for a probable cause conference next Thursday. 


He is represented by Smith Blythe, a firm specialized in sexual abuse allegations. His attorneys released the statement below: 


"On January 26, 2021 Mr. Chen was made aware of the criminal sexual conduct allegations that had been made against him. He completely denies the allegations and has cooperated fully with the Ann Arbor Police Department to assist them in their investigation. Mr. Chen is confident that the truth will prevail and that he will be fully exonerated. Mr. Chen thanks the numerous people who have reached out in support of him over the last few days.”


U of M spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email to Michigan Radio that Chen was “immediately” placed on administrative leave. That leave is paid. Fitzgerald added there is “no indication that this matter is related to Professor Chen's teaching or research at U-M.”


Students were made aware of the charges when School of Engineering Dean Alec Gallimore sent an email Thursday afternoon. He said Chen’s teaching and other duties are being reassigned. 


“There is no indication that this criminal charge is connected to his teaching or research at the University of Michigan. Nonetheless, I realize this information will be shocking to many of you, and comes after several semesters of reports of climate-related issues in the CSE division. Let me be clear – sexual misconduct is completely unacceptable in any form. I encourage anyone who has any information about misconduct to report it. It is only when we are aware of issues that we can address them.” 


Gallimore linked to several resources, and ways to report misconduct, in and out of the school. 


“Finally, I want to personally acknowledge that the continued allegations of misconduct involving CSE faculty are troubling. I plan to work side-by-side with Chair Michael Wellman and others within the College and University to continue addressing the culture and climate, and ensure we are doing everything in our power to provide a safe and welcoming environment for our students, faculty, staff and postdocs.”


The other case of alleged misconduct this past year involved Jason Mars, a U of M computer science instructor and former CEO of Ann Arbor-based startup, Clinc. An investigation by The Verge in February 2020 revealed alleged sexual harassment and other abusive behavior from Mars toward employees at Clinc. Faculty asked Mars to take a leave of absence and students have called for his removal.


Shortly after The Verge investigation, CSE department chair Brian Noble stepped down from his position. He did not give a reason for his decision and was replaced by Chen. 


The news of Chen’s charge rattled students. According to the school's independent student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, he had been voted professor of the year by students five times and was awarded multiple times for his teaching. 


Matt Bernhard, a Ph.D. alum of the University, said reading about the charge was “shocking.” 


“Our justice system does presume innocence, so I don't want to cast aspersions unduly but it was very, very, very surprising, in the sense that I had worked with P. Chen before and he was, by and large, well-liked by the students,” Bernhard said. 


“The worst part about it all is that every time we turn over a stone, we find more of this problem. None of us knew that P. Chen was going through whatever it is that he's going through. He was made the interim department chair when we were raising our concerns about a different professor and now these allegations have come out. It's like, ‘What the hell?’”


U of M's Engineering Student Government wrote in a statement to Michigan Radio that it met with Dean Gallimore Thursday night.


“We were assured that the university acted swiftly and decisively, and that any developments will be made known to the student body as they occur," ESG said. "In the meanwhile, ESG strongly abhors any and all forms of sexual misconduct, and has published resources on its website to assist students who are affected by the news."


Editor's note: The University of Michigan holds Michigan Radio's license.

This post was last updated May 3 at 2:54 p.m. to fix broken links.


Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
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