When Your Professor Disappears and No One Will Tell You Why
The first clue that the trajectories of their doctoral studies were about to veer off course was in July 2022 when emails to their longtime adviser suddenly bounced.
The second, for Tanner Dulay, Rosa McGuire, and Madeline Cowen, erased any doubt. It came in the form of an email, on July 8, 2022, from Tracy Johnson, dean of life sciences, informing them that Priyanga Amarasekare — the researcher they’d come to the University of California at Los Angeles to work with, the mentor with whom they had co-authored soon-to-be published papers, the professor they were counting on to chair their dissertation committees and write job-recommendation letters —
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The second, for Tanner Dulay, Rosa McGuire, and Madeline Cowen, erased any doubt. It came in the form of an email, on July 8, 2022, from Tracy Johnson, dean of life sciences, informing them that Priyanga Amarasekare — the researcher they’d come to the University of California at Los Angeles to work with, the mentor with whom they had co-authored soon-to-be published papers, the professor they were counting on to chair their dissertation committees and write job-recommendation letters — was suddenly “on leave” through the end of the coming academic year.
The punishment made it appear that she had done something terribly wrong, but no one was saying what it was.
Amarasekare, a tenured professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, would no longer be able to advise them, Johnson told the students. It soon became clear that they wouldn’t be able to communicate with her at all, even as they were putting the final touches on conference presentations and working through the kinds of complex mathematical equations and analyses she specialized in. Their adviser was strictly off limits, and no one would tell them why.
“Our first thought was we were hoping she was OK,” Dulay, now a fifth-year doctoral student, said in an interview with The Chronicle. “We couldn’t figure out any reason she’d suddenly drop off the world and not tell us and leave us completely unprepared.”
The next 14 months would become a blur of confusing email exchanges with administrators, copies of which the graduate students shared with The Chronicle, and failed attempts to figure out why Amarasekare had been erased from their academic lives. “In her capacity as your research adviser, Priyanga is not able to provide advising,” Johnson reiterated in August 2022.
The frustration, and the questions, escalated to the point over the past few weeks that the three graduate students decided to speak publicly. They’d waited more than a year to resume work with their adviser, but when July 1 came around, their emails to her were still bouncing and she hadn’t returned to campus.
Through news accounts and word of mouth, Dulay, McGuire, and Cowen began piecing together what had happened to Amarasekare after a protracted dispute with her colleagues. Last year she was suspended for a year without pay or benefits, her salary docked by 20 percent for two years after that. She was also banned from communicating with her students, entering her lab or anywhere else on campus, or accessing her National Science Foundation-funded research, some of which examines how rising temperatures affect the survival of insect species, and biodiversity more broadly.
“The punishment made it appear that she had done something terribly wrong, but no one was saying what it was,” Dulay said. “Even if that were the case, there’s no reason to let all of her students fall through the cracks.”
The Chronicle sought comment on the students’ complaints from Johnson, as well as from Michael Alfaro, chair of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, but got no response.
Instead, the university issued a statement Friday that began: “The success and well-being of our graduate students is of the utmost importance to us. Generally, when graduate students encounter challenges as they work toward their degrees, including when their faculty adviser is unavailable, we prioritize the student’s academic needs and make every effort to support the continuation and completion of their research and their degree.”
That conference was an opportunity to step out from her extended exile while her future remained mired in secrecy back home. The university has forbidden her from discussing the proceedings that led to sanctions against her, and she declined comment for this article.
Among those in attendance was Casey terHorst, a professor of biology at California State University at Northridge. “Priyanga’s suspension was meant to be lifted on July 1,” he wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “But they’ve now decided that she is a threat to campus safety (um…what??) and she has been placed on involuntary leave.” In cutting her off from her work and her students, terHorst said in an interview, “I think they’ve made bad decisions and they’re doubling down on those bad decisions.”
Citing privacy protections, campus officials would not confirm reports from Amarasekare’s students and other faculty members in the field of ecology who’ve spoken with her that, after her yearlong unpaid suspension ended July 1, she was placed on involuntary leave — paid but with a 20-percent pay cut. Her supporters reported that she was still cut off from her lab and the resources that she said she needed to advise students remotely, and that she was facing possible additional charges.
The university’s policies on imposing involuntary leaves suggest that further disciplinary action is expected. “Involuntary leave with pay,” the policy says, can be handed down by the chancellor if “there is a strong risk that the accused faculty member’s continued assignment to regular duties or presence on campus will cause immediate and serious harm to the university community or impede the investigation of wrongdoing or in situations where the faculty member’s conduct represents a serious crime or felony that is the subject of investigation by a law-enforcement agency.”
A native of Sri Lanka, Amarasekare has been an outspoken critic of what she sees as discrimination against minority faculty members at UCLA. On an email list set up in 2020 for the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, she accused the department of denying her promotions and leadership opportunities granted instead to white men, and her supporters contend that she’s being punished for complaining. With her blunt style in criticizing colleagues and department policies, and questioning who is the most deserving of promotions, she’s been a polarizing figure within the department.
Last year a faculty committee found her responsible for violating the Faculty Code of Conduct. Highly redacted documents obtained by The Chronicle revealed that the violations involved breaching confidentiality about personnel matters and “making evaluations of the professional competence of faculty members by criteria not directly reflective of professional performance.” The Academic Senate’s Committee on Privilege and Tenure recommended written censure and a potential salary reduction if the alleged violations continued.
When the matter was referred to the office of UCLA’s chancellor, Gene D. Block, the sanctions escalated with no explanation given for the more severe punishment.
The university first urged the students to work with Alfaro, the department chair, to find other advisers. They were initially reluctant to switch, given how far along they were in their doctoral studies doing highly specialized work they argued no one else could adequately supervise. Eventually, Dulay told The Chronicle, they were “force assigned” to other faculty members but left mostly on their own to continue their research.
The university explained in its statement what happens when students resist being reassigned: “If a student is unwilling or unable to participate in the process of identifying an adviser, the department assigns an adviser to support the student, so they can remain active in their graduate program. “The department makes every effort to identify researchers with expertise to support the research or adapt the research to the wealth of expertise found within the university.” That includes providing letters of support and making sure students have access to needed supplies and equipment.
On July 1, the day her one-year suspension should have ended, the students reached out to Amarasekare, and still, their emails bounced. Alarmed, they emailed Johnson, the life-sciences dean on July 3, but received no answer. Dulay sent another email three days later expressing frustration at being kept in the dark and outlining why it was essential that they be allowed to meet with Amarasekare and “pick up where we left off a year ago.” Johnson replied that she was “awaiting instructions from campus administration.” Finally, on July 20, Johnson relayed the information that Amarasekare had been given permission, if she wished, to advise the students about their dissertations, conferences, and in a few other ways. The contact, Johnson later clarified, could only be remote. And no, she couldn’t discuss “personnel matters as they relate to Dr. Amarasekare.”
Working remotely, said Dulay, would prove challenging, given the nature of the research he’d come to UCLA to pursue. Dulay grew up in Pacifica, Calif., a coastal city just below San Francisco, working at scout camps, leading hikes, and learning and teaching about the natural world. As an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Cruz, he studied ecology and astrophysics, where, in a lab, he developed a passion for using mathematical models “to uncover and explain patterns in nature that are hidden to the observer but drive and shape species interactions and biodiversity.” In an email, he added, “That led me to want to work with Priyanga, one of the best ecological theoreticians currently working.”
His work, Dulay said, involves complex analyses of mathematical models, and the periodic 40-minute Zoom sessions he was finally, in July, allowed to participate in with Amarasekare were no substitute for sitting alongside her and working through problems.
He recalled that she told him that, without a salary for a year, she’d lost access to the university’s extended Zoom sessions and had to downgrade to a lower-speed internet service that, he said, frequently cut out when they were in the middle of brainstorming problems.
Aside from the difficulty of continuing with his research, “There’s no one else in our department who does the work she does and no one with the same level of prestige she has in her field,” said Dulay, who hopes to become a university professor. That’s why the graduate students were so insistent, he said, in pushing for permission for letters of recommendation, which the university finally granted in July.
Normally, by this time, Dulay said he would have several publications under his belt, possibly chapters of his thesis. That, he said, wasn’t possible. “We have to be able to write these very difficult conceptual papers without any input from our adviser. Sending it to a publication and hoping they’ll publish it seems like a Hail Mary.”
Most of the work in his dissertation derives from research he did with Amarasekare before her suspension. “It would be unethical and a massive intellectual-property-rights violation to try to publish without her.”
Lester (Bucky) Squier, 22, who graduated in June, was among those working on her NSF-funded research, tending to insects housed in temperature-controlled incubators. He worked with harlequin bugs and two species of tiny parasitoid wasps, feeding and watering them daily and conducting experiments to measure how they responded to changes in temperature.
In an email to a department administrator last September, he and his labmates expressed frustration about being locked out of that lab, which had been reassigned to the department chair, Alfaro. “All our research projects require live insect cultures that need daily maintenance, or they will die. ... If we lose the insects now, all the hard work we have put into these projects, coming to the lab daily to take data, will be for nothing, and we will not be able to publish the manuscripts that we have been working so diligently towards.”
After a few days, he said, the undergraduates were allowed back in the lab, as long as they were monitored by one of Amarasekare’s graduate students. Dulay, McGuire, and Cowen expanded their mentoring duties to made sure the undergrads had access to the lab.
Squier, who hopes to become a university professor, applied to graduate schools but wasn’t accepted. He landed a position as a research assistant in an ecology lab at the University of California at Davis doing work similar to what he was working on with Amarasekare. But he said his plans for graduate study might have panned out if he’d had Amarasekare’s guidance, a letter of recommendation on university letterhead, and fewer disruptions in his research.
All the people making these administrative decisions in theory have Ph.D.s. They went through the process. It baffles me that someone who has a Ph.D. could do this to someone in the process of getting theirs.
Meanwhile, the graduate students were fighting their own battles. In August 2023, they demanded that Johnson provide “immediate clarification” why they couldn’t meet with their adviser in person. “We are not requesting you to comment on this as a personnel issue, but rather as an issue of graduate-student mistreatment,” they wrote to the life-sciences dean. “It is completely unacceptable that we continue to be left in the dark and prevented from making sufficient progress to complete our degrees in a timely manner.”
In an interview, Dulay added, “All the people making these administrative decisions in theory have Ph.D.s. They went through the process. It baffles me that someone who has a Ph.D. could do this to someone in the process of getting theirs.”
In their correspondences, Johnson and Alfaro had apologized to the students for the disruptions Amarasekare’s absence had caused them. “Your well-being has been foremost on our minds, and it has been agonizing to realize that you are stuck in a situation you have no control over. We are here to help in any way we can,” Johnson wrote in August 2022.
McGuire, who grew up in Peru and completed her undergraduate studies at the University of California at Riverside, also came to UCLA to study with Amarasekare. She expects to file her dissertation for a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology this month and hopes to land a college research or teaching job. She studies the effects of temperatures on insect species that can’t regulate their body temperatures and how this ultimately affects the way different species interact.
McGuire said the delays and stress of spending “countless hours writing emails and advocating” for access to the lab and ongoing experiments “took a toll on my mental health and overall productivity.” She added, in an email to The Chronicle, that she had planned to graduate in the spring of 2023. “Due to missing a whole year of advising, I had to change my graduation plans to summer, when Priyanga’s suspension was supposed to end. However we did not receive notice we could communicate with her until the third week of July,” and then, it was only by Zoom.
The experiments she conducts are in a lab that Amarasekare is banned from and that even McGuire and the undergraduates she mentors were blocked from entering for a few days when the locks were changed, she said.
Cowen, who credits a middle-school biology teacher with inspiring her interest in bird-watching and environmental activism, is developing mathematical models that capture how climate change affects bird populations. She told The Chronicle that before Amarasekare’s suspension, she’d looked forward to a productive 2022-23 academic year focusing on the dissertation-year fellowship she’d been awarded. “Instead, I had to spend that year without access to my adviser and having to spend my time writing countless emails to university administrators to advocate for myself, my fellow graduate students, and the undergraduate students in my lab,” she wrote. “This situation delayed my graduation, likely by a year, and has caused tremendous stress.”
Her supporters, however, are speaking out. Andy Dobson, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, and Ottar Bjornstad, a professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University, wrote a piece for the Ecological Society of America’s forthcoming newsletter saying that the severing of Amarasekare from her students “is a tragedy for smart young graduates who’ve been battling with research under Covid, after competing for a place with a much sought-after mentor at UCLA. Their treatment by UCLA’s administration may prove a major deterrent for others considering graduate school, or junior faculty appointments.”
Kurt E. Anderson, an ecologist at the University of California at Riverside, serves on McGuire’s dissertation committee. Back in October, he suggested to the university that the students be allowed to meet with Amarasekare remotely. “I felt it was unfair for them to be completely cut off from their adviser,” he said. The response from UCLA, he said, was “a hard no.”
What the students miss most, Dulay said, is the sense of community that existed in their lab before Amarasekare disappeared — the lively weekly lab meetings, coffee hours, and social gatherings. Amarasekare’s passion for her work rubbed off, he said, on everyone in the lab.
“Having Priyanga come in and talk to all of us and work on the tougher problems made the work less isolating,” he said. That’s the nature of his work, he said, “but without that social glue,” the experience of graduate school became even lonelier.