Amarasekare’s circle alleges collective punishment. Critics say her claims are one-sided.

Ecology and evolutionary biology professor Priyanga Amarasekare is pictured. She was suspended in July 2022 from the university in a case that has turned into a flash point over the discrimination faced by women of color in science and academia. (Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)

By Shaanth Kodialam, Lex Wang

April 29, 2024 at 8:05 p.m.

This post was updated May 14 at 9:02 p.m.

It started with a maxed-out credit card and a blood test she couldn’t get for her sick child. Soon, the mortgage bill came in. Ecology and evolutionary biology professor Priyanga Amarasekare realized she was facing foreclosure.

Amarasekare – UCLA’s only scholar to win the most prestigious award in ecology, the Robert H. MacArthur Award – watched her life turn upside down. She was not allowed to check in on her research or call anyone in her department for help.

The renowned researcher, a widow from Sri Lanka with two children, had been suspended for a year in July 2022, without pay or health insurance. Her life was in free fall after Chancellor Gene Block suspended her for violating the faculty code of conduct, escalating the censure and potential pay dock recommended by an Academic Senate committee in March 2022, she said.

In her mind, her only sin was speaking out against racism in a department email forum that was created amid the racial justice protests of 2020, she said. But the Academic Senate, comprised of her own tenured peers, ruled that she had violated confidentiality rules when discussing personnel matters and made inappropriate professional evaluations of her colleagues.

It was a far cry from just months before when UCLA celebrated Amarasekare for her 2022 MacArthur Award, she told the Daily Bruin in a series of interviews. She was allowed back on campus in October 2023 but is restricted to her office and lab, she said, adding that she cannot use the bathroom on the floor below.

Although undergraduate researchers fill her lab, they work with her graduate students on their thesis projects instead of with her, she said. Her graduate students and undergraduates saw their academic prospects severely damaged during her leave, too, she added.

“I want to bring this to the fore so that some measures could be taken to prevent this from happening to other minority faculty,” said Amarasekare, who is one of two tenured women of color in the department. “My broader wish is that the powers that be will listen and take into account what has happened and, as we move forward, make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Graphic reporting by Lex Wang and Shaanth Kodialam, Enterprise senior staff. Interactive by Junwon Choi, Data Editor.

The ecologist’s punishment infuriated the EEB community and made national news when word spread that she had been suspended. The dispute has forced a department to reckon with the harm done to a leading scholar, as well as her students, who say the university silenced a beacon of hope in their field and subjected them to collective punishment.

At the same time, the controversy raises questions about how the university should respond to complaints of discrimination and competing visions of diversity, equity and inclusion, especially when it punishes prominent scholars of color.

The university has said it is bound by personnel rules and the law to remain silent on Amarasekare’s case. In written statements, it has argued that there is a gap in perception between Amarasekare’s and her supporters’ public comments and the truth behind her suspension.

In a letter to the editor responding to a March article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education that detailed Amarasekare’s side of the story, Dean of Life Sciences Tracy Johnson reaffirmed the university’s sentiments and said she has experience furthering equity and inclusion.

“Throughout my professional life, I have been keenly aware of the issues facing those who are historically underrepresented in these fields,” wrote Johnson, one of the few Black women serving as a UCLA dean, to The Chronicle.

Just one week before Amarasekare’s suspension ended July 1, Michael Levine, the vice chancellor for academic affairs and personnel, placed her on involuntary leave with a docked salary and reinstated access to health insurance, she said. The university reasoned that she should be barred from her office because her presence on campus posed a risk to the proper functioning of the EEB department and the education of students, she said, referring to an email from Levine. She declined to share the email – which included findings from a discrimination investigation that she had harassed a professor, according to The Chronicle – with The Bruin.

The ecologist is now facing additional charges of misconduct from the Academic Senate, she told The Chronicle in March – this time for allegedly sharing the senate committee’s 2022 report with journalists last year and damaging the university’s reputation. An Academic Senate spokesperson declined to comment.

On behalf of officials of the university, a UCLA spokesperson declined multiple requests for interviews.

The listserv that led to Amarasekare’s swift fall from stardom to suspension was advertised as a place to share personal opinions about issues affecting the EEB community, according to an opening message from the interim department chair in July 2020. On Aug. 7, Amarasekare availed herself of the forum to lay out a long list of concerns, according to emails obtained by The Bruin.

Among them, she wrote that former department chair Karen Sears denied Amarasekare promotions, though she told The Bruin she did not name anyone in her message. Amarasekare also called out the department for forming a diversity, equity and inclusion committee consisting of all white members, except for whom she said was “the token” Black graduate student and a “white-skinned” Hispanic male faculty member. The ecologist also wrote in the listserv that she was using the term “person of color” about “the amount of pigmentation in one’s skin and not one’s ethnic origin.” Sears did not respond to requests to comment.

Two weeks after her original message in August 2020, Amarasekare apologized to Black students in the department and clarified that she did not intend to appropriate a moment about anti-Black racism for other causes.

In the same email as her apology to Black students, she said her experiences with racism were not as pervasive as those experienced by Black people but added, “I am the closest thing to a senior Black female faculty member this department has ever had.”

Amarasekare would later write that she knew and respected the Black researcher whom she referred to as “the token.” The researcher declined to comment.

“The administration’s coming after me on everything,” Amarasekare said of her comments on tokenization. “That was basically (it) trying to establish a chain of racism by me.”

Unnamed administrators advised her to “turn down the temperature” of her comments, she wrote in one message to the department. A few department members said Amarasekare’s comments on the listserv – formed amid protests in 2020 supporting the Black Lives Matter movement – took the focus away from Black students at a critical moment when their concerns should have been the priority.

Rachel Turba, a former doctoral student in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, said some students of color felt that the professor decided to speak publicly only when it could benefit her.

“They felt it was motivated by selfishness – for her own personal gain, but not related to the gain of others in the community,” Turba said.

Nonetheless, Turba and others maintain that race was a factor in Amarasekare’s punishment. As part of Amarasekare’s original penalty, the university banned her from stepping foot on UCLA grounds, locked the doors to her lab and barred her from communicating with students.

“He (Block) did that without any regard for the welfare of the students,” Amarasekare told The Bruin. “Their only crime was that they had this person, an advisor, just as my children had this person as their mother.”

“Nobody cared what happened to them,” she added. “They were just an inconvenience to be dealt with.”

On top of the sanctions for her listserv remarks, Amarasekare shared with The Chronicle that Johnson and an unnamed professor – whom The Chronicle suggested was Paul Barber, who is Latino – helped bring charges against her at UCLA’s Discrimination Prevention Office. An anonymous source told The Chronicle that Amarasekare had said he was not a “true minority.” Both Barber and Johnson have defended their work as equity adviser and dean, respectively – the two published research on systemic racism in higher education together in 2020.

“Fostering an academic community that is welcoming, supportive, and free from racism of all kinds and other forms of discrimination is at the core of my leadership and decision-making,” Johnson wrote in her letter to The Chronicle.

The chair of the department, Michael Alfaro, did not respond to requests for comment, including a list of written questions.

In response to a list of written questions, the UCLA spokesperson wrote that many “unsubstantiated, misleading and patently false claims” have been made but added that UCLA is legally bound to treat personnel issues confidentially. He wrote that the situation has caused significant harm to individuals who are unable to respond because of those confidentiality rules.

Amarasekare, however, said she is concerned with the harm the university did to her graduate students and undergraduates. They faced several tribulations during their time at UCLA that they attribute to Amarasekare’s suspension, according to interviews with several of her students, many of whom said they already experienced the challenges of being women, racial minorities or ethnic minorities in academia.

A few students left Amarasekare’s lab altogether, they said. Other undergraduate lab students were denied acceptance to graduate school coming out of UCLA, said Bucky Squier, a 2023 alumnus, as a result of the university’s sanctions against their adviser. The spokesperson refused to confirm or deny Squier’s account.

The students said they pressed Alfaro and Johnson multiple times in emails and meetings to allow them to communicate with Amarasekare for their research and recommendation letters, only to receive denials every time. Johnson referred questions to a UCLA spokesperson.

The spokesperson said faculty on disciplinary leave sometimes are told not to have any communication with members of the UCLA community through departmental emails or Slack channels, including students they are advising. The spokesperson declined to answer questions about whether this policy applied to Amarasekare.

“In such cases, the department chair and department and divisional leadership step in to support the students, which includes serving as one of the students’ recommendation letter authors,” the spokesperson wrote.

But students said the recommendation letters eventually provided by Alfaro were of little help. Some of them further alleged that Alfaro encouraged them to leave Amarasekare’s name off manuscripts and projects they were developing with Amarasekare’s supervision before her punishment. That was a “red flag” and a clear ethical violation, said 2023 alumnus Anne Tsai.

The spokesperson declined to discuss the allegations in particular but wrote that a chair would never ask students to publish without crediting all those involved in the research.

“The chair may endeavor to understand if a student has conducted any independent research that is publishable,” the spokesperson wrote.

Two of Amarasekare’s three graduate students in the lab said they had to take on additional work in her absence. The three divided up the work to try to advise the lab’s 10 undergraduates, supervise their research and oversee their experiments for the rest of the 2022-2023 academic year.

A black desk in Amarasekare’s lab with miscellaneous lab equipment is pictured. Amarasekare’s three graduate students were forced to take on mentorship roles after her punishment and extended leave. (Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)

But the graduate students couldn’t do everything. Right after Amarasekare’s suspension, the university changed the locks on Amarasekare’s lab, blocking all of the students’ access to time-sensitive experiments and compromising their data. That meant experiments had to be repeated, and students were afraid to start new projects for fear of further disruptions, Amarasekare and some of her students said.

The spokesperson wrote that campus policy prohibits students from accessing labs without supervision. Alfaro immediately began overseeing the space, he said, and notified students to provide them with access to the lab.

In desperation, all of Amarasekare’s undergraduates wrote to the National Science Foundation, which was funding some of their shuttered projects, for assistance, according to a letter obtained by The Bruin.

Lisa Vonder Haar, chief of staff at the NSF’s Office of Inspector General, declined to comment on any findings.

The months of back-and-forth with administrators left the lab feeling more like a battleground than a place to learn, and many students said they grew uneasy about the department and UCLA as a whole.

“People often tell me how lucky I was to be in her lab,” Squier said. “But honestly, it doesn’t really feel like that, because it feels like I was punished for whatever they were punishing her for.”

After Amarasekare had served her yearlong suspension, it still took weeks before she was allowed to speak with her students, according to emails obtained by The Bruin among her graduate students, department leadership and administrators. Even then, Amarasekare was only permitted to communicate over Zoom, said Rosa McGuire, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford who completed her Ph.D. in Amarasekare’s lab in fall 2023.

Frustrated, students in the lab spoke to The Chronicle of Higher Education to discuss the damage done to their careers amid her suspension. The resulting article, published mid-September, detailed the struggles they faced with Alfaro and Johnson.

Materials from Amarasekare’s lab are pictured. The ecologist’s experiments were forced to a standstill, resulting in irreparable damage to her research after she was suspended in 2022. (Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)

A few weeks after publication in The Chronicle, on Oct. 6, Amarasekare said she was allowed back on campus, and her leave was amended to allow in-person advising – a reversal that Amarasekare said suggests her leave was “improperly imposed.”

Her UCLA email was never reactivated, and she is not allowed to recruit any new graduate or undergraduate students for her lab, she said. She has to communicate with one official at the university about any work-related problems, she said. The UCLA spokesperson did not answer questions about Amarasekare’s return to campus or current lab situation.

While she continues to wrestle with the emotional and financial fallout of her suspension, Amarasekare said she sees double standards in UCLA’s treatment of other misconduct cases, such as when the university agreed to an 11-week suspension and a $3,000 fine for a history professor accused of sexual harassment in 2016. She and her supporters have grown increasingly worried about the future of the ecology and evolutionary biology department and UCLA’s apparent willingness to stifle those who speak out on issues of race and equity.

“Most academic departments have become hypersensitive to this, following what happened with George Floyd,” said Andy Dobson, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University who has known Amarasekare for decades. “This (suspension) would suggest a department that’s totally tin-eared and maybe still living in either the 1880s or the 1980s.”

Amarasekare strongly objected to publicizing the emails from the departmental forum in this article, adding in emailed statements to The Bruin before publication that she would not have provided interviews had she known the emails would be included. Although Amarasekare defended her listserv remarks in prior interviews, she later said to The Bruin that the emails require greater context and that their release could cause additional harm to her and her students. She declined to comment further when asked to provide the context, citing confidentiality concerns.

Her lab, meanwhile, remains a medley of experiments, buckets, drawers and supplies strewn across black tables in Boyer Hall. Since Amarasekare cannot recruit undergraduate students, the $15,000 in NSF funding she receives for them goes unused, she said. Although she said her research has stalled, she has worked on two research articles this year about climate warming.

“At the end of it, they (the students) were so traumatized – they weren’t the same people,” Amarasekare said. “Just as I wasn’t the same person coming back.”

Contributing reports by Anna Dai-Liu, Daily Bruin senior staff.

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