A Call for Honesty, Fairness, Collegiality-- and How We Can Run an NSF Grant Together

I am a faculty member at the Computer Science department of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After 18 years at this position, I was surprised that there was still a surprise even in a job that was becoming old and instinctive. I was shocked that some very basic values-- most of them the reasons I came to academia 18 years ago in the first place, were becoming something I had to hope for: The honesty of people around you, the fairness of your administration that you do not need to ask for, and the collegiality of colleagues that was believed to be part of the job. I was also shocked by the fundamental lacking of some common agreement of something that is our bread and butter-- execution of NSF grants. I have sought help everywhere within the department and found no hope. So I am documenting my experience and hope that there will be solutions to make the department a better place for work-- and a better place for doing research.

The Conflict Broke Out

On August 22, 2018, when we-- me, Professor Aditya Parameswaran, S1 and S2 (two PhD students) and some others in the DataSpread project team-- were preparing a "vision paper" for submitting to CIDR 2019, a conflict broke on the Slack channel where we talked: When I was asking that the revision items we agreed upon two days ago were not followed, at which time Aditya challenged that Kevin was not supposed to lead the paper writing.

Co-PI's Mediation

I talked to Karrie Karahalios, another Co-PI of the DataSpread project to mediate. Karrie talked to Aditya and, when explaining why he did not execute what we agreed upon for the paper revision, Aditya told Karrie that he did not agree with the revision items-- and that he was too scared to speak up to me, because he had been repressed by me. I was totally confused-- repressed by me? I have always considered myself way too humble and reserved and I probably lacked the capabilities to repress anyone. 

We had a PI meeting on August 27 to discuss the "communication dynamics" (as Karrie suggested). I asked Aditya why he felt repressed. He did not give a specific example, but instead said he was scared since "Kevin was a full professor with a successful company"

That did not seem true-- even just as his feeling-- since it did not match well his behavior. When the project was funded in 2016, I saw his attitude changed almost seemed dramatically and instantly-- unlike the two years before, when we worked quite nicely together to develop the proposal for funding. Sine 2016, he was quick to push back on things in quite aggressive ways. At the beginning when the project was funded, 

In fact, to the contrary, I felt quite the opposite. I told him that, to the contrary, how I was scared in our collaboration. I told them that Aditya would dismiss my contribution as unworthy and argue for his contributions and credit: For example, in a few months earlier (March 2018), when we were discussing the agenda for a PI meeting, he complained that "the optimality of the data models" which I advocated was unworthy, that he and students "made the main technical contributions of the ICDE 2018 paper", and then insisted  "more separation of the project to allow for rapid progress[Emails-20180320].

There were many more examples in which he was atypically aggressive in our collaboration-- to the extent that I did not feel he respected me as the primary PI of the project.

It was hard to give him criticisms. He would accuse back instead of reflection when getting comments.

Department's Mediation

Grievance Committee's Investigation

On September 27, I requested the department administration to formally investigate the repression allegation. To discuss my request, I had a meeting [recording] with the department head, Lenny Pitt (Associate Head), and Aaron Darnall (Assistant Head). Lenny asked me how I thought there was an allegation of my repression. I explained the three occasions I learned about it: 9/4 meeting with Vikram, ?? talk with Karrie, and ?? talk with Aditya.

Department head told me several options, including to request the grievance committee. In the meeting, department head said Aditya did not officially accuse, only informally complain-- to which I argued that such such complaints stated to the department head and my co-PI should be investigated, both for the justice to Aditya and myself. I told them that I was unhappy that the department did not investigate after Aditya's complaint, did not notify me, and did nothing to further collaborate even though I had sent so many clarifications with evidence. I said that the only "repression" that Adity pointed out was that I withheld a paper for 1.5 years and pushed for more depth, which no reviewers had asked" while the fact was to the contrary.

I submitted my request to the CS grievance committee on October 8 [doc].