The University of Washington has fired a professor and former director of its young scholars program, after finding last year that he exploited his position to have “inappropriate sexual contact” with a 17-year-old student in the program.
The university’s investigative office found John D. Sahr began communicating with the student when he was associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs, and that he initiated sexual contact while serving as interim director of the Robinson Center for Young Scholars between 2008 and 2010. Investigators also found that Sahr had a relationship with a graduate student that violated policy against conflicts of interest.
The university announced Thursday that Sahr’s termination was finalized and his tenure was revoked. The case involving the former Robinson Center student was also sent to prosecutors, who declined to bring charges because it was outside the statute of limitations and the former student did not wish to participate, according to records from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
“The safety of our community is the UW’s highest priority, and this type of conduct cannot be tolerated,” university spokesperson Victor Balta said in a statement.
“While there continues to be no evidence that leads us to believe there are additional students, faculty or staff who were impacted by Sahr’s actions,” the UW provided those who worked closely with Sahr information about how to report “anything that has not already been made known,” Balta said.
Sahr, an electrical engineering professor who started working for the university in 1991, had been on home assignment and prohibited from contacting students since last year. Sahr said he had no comment when contacted Friday. In previous messages to a Seattle Times reporter, he denied his conduct met the university’s definition of sexual harassment, while also referring to himself as a “scumbag.”
The university began investigating early last year, when a woman reported what happened with Sahr a decade prior, when she was 17 and he was 46. She told university officials they had sex on two occasions, which was later corroborated through messages. She said she did not feel forced at the time, but later realized that what Sahr did was wrong, according to a University of Washington police report.
“Now that I’m older, I think he should have had different professional boundaries,” she said, according to the report. “I don’t think as a professor he should be engaging in sex with students.”
The University Complaint Investigation and Resolution Office, which investigates complaints of misconduct by employees, ultimately found that “the combination of her underage status and Dr. Sahr’s utilization of his position as Associate Dean and leader of the Robinson Center rendered invalid whatever consent he obtained to engage with her sexually.”
The office reviewed more than 580 messages between the former student and Sahr, as well as Sahr’s emails and hard drive.
According to the messages, which were obtained through a public records request, the two began talking over Craigslist in May 2008. She disclosed her age, and Sahr explained that he was a professor and “second in command of all the undergraduates.”
About a week later, Sahr learned that the student was in the Robinson Center’s early entrance program, which allows students to enroll as UW undergraduates in the ninth grade. He shared that he was to become interim director of the center in a few days, a position that would give him some level of oversight over a scholarship she had applied for regularly.
The messages from Sahr became sexual, and he invited the student to his house two weeks after first contacting her. He later told investigators that he did not initiate sexual contact that night but did regret it happened. The investigator “found none of the assertations credible,” as Sahr’s messages detail how he initiated contact.
In a message to the student a week after, Sahr said, “I spent the rest of the day (and quite a bit of subsequent days) thinking… ‘I don’t feel a single atom of guilt, or remorse.'”
They met one other time on campus, where the student said sexual misconduct occurred again.
In messages to the student, Sahr also discussed other sexual encounters, including with a graduate student he advised; he also served as the chair of that student’s dissertation. The investigator could not determine if their relationship started after the dissertation defense, as Sahr claimed, but found it was a conflict of interest as he did not recuse himself.
The university concluded its investigation last October. The sanctions were not finalized until this week in accordance with the university’s lengthy disciplinary procedure that gave Sahr the opportunity to defend himself and appeal the decision.
The university’s transparency in this case is highly unusual, as schools usually do not publicize the results of internal investigations into employees, even when the misconduct could rise to the level of a crime. The university has repeatedly referred to the seriousness of the case in its statements.