University of Utah revamping its physics and astronomy department in the wake of a student’s suicide

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Students file out of the J. Willard Marriott Library on the University of Utah campus in November 2017.

A University of Utah report, commissioned after the apparent suicide of a graduate student, describes significant dysfunction within the school’s physics and astronomy department.

Overworked students are left aimless and their degree completion delayed, while a “factionalized” faculty prone to “temper flares” avoid contact with one another to mitigate disputes, according to a March 8 memorandum by outside attorneys Larry Perlman and Julie Lee.

“Currently, a number of faculty members refuse to speak with each other, pointing to issues with loyalty and trust,” the memorandum states. “The lack of communication amongst faculty members has had a negative impact on department morale.”

The attorneys, with the Florida law firm Foley and Lardner, were asked by university administrators to review issues and concerns related to the experience of U. graduate students after the October death of an international doctoral degree candidate.

Their memorandum was released by the university March 17, along with a statement outlining changes to the physics and astronomy department.

The department will not accept new graduate students during the 2018-19 academic year. And Peter Trapa, a U. professor of mathematics, will take over as chairman of the department.

“It comes down to better monitoring of the progress of graduate students,” U. spokesman Chris Nelson said of the leadership changes. “These students are spending too much time before they graduate the program.”

Allegations of abuse and sexual harassment by faculty accompanied the graduate student’s suicide, but the attorneys found no evidence to corroborate what it described as anonymous claims after interviewing more than 40 individuals, including U. faculty, staff and administrators, current and former student and the family and friends of the deceased.

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