A plant scientist who held a prestigious position at Montana State University has quietly resigned after an internal investigation concluded that he sexually harassed and discriminated against students and created such a hostile environment that several were forced to leave his lab and one considered suicide.

Hikmet Budak, who held MSU’s first endowed chair in plant sciences in the College of Agriculture, was investigated by MSU’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE).

MSU’s investigative report, which was sent to the Chronicle anonymously, found evidence that Budak discriminated against students and staff based on their disabilities, national origins, sex, gender, marriage, family status and religion.

Emily Stark, MSU institutional equity director, concluded from a “preponderance of the evidence” that Budak created “a hostile environment that was rampant with harassment.”

Budak, a scientist from Turkey who held the Winifred-Asbjornson Plant Science endowed chair, “denies all allegations against him,” MSU’s report said.

Budak denied to MSU that he discriminated against anyone. He asserted that he actually recruited many women students to his lab, welcomed international students, and assisted international students with groceries and money.

A university spokesman would say only that Budak resigned from MSU.

The OIE report concluded that Budak hired mainly young women students, regularly threatened to fire students from his lab, often joked about using a gun to shoot students, criticized female students for their weight and for having boyfriends or husbands, called students fat in Turkish, yelled at women students, fired a woman staffer based on her family status, and often touched female students in ways that made them feel uncomfortable.

The report said Budak sought to control and manipulate students by isolating them, sowing distrust between them and bringing vulnerable international students into his lab. He allegedly told students from Turkey that they shouldn’t hang out with American students because “’they will make us lazy and some of them are missionaries. They will try to convert us to Christianity.’”

Budak admitted having an affair with one young woman student, but told investigators he didn’t reveal it to his superiors, as required by MSU’s conflict of interest policy, because he was still married.

The Chronicle tried unsuccessfully to reach Budak for comment by telephone, Twitter and through his attorney, Hillary Carls of Bozeman.

In MSU’s report, attorney Carls is quoted as suggesting her client was unfairly treated: “’Dr. Budak leaving MSU provides the witnesses and University with their desired result.’”

OIE’s Stark wrote in response that her office aimed only for an unbiased investigation, and that the university desired to provide an environment “that emphasizes the dignity and worth of every member of its community.”

Two students first complained about Budak anonymously to MSU in April 2018, encouraged by faculty members. At the start of fall semester, a third student came forward. MSU formed a response team and placed Budak on administrative leave Aug. 20, 2018. Three students went to the Voice Center and agreed to join a formal investigation Aug. 27. The provost appointed Anne Camper, associate dean of engineering, to coordinate the investigation.

Investigators, including Victor Maxson of the Title IX office, interviewed 18 witnesses. The Title IX office wrote a draft report by December. Budak’s response was submitted Feb. 15, and Stark reported her conclusions April 8. Budak was allowed to respond and to appeal. In England, where the University of Worcester awarded Budak an honorary degree in 2017, the Worcester News reported that Budak withdrew his appeal May 9.

Illinois Tech in Chicago put out a press release May 8 saying that it had hired seven new department chairs, including Budak to head biology. The release was quickly revised, changing the headline to six department chairs and deleting Budak. An Illinois Tech spokesman told the Chronicle, “This individual will not be joining the university. Because this is an employment matter, we are not able to comment further.”

At MSU since 2016, Budak taught advanced genetics and led the cereal genomics team. MSU wrote several articles about his accomplishments, including being part of an international team of scientists that successfully mapped the genetic code of durum wheat, which could help produce higher quality Montana wheat and increase resistance to pests, stress and disease. More than 60 Montana grain producers partnered with MSU to support the endowed chair.

The investigative report alleges that:

  • Budak repeatedly told students they were fired from his lab and threatened to send Turkish students back to Turkey. He told one student she was “an evil woman” and fired her.
  • He became angry with a young woman because she had a boyfriend, and yelled at a student for giving her phone number to a young man. Budak drove while screaming at a woman student and running red lights, and went into a “towering rage.”
  • Budak often talked to students in Turkish and insulted students in Turkish. He told one English speaker who felt uncomfortable that she should learn Turkish.
  • He told his lab group about two students having disabilities — heart disease and depression — though both were managing with medications and neither asked for accommodations. He called one “crazy” and threatened to send both young women back to England because of their disabilities.
  • Budak touched young women on the face, patted their shoulders, called them fat and yelled at them, but he behaved professionally with male students.
  • He “went after” one woman Ph.D. student in January 2018, starting an intimate relationship. Her roommate had to keep it secret, though she urged the couple to inform MSU. Budak took his young “partner” to a South Carolina conference and gave her authorship credit on academic papers, which other students saw as preferential treatment.
  • Budak often shot people in the lab with a harmless Nerf gun, but he also claimed to have a gun in his glove box and frequently threatened to shoot students.
  • Called women students “girls,” told them they were like his daughters and said he only wanted to protect them.
  • Hired a woman staff member who planned to work part time because she has a young child, then fired her when she wouldn’t work full time and hired his male friend to take her job.

In his defense, Budak told MSU he never touched students in any way, never discussed religion, never raised his voice to anyone and never threatened to kill a student’s career.

Budak said that of 70 students in his lab over the years, maybe five had been male, because he claimed males don’t apply for molecular biology. However, MSU’s report said statistics show that nationally the ratio of male to female students in the field is 50-50 or 60-40.

MSU’s report concluded with statements from witnesses telling how they had been affected:

  • One Ph.D. student, the only person in her family to attend a university, said she worked very hard to get to MSU but because of Budak she thought many times of quitting, because “all of your ideals just collapse.” Now she is determined to become a professor to “fight this kind of guy.”
  • The young woman who had a relationship with Budak said she was taking anxiety medication and felt “completely isolated pretty much from everyone I know.” “It’s awful,” she said. “I don’t want to come to campus.”
  • Another young woman said the last few months had been “very rough” and “I actually became suicidal for a short time.”
  • One Turkish student said it had been “pretty traumatizing” and she no longer felt like MSU was a safe and secure home. “This guy just ruined it all.” She had been afraid that telling MSU wouldn’t do any good, but concluded, “Thank you. Thank you for — hearing us.”
  • One student said she was afraid to come forward because of fear of what Budak would do to her education and her future.
  • A woman staff member fired by Budak said she feared being blacklisted from other jobs at MSU.
  • A male student said he heard they were going to destroy all the seeds in an experiment that he had spent a year working on, which he felt was harsh and unnecessary.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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