KurzbanDoor
Credit: Biruk Tibebe

The University is actively investigating allegations that psychology professor Robert Kurzban had romantic relationships with students whom he directly oversaw, administrators confirmed on Thursday. Kurzban, who was slated to teach a senior honors seminar in psychology in the fall of 2018, has also been removed from the course, said Sharon Thompson-Schill, the chair of the Psychology Department. 

Kurzban's name was listed on Penn's course registration website as an instructor for the seminar as late as April 26, but his name has since been removed. Thompson-Schill also said in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that Kurzban will no longer be serving as the director of the honors program in the Psychology Department. 

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Psychology professor Elizabeth Brannon will be taking on the new role and working as the primary instructor for the senior honors seminar, Thompson-Schill said. 

The University's response comes after two different sets of allegations have been brought against Kurzban, who has taught at Penn since 2002. On April 11, the DP reported that Kurzban allegedly engaged in a sexual relationship in 2017 with a College freshman while she was a student in his course. On April 25, the DP reported that the psychology professor allegedly had another romantic relationship in 2016 with a student whom he directly oversaw as an advisor.

Robert Kurzban

Both of these alleged relationships are apparent violations of a decades-old University policy that prohibits sexual relationships between faculty and students for whom they have "supervisory academic responsibility." This policy, which has been in place since 1995, was recently updated to ban all sexual relations between faculty and undergraduate students regardless of time or context. 

At around 3:30 p.m. on April 26, Thompson-Schill sent out an email to faculty members of the psychology department, addressing the allegations against Kurzban. This same email was sent to majors in the Psychology department the next day, April 27, after this article was first published.   

"The account detailed in the April 26 edition of the Daily Pennsylvanian article concerning our colleague Rob Kurzban is deeply troubling," Thompson-Schill wrote. "We are now doing whatever we can as a department to understand what has happened, and we will continue to cooperate with University officials as they follow proper procedures in this matter. For now, we want to make clear that what was described in this article could not be more at odds with our educational and moral values."

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University spokesperson Steve MacCarthy confirmed in an email that Penn is looking into the allegations brought against Kurzban but did not address questions asking what exactly the "proper procedures" cited in Thompson-Schill's message referred to or whether the University shares the Psychology Department's position that this alleged behavior is contrary to Penn's "educational and moral values."

The statements from Thompson-Schill and MacCarthy mark the first time that University administrators have acknowledged the specific allegations brought against Kurzban and indicated that they were conducting a formal investigation into them. 

In the two weeks since the DP first reported on Kurzban's apparent violation of University policy, various administrators, including deans and department heads, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Those who did replicated a statement from MacCarthy that read: "We take all allegations of sexual misconduct seriously and investigate them. However, we do not comment on individual personnel matters."

In a statement to the DP, Thompson-Schill said she decided to issue the statement to faculty within the Psychology Department because she found the allegations brought against Kurzban "troubling."

"I issued the statement you have seen because it is important that members of the community know that the Psychology Department is cooperating in the university’s process for investigating all allegations such as this," she wrote. "As my statement said, we find the allegations troubling and we, as a department, want to understand what has happened, as, no doubt, you do."

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