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‘I don’t want it to end like this’: Senior Lecturer Richard Bungiro pleads for reinstatement following sudden resignation

Bungiro felt disillusioned with, unheard by University administrators; students show support through petition and social media

By
Metro Editor
Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Students expressed support for Senior Lecturer Richard Bungiro PhD ’99 through testimonies and petition-signing: as of Nov. 10, a student-circulated petition calling for Bungiro’s reinstatement had garnered more than 1,280 signatures.

The single email that would come to haunt Richard Bungiro PhD ’99 only took a few minutes to write. But all five sentences were the product of months of stress, anguish and growing disillusionment with University administrators. 

At 4:37 a.m. on Oct. 30, Bungiro, a senior lecturer in the Molecular Microbiology and Immunology department, wrote to senior administrators in a moment of despair. The subject of his email, reviewed by The Herald, was simple: “I quit.”

“I’m sick of being thrown under the bus over and over again, so I quit,” he wrote. “Am I perfect?” he added. “Absolutely not but I’d like to think that I have something to offer.” 

Half an hour later, he emailed Laurent Brossay, chair of the Molecular Microbiology and Immunology department and professor of Medical Science. “My resignation letter, if it should come to that,” Bungiro wrote, attaching a one page PDF that outlined four reasons that had led him to reach the “difficult decision.”

In his letter, Bungiro cited “ongoing harassment from the Office of Biology Undergraduate Education regarding trivial advising matters that have generally been resolved without any significant consequence” and a “base salary that has consistently lagged behind the median for my academic rank for over a decade.” He noted a lack of support from his department for his promotion to distinguished senior lecturer and a decision by the Tenure, Promotions, and Appointments Committee last year not to renew his contract as senior lecturer for a full six-year term, but instead for three years. 

“Serving as a teacher and advisor at Brown has been a singular honor and privilege,” the letter read. “My students and colleagues have been a source of continued inspiration, and I regret that my time here is coming to an end.”

I didn’t see a way to make it better. I saw only hopelessness and despair,” Bungiro later said in an interview with The Herald. He hoped that University administrators would respond by opening up space for a broader conversation and ask “Have you thought this over? Do you really want to do this?”

But that afternoon, Bungiro received notification that his resignation had been accepted by the University.

The next day, Bungiro requested reinstatement. 

“I deeply regret my recent actions that have caused distress and inconvenience to my students, teaching assistants and faculty colleagues,” he wrote. “I ask only that you give me a chance to make things right for the people I care about. In return I pledge to become a model of cooperation, inclusiveness and professionalism.”

On the afternoon of Nov. 3, Professor of Medical Science and Senior Associate Dean for the Program in Biology Edward Hawrot responded to Bungiro: His request had been denied.

News of his resignation first circulated via a Canvas message from instructors to the students of BIOL0530: “Principles of Immunology,” which Bungiro has taught for more than a decade.

Over the weekend, Bungiro took to a Brown student meme page to share his experiences. “It’s time for me to break the silence as to my recent resignation from Brown,” he wrote. 

In his post, Bungiro encouraged students to reach out to senior administrators and his department chair if they believed he should be reinstated. 

Messages of support flooded in. Students started a petition calling for his reinstatement, which has been signed by more than 1,300 people as of Tuesday night. 

In nine interviews with The Herald, students and recent graduates praised Bungiro’s kindness, compassion and humor. One word surfaced repeatedly when interviewees described their reaction to the news of his departure: heartbreaking.

When asked to comment on the outpouring of support for Bungiro from students and alumni, University Spokesman Brian Clark wrote, “Out of respect for the importance of confidentiality in personnel matters, we will not conduct a conversation about an individual employee through the news media, social media or correspondence with others.”

“Timeliness, professionalism and communication issues”

Earlier this semester, controversy surrounded Bungiro following an incident on Dear Blueno, a student-run Facebook page launched that solicits and posts anonymous submissions. On Sept. 22, someone posted to Dear Blueno expressing frustration that Bungiro’s lectures consistently ran over the scheduled class time.  

Bungiro’s response, which included the word “beeyatch,” garnered criticism across social media platforms and sparked subsequent anonymous submissions to Dear Blueno that expressed disapproval and disappointment.

Responding to student feedback, Bungiro followed up on the original post. “I was insensitive, and I’m sorry,” he wrote. “Thank you for speaking up and calling me out when I needed it.”

He subsequently apologized on the platform multiple times, and later to his class. 

Following the online interaction, Dean of the College Rashid Zia ’01 held a meeting with Bungiro Sept. 28 to better understand the situation and to review the importance of professional conduct, Bungiro said. Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity Shontay Delalue, Brossay and Hawrot were also present.

A month later, and a few days before Bungiro would send in his resignation, Hawrot sent him a three-page written warning, which was obtained by The Herald. The memo detailed multiple instances of “unprofessional behavior with students” and Bungiro’s “lack of timely follow-through of required administrative tasks.” 

According to the memo, students reported difficulty in communicating with Bungiro, sometimes reaching out multiple times without success. The memo also noted that there were two reported incidents this year in which Bungiro has “publicly mocked or disparaged a student while acting in the role of instructor”: the Dear Blueno comments, and an incident in which Bungiro allegedly mocked a student’s exam responses in a class PowerPoint.

From the start of May 2019 to the end of April 2020, the University had provided Bungiro with a “professional executive coach” to assist with his “timeliness, professionalism and communication issues.”

“Going forward, I expect to see an immediate and sustained improvement in your communications with any and all members of the Brown community,” Hawrot wrote in the memo. “Students and colleagues must be treated with the utmost respect and in an inclusive manner.”

It was after receiving the memo that Bungiro said he felt he had reached a breaking point. “I certainly am not going to claim that I didn’t do some things that needed some feedback,” he said, but added, “I felt unsupported, and I felt that they were just looking for reasons to criticize me.”

Courtesy of Brown University

 

An eccentric character, valued by many

Bungiro joined the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology in 2007. He was a lecturer in the department since 2008, and a senior lecturer since 2014.

Known for his slideshows decorated with cartoons and “Star Trek” memes, Bungiro has long had a large presence in the department, beloved by many students.

He has been awarded the Barrett Hazeltine Citation six times, which is chosen by the graduating seniors and represents excellence in teaching, guidance and support. Only two others — Hazeltine himself, professor emeritus of engineering, and Distinguished Senior Lecturer in Theatre, Speech and Dance Barbara Tannenbaum — have received the award more times, Bungiro said.

Lexi Lerner ’18 MD ’23, found herself in Bungiro’s Principles of Immunology class during her visit to campus for A Day on College Hill in 2014. “I instantly fell in love, and I knew I was going to take the class in the fall,” she told The Herald. 

Today, she is in her fifth year as a teaching assistant for the class — her third year as a head TA. Lerner praised Bungiro’s commitment to students and ability to bring the material to life. 

“He engages with every student in the class as if it was a small seminar,” she said of a class that often enrolls more than 150 students.

Lerner added that Bungiro was a “big role model” and has always treated her with dignity, respect and integrity.

It was Bungiro’s words of encouragement and mentorship that made all the difference for Jon Mallen ’22. 

“I’ve always wanted to be a scientist, but I haven’t always had support on that. Not even from my parents,” said Mallen, who took Bungiro’s BIOL 0510: “Introductory Microbiology” class in the spring. “He made me feel like I can achieve my dreams.”

“I don’t want it to end like this.”

On the evening of Nov. 9, over a week after the approval of his resignation, Bungiro wrote to senior administrators including President Christina Paxson P’19 with a second reinstatement request.

It is my hope that the University and its astute leadership will reconsider its decision in light of the strong voices of support recently expressed by numerous members of the Brown community,” he wrote in an email, which has been reviewed by The Herald.

“In this time of great challenge,” Bungiro continued, “I appeal to you to live up to the University’s ideals and do the right thing for our students, the people who truly embody the spirit of Brown.”

Thinking back, he said he is filled with regret about that 4:37 a.m. email. “I just felt so horrible,” he said of the moment he hit send. “I was in a place that I don’t think I’ve ever been before. And those feelings of despair overrode my logic.”

Recent weeks have been consumed by financial concerns and uncertainty about whether or not he’ll be able to provide for his family without income and benefits from Brown — Bungiro was the primary earner for his wife and two children.

“I love Brown, I love my students,” he said, choking back tears. “I don’t want it to end like this.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Barbara Tannenbaum’s title as “Senior Lecturer in Theatre, Speech and Dance,” when in fact her title is “Distinguished Senior Lecturer in Theatre, Speech and Dance.” The Herald regrets the error.

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  1. Brown admin needs to recognize that this pandemic is not a normal situation. We have a psychological need for each other’s physical presence, and failing this we are all under stress and need support and compassion. I don’t feel like sending any 4am emails myself, but where I would have written off this kind of incident in an ordinary year, I feel very sympathetic this year.

  2. alum commenter says:

    I think the humane thing is for Brown to let Bungiro retract his resignation announcement, since it was the product of a temporary lapse in judgement. If there are separate issues with Bungiro’s performance that merit dismissal (or contract non-renewal), then that outcome should be pursued independently. Everyone makes mistakes, and leniency in these situations is a mitzvah.

    Reading between the lines, I see a quirky instructor butting heads with a humorless administration. The administration wanted Bungiro out (for whatever reasons), and it did what these Kafka-esque bureaucracies are designed to do: it engineered a paper trail (a 3-page written warning, a “coach” to “assist” with Bungiro’s “professionalism,” a “review” of the “importance of professional conduct” with the VP for “institutional equity and diversity,” another memo stressing the importance of treating others “in an inclusive manner,” etc.) It’s disappointing to see this behavior from Brown. It’s especially galling to see the university spokesman self-servingly close ranks and refuse to discuss the matter, while simultaneously framing his refusal to comment as being fundamentally virtuous.

    Look, I understand why a corporate HR department wouldn’t let a problem employee renege on his resignation. But I want to hold Brown to a different standard when members of the community are involved.

    I also find it fascinating how quickly the “equity and inclusion” language gets appropriated by the HR department to lay groundwork for a job dismissal. That’s a different story, though.

  3. I totally agree with the above comment by the alum commenter.

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