The pitch was simple: Forget accredited graduate schools and think big at Singularity University. Google co-founder Larry Page and futurist Ray Kurzweil could be among your lecturers in the Graduate Studies Program at Singularity, named for the notion that humans will someday merge with machines. You’d work in a kind of combination think tank and startup incubator, trying to address challenges as grand as renewable energy and space travel. Kurzweil announced the program during a TED Talk in 2009, adding that the Singularity team had leased its campus from NASA, just east of the agency’s historic Hangar One in Mountain View, Calif. The team received 1,200 applications for its first class of 40 later that year.
Reality hasn’t matched the hype. Previously unreported police files, other documents, and interviews with current and former students and staff paint the picture that almost from the beginning, some Singularity staffers weren’t able to curb their worst impulses. A teacher allegedly sexually assaulted a former student, an executive stole more than $15,000, a former staffer alleges gender and disability discrimination, and Singularity dismissed 14 of about 170 staffers and suspended GSP, now called the Global Solutions Program, after Google withdrew funding last year.
Alumni say for-profit Singularity is becoming just another organizer of conferences and executive seminars. It’s weighing buying the seminar company Abundance 360, started by Singularity co-founder Peter Diamandis. “It’s lost its soul,” says Vivek Wadhwa, who ran the faculty until 2013 and is at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s become a moneymaking corporation.”
While Singularity says it takes seriously its community’s security and any related allegations, most of those matters are far in the past, says Chief Executive Officer Rob Nail. He says he was already planning to suspend and reevaluate GSP before Google ended its annual grant of $1.5 million. The grant covered about half the costs of the program, which was free for participants. Google, whose senior manager Jen Phillips left Singularity’s advisory board late last year and won’t be replaced, says it plans to focus on Singularity’s entrepreneurship programs instead.
Nail says although GSP may be reborn largely online, conferences and executive education (tuition: $14,500 for a weeklong program) will become the bulk of Singularity’s work. It held 10 conferences last year and has 18 planned for 2018. On Feb. 15 it announced it raised $32 million in venture funding led by Boeing Co. and investment firm WestRiver Group. Erik Anderson, WestRiver’s CEO, is replacing Diamandis as Singularity’s chairman. These changes, Nail says, will help the company turn a profit and thereby aid more people. “If we want to make true impact,” he says, “we need to do it in a sustainable fashion.”
Singularity had NASA connections beyond its rented buildings. Early GSP students speak highly of a lecture by former astronaut Dan Barry, a physician who got into the space shuttle program after 13 rejections. Several say they saw him as a mentor. Barry hasn’t taught GSP students since 2013, when the company investigated him for allegedly sexually assaulting Yasemin Baydaroglu, a French student who attended GSP in 2011.
Baydaroglu says Barry arranged a 2013 meetup in Paris. They went for a bike ride, during which she complained of back pain, and then went to his hotel to chat. He reminded her he was a doctor, she says, and offered her a massage, speaking in strictly medical terms. Because he was a mentor, she trusted him—until, she says, he touched her breasts and genitals, and she fled. “I really didn’t see it coming, and I’m so careful,” she says. “This time my guard was low.” She reported the incident to police several days later, then visited a doctor.
“I completely deny her accusations,” Barry says, adding that the inquiries that followed led to “a distressing time for me and my wife.”
Baydaroglu showed signs of psychological distress that she said were linked to a physical assault, according to a copy of a May 31, 2013, doctor’s report reviewed by . According to a copy of a letter sent from France’s Office of the Prosecutor, it declined to pursue the case because authorities hadn’t been able to find Barry.
Singularity began its internal investigation after Baydaroglu separately reported the alleged assault to the company. Barry left that summer’s program in June; his wife was ill, and the company told students he left for personal reasons. In a June 22, 2013, email to Baydaroglu reviewed by , a Singularity human resources official told her Nail believed “the facts around the central allegation of unwanted sexual touching are inconclusive” but that he told Barry the circumstances indicated “poor judgment.” The official wrote that Barry wouldn’t be present for the remainder of the 2013 GSP and asked Baydaroglu not to discuss the matter with other parties.
The email outlined steps Singularity was taking to reduce the likelihood of staffers being in “potentially intimate situations” on campus, including prohibiting them from being alone with a student at the end of a program day and installing webcams to monitor classrooms. Baydaroglu says Singularity’s response left her feeling deeply depressed and betrayed. Particularly galling, she says, was “asking me not to talk about it.” The company declined to discuss the case except to say Barry hasn’t been an active faculty member since 2013.
Singularity leaders have a history of shady financial practices. When the organization was in its infancy in 2009, Alicia Isaac, the financial controller, used its credit cards to make $13,500 in personal purchases; she also kept the cash from a $2,000 check to Singularity, according to a subsequent police report. And she helped the president of an artificial intelligence institute try to steal almost $80,000. Police arrested Isaac in 2009; she pleaded no contest to felony fraud charges. Isaac didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Another early Singularity architect, Bruce Klein, was convicted in 2012 of running a credit fraud operation in Alabama. He’s no longer associated with the company. Board member Naveen Jain was convicted of insider trading in 2003. He appealed a $247 million judgment and ultimately settled.
Nail, who previously helped found an automation company, arrived in late 2011 with Chief Strategy Officer Gabriel Baldinucci, a former Virgin Group executive. They soon changed Singularity from a nonprofit to a for-profit B Corporation, which means a private accreditor certifies it meets certain social and environmental standards.
For years several staffers close to Baldinucci lived alongside him in a series of rented houses nicknamed the SU Villa, in Atherton and Woodside, Calif. Other employees say the group got favorable treatment and the general atmosphere was unfriendly to women. Eleanor Schuermann, a lawyer at Kastner Kim LLP, is representing a staffer who alleges Singularity discriminated against her because of her gender and disability, paid her less than men in the same position, and retaliated against her for complaining. The attorney’s filings with state regulators, the first steps toward a lawsuit, aren’t yet public record. Schuermann, who wouldn’t name her client, says she’s heard from two other Singularity employees about similar claims. The company declined to comment on the case but says it works hard to support women.
Singularity is a long way from 2009, when the first GSP led to the creation of Getaround, a car-sharing company that’s raised $85 million from investors including Toyota Motor Corp. “It is amazing what all has happened here,” Google’s Page said during the program’s opening ceremony the following year. “It exceeded all my expectations.” These days, Page isn’t involved with Singularity. Kurzweil doesn’t dispute that while he attends board meetings, he rarely speaks.
Anderson, the new chairman, says the company expects to meet its revenue and social goals. Nail says it’s making good on some of its grander ambitions, citing work on United Nations anti-hunger efforts. Still, he says, Singularity can do better: “We’re nowhere near impacting the billion people our students talk about.”