First it was Geoffrey Marcy, the astronomer who was sexually harassing students for at least a decade. Next it was Christian Ott, an astrophysicist at Caltech who was up to some publicly unspecified shenanigans. He’s been suspended.
For what is believed to be the first time in its history, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena has suspended a faculty member for gender-based harassment. The researcher has been stripped of his university salary and barred from campus for 1 year, is undergoing personalized coaching to become a better mentor, and will need to prove that he has been rehabilitated before he can resume advising students without supervision. Caltech has not curtailed his research activities.
Again, we don’t know what he had done specifically, but we can assume it was serious if they actually suspended a tenured professor with two NSF grants and a CAREER award.
And then there’s a third case. It’s an old case, a sexual harassment situation that was quietly resolved a decade ago, and the professor involved, Timothy Slater, says he is a changed man, that he had the sexual harassment sensitivity training and is thoroughly reformed, and now has a decade of problem-free research activity at the University of Wyoming.
Unfortunately, what prompted the initial accusations were pretty ugly.
Officials interviewed at least 10 witnesses who worked with Slater and told investigators that he routinely made lewd jokes and behaved inappropriately. Investigators described a work environment where sexual innuendo was frequent and tolerated and boundaries were often blurred. Slater and another senior member of his lab often invited graduate students to lunch and lap dances at strip clubs and and even gave students sex toys — such as chocolate handcuffs and the cucumber-shaped vibrator — as gifts.
One woman who worked for Slater told investigators that he regularly told her that “she would teach better if she did not wear underwear.” Once, she said, “he grabbed her underwear through her dress, stretched it and snapped it, and said ‘You’d look a whole lot better without these on.’”
The woman also told investigators that she once complained to Slater that the room they were working in was too cold. Slater, the woman said, responded by looking “at her breasts and comment[ing] that he thought ‘they’ were supposed to get hard and stand out when they were cold, and that it must not be too cold.”
On other occasions, she said, Slater told her: “I want to get you naked” and “Stand up, turn around — half the boys in your class are going home to masturbate after watching you teach.”
This occurred years ago, and he’s got a clean record now, so barring recent evidence, we should consider him reformed. But it leaves open a major question:
How the hell, in a fiercely competitive academic job market, could this guy have gotten a second chance?
I’m sorry, but this is a cutthroat business where we’ll roundfile an applicant for a job who only got two papers out of a post-doc, but apparently we’ll give a pass to someone who takes students out to strip clubs and is censured for sexual harassment by his university — and in this case, the university thought it appropriate to make their condemnation confidential. No wonder this situation persists when offenders get a slap on the wrist and the protection of a wall of silence.
Speier announced that she would introduce legislation aimed at requiring universities to inform other universities of the outcome of a disciplinary proceeding. “It’s time to stop pretending sexual harassment in science happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” she said.
This state of affairs was made public by Pamela Gay, who received the confidential file from an informant and passed it on more widely. I approve. We can’t get change from within if the within is hiding its sins.
“I did this when I realized that astronomy is currently not able to protect its community members from abuse, and that real change would only be possible with public and political pressure acting from the outside,” Gay said in an email.
Now as I said, Slater got a second chance he probably shouldn’t have, but if he’s been a good citizen since I can’t see punishing him again. But my sympathy kind of vanished with this comment.
“My wife, Stephanie, and I are admittedly very, very successful in our field, which causes more than a small amount of jealousy,” Slater wrote. “Dr. Gay and her comrades are our direct competitors, and have unfortunately engaged in this kind of gossip against us for years.”
The Slaters have since threatened to sue Gay. On Wednesday, Timothy Slater filed a version of his letter as a sexual harassment complaint with Gay’s university, accusing her of violating its sexual harassment policy by making “frivolous and malicious sexual harassment charges” against him.
Wait. The guy who was found guilty of rather blatant sexual harassment is now planning to sue the person who revealed his crimes…for sexual harassment? Maybe he hasn’t reformed as much as he claims. Suing whistleblowers for exposing bad behavior is a great way to shelter that bad behavior and allow it to continue on.
If Pamela Gay needs help fighting off this threat, I’ll let you all know.
One other thing: the American astronomical community is beginning to look like a terrible hotbed of abusive sexual predators, but what we should keep in mind is that the reason for that is that lately they’ve been exposing these problems to the light, and acting strongly to slap them down. That is a good thing. Maybe, instead of giving American astronomers suspicious looks, we should wonder why the European astronomers, or the biologists, or the chemists, are all sitting there so quietly. It’s almost as if they don’t want us to notice them.
I know that most of my colleagues and advisors were respectful and supportive of women, but I also heard second hand rumors of several who were not. I can’t name names, because these were second-hand…but if someone were to plop a file or a first-person account on me, I’d definitely make it public, as Gay did (note: that is not an invitation! I also know from experience how vicious the backlash gets. But I would not shy away from the responsibility, if forced on me). I would hope (and prefer!) others would, too. I know there are bad actors in every discipline, and so I’m less troubled by the vigorous and open reactions of astronomers than I am by the curtain of silence discreetly drawn over the affairs of other academics.
Here are Congressperson Speier’s remarks on the issue:
Oh, jebus. The full report (pdf) is available. Those select quotes weren’t the worst stories in there.