What are you going to do with the jerks in our midst?


Christian Ott, the astronomer with a history of sexual harassment and who left Caltech, has a new job: he’s an astronomer with no teaching duties in Finland. Good for him, maybe. There’s always the question of what to do with the ‘naughty boys’, AKA abusive assholes, once they’ve been caught. Throw them in jail? They’ve ruined women’s careers, but unfortunately that often isn’t a prosecutable crime. Ban them from academia forever? We don’t actually have a mechanism to do that. I’m not going to declare that Ott ought to be fired from every position he lands, but it is going to be a growing problem.

Janet Stemwedel has some recommendations for what any abuser can do to regain trust.

1. Own what you did.
2. Accept the descriptions of the harm you did given by those you harmed.
3. Have your defenders stand down.
4. Avoid the limelight.
5. Don’t demand anyone’s trust.
6. Shift your focus to work that supports your scientific community, not your individual advancement.

I think that’s a good set of things for the individual to do, and it looks like that’s a hard set of hurdles to cross — I note that a lot of abusers can’t clear step 1. But I’m curious about what institutions should do, since there’s a reasonable concern that they will repeat their behavior. Yet sometimes these guys have a tempting skill set and a history of success within their field of research, so it would be a waste to demand that a highly trained scientist resign themselves to the job of gas station attendant for the rest of their lives. So what are universities to do?

I have some suggestions.

1. Make employment provisional. Don’t hand them tenure, but temporary appointments subject to review are a good starting point. That’s what the University of Turku has done: Ott has a two-year appointment.

2. Isolate the person from students and post-docs. Again, that’s what Turku has done — he has been appointed “a senior researcher without any teaching or supervising responsibilities”.

3. Monitor the heck out of the guy. I don’t know how Turku is handling this, but at my university we have yearly reviews of teaching, science, and service. They should have an explicit fourth category for people like Ott, a review of interactions with colleagues and students. That means someone should be talking with other personnel every year to catch potentially harassing behavior before it becomes an issue, and any concerns should be openly discussed with him and his colleagues.

4. Apply the Stemwedel suggestions to him. If he’s denying his actions, don’t hire him in the first place. If he turns into a blustering, grandstanding prima donna who demands attention and distracts his colleagues, fire him, no matter how good his research.

I’d add a fifth, but it’s awfully hard to police. Every large department already has its own enablers and jerks, and one way harassers can thrive is by constructing their own local community of like-minded obnoxious twits who sympathize with them. Watch who the new hire is associating with — if they’re building their very own clique of good ol’ boys, they can be difficult to deal with later.

Basically, let him work, but don’t forget his past.

Comments

  1. =8)-DX says

    Yes, but what are you going to do when a large section of academia turns out to be a rapidly rotating and unhirable swarm of irate creepy males, hire more women teachers and scientists?

    Oh, wait, that’s actually a good idea.
    =8)-DX

  2. KG says

    Again, that’s what Turku has done — he has been appointed “a senior researcher without any teaching or supervising responsibilities”.

    Unfortunately, that would be a dream appointment for many academics!

  3. thirdmill says

    I agree completely with this, with one suggestion for Janet Stemwedel’s No. 2: Accept the descriptions of harm you did given by those your harmed. A lot of times, an abuser will say that it was all just a misunderstanding and there was no intent to harass or abuse. Or, alternatively, that the victim is so thin skinned that she sees abuse where it doesn’t really exist.

    Most of the time that’s complete bullshit, but recognizing that there may be the exceedingly rare case in which it is true, I would say look at how many victims there are. If someone has been an academic for thirty years and there’s only been one complaint, it’s possible it really was just a misunderstanding. But if there are multiple women (or men) coming forward to claim a pattern of sexual harassment, at that point it’s pretty hard to plausibly argue that that many people misunderstood. And of course, abusers rarely if ever only have one victim.

  4. lumipuna says

    I see Ott’s working at Tuorla Observatory at the U of Turku. A former, recently retired (2015) director of that observatory was Esko Valtaoja, a *hugely* famous science communicator for Finnish speaking audiences. Aside from astronomy and cosmology, he was pretty good at explaining biology – and he used to sport a beard PZ would be jealous of. Though not exactly an atheist, he was also a great proponent of skepticism, reason and humanism. I’ve appreciated him for longer than PZ, and more deeply than, say, Richard Dawkins.

    Over the recent years – while Valtaoja was still very much out in public – I sometimes found myself randomly thinking, “I really hope he doesn’t turn out to be a creep, or devolve into Dawkins style crankery”. It seemed unlikely, but not actually implausible. Now, it seems increasingly unlikely to happen anymore, but he was a person, more than anyone else, that I mentally prepared to discard as an idol if necessary.

  5. kupo says

    Yet sometimes these guys have a tempting skill set and a history of success within their field of research, so it would be a waste to demand that a highly trained scientist resign themselves to the job of gas station attendant for the rest of their lives.

    Are you kidding me? What about all the women pushed out of this type of research because of these guys? What about losing all of those women’s potential research, insight, and talent? Why do we care about losing people who actively harm others?

  6. luwakcivet says

    I second and third Kupo’s comment. Academia is not lacking for qualified candidates who have not engaged in abuse, harassment, intimidation, or other misconduct. There is absolutely no danger that scientific advancement will slow just because this particular “skilled” individual is permanently banned from any academic position.

    It’s not a question of his life being wasted but of the standards the academic community wants to display. Is this a place where the refrain will be “Yes this is a horrible, terrible person, but we think their ‘potential’ is more important than their victims”? It reeks of “He’s one of us, so let’s not be too hard on him.” Add in the effects of networking, and it also means there will be fewer positions open to those who may already have a reputation for being “difficult” because they stand up for the rights and humanity of those in weaker positions, slowing to a glacial pace any change to the academic environment.

    Apologies for coming on so strong, but it’s disappointing to hear this kind of rationalizing from someone who has so often called out the things that need calling out, and usually with far stronger language.

  7. brett says

    It sounds like Turku’s doing it right. Heavily monitored supervision plus keeping him away from the type of people he used to harm is the way to go with this.

    @luwakcivet

    Apologies for coming on so strong, but it’s disappointing to hear this kind of rationalizing from someone who has so often called out the things that need calling out, and usually with far stronger language.

    I don’t believe we should try to starve people by making them permanently unemployable as a punishment. If they openly own up to what they’ve done and accept that they’re going to be monitored and not be allowed to do particular things for the rest of their academic career, then it’s not wrong to let them seek and get academic employment.

  8. KG says

    I don’t believe we should try to starve people by making them permanently unemployable as a punishment. – brett@7

    Just as well no-one has suggested that, then. The notion that if you can’t get a job in academia you are “permanently unemployable”, let alone that it would mean you starve, is ludicrous.

  9. scildfreja says

    A research position with no teaching duties is the dream of every academic I know. The Old Boy’s Club has taken care of him, “punishing” him with a secluded, quiet position away from the public eye so they can make the issue disappear. No teaching duties, just him, his research and the stars? That’s not a sequestration, that’s plum. He should be pumping gas or picking warehouse boxes. His “punishment” should be to lose the status and prestige associated with his position, not to have it elevated. A pure research position! Screw that guy! I wish!

    People like him damage science inside and out. He’s not valuable. Toss him out. Science isn’t about brilliant individuals with sparks of genius, it’s about groups of normal people pursuing interesting questions with honesty and care. It’s about collaboration and teamwork. Guys like him damage the scientific community at every level. He destroys trust – in himself and in the administrations that protect guys like him. Throw him out, and give some light to new people. Less rapey people, please.

    I don’t care how many papers he’s written. He’s not worth it.

  10. jpam2708 says

    scildfreja @9

    That’s not a sequestration, that’s plum. He should be pumping gas or picking warehouse boxes. His “punishment” should be to lose the status and prestige associated with his position, not to have it elevated.

    Yeah, using low income jobs as a punishment is not problematic at all.

  11. says

    jpam2708

    Yeah, using low income jobs as a punishment is not problematic at all.

    Why not? Loss of status is at issue here, not starvation. People in positions of power think that ordinary peasants should be able to survive on very little, they should then try it out themselves.

  12. scildfreja says

    @jpam2708

    Yeah, using low income jobs as a punishment is not problematic at all.

    Note that I said he should have a low status job. Or, more accurately, he should lose his high status job. He doesn’t deserve a high social status. I didn’t say a thing about him being punished financially. If I had my way everyone would have comfort and health, regardless of their job – even if they didn’t have one at all.

    That we underpay people who pick boxes and pump gas is awful, full stop. But, he is no longer my priority for concern. I’d rather focus on the fair-treatment of those research assistants with crushed dreams, and the fair-treatment of those warehouse workers (which I have been) before shedding a neuron of concern for him. He lost that. If that loss of prestige comes with a loss of financial security, too bad for him. Welcome to the place that the vast majority of humanity lives.

    Why did you assume I wanted to punish him financially when I said his punishment should be to lose status and prestige?

  13. jpam2708 says

    Why did you assume I wanted to punish him financially when I said his punishment should be to lose status and prestige?

    I didn’t “assume [you] wanted to punish him financially when [you] said his punishment should be to lose status and prestige”. You explicitly said that “[h]e should be pumping gas or picking warehouse boxes”.

    How many gas station attendants or warehouse stock workers have salary and other compensation close to that of a senior researcher?

  14. scildfreja says

    I’m afraid I can’t feel sad for a serial harasser / abuser losing some salary and other compensation. If that’s where you choose to spend your empathy, well, I guess that’s your business. I’ll spend mine on all the people he abused. He forced them to choose to tolerate his gross advances, or to leave a career that could offer the salary and compensation that he still enjoys. I’m more concerned with the loss to them, and to science as an institution, than his financial comfort.

    Feel free to paint that as unfair or wrong if you want. I feel like I’m pretty secure moral footing here.

  15. jpam2708 says

    No-one is asking you to feel sorry for him, but not feeling sorry for someone is also different that wanting to actively punish him by taking always his status and, by extension– as you have already mentioned–his earning power.

  16. scildfreja says

    yeah, that bit. Our society should not reward abusers or harassers by giving them high status. For many reasons. Let it be known that we do not accept abusive behaviour, and that such behaviour will harm your career.

    We currently send a signal that abuse is fine so long as the old boy’s club can keep it quiet. Get pushy enough to make it public and abusers will just be shuffled off to cushy field jobs in different areas. Same as the Catholic Church and its pedophilia problem.

    We need to reverse that, hard. Let them know we don’t accept that. Let harassers feel fear that they will lose their status and career. Let the harassed know that they can come forward, and will be believed. You can’t make that happen without completely rejecting abusers, tossing them from the profession.

    Time’s up. This isn’t acceptable anymore.

  17. jpam2708 says

    Onamission5, Onamission5, and kupo

    How does lowering Ott’s earning power/social status help the victims’ power/social status?

    Has making punishment more severe ever ascribed a deterrent effect?

  18. kupo says

    It helps because now he’s unable to make future victims uncomfortable and other people, possibly even women, can take over his role. It’s not about deterring anyone, it’s about taking the wrong people out of power (and research is power) and putting the right people there instead.

    Why do you want to keep an abuser in a prestigious role?

  19. scildfreja says

    How does lowering Ott’s earning power/social status help the victims’ power/social status?

    It communicates to victims that they are valued, and that if they raise their voices they will be taken seriously.

    Has making punishment more severe ever ascribed a deterrent effect?

    We aren’t talking about making punishment more severe, we’re talking about applying a punishment at all. “You don’t have to teach anymore, you just have research” is a reward. The “punishment” of having to focus on research in Finland is analogous to pedophilic priests being relocated instead of being ejected from the church. It’s about protecting the Old Boys’ Club, not about finding justice for victims. That needs to be reversed.

  20. jpam2708 says

    Why do you want to keep an abuser in a prestigious role?

    Wow! Much disingenuous! So intellectual honesty! First, where have I ever begun to suggest that I “want to keep an abuser in a prestigious role”? My question has been about punitively reducing Ott’s status to the point where he can only be employed in “unskilled” labor.

    It communicates to victims that they are valued, and that if they raise their voices they will be taken seriously.

    What does? Removing him from academia or making sure that  he can only work “pumping gas or picking warehouse boxes”

    We aren’t talking about making punishment more severe, we’re talking about applying a punishment at all. “You don’t have to teach anymore, you just have research” is a reward. The “punishment” of having to focus on research in Finland is analogous to pedophilic priests being relocated instead of being ejected from the church. It’s about protecting the Old Boys’ Club, not about finding justice for victims. That needs to be reversed.

    Again, insisting that someone’s status should be reduced to the point that they can only work “pumping gas or picking warehouse boxes” had splash damage for people working those jobs, as reinforces the idea that those jobs are low status.

  21. jpam2708 says

    Oh, I’m sorry you guys.

    Of course suggesting that abusers only be allowed to work low status jobs specifically because they are low status doesn’t reinforce the low status of those jobs.

    Of course allowing to work only low status jobs doesn’t make abusers more likely to work with people of low status.

    Of course acknowledging that instituting systemic, economic punishment–and limiting the type of johns one can work is fundamentally economic when using loss of status as a punishment–is at all problematic means that the person acknowledging it “want[s] to keep an abuser in a prestigious role”.

  22. scildfreja says

    We used to have better trolls.
    I think.
    Maybe.

    Amen.

    @jpam2708,

    You keep jumping past what I’m saying to land both-feet-first into what you’d like me to say. I’ve said he should lose his high status job. I don’t think it should be mandated that he must be shackled to a retail counter to work a till the rest of his days (work that I’ve done), nor do I think he should be chained to a warehouse pick cart (also work that I’ve done). He should be removed from his career. I’d be just as fine if he went on to be a tradesperson afterwards. They make plenty of money and can be very well respected. But he would have to do all the hard work of building a career again.

    I agree that we should not attach stigma to warehouse work or other low status jobs! It’s hard work and is absolutely worthy. The idea isn’t to make people who work those jobs feel small; it’s to make him realize that he’s not above them, and to not reward him for his abuse with a plush research position. He can put in some time in the mud with the rest of us instead of flouncing about a university with no responsibilities beyond sating his own curiousity.

    You don’t get it. He’s abused women and he’s being rewarded for it. And when we suggest that maybe he shouldn’t be rewarded you’re defending him. Gross.

    P.S.; to preempt the reply of ‘no you were actually saying what I said you were saying’, here’s my quotes:

    @18:
    Let it be known that we do not accept abusive behaviour, and that such behaviour will harm your career.

    Let harassers feel fear that they will lose their status and career.

    @13:
    Note that I said he should have a low status job. Or, more accurately, he should lose his high status job.

    That one at 13 might be what’s confusing you. I’m talking about kicking him off of the ivory tower that he’s in, and making him work his way back up if he wants to ascend another one. There are millions of people eager for a chance to be an astronomer because there are so few of those positions available. Those others deserve a chance at it far more than he does.

  23. jpam2708 says

    You literally said

    A research position with no teaching duties is the dream of every academic I know. The Old Boy’s Club has taken care of him, “punishing” him with a secluded, quiet position away from the public eye so they can make the issue disappear. No teaching duties, just him, his research and the stars? That’s not a sequestration, that’s plum. He should be pumping gas or picking warehouse boxes. His “punishment” should be to lose the status and prestige associated with his position, not to have it elevated. A pure research position! Screw that guy! I wish!

  24. chigau (違う) says

    kupo
    間違っていません。
    間違ったない。
    間違い rather than 違う because …. reasons.

  25. kupo says

    Haha, fair enough. I was in an immersion class that didn’t believe in teaching kanji. Thanks for the lesson. :)

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