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.
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.