I think I like this person, although I don’t think we’ve ever met.
BethAnn McLaughlin has no time for James Watson, especially not when the 90-year-old geneticist is peering out from a photo on the wall of her guest room at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Banbury Center.
“I don’t need him staring at me when I’m trying to go to sleep,” McLaughlin told a December 2018 gathering at the storied New York meeting center as she projected a photo of her redecorating job: She had hung a washcloth over the image of Watson, who co-discovered DNA’s structure, directed the lab for decades—and is well-known for racist and sexist statements.
The washcloth image was part of McLaughlin’s unconventional presentation—by turns sobering, hilarious, passionate, and profane—to two dozen experts who had gathered to wrestle with how to end gender discrimination in the biosciences. McLaughlin, a 51-year-old neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) in Nashville, displayed the names of current members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) who have been sanctioned for sexual harassment. She urged other NAS members—several of whom sat in the room—to resign in protest, “as one does.” She chided institutions for passing along “harassholes” to other universities. “The only other places that do this are the Catholic Church and the military,” she said.
In the past 9 months, McLaughlin has exploded into view as the public face of the #MeToo movement in science, wielding her irreverent, sometimes wickedly funny Twitter presence, @McLNeuro, as part cudgel, part cheerleader’s megaphone. In June 2018, she created a website, MeTooSTEM.com, where scores of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have posted mostly anonymous, often harrowing tales of their own harassment. In just 2 days that month, she convinced the widely used website RateMyProfessors.com to remove its “red hot chili pepper” rating for “hotness.” And after launching an online petition, she succeeded last fall in spurring AAAS, which publishes Science, to adopt a policy allowing proven sexual harassers to be stripped of AAAS honors.
It turns out, though, that being a vigorous voice for equality has a cost. You make enemies.
Indeed, McLaughlin has made bitter enemies: Last fall, she says, she was anonymously FedExed a box of feces. And her scientific career is now on the line. Her tenure process was frozen for 17 months starting in 2015 while VUMC investigated allegations that she had posted anonymous, derogatory tweets about colleagues. The probe was spurred by complaints from a professor whom she had testified against in a sexual harassment investigation. VUMC closed the probe without disciplining McLaughlin, but in 2017 a faculty committee, having previously approved her tenure, unanimously reversed itself, according to university documents. Absent a last-minute reprieve, she will lose her job on 28 February, when her National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant expires.
She had the support of her peers, which ought to be the final say in a tenure decision, but that was overruled by the administration, and I can guess what happened: an influential and moneyed person in the department got the ear of someone higher up, and poisoned the process. That’s not supposed to happen, but it does happen. Here’s the event that seems to have imperiled her career:
But the university halted her tenure process in December 2015, in the wake of allegations that arose during the investigation of a colleague. In early July 2014, former graduate student Erin Watt sued her former Ph.D. supervisor, neuroscientist Aurelio Galli, who was then at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine. Watt alleged in the lawsuit that Galli had sexually harassed and belittled her, leading her to quit the Ph.D. program.
In late July of that year, McLaughlin, her then-husband (a Vanderbilt neuroscientist at the time, who collaborated with Galli), and a visiting McLaughlin friend and collaborator, Dana Miller of the University of Washington in Seattle, were invited to dinner at Galli’s home. Miller and McLaughlin later recalled that while preparing dinner, Galli threatened to “destroy” Watt. Miller recalled him calling Watt “a crazy bitch” and vowing to “spend every last dime” to ruin her. The women say Galli showed them a handgun and noted that he had a permit to carry it. Miller, a lesbian, also told investigators that Galli made inappropriate comments about her sexuality.
Galli, now at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, declined to comment on the dinner party. But he told Science: “I have never done anything to any student or any faculty in terms of harassment or retaliation.” He provided an email that McLaughlin sent him the day after the party: “Dinner was fantastic. … Thank you,” she wrote with a smiley face.
In December 2014, a judge dismissed Watt’s lawsuit against Galli and he was immediately promoted. (Watt settled with Vanderbilt University, which she had also sued.) Miller says she was alarmed by Galli’s promotion, and in January 2015 reported the alleged events of the July 2014 dinner to a Vanderbilt administrator. McLaughlin testified in the ensuing investigation, backing up Miller’s account. In August 2015, investigators determined that the evidence they had obtained could not support a finding of harassment, according to a letter to Miller from Vanderbilt’s Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Disability Services Department (EAD).
Whoa. So much awful in that one story. A student, Erin Watt, abandons a career in science because her advisor was a jerk. Nothing happens to the jerk advisor except that he gets promoted, and uses his advancement to make a lateral move to another university. We have two eyewitness testimonials to horrible behavior by said jerk. The jerk then illogically tries to dismiss the accounts by waving around a thank-you note, as if it is impossible for an asshole to serve a good meal. And now various poisonous persons are using the fact that she reported the jerk’s ugly behavior to get her fired.
This does not speak well of the environment at Vanderbilt, which is a shame — I gave a job talk there decades ago and was impressed with the program, and it was high on my list of desirable positions.
I’ve also seen these tenure battles from a couple of perspectives now, and I can say that they’re always ugly and they never end well — even if you win, you lose. McLaughlin deserves to win, but she’s probably better off finding a new home, one that hasn’t been trampled over by the “harassholes”, where her talents will be appreciated. On the other hand, there is virtue in crushing your enemies. What a difficult situation!