The Christian Ott story is fleshed out, to the chagrin of enablers everywhere

Christian Ott was a Caltech astrophysicist who was suspended for a year and ultimately resigned over accusations of sexual harassment. As is usual, the university was close-mouthed about the details — gotta protect the reputation of the institution first and foremost! — but now a former employee of Ott dishes out all the details. Handmer was fired so there might be a hint of disgruntlement here, but since he was fired for the petty detail of keeping his bicycle in his office, I think the circumstances themselves suggest that Ott was a rather nasty tyrant.

He also points out some of the failings of the media reporting on it. One problem was the tendency to report Ott’s unwanted relationships with students as “failed romances”, when they were entirely one-sided, constructed entirely out of Ott’s unrequited harassment. Lesson one: harassment is not at all romantic.

Lesson two is about self-serving myths.

The other failure of secondary reporting was lazy references to the mythical trope of the genius asshole. That is, the stereotype of a professional scientist who is both intellectually brilliant and, in compensation, socially clueless or even mean-spirited. Despite propagation in popular culture such as the Big Bang Theory, there is no evidence that links these two traits in the real world. Nor did the reporting provide any evidence that Ott was particularly brilliant, or have any excuse for social cluelessness. I find these tropes particularly corrosive since their primary application seems to be in inflating the perceived quality of a senior researcher’s work, who themselves compensates for relatively poor performance by taking it out on their powerless underlings. This same trope came into play in reporting on Andy Rubin’s departure from Google.

A lot of the long essay is about the failure of accountability and how university bureaucrats worked hard to bury the stories, which is how Ott managed to get employed and survive a huge number of complaints. What happens when you build an institution, like academia, on policies that shelter assholes? It fills up with assholes.


  1. kome says

    I wish universities would realize that it’s far easier to protect your reputation by acting to quash the bad behavior than by quashing discussion of bad behavior.

  2. PaulBC says

    kome@1 That presumes your goal is protecting the reputation of the university rather than protecting the privilege of your colleagues even at the cost of burning away a little of the unversity’s social capital.

  3. garnetstar says

    With universities, it’s often about protecting more capital that their social.

    I agree about the common tropes this author discusses, but with scientists at universities there is another motive. If the scientist is bringing in a lot of grant money, the university will keep their mouths shut and enable any kind of asshole, or other, behavior. I used to joke that universities would let professors molest the undergrads if they brought in enough grant money, but that is no longer a joke because it happens too often.

    What most people don’t realize is that universities get a cut off the top of any grant money, and it’s a sizable cut. I know that, at Harvard, it was 98% off the top: I’m sure that Cal Tech is something like that. So, if a professor gets a $1 million grant (which is probably small for astrophysics), the professor gets $20,000 to do the research and the university gets $980,000 into a slush fund. (I used to wonder if real pimps get 98% off the top?) With a department bringing in $20 to $30 million a year, that’s quite an income for the U.

    They’re going to cover for one of the top-earning ladies in their stable as long as they can. If that trick-turner is bringing in a good income for them, they will indeed let the person be an asshole, a tyrant, a harasser, and almost anything else. Their income depends on it. So, the way grants are set up provides a strong financial motive to allow harassement and worse to flourish. The system needs to change before universities will take any steps against criminals in their midst.

  4. says

    It’s no surprise sexual harassment would get reported as a failed romance, given how common the “she resists, but she really wants him” trope is in pop culture.

  5. PaulBC says


    I agree that big money explains a lot and is compelling in this case. I find that my friends on the left often seem to think money explains everything so I try to look at other reasons.

    Was it “We really wanted to punish this guy, but we need his money” or “He’s a good guy who brings us a lot of money, stop hassling him.” These are different explanations.

  6. says

    Garnetstar, not quite right. That’s called overhead, or indirect costs, and we have a good idea where it goes — its not a “slush fund”. It pays for facilities, for instance, so that research done on campus has a higher overhead cost than field work. Harvard doesn’t charge 98%. It’s typically 50-60% at most places, but Harvard does get 69% of on-campus grant funding. This money is also used to pay the poor adjuncts who get stuck with doing the teaching the awardee gets out of.

  7. microraptor says

    timgueguen @4: That’s because if it wasn’t constantly framed that way, a lot of the people pushing it would be at risk of sexual harassment suits.

    Man, this reminds me of when I was in high school in the 90s and the school plays (written and directed by the band teacher) had lots of casual sexual harassment jokes.

  8. PaulBC says

    Or to be blunt about it, how many university administrators are really thinking “this could happen to me” when they see rules being enforced against sexual predators? Note: I don’t think this behavior is normative, but I think it is widespread and if anything more likely the higher up you go in the pecking order.

  9. garnetstar says

    PZ, the overhead rate at Harvard used to be 98%. Chemists being offered jobs there were told that: prospective hires always would ask what the rate was, because of course they wanted to be at a place with a lower one. That was maybe thirty years ago: perhaps the granting agencies have gotten smarter since then, and laid down the law.

    Overhead’s not supposed to be a slush fund, but in essence, it is, or, if it no longer is, then at one time it was. The U. could say that they’re hiring a new administrative assistant for a science department, but the person just happens to be located in the English department’s building, and does their work in their “spare time”. Or, they could say they’re building a new parking lot for that science department, but it’s located near the Fine Arts building. Or, they’re subscribing to one of those fantastically-expensive journal packages that has even one science journal, but the rest of the journals are for other departments.

    I recall there was rather a fuss when NSF found out that Stanford had used some of their overhead to buy their president a new yacht. NSF apparently felt that was going a bit far. But, Stanford just said, oh, sorry, and nothing happened.

    Except that, with NSF making noises about finding out what their overhead was being spent on, MIT immediately returned $5 million that they said they’d accidentally “mis-spent”. You know that, if MIT volunteered $5 million to avoid NSF investigating their overhead spending, they’d probably “mis-spent” at least $100 million. And, that worked, NSF took the money and didn’t investigate further.

    When my chemist friend was at Jet Propulsion Lab, which is (I think) owned by the government, but adminstered by CalTech, their overhead rate was 103%. I never understood how that worked, but he said it made it difficult to write grant proposals.

    Well, all that was a long time ago, so perhaps the era of street-pimp-level overhead rates and slush-fund spending has ended. All the better: less motivation to hold onto sexual harassers.

  10. kome says

    @9 garnetstar
    When you come up with a budget for a grant, indirect costs can be thought of like this:
    For every $1 I’m requesting to do my research, how much does my organization need me to request on top of my $1. So, if a university requests 50%, that means that for every dollar I want for research, I ask for $1.50. If an organization’s indirect cost rate is 103%, then for every dollar I request to do my planned research, I ask for $2.03 so that $1.03 goes to my organization’s overhead costs.

    And yes, misappropriation of funds does happen. But I cannot say whether it is more or less frequent at public universities than at private research companies or government research agencies like JPL.

    Circling back to the topic at hand, though, yes universities are very permissive of unethical or even criminal behavior conducted by faculty who bring in tons of capital. Again, though, I’m not sure if they are any more or less permissive than other organizations or institutions though. Money seems to buy people a lot of protection in a lot of domains of society. But, universities do open themselves up to lawsuits from victims when they protect abusers and bad actors (as is true, I suspect, generally). At some point, if more brave victims come forward and speak, if more fight back against the institutional protections of their abusers, enough light will be shed on bad actors and enough lawsuits will cost enough universities enough money that they will figure out it is better for the university to punish shitheads than protect them. We just need to keep pushing to make protecting sexual harassers and abusers very costly for universities.

  11. TGAP Dad says

    I’m on the non-academic, professional staff of a public university still reeling under it’s own sexual predator scandal. From my perspective, money alone doesn’t explain everything, but it’s at the root of it. The extreme fiscal burden placed upon public institutions (the logical outcome of decades of tax cuts for the wealthy) cascades into everything else the money touches. Somewhere, there has certainly been a calculation, even if only in someone’s mind, of just how much this person’s presence is worth, in dollars and cents, to the university, because every dollar counts. It’s just another example of the evil that results from squeezing the purse strings with tax cuts.

  12. jrkrideau says

    he was fired for the petty detail of keeping his bicycle in his office

    Sound absolutely damning to me. How dare he?

    I had a job, years ago, as a simple research associate at the local university. Nobody seemed to think that parking my bicycle in my third floor office was particularly strange or unreasonable.

    Note: Canadians tend to be strange.

  13. wzrd1 says

    @1, while reputation is considered short term important, organizations realize that the public’s attention span is fairly brief, blowing over after a year or two.
    What is important is litigation. A philandering professor can get damnably expensive, as such tend to not restrict him or herself to single victims and damage awards get damnably expensive, rapidly, exponentially, at best.
    So, hush, sweep it under the rug, any holdouts, pay a bit better or investigate and disgrace the accuser.
    Welcome to the real world. :(

    As for padding the bill, the half to the university, equipment needs come out of that, re-partitioning inside spaces comes out of that, oversight expenses as well and a bit of additional slush to allow overtime and unanticipated expenses. Reviewed one program, the math only worked out even after a decade of anything similar, don’t want to experience that again! Thankfully, during that, I found an entire ecosystem that exists for auditing such programs.
    And of course, review of such oversight reviews incur overtime on the admin staff, outside of the researching subgroup.
    Does it get poached upon? Of course, when caught, here’s all of the grant money back, rather than dealing with far more expensive investigations and litigations.
    I use the plural for a reason.
    Researcher shenanigans aren’t so high, executive, common and only prosecuted or otherwise litigated when the expense is worth the recovery.
    You don’t expend a million dollars to recover half a million dollars, you simply mark the organization untrustworthy at a specific point and less and less grants get accepted.
    Explaining the return of funding. Ends the entire process, due to its expense on continuing investigating or tracking, beyond the usual level, which catches egregious abusers.

    @12, working on multiple US DoD installations, I find the complaint odd as well.
    To the point of, finding a bicycle quite close to a US Navy Rear Admiral’s office area, but not his or his office area staff, belonged to someone either in the operations center or PR.

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