Archive for January 13, 2016

Harassment and Confidentiality

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 13, 2016 by telescoper

News of yet another sexual harassment scandal in Astronomy has broken, this time at Caltech. The individual concerned was not named by Caltech but has subsequently been identified as Christian Ott (whom I don’t know at all), who was investigated following complaints by two female PhD students. The complaints were upheld and Ott has been suspended.

This case would be difficult enough to comment on even without the complex backstory, some of which is in the public domain: two of the three protagonists appear in this article which dates from 2014. Clearly a lot has happened since then and it would be intrusive and unhelpful for me to speculate publicly about things know I nothing about.

What I will say, as clearly as I possibly can, that it is that due process has been followed and that there is no question the right decision was reached. My only surprise is that Dr Ott was not summarily dismissed.

In the interests of full disclosure I should make it clear that I do know one of the complainants in a professional capacity, Sarah Gossan, who was an undergraduate Astrophysics student at Cardiff while I was there and who started a PhD at Caltech in 2012.

Also for the record I should state that one of my duties as a Head of School here at the University of Sussex is to investigate and deal  with allegations of harassment or other misconduct by staff. I obviously can’t comment on individual cases I have dealt with, but will say that it is probably my least favourite job but someone has do it.

If such a complaint is upheld it can lead to summary dismissal (for very serious misconduct) or, at very least, a formal written warning. It’s worth also stating that the standard applied is that of a Civil rather than Criminal Court, i.e. the decision is based on the “balance of the evidence” rather than “beyond reasonable doubt”.

Concerning the Caltech/Ott case, according to this source:

The university investigation, which concluded in September, found that Ott violated the school’s harassment policies with both women. Ott, a 38-year-old rising star who had been granted tenure the year before, was placed on nine months of unpaid leave. During that time he is barred from campus, his communication with most of his postdoctoral fellows will be monitored, and, with the exception of a single graduate student, he is not allowed to have contact with any other students. Before returning, he must undergo what a school official calls “rehabilitative” training.

The first thing to say is that I find it very hard to believe that Ott will ever be able to return to his worksplace after the revelations of his behaviour even if he does attend “rehabilitative training”.  I very much doubt that the faculty or students would want him back. It surprises me that Caltech could even imagine that this is a realistic possibility.

Another feature worthy of comment is that Caltech itself did not name the perpetrator, although his name very rapidly appeared in the public domain. Disciplinary procedures of this type are also treated confidentially in all UK universities with which I am familiar (including the University of Sussex). I think there are good reasons for this, primarily to protect individuals from false or malicious allegations, but also to protect the complainant(s) from unwelcome publicity or other unwanted attention. However, it has to be said that this often also ends up protecting the culprit too. If  a person ends up getting the sack as as  result of sexual harassment then news will almost certainly leak out about why Dr Bloggs has left suddenly. However, if it leads to a warning then this outcome is generally not disclosed. In such a situation, Dr Bloggs could move to another institution and carry on where he left off.

They have been suggestions in the USA, discussed in this article, that legislation could be intoduced to force institutions to disclose information about harassment cases when an individual moves from one to another. I think this is an idea well worth thinking about, but I am not sure how workable it is in practice.

Failure to act strongly when such behaviour is proven just sends out the message that the institution doesn’t take sexual harassment seriously. In my view, confidentiality is needed during an investigation – to protect both sides and indeed the person doing the investigation – but if the conclusion is that misconduct has taken place, it should  be ackowledged publicly. Justice has to be seen to be done. Sexual assault, of course, is another matter entirely – that should go straight to the police to deal with.

I’ve talked about protocols and procedures, but these can only ever apply a sticking-plaster solution to a problem which is extremely deeply rooted in the culture of many science departments and research teams across the world. These tend to be very hierarchical, with power and influence concentrated in the hands of relatively few, usually male, individuals. A complaint about harassment generally has to go up through the management structure and therefore risks being blocked at a number of stages for a number of reasons. This sort of structure reinforces the idea that students and postdocs are at the bottom of the heap and discourages them from even attempting to pursue a case against someone at the top.

The unhealthy power structures I’ve discussed will not be easy to dismantle entirely, but there are simple things that can be done to make a start. “Flatter”, more democratic, structures not only mitigate this problem but are also probably more efficient by, for example, eliminating the single-point failures that plague hierarchical organisational arrangements.

We are very far indeed from eliminating harassment or the conditions that allow it to continue but although cases like this are painful, I think they at least demonstrate that we are beginning to acknowledge that there’s a problem.