Harassment and Confidentiality

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.



26 Responses to “Harassment and Confidentiality”

  1. “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.”

    While a disadvantage in this case, there might be some good reasons for at least some hierarchy. A way to have both is the ombudsman.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, of course, we need hierarchies. We need people in charge who will take responsibility for their actions, and who can be blamed when they get things wrong.

      The hierarchies Peter writes about are different. They are the suffocating, strong hierarchies that stop people from achieving. And, unfortunately, there are lots of those in university departments. They stop junior academics, postdocs and postgraduate students from taking the actions they want to take and know they have to take to achieve success. Those hierarchies result from the attitudes of academics, departmental policies, poor management, research council policies and lack of information.

      There will always be hierarchies. The issue here is how strong they are and whether they substantially hold people back.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        It i a truth generally acknowledged that there is nothing like a war for turning ossified military hierarchies into meritocracies.

      • “It i a truth generally acknowledged that there is nothing like a war for turning ossified military hierarchies into meritocracies.”

        And what consequences does this lead to in this case?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Many of us have widened conversations here, and I am commenting on Bryn’s comment on hierarchies.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Perhaps in wars the combatants that eliminate obstructing hierarchies tend to be the victors. The combatants that fail to do so tend to lose?

  2. In both this case and the Marcy case, the perpetrators are described as rising stars, hot shots, up and coming (no pun intended) leaders of their field, valuable assets to the university. I wonder to what extent this comes from hiring people who work 100 hours per week and publish three or four times the average number of papers per year in their field, and good ones at that. The probability of hiring someone who otherwise “doesn’t have a life” might be asking for trouble. As various people have indicated, sometimes the hiring criteria or fixed, and one has to look at the applicants and hire the one who scores the highest. Yes, such people might be more likely to burn out later on, but after they have tenure, they won’t suffer that much from it (but their employer would).

    (Of course, there are a few people who manage to publish many good papers and have a life and are nice people as well.)

    I don’t think that the reaction should be to overrate extracurricular activities. (I know someone who wasn’t successful with her application to Oxford because she didn’t have enough rowing experience, even though she was excellent in her field (and no slouch at extracurricular activities, either, but, for Oxford, the wrong extracurricular activiites)). But maybe a bit less impact factor might improve things.

    In the Marcy case, the university commented on how difficult it is to actually fire someone. While I think that tenure is a good idea in general, it should be clear that there are some types of behaviour which nevertheless can lead to immediate dismissal.

    • the hiring criteria or fixed —> the hiring criteria are fixed

    • “I know someone who wasn’t successful with her application to Oxford because she didn’t have enough rowing experience”

      I call bullshit on this.

      I frankly find this completely impossible to believe true at any time in recent history (and I strongly doubt it would have been any more true fifty years ago). It is myths like this that deter students from applying to Oxford and tell students they are unwelcome.

      • Perhaps I should have added a tongue-in-cheek smiley, but I’m not sure. This was about 30 years ago. She certainly told me this and I have no reason to believe that she was not serious. To be fair, it might have been some sort of special summer course for foreign students rather than regular admission to the university, but that is irrelevant as such demands are equally out of place here.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I agree with Joseph. I know for a fact that there has been some discrimination against serious oarsmen at Oxbridge.

  3. Great discussion, Peter — and supporting the comment above, ombudspeople are *wonderful* and indispensable channels to deal with these matters in as neutral and impartial a way as possible.

    This has long been the case at Universities and labs, and recently within large science collaborations as well, which are beginning to take note and appoint/elect individuals to these positions as well.

  4. I know nothing about the case and can’t comment on it. I have seen some cases where a supervisor, as PI of the grant from which the postdoc was paid, claimed absolute ownership of the postdoc. This can get so bad that the supervisor won’t let the postdoc talk to other staff or vice versa. It increases the risk of power abuse: absolute power leaves staff vulnerable. It would be helpful to separate grant PI-ship and postdoc line management. Ideally, the postdoc line manager should be a level up in the hierarchy, e.g. the boss of the postdoc supervisor/grant PI. This would build in an escape mechanism in case of abuse of power. PhD students also need such safeguards. It is not a solution to cases such as Marcy, but it would take some of the opportunities for abuse away.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      That’s an interesting suggestion. Introducing the boss of the PI as a line manager could be helpful. We need to be careful with line managers, but a more senior staff member than the PI could work.

      Certainly, bringing other people into the picture in a formal sense might help. Perhaps an official mentor wholly separate from the project might provide an alternative source of support and advice?

      I once had a different experience as a postdoc, that of a line manager intermediate in status between the PI and myself, and that proved disastrous, at least for me and the project. The line manager seemed to regard me as a threat and bullied me. This left me without any control of my work and unable to take the decisions to deliver useful results on an effective timescale. I only got one publication out of that period and that was a null result. The line manager was the favourite of the PI, and I felt unable to complain to the old-school PI. The whole set up did not work and was a poor use of grant funding.

  5. […] at a training session about preventing bullying and harassment in the workplace, and after the latest high-profile sexual harassment case at Caltech I thought it might be useful to share my current employer’s definition of what may constitute […]

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    I didn’t follow the buzzfeed link and I’ve just read what happened, in Physics World. Truly this is a complex case. The phrase “sexual harassment” is generally understood to mean pressure applied on somebody toward a sexual relationship, but there was none of that here. Ott seems to me to have found another research supervisor for one of his students whom he feared that he *would* harass sexually, without telling her why or by giving false reasons such as doubting her commitment; then he discussed this confidential matter with another student. The latter action is obviously wrong, but perhaps he didn’t tell the truth to the first student precisely because he knew that doing so would itself be seen as sexual harassment. Obviously the first thing Ott should have done was go to his department head and say “I’ve fallen in love with one of my students and my feelings are making the situation impossible for me”. But what on earth should the Department Head then do or say?

    • Is falling in love considered sexual harassment?

      Policies vary. Some institutes have policies against relationships between employees. In some cases, but not all, this applies only if one is appreciably more senior than the other. On the other hand, some institutes, within the framework of dual-couple–career programs, actually encourage relationships among (future) members of the institute.

      I know several couples who have fallen in love at work, often one appreciably more senior (scientifically, not necessarily chronologically) than the other. What one needs to make sure of in such cases is that one doesn’t treat one’s partner any different scientifically than anyone else.

  7. […] professor responsible for all this was none other than Christian Ott, who I’ve mentioned in a blog post before, who was placed on unpaid leave by Caltech for harassing two female […]

  8. Maharani Says:

    One major problem here is tenure itself. Tenured professors are rarely fired, sad to say, and I think Caltech should have fired Ott, not put him on “leave”. In the real world he would have been fired. But in academia, you are guaranteed a job for life if you have tenure. Where else does this happen? Nowhere. It’s an obsolete system badly in need of reform.

  9. […] I posted about this episode last year, I […]

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