Christian Ott’s Resignation

I heard this morning an unconfirmed report that Christian Ott, the Caltech Professor who had previously been suspended for harassing two female students, and required to attend “rehabilitation”, had finally resigned from his position. Now I have found confirmation in the form of a news item and the following statement (from this source):


Ott was due to return from his suspension this summer, but instead he will remain off campus and leave the institution for good at the end of December this year.

When I posted about this episode last year, I wrote:

The first thing to say is that I find it very hard to believe that Ott will ever be able to return to his workplace 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.

It was never going to work, for all kinds of reasons, and Caltech should have realised that ages ago. I don’t, incidentally, think it’s fair to say his presence on campus would have been `divisive’. I think opinions at Caltech were pretty much united, based on the people I know there: they didn’t want him back.

It remains to be seen what Christian Ott does. I am not familiar with his work but he is, by all accounts, a talented scientist so he may well find a position at another institution. If he does, I hope, for his and for his future colleagues’ sake, that he has learned his lesson.

But it is not Christian Ott’s future that is the most important consideration. The two individuals involved in the case have had to put up with behaviour that simply shouldn’t have happened, and which should have been dealt with much more decisively before so much damage was done to the lives and careers of the young women involved.

This is a depressing story in many ways, but it seems clear to me likely that the Caltech management were afraid to dismiss Ott fearing a lawsuit and associated reputational damage. Unlike the equivalent posts in the UK, positions like Ott’s are fully tenured in the USA so a dismissal can potentially be challenged on a number of legal grounds, especially if such procedures that were in place were not properly followed. Of course it may also be that the procedures were inadequate anyway, which makes litigation even more likely to be successful. If these were the considerations that influenced Caltech’s decision, then I hope they now realise that they would in the long run have been far better advised to do the right thing, and weather any short-term storm.

The only proper reaction now for Caltech to this sorry business is to undertake a complete overhaul of the way it deals with harassment and related forms of misconduct. If done properly that might also help heal the scars this case has left. Not that Caltech is far from being the only institution with a problem in this regard…


8 Responses to “Christian Ott’s Resignation”

  1. Maharani Says:

    I think #4 has a typo. Should it not be “But it is not Christian Ott’s future that is the most important consideration”?

    • telescoper Says:

      Quiet so. Quite an embarrassing typo. Thanks for pointing it out. I have now made the correction!

      • Maharani Says:

        Indeed! Thanks!

      • Maharani Says:

        I know 2 of Ott’s graduate students. The sad thing is that all of them who were directly affected by this have left academia. Since they were all among the brightest Caltech grad students-at an institution which picks only the very best to start with, this is a significant loss to the academic community. Perhaps it will convince 1) other institutions to take these issues seriously and 2) academia to police itself better.

      • Maharani Says:

        They all did it on purpose. And newly minted PhDs usually do postdocs. This group are not doing that.

  2. […] his year-long suspension is up, and Christian Ott has resigned, as he should have on day one. Now the question remains: will some other university ignore his ugly […]

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I only know about this story, because today Ott’s CV landed on my desk — while Caltech might have disavowed him publicly, they are still trying to help him get rehired somewhere else (and they have clearly thought carefully what kind of institutions might take him after this debacle and took care to write very carefully worded reach-out messages send to colleagues in high places)

    In any case, the interesting thing to me is that this case demonstrates that the worst sexual harassment is not of the “show me your tits” type or even “show me your tits if you want to have more papers” type, but the insidious long term emotional manipulation in which the victim doesn’t know whether they are imaging things or over-reacting or what the heck is going on.

  4. […] observatorio oli laittanut marraskuussa avoimeen hakuun kahden vuoden paikan. Ottin tapausta seurannut astrofyysikko Peter Coles arveli, että kyseessä on sama paikka. Ilmoituksessa mainitaan, että […]

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