The Bullying Scandal in Zurich

Yesterday I came across a story about bullying in the Institute of Astronomy at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich in Switzerland (known universally as ETH Zürich). You can find details here (in German) or here (in English, as produced by Google translate).

The allegations contained in this piece are so serious that they have resulted in the closure of the Institute of Astronomy. Two senior members of the faculty are currently on sabbatical and have had their positions transferred to the Department of Physics. You can read the substance of this case in the link I’ve provided so I won’t elaborate further here and will restrict myself to making a couple of points.

First, while this is not the type of case of sexual harassment with which we are becoming regrettably familiar in Astronomy and elsewhere, it does seem to be a product of the same systemic problem: an excessively hierarchical management structure that places far too much power in the hands of prominent individuals at the expense of junior colleagues. Moreover, as in so many other cases, the institutional response seems to be to protect the senior staff rather than to deal with the underlying issues. The institution has allegedly taken over a decade to respond to the accusations of bullying. What compensation or other redress is being offered to those who have been bullied in the Institute of Astronomy during this time? I suspect the ETH just wants to keep the lid on this scandal and hopes it goes away by the time the individuals involved return from `gardening leave’. That is not an adequate response to a situation so serious that it necessitated the closure of an entire Institute. Ironically, just a month ago, ETH Zürich hosted a meeting on `Equal Opportunity at Work’.

That brings me to my second point. The article describing this case changes the names of the principal protagonists, perhaps for legal reasons. The allegations are directed at `Gabriella M.’ who arrived at the Institute at the same time (2002) as her British husband `Paul F.’. This information is sufficient to allow anyone working in Astronomy to identify the two immediately. Anyone not familiar with the Astronomy world could arrive at the same conclusion in a few minutes with a little bit of googling (as a non-astronomy friend of mine proved on Facebook last night). I don’t know why the report I’ve linked to felt the need to disguise the identities of these people, but I see no reason to play along with the attempted anonymity even if it were not so badly botched.

The (female) Professor against whom the allegations of bullying have been made is Marcella Carollo and her husband is Simon Lilly. You will see if you look at the Wikipedia page for Marcella Carollo that it has been edited a number of times to include the news presented in the report I linked to, but the editors have been undoing the changes on the grounds that they represent `vandalism’ of a biographical page. Nowadays telling the truth is `vandalism’, apparently.

I might get into trouble for posting this information, but I feel I’m acting in the public interest and anyway I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble…


82 Responses to “The Bullying Scandal in Zurich”

  1. I thought I’d let you know that I appreciated the Sam Spade allusion in the last sentence.

  2. Thank you for not participating in the farce of hiding their names. I hope no one sues you.

  3. chrislintott Says:

    Re wikipedia: you need a secondary source – it never hosts primary info. I suspect one could now make a case this blog is a primary source which could be referenced on wikipedia…

  4. The NZZ article gets the history of the institute in question completely wrong: neither was it founded in 2002 (it had existed for a long time before and merely offered additional professorships that year), nor has it been “closed” – it rather has been merged with another one this year, apparently as part of a wider long-term strategy. Furthermore the story makes it sound that Carollo sliped into the faculty just because she was Lilly’s spouse – while she had been an assistant professor at Columbia University before.

  5. Vandalism in this context consists of two or more persons repeatedly editing a Wikipedia page in a fashion similar to two children arguing, “Yes you did!” “No I didn’t.” “Yes you did” “No I didn’t” “Did too” “Did not” “Did too” … It has nothing to do with truth (BTW I corroborate the two names). What if someone alleges it was you on your Wikipedia page? Maybe then you might appreciate more the Wiki standards of citation of appropriate sources rather than disparage them.

  6. Thanks for writing this. As you said, the typical institutional response to this kind of thing is to keep silent and hope it is forgotten. The counter is to talk about it very loudly, and make sure people remember.

  7. A sad story, for the students and postdocs who were the victims. Could a working mentoring system have prevented it? People in dependent positions need a way around the chain of command. That could have flagged up that the person involved needed training in supervision. I am afraid this will not be the last such case, though.

    • telescoper Says:

      It tends to be assumed that academics somehow automatically know how to supervise early career researchers. The evidence does not support this assumption.

      Nowadays there are schemes to advise new academics about such things and I think that’s a very positive development.

      I supervised my first PhD student when I moved to Queen Mary in 1990. The only experience I had was from my own supervisor, who was great. He gave me interesting problems to work on, but also gave me plenty of space to do them the way I wanted to. That worked very well for me, but it didn’t work for everyone he supervised.

    • I agree with Peter. Supervising is something that needs to be learned (and in some cases, being supervised also can require some training). It is on-the-job learning, but systems should be in place to support it.

  8. telescoper Says:

    I’ve changed it now.

  9. Anton Garrett Says:

    Let’s keep the discussion to where Einstein worked, rather than Weinstein.

  10. Just to be very clear (and I know you mentioned it in the article, but never hurts to state it again): There have been no accusations against Simon Lilly whatsoever in terms of bullying his students. In fact probably most of his students would remember him as a very fair supervisor.

    • Anyone with first hand lived experience might keep their head down and not comment. Why?

      It is common practice, regrettably, for the social media crowd to express outrage when someone expresses an opinion like “probably most of his students would remember him [Lilly] as a very fair supervisor.”

      See for example, Admittedly in that case Marcy had been sanctioned for violating harassment policies, whereas Lilly is not accused in the NZZ article that spawned the Carollo/Lilly blog posting here. Still, you walk a dangerous path of being seen as sympathetic to a fellow human being rather than damning the accused.

      NY Times science writer Dennis Overbye was criticized by hundreds of astronomers for “… focusing on Marcy and his wife’s feelings, Overbye fosters sympathy for a sexual predator and exacerbates the culture which allowed him to prey on unsuspecting students.”

      So by focusing on Lilly’s presumed innocence, your comment fosters sympathy for a …

      I imagine that your intentions are good in making that point about Lilly. Who could argue with a bedrock principle such as “presumption of innocence”? Or be opposed to “guilt by association”? Well, the court of public opinion, fueled by social media and rumor mills, might not behave accordingly.

  11. Interesting that “certain links have been removed for legal reasons” – I think this relates to Europe’s “right to be forgotten” law. A Google search for the alleged bully’s name from the USA doesn’t result in such a notice.

    Elsewhere you express frustration at the journalist’s abbreviation of the last names of the pseudonyms. Imagine a journalist needed to make up a pseudonym for an article and happened to choose , “Phillip H.” instead of a randomly selected last name of “Helbig” – now perhaps you understand why journalists abbreviate the last name? It’s to avoid the real and entirely innocent “Philip Helbig” from asking his attorney to demand an apology and a retraction or face libel litigation.

  12. (Comment deleted at request of commenter.)

    • telescoper Says:

      One wonders however why *both* are on sabbatical and why both are now `independent professors’…

    • You concluded: “If a social media outrage is the consequence, well so be it, that won’t stop me from pointing out the right thing.”

      If you think we’ve gotten past the Medieval Ages, then I sincerely express “Good luck to you and I applaud your courage.”

      And you need to be more careful. Defamation is a very hard suit to win, generally speaking, but if a defendant has written, in a public location (such as this) that a specific named individual has committed a crime, that’s one of the few “easier” cases to win.

      I think you should immediately follow up to clarify yourself.

      • Nowhere I said, that she has committed an offence: I don’t think anyone can judge that without full knowledge of facts nor is it our place to judge that. All I say is, that you can’t assume that was reported about her, is also true for him.

      • Stars, you wrote, “the same crimes as Carollo” – for which I admonish you, and then you assert, “Nowhere I said, that she has committed an offence.”

        Have it your way.

    • telescoper Says:

      There is no suggestion in either the original report or in my blog post above that anyone has committed a criminal offence.

      • False.

      • telescoper Says:

        Interesting. Who are you alleging has committed a criminal offence and what is the offence?

      • telescoper Says:

        I am now very interested in who `Wikitalk’ is. He/she seems to be purporting to be associated with Wikipedia, but has in any case violated my comments policy by using a fake email address.

      • Thank you Philip Helbig. I was responding to a statement that now reads “There is no suggestion in either the original report or in my blog post above that anyone has committed a criminal offence.” My memory is that it originally read “There is no suggestion that anyone has committed a criminal offence” at the time that I replied with “False.” But memory is notoriously faulty; I do not impugn that Telescoper may have edited his comment in the mean time. I’ve written enough on the topic of defamation here. Good discussion all around.

      • telescoper Says:

        I did edit the comment to clarify it. You must have replied before I did so. Apologies for the confusion.

      • Thank you Telescoper for the comment that you edited the comment. Thank you also for the apology. Please accept my apology for using a pseudonym and thereby violating your terms of service. I am not affiliated with Wikipedia in anyway other than as a contributor of cash and a few edits – it just seemed like an appropriate pseudonym when I made my first comment here.

        Alas, it is often risky and even dangerous these days to express anything different than “G. Bruno is guilty: please let me add a burning log before he expires!”

  13. telescoper Says:

    It’s perhaps worth mentioning that, at least under UK law, `harassment’ has a specific and reasonably well-defined meaning whereas `bullying’ does not. Disciplinary cases relating to the former are generally easier than for the latter (although that doesn’t imply that they are easy).

  14. Try googling your own name from Europe and you will very likely see the same message. I believe that it’s a standard disclaimer that is shown even if no links have been removed.

  15. In finally some independent reporting: the merger of the astronomy and particle physics institutes was a result of the allegations against C. as well as general unease about the leadership situation (so the Sep. 1 ETHZ press release re. the reasons was essentially fake news), and when C. & L. return from their sabbatical they will report directly to the physics dept. and not the institute anymore (which retains all other astronomy groups existing prior to the merger). And should C. ever have PhD students again, the ETHZ “will accompany her closely,” as a spokeswoman puts it. The new article also adds that an investigation is going on that may lead to further consequences.

  16. extragalactic astro Says:

    While you are naming names, do you feel like naming some other known bullies in our community too?

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t have any direct knowledge of any instances of bullying.

      • extragalactic astro Says:

        what kind of evidence do you need?

      • telescoper Says:

        Actual complaints from people who have been bullied, outlining the details of the bullying and the names of those people alleged to have carried it out.

      • extragalactic astro Says:

        If the names are already in the source, then there is no need to name them anymore. 😉
        Anyway, there is a good comment for you in the astro FB group post on this topic. It that doesn’t name anyone, but it has the complaints and details you requested. And it is easy to guess whose names are not named.

  17. drewancameron Says:

    I wondered if Paul was a cheeky nod via Paul Simon (the singer-songwriter) and Gabriella via Gabriella Marcella (the graphic designer); while the first is well known to anyone the second is quite obscure though perhaps not to the Swiss who do rather like their graphic design.

    • drewancameron Says:

      You’re probably right about them just choosing names that were common in English and Italian, but I still hold some possibility that they were being even more clever than that!

    • drewancameron Says:

      Just because they’re in the same set as I am: people whose names are composed of two first names joined together!

  18. In this comment I would like to address the issue of naming names, which was your blog post’s second main point. I see an interplay of multiple issues.

    Because the names are searchable by anyone on the internet, and your blog posting is one of the top sites listed by Google (in the USA), this greatly extends the range of persons for which this knowledge is available. So now and forever, a prospective student of the Respondent will easily find these allegations. And so too will a potential employer of the Respondent. And also neighbors, friends, and family. Those greatly amplify the punishment of the accused by limiting options for learning from the experience, moving to a new institution (or staying) and in either case, continuing to contribute to astronomy.

    Publicity causes the ETH to lose some autonomy in administering its affairs according to its rules. Without diminishing the conflicts of interest, one has to admit that the ETH administration is better positioned than journalists or a social media crowd to gather testimony or other evidence, determine and interpret the facts, follow rules, and in general administer something approximating justice for the Complainant(s) and the Respondent(s). The conflict of interest is obvious: the administration looks bad for not having sensed problems sooner; it might like to sweep things under the rug, if practical. However, the feedback of social media’s “naming and shaming” could be for institutions to enforce secrecy even more in the future. That may not necessarily be a bad thing, but it could be opposed to one of your apparent objectives of warning those with a potential need to know. It could also be a bad thing: institutions are often accused of being poor at administering justice (for the Complainant(s) and the Respondent(s)), and secrecy also hides incompetence or malfeasance. This same concern for unintended but rather predictable but complicated feedback mechanisms of human affairs has been raised with respect to legislation proposed in the USA by representative Speier to require Universities to report those sanctioned for harassment to a Federal database. (IMHO that legislation has little to zero chance of being enacted into law, and Speier probably knows that.)

    This case won’t be the last.

    When considering whether to give the full name of the accused on blogs or in Tweets prior to them being named by more established journalists or officials, one might consider not doing so. I imagine you did think deeply about that, and upon weighing the potential costs and benefits, still chose to post the full name of the accused and the spouse (and colleague) of the accused.

    I acknowledge that different well-intentioned persons can choose different options in circumstances that challenge our morals or ethics.

    An intermediate option would be to intentionally and consistently misspell or abbreviate a name. That would make it more difficult for search engines to pick up and catalog the posting. Those with a genuine need to know will be informed, since astronomy is such a small and well-connected community, but neighbors, distant colleagues, et al., wouldn’t.

    It will be interesting to see if the two accused can return to the fold or will be hounded and ostracized by the social media crowd to the point of ending one or both of their careers in astronomy. Or if further allegations and evidence will surface that will make all these speculations moot.

    • telescoper Says:

      And your name is?

      I’ve told you before about my comments policy.

      This is what is written on the front page of this blog:

      The views presented here are personal and not necessarily those of my employer (or anyone else for that matter). Feel free to comment on any of the posts on this blog but comments may be moderated; anonymous comments and any considered by me to be abusive will not be accepted. I do not necessarily endorse, support, sanction, encourage, verify or agree with the opinions or statements of any information or other content in the comments on this site and do not in any way guarantee their accuracy or reliability.

    • telescoper Says:

      My main concern has been to prevent ETH burying this story. I stand by my decision to to publish the names.

    • Reading this was interesting, because I find that by response mostly isn’t “I disagree” but “That’s a feature, not a bug”. To elaborate:

      Someone applying for a job in academia will generally have to bring both a CV and letters of recommendation, to prove that aside from formal qualifications, they’ve manage to make a good impression on the right people. Due to the inherent imbalance of power between employee and employer, the latter never feels the need to do the same. Supervisors are not expected to show letters of recommendation from former students to prove that they are competent at supervising. Institutions are not expected to show letters of recommendation from former employees to show that they are good workplaces. It would be considered absurd for an applicant to ask for those things before agreeing to come to an interview.

      Instead, applicants have to acquire that information by informal routes, which have tended to be very unreliable. One person may know ETH’s reputation, and know to stay far away, while another might walk right into it. Social media do a good job of evening out that power imbalance, by making informal communications much more efficient. It is true that this increases the risk that supervisors and institutions will have their reputations ruined arbitrarily, but that risk has always been present for the applicants – plenty of careers have been ended prematurely by a failure to flatter the right person. The only real change is that the risk is gradually becoming a bit more evenly distributed between the powerful and the powerless, and that’s a change I welcome.

      As for the risk that institutions will work harder to enforce secrecy, they certainly will. Hopefully they will keep discovering something called the ‘Streisand Effect’. Since investigations organisations make of themselves always have as their main purpose to control PR fallout, and solving the actual problem as a very distant second, I expect this as well to be a net improvement.

  19. An interesting Twitter response – “first-hand”, so to speak – to the ban on married professors in the same dept. in effect at ETHZ now:

    • telescoper Says:

      I agree. I think that response is rather silly. Proper policies, properly enforced can solve this problem. It doesn’t need a ban like that.

      I’m afraid it seems like panic stations at ETH right now.

  20. The last three paragraphs of paint a very different picture of the situation at the institute than the NZZ story. Is the open letter they quote from somewhere online in its entirety?

  21. Thanks for disclosing the name of this bully. It is a pity to hear that the ETH authorities still protect these sort of scientists. However, it is worthy to mention now that due to the neurotic competence in the academy, it won’t be a surprise to find some people (who have fed a lot their ego, becoming arrogant and inept) like Carollo in other universities. Thousands of applauses for the brave student who had the courage to denounce the abuse.

  22. Bryn Jones Says:

    You get lots of things in the online version of Der Spiegel, including this article with a title based on my placard slogan at a political rally last month! 🙂

  23. Jayanne English Says:

    Dear Peter Coles,
    Let’s flip this around. You present this as if you know the truth that she was a bully. But wait — perhaps she’s the one who is bullied. Let’s look at this in a different light. Imagine, and this is just a hypothesis, that you are a professor at an institute and want to eliminate the institute for astrophysics and make your institute physics dominated. Oh let’s call the new institute “Institute for Whatever Physics and Other Things” — Oh ok “Astrophysics”. You only have had one woman hire in, oh say, 30 years. Many of her students are the best that the institute have ever produced but that is because she is rigourous. What can you do to get rid of a such strong astronomy component from the institute? Attack the woman and call her a bully for being rigourous. ( While you are at it , why not twist working to midnight as unreasonable when it is a common practice of astronomers using prestigious telescopes to submit observing proposals at the midnight deadline?) As a member of the administration you can move your “physics first” agenda forward by putting her on sabbatical leave and move her to a new position — she will have no power over this. Nevertheless make it look like all that is her choice, or for protection of her and the university’s reputation, or a necessary choice for the administration. Conceal the real situation by making the information that she was a dual hire an issue. Wham — you have your “physics first” institute. Oh, by the way, get in touch with the media so the President, who signs off on these decisions, can cover his tush. Indeed make sure his “very acceptable” portrait image is in the piece so the public can believe he is a reasonable and pleasant person. Well, thinking about it, the possibility is high that she isn’t the bully but she is the one who is being bullied. The reporter has picked a position — you don’t have to adopt it.

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t have to adopt your position either.

      • Jayanne English Says:

        Of course not. And there exists a whole spectrum of positions between the 2.

      • telescoper Says:

        There are many positions that are implausible in the face of the facts that have emerged. Yours is one of them.

      • Jayanne English Says:

        By the way Philip there is other, not be be dismissed as “alternative”, evidence. «Es gab einige Forschende aus ihrer Gruppe, die eine erfolgreiche akademische Karriere gemacht und sich auch positiv über sie geäussert haben.» “There are some researchers in her group who have made a successful academic careers and who have spoken positive/supportive of her.”

        And from the journal Science:
        Carollo and Lilly have said they can’t comment on the situation, but several colleagues and former students have come to their defense. In an open letter of support, they write that Carollo and Lilly are leaders in the field who have “built an absolutely world class astronomical institute in less than a decade.” The letter notes that Carollo’s first five Ph.D. students all are now in tenure-track positions—something that happens to only about 15% of Ph.D.s, the letter says. It adds that a 30% dropout rate is not unusual in prestigious Ph.D. programs. “She has been unusually dedicated to her students,” the letter says. “If at times she comes across as a relentless task master, this owes to her commitment to her students and desire to maximise their career chances.”

        (I used a construct to illuminate the possibilities — I thought I made that clear. There are a variety reasons for doing so, of course.)

    • drewancameron Says:

      Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams!!! 🙂

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        But it can burn at such a temperature as to weaken iron and steel, which is why blacksmiths heat the metal before hammering a horseshoe into shape.

        I suspect you are making an allegory. For the sake of definiteness, I am not. I want to keep 9/11 nuts away.

    • Jayanne English Says:

      Philip says ” several people on record saying there were problems but no-one on record supporting the alternative scenario.”
      Jayanne quotes 2 articles that state there are students that speak positively about her and support her. There are people on record. This point is independent of accomplishments.

      • Jayanne English Says:

        “.. unless you believe that accomplishments are an excuse, or that someone with such accomplishments is incapable of bad behaviour.” I absolutely do *not* believe that accomplishments are an excuse or that someone with such accomplishments is incapable of bad behaviour. It is obvious that a professor shouldn’t bully students. If those accomplishments belong to a university administrator who is bullying a professor, I also don’t believe that such an administrator has an excuse for bullying. Nor do colleagues who bully a professor who is at the same level of accomplishment have a right to do so. The imagining of this “alternative scenario” is meant to indicate that there can be political reasons for people to bully a professor and spin it to make it look like she’s a bully. It was not meant to be a 1-to-1 correlation with events (“Imagine, and this is just a hypothesis,…”). If the situations I’ve put together from my experiences for my construction of an alternative scenario have not been part of your experience, that’s great. And I understand why it feels unrealistic. However I now understand that you want me to provide evidence that someone has gone on record to say that Prof. Corollo has been bullied (which is the main crux of to scenario). I read this part of the open letter of support for her to be saying this: “To finger a particular female Professor is grossly unfair and may reflect the misogyny that is generally prevalent in society and sadly even more pronounced in a University science environment. It is particularly misdirected in this case as the Professor in question has an outstanding record in launching PhD students towards faculty level careers.” Also there is a whole paragraph about her dedication to students, them respecting her as a role-model, and her promotion of young women scientists, to counter the accusation of bullying. Enjoy the read.

      • Jayanne English Says:

        “without any protest” — try “in spite of any protest”. “All this proves is that not everyone was bullied.” I see you didn’t read that actual paragraph in the open letter. Additionally even my synopsis should make the reader also suspect that “no one was bullied” is a possibility.

  24. drewancameron Says:

    @Anton; you are correct on both counts

  25. FYI, it is not that the press is “hiding” their identity to protect them. Swiss privacy laws do not allow the use of any full names, not even if an accused person has found guilty. But interesting what you said about the WikiPage. That is definitely, a page managed by someone close to them!

  26. […] Just time for a quick post following up my previous piece on the Bullying Scandal at ETH Zurich. […]

  27. […] the other hand, Peter Coles, a theoretical astrophysicist at Cardiff University, opined on his blog on October 23 that ETH’s efforts to keep Carollo’s identity a secret, quietly closing the […]

  28. […] high-profile harassment and bullying scandals, including incidents at UC Berkeley, Caltech, and ETH Zurich. These particular cases were extreme enough to make the news, but abysmal, exploitative behavior is […]

  29. […] posted more (442 articles this year, including reblogs). The two most popular posts were about the Bullying Scandal in Zurich and on the rumours surrounding a gravitational waves from a source in NGC 4993 (proved later to be […]

  30. telescoper Says:

    What does it say?

  31. telescoper Says:

    I comment on things when I feel I have something to contribute. Presumably you’re referring to Guinevere Kauffmann here. If so I don’t feel I have anything to add to what is already in the public domain via the Buzzfeed article.

  32. She’s fighting back and sees herself as the victim of – also sexist, by the way – bullying by the administration:

  33. Jayanne English Says:

    Kenneth Westhues, an emeritus professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and an expert on “academic mobbing,” or bullying, analyzed the Carollo case for Republik in March. After examining all relevant documents associated with the case, he was withering in his condemnation of ETHZ’s handling of the case — and of the numerous allegations themselves.

    “There is not a single serious infringement,” he told the publication.

    • telescoper Says:

      I’m interested to know what access a long-retired Canadian professor had to confidential material from a Swiss university.

      Do tell.

      • Jayanne Says:

        Sure. ” The following six documents were available to him: Article of the «NZZ am Sonntag» of 22 October 2017 (on the events at the ETH Astronomy Institute); Minutes of the meeting of the ETH Board of 24 October 2017 (with the decision to initiate an administrative inquiry into the “case Carollo”); Investigation commission to the external lawyer Markus Rüssli; Final report of the administrative inquiry; Reply to the final report by the lawyer of Marcella Carollo; Chronology of the case of Marcella Carollo.” Also “Kenneth Westhues … researched and taught from the mid-1970s to 2011. He is considered the world’s leading expert on workplace bullying in science …”

  34. […] was wondering why this old post from 2017 has been experiencing a resurgence in traffic over the last few days, and I’ve only just […]

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