Archive for Aron Wall

A Breakthrough for a Bigot

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 18, 2018 by telescoper

You may recall that a few months ago I wrote a post about Dr Aron Wall, whose research speciality is Black Hole Thermodynamics, and who is moving to Cambridge next year to take up a Lectureship. Yesterday I heard the news that Dr Wall (who is currently at Stanford) has been awarded a New Horizons Breakthrough Prize of $100,000. Three such prizes are awarded each year for outstanding early career researchers.

This is just a reminder that, when he isn’t doing theoretical physics, Dr Wall also runs a blog in which he expresses outspokenly homophobic views. For example, one piece included bigoted generalizations such as:

…the notoriously promiscuous, reckless, and obscene lifestyle characteristic of the cultural venues of the gay community.

It sounds like he knows a lot about these places. Does he visit them often? The press release from Stanford does not say.

You can read his whole piece for yourself* and decide what you think. As a gay man I found it thoroughly offensive, but what I think is not as important as what effect this person’s presence in the teaching staff will mean for any LGBT+ students at DAMTP. I hope Dr Wall enjoys the compulsory Equality and Diversity Training he will be required to undergo as a new member of staff and that he does not let his extremist beliefs interfere with his responsibility as a lecturer to treat all staff and students with the respect they deserve.

(*He’s deleted it, so I linked to an archived version…)

Some people have said that Dr Wall’s private beliefs are his own business, as long as he is good at his job. I agree with that. However his beliefs are no longer private. He has himself chosen to make them public. I think that makes a big difference. His views are known publicly, and that does not help to provide a welcoming environment for LGBT+ students (which I would have thought was part of his job). You might say that `It’s OK. Just keep him away from LGBT+ students’. That seems to me a pathetic response, no different from saying that it’s acceptable to employ a serial sexual harasser as long as you keep him away from female students. The duty of a member of academic staff is to the entire academic community (staff and students), not just the fraction of it that the staff member isn’t bigoted against.

I just wonder whether the Breakthrough Prize would have been awarded to a person with outspoken racist or sexist views? And should prizes be awarded to people who are good at science regardless of attitudes that cast severe doubt on their ability or willingness to foster a spirit of inclusivity within which other scientists can flourish?

P.S. Note the diversity of the panel that made this award!

Reflections on a Bigoted Lecturer

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on June 29, 2018 by telescoper

I heard yesterday that the Department of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cambridge has employed a new lecturer, Dr Aron Wall, whose research speciality is Black Hole Thermodynamics. Dr Wall also runs a blog in which he expresses outspokenly homophobic views. Take this piece for example, which included bigoted generalisations such as:

…the notoriously promiscuous, reckless, and obscene lifestyle characteristic of the cultural venues of the gay community.

It sounds like he knows a lot about these places. Does he visit them often?

You can read the whole piece for yourself and decide what you think. As a gay man I found it thoroughly offensive, but what I think is not as important as what effect this person’s presence in the teaching staff will mean for any LGBT+ students at DAMTP. I hope Dr Wall enjoys the compulsory Equality and Diversity Training he will be required to undergo as a new member of staff and that he does not let his extremist beliefs interfere with his responsibility as a lecturer to treat all staff and students with the respect they deserve.

The news about the appointment of Dr Wall, and some of the reaction to it, caused me to reflect on a few related issues.

The first is that some people have said that Dr Wall’s private beliefs are his own business, as long as he is good at his job. I agree with that. However his beliefs are no longer private, as he has chosen to make them public. I think that makes a big difference. His views are known publicly, and that does not help to provide a welcoming environment for LGBT+ students (which I would have thought was part of his job). You might say that `It’s OK. Just keep him away from LGBT+ students’. That seems to me a pathetic response, no different from saying that its acceptable to employ a serial sexual harasser as long as you keep him away from female students. The duty of a member of academic staff is to the entire academic community (staff and students), not just the fraction of it that the staff member isn’t bigoted against.

The second point that occurred to me relates to freedom of speech. Every now and then in universities there arises something that causes tension between the freedom to express (possibly extreme) opinions and the requirement to treat colleagues and students with civility and respect. One view that I have heard expressed from senior members of staff is that if what a member of staff says is not unlawful then they should be allowed to say it, providing that does not involve inappropriate use of, e.g., university email by which it might be construed that what is being said is official rather than person.

I don’t agree with this view, for a number of reasons. The law relating to these issues is a bit of a mess, to be honest, but it does for example include provisions that outlaws the the use of language that harasses or intimidates. If someone uses that sort of language in the workplace then they should feel the force of the law as well as facing disciplinary action which, depending on the severity of the offence, could lead to dismissal.

But is that it? I don’t think so. The law should set a minimum standard for behaviour, but it is perfectly reasonable for any employer, institution, club or other organisation to stipulate its own code of conduct either as part of an employment contract or as a set of membership rules. You can be thrown out of a sports ground for behaviour that violates ground rules but falls short of being unlawful, and you should face disciplinary action if you violate the standards of the academic community too.

The last point is a bit more personal. I have mentioned before that I found the blog post I linked to above very offensive, but freedom of speech must include the freedom to offend and I respect his right to express his opinions through his blog just as I assert my right to respond here on mine. I do wonder, however, what the reaction would be if a university lecturer wrote a blog post expressing other forms of prejudice, such as racism, or a post mocking disabled people. In UK law sexual orientation is a protected characteristic alongside gender, race, marital status, etc. A good test is therefore to read an anti-gay piece by substituting `black’ or `female’ for `gay’ and working out if it would be offensive then. I think this one would. My own personal experience tells me that universities are far less likely to react to homophobic language than racist or sexist expressions.

Coincidentally, I today received full details of the programme of events for LGBT+ STEM Day at Cardiff University. Here is an extract:

We’re getting involved because LGBTQ people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) still struggle to be themselves at work and in their careers.

A lot of careers and workplaces are challenging for LGBTQ people. If we don’t feel comfortable or safe to be ‘out’ at work, we spend every moment monitoring what we say and how we say it. That takes its toll on a person’s mental health.

LGBTQ people working in STEM fields with better representation of women, for example, are more open about who they are – and so, biologists are more likely than engineers to be ‘out’ to their colleagues.

International research is giving us a sense of the challenges. In the US, LGB students are more likely to drop out of STEM degrees.

A few people have said to me that events like LGBT+ STEM Day are unnecessary because there is no longer any prejudice. Of course you won’t see prejudice if you turn a blind eye to it, but it is very much still around though usually not so obvious as the example I have discussed.