Archive for Caltech

The Ott Case Revisited

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc with tags , , , , on November 13, 2022 by telescoper

It is hard to keep up with everything that is surfacing these days to do with bullying and harassment in astronomy. A number of people have contacted me about the anonymous guest post that appeared here recently, all from different universities, and all convinced that the unidentified Department referred to in the post was theirs. I can only infer that there must be a lot of this sort of thing about.

Anyway, there was news of a different sort last week when the magazine Science reported on a legal case initiated by Christian Ott against two Finnish astrophysicists, Syksy Räsänen and Till Sawala. The verdict in this case is due next week, on 17th November to be precise.

Christian Ott resigned from a position at Caltech in 2016 after being found guilty of gender-based harassment against two graduate students, I wrote about this case and some of the issues it raised here. Little information about the case was divulged publicly by Caltech at the time.

After leaving Caltech, Ott was offered a position at the University of Turku in Finland but that offer was rescinded after protests about this apparent case of “passing the harasser”. Syksy Räsänen and Till Sawala initiated an open letter that was signed by a large number of academics calling for Ott’s appointment to be cancelled. Syksy blogged about the case here (in Finnish; scroll down to see the English translation). Ott now works as a software consultant.

Not being at all knowledgeable about Finnish law, I’m not sure of the legal basis on which Ott’s case is being pursued but it seems to involve an accusation of defamation and the publication of confidential documents. As far as I understand it in Finland defamation is a criminal offence, rather as it in Germany, and can lead to a substantial fine and/or a prison sentence on conviction. I sincerely hope that it doesn’t come to either of those, as I believe that Syksy and Till took a principled stand in this matter regardless of what the law says.

According to the Science article

Sawala’s lawyer, Jussi Sarvikivi, said the prosecutor’s position appears to be that “any commentary on the Caltech finding demonstrates an intent to harm” Ott because it inevitably casts Ott in a poor light.

I had better not say any more about this until the verdict is delivered, at which point I expect the defendants to make statements. I will say though that I doubt it was Ott’s intention to draw attention again to his past behaviour but that is something this case has definitely achieved…

Caltech astrophysics and harassment: Lessons learned

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc with tags , , on August 13, 2019 by telescoper

This is a lengthy but important post about the recent episodes of harassment at Caltech centred around Christian Ott. I’ve blogged in relation to this myself a few times; see here. It’s not a comfortable read, which is precisely why you should read it.

One of the worst things about the way institutions handle investigations into harassment and related disciplinary matters is that the system does not include any provisions to bring closure to the victims. Indeed, victims are sometimes not even informed as to the outcome of the investigation.

You can make your own mind up about the behaviour of Caltech as an institution. All I’ll say is that far more people were affected than I was previously aware of.

Casey Handmer's blog

Caltech astrophysics and harassment: Lessons learned

Casey Handmer 2019

What is this?

In the wake of major catastrophes, it is common practice for organizations to publish a “Lessons Learned” report to help prevent future occurrences. The largest public catastrophe in which I’ve ever been involved occurred in the Caltech astrophysics department between 2010 and 2019. Former Caltech professor and internationally disgraced astrophysicist Christian Ott harmed, harassed, and abused numerous students, postdocs, and research fellows. Despite thousands of hours of investigation, no public “findings” or “lessons learned” report has ever been made available. This document is my attempt to fill this need.


It has been historically conventional to conceal this sort of institutional malpractice, with the effect that the hard-learned lessons are forgotten and that harassment, particularly of underrepresented minorities, is still common. The intent of this document is to undermine the traditional assumption that abused students will graduate or…

View original post 11,100 more words

`Pass-the-Harasser’ … to Turku

Posted in Education, Harassment Bullying etc with tags , , , on February 2, 2018 by telescoper

I noticed yesterday evening that there has recently been a substantial increase in the number of people viewing my posts about Christian Ott, the former Caltech Professor who eventually left his job there after harassing and committing ‘gender-based discrimination’ against two female students there.

It wasn’t difficult to find out why there had been an upsurge in interest: Christian Ott has got a new job, at the University of Turku, in Finland. As far as I understand the situation – and please correct me if I’m wrong – he was `head-hunted’ for this position, so his appointment was not the result of an open competition and it seems the position was specifically created just for him.

UPDATE: the post was advertised here, but the gap between the deadline for applications – 10th December 2017 – and the appointment being announced is too short to be consistent with the usual processes of academic appointments. Moreover, the advertised job descriptions includes teaching duties; see below for why this is relevant.

Not surprisingly both the appointment itself and the circumstances by which it was brought about have provoked considerable reaction. A group of Finnish astronomers and astrophysicists has written a Statement on Harassment, which you can sign in support (here if you’re Finnish and/or based in Finland) and here for other concerned academics. I have signed the second one.

I have two personal comments to make. The first is that I’ve seen people say that Ott should get a `second chance’, and it would be unfair for his past transgressions to force him out of academia.

This is what I wrote in an earlier piece about this:

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.

I think that makes it clear that I have no desire to see Christian Ott ruined, but I don’t think that means that I think due process should be subverted to help him, as appears to be the case here. In fact I’m bound to say that if I were a Head of Department I wouldn’t under any circumstances have offered this man a position, after what he did.

Had Ott committed a different disciplinary offence (such as plagiarism or other research misconduct) he would not have found it so easy to get another job than because it was `just’ harassment. Why should these offences be treated so differently?

Once again, research esteem seems to trump everything else. That attitude is one of the most poisonous elements in modern academia. The `Great Man of Science’ is indeed a dangerous myth.

The second thing is that, as far as I understand it (and again please correct me if I’m wrong), Ott’s new position is as an `independent researcher’ and he will have no teaching duties and minimal contact with students. I suppose that is supposed to make everything alright. It doesn’t. Indeed, there are many academics who would regard a cushy research-only contract as a reward rather than a cost. It’s a slap in the face for teaching staff at Turku that funds have been found to create a bespoke position in the way that has been done here.

As always, comments clarifications and corrections are welcome through the comments box.

UPDATE: 7/2/2018. The appointment of Dr Ott has been cancelled.

Christian Ott’s Resignation

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc with tags , , , on August 2, 2017 by telescoper

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…

The Search for Gravitational Waves

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 8, 2016 by telescoper

Regardless of what will or will not be announced on Thursday, I thought it would be worth sharing this nice colloquium talk by Dr Alan Weinstein of Caltech about the search for gravitational waves, featuring the Laser Interferometric Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO). I’ve picked this not only because it’s a nice and comprehensive overview, but also that Professor Weinstein doesn’t call them gravity waves!



Harassment and Confidentiality

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc 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.