Innocent Until Proven Guilty is Nonsense for Faculty Hiring

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Good news this week for the Astronomy community! Unlike the previous three cases, the latest instance of high-profile professorial sexual misconduct to hit the press comes out of molecular biology. So, yay?

Jason Lieb resigned from the University of Chicago after he was found to have violated the University’s sexual misconduct policy. According to the report from the New York Times:

The professor, Jason Lieb, 43, made unwelcome sexual advances to several female graduate students at an off-campus retreat of the molecular biosciences division, according to a university investigation letter obtained by The New York Times, and engaged in sexual activity with a student who was “incapacitated due to alcohol and therefore could not consent.”

Notwithstanding the fact that “sexual misconduct” seems to be a pretty euphemistic description of what sounds like criminal sexual assault, this is actually a pretty heartening story in a lot of ways. The University of Chicago seems to have acted quickly, recommending that Lieb be fired. That’s in sharp contrast with (and perhaps in reaction to) the handling of other cases, where it often seems that universities’ first impulse is to protect the faculty (and their research funding), only doing the right thing if and when the public finds out, and the negative press coverage threatens to become too costly.

However, there are still some questions about Chicago’s decision to hire Lieb in the first place. There were apparently rumors about Lieb, and suggestions that inappropriate sexual behavior was the reason for his having left Princeton and, before that, the University of North Carolina. However, accusers were anonymous, universities “could not comment on personnel matters”, and so . . .

At Chicago, the hiring committee struggled, Dr. Gilad said, to balance a desire to protect students with a desire not to convict someone without evidence. He said Dr. Lieb had not been found guilty of any offense at North Carolina. The department of human genetics voted unanimously to hire him.

But at the same time,

Separately, Dr. Gilad acknowledged, during the interviews of Dr. Lieb, he admitted that he had had a monthslong affair with a graduate student in his laboratory at the University of North Carolina.

So Lieb did something completely inappropriate (relationship with student in his lab), which makes the rumors feel a little less unsubsantiated. But the hiring committee fell back on the old “Well, he wasn’t formally found guilty, so our hands were tied.”

This is what always happens, in faculty meetings and comment sections — invocation of “innocent until proven guilty”. While that’s an important standard to uphold in criminal court, it’s not the standard for hiring decisions. And when hiring someone for a faculty job, it is a dangerous and destructive impulse.

A faculty job is different from (most) other jobs because of the structure of academia. Professors have enormous power over the students and postdocs who come through their labs. And there’s not an easy way to fix that power structure, because it is baked in.

If you’re a student or postdoc, your career is profoundly dependent on the good will of your advisor. You need an advisor who is willing to go to bat for you, in letters of recommendation and in person. And sure, that might be somewhat less true if there were some magical way to reduce the role of cronyism in academia, but just a bit. If you’re actually engaged in cutting-edge research, the number of people in the world who can really evaluate your work is small. And the number of people who will actually spend the time to really evaluate it is smaller still — probably mostly your co-authors.

Combine that with the extreme competition for faculty jobs, and you’ve got a system where crossing your advisor is career suicide, even if you’re in the right. People who have blow-outs with their advisors rarely land academic jobs. (Many wind up with jobs of various sorts, but rarely tenure-track positions at research universities.) In my observation, it’s mostly when the blow-out happens early on, and someone else in the department adopts them. And even then, the disruption may set them back months or years.

That puts a much greater burden on the hiring process — or at least it should. Every time you hire a new professor, especially if you’re bringing them in with tenure, you’re putting them in a position of authority over students. And if they abuse that authority, those students will have to choose between tolerating that abuse and risking their careers, no matter how good your grievance process is.

Hiring faculty should be more like hiring a babysitter. You don’t have a moral obligation to hire the skeevy guy with the windowless van just because the jury found insufficient grounds to convict him after his previous two babysitting gigs.

Now, if you were considering Lieb for a position at a research laboratory where he would be working with peers, it would be reasonable to give him a bit more benefit of the doubt. Or at least it might have been reasonable before the whole sexual assault thing.

But if you’re thinking of handing him the keys to a fiefdom where young people are entirely dependent on him, and you ignore red flags, you are absolutely responsible for the damage he causes when he turns out to be exactly what he seems.

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