Category Archives: academia

Three points on sexual harassment

So, thanks to the Harvey Weinstein story, sexual harassment is in the news again. The specific context this time is the entertainment industry, but it may well remind you of the ongoing endemic harassment in academia. In fact, there are some structural similarities between the two industries that make them prone to this sort of abuse.

Both are industries where there are far more people aspiring to careers in the industry than there are top-tier positions. For another, both rely heavily on patronage systems. Plus, both are imperfect meritocracies: favoritism and connections play huge roles in career success, but there is enough real meritocracy to provide a degree of plausible deniability.

Previously, I provided some guidelines for people in academia who are thinking about pursuing a colleague. If you think of yourself as being a genuinely “good guy” who wants to make sure you don’t cross the line, give them a read. But here are a few additional points to consider.

Point 1: Your workplace is not a singles’ bar

Whenever a case of sexual harassment comes up, one of the inevitable knee-jerk defenses is concern trolling about policing behavior in the workplace. “You can’t stand in the way of human nature!” “But what about true love?” Or, from Woody Allen, you need to avoid a “witch hunt,” where “every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself.”

The implication is always that if we stop people from “flirting” in the workplace, we will somehow be standing in the way of romance. Like, if you cut people off from hitting on their co-workers, they will all die alone.

If you’re an academic looking for romance, good luck to you! But do it someplace where the expectation is that other people are also looking for romance. Whether you’re looking for a life partner or a hook-up, there are plenty of apps and meet-ups and clubs and bars that people use as vehicles to meet romantic partners. Make use of one of those.

That is, when you go to work, you should be going to work. And you should assume that the other people there are there for the purpose of working. If you wink at someone at a singles’ bar, they may or may not be interested in you, but it is reasonable to assume that they have come to the bar open to the possibility of meeting someone. At work, that is not a reasonable assumption.

Now one of the defenses that gets wheeled out in academia is that it is natural to date people in your lab, or department, because you naturally have shared interests. Well, that’s what your Tinder profile is for, jackass. (“Passionate about long walks on the beach and invertebrate neuronal development!”) Plus, anecdotally speaking, the people I have heard articulating this excuse are almost entirely people with reputations for inappropriate behavior. So, don’t be that guy.

Point 2: If you’re dating “down,” you’re not actually looking for romance

In hierarchical systems like academia (or the entertainment industry), social relationships almost always have a strong hierarchical element. Even if two people are not in a direct supervisory relationship, there is very often a big power imbalance. Typically, one person is more senior, respected, connected, and generally influential than the other. Most academic fields are small enough that alienating a senior member of the field can do huge damage to your career, even if that person is at another institution.

People on the receiving end of this power imbalance are well aware of it, and they get a lot of advice, so I’d like to speak for a moment to the folks in a position of power:

Stop it.

If you’re a professor hitting on grad students, or postdocs, just stop. Yes, I’m sure you’re having some sort of crisis that is entirely sympathetic in an Updike/Roth sort of way, and I promise not to judge you harshly if you go out and buy a motorcycle. But quit hitting on people who are below you in the hierarchy.

If you’re a fifty-something man hitting on a twenty-something woman who works for you, the best-case scenario is that you are desperately grasping after your lost youth, that you’ve been conditioned to view younger women as sexually desirable, that you’ve been seduced by a narcissistic fantasy of academically and sexually mentoring a younger version of yourself.

And look, that’s pretty bad. But it still begs the question of why you’re looking in your own department, instead of going online. The answer is that you don’t want a relationship with an equal. You want a relationship with someone who can’t say no. The power differential is a guarantee of success.

And, of course, for many of you, the relationship is not even the primary goal. The goal is simply the exercise of power, whether you are embarking on a coercive relationship, or just seeing how many hugs and back rubs you can get away with. You’re like a toddler knocking over a tower of blocks, engorged by your own ability to make change in the world.

Stop it.

Point 3: People with power need to start putting themselves out there

There are a lot of good reasons why people who get harassed don’t speak up. Typically, they are in positions of little power, which is part of why they were targeted in the first place. For bystanders, the impulse to value peace over justice means that many people, including people who would never be harassers, will actively seek reasons to minimize or justify what happened. As a result, people who speak out about harassment, whether as victims or witnesses, often pay a very real price for that.

So, each person needs to decide for themselves whether or not they are willing to pay that price. And victims, in particular, should not be pressured to do so. However, if you have a position of power, where you have the ability to speak up on behalf of victims, you need to be honest with yourself about what that price actually is.

Here’s the thing. If you’re a student, speaking up may mean the end of your career, even if you are vindicated by the process. And that’s a heavy price to pay. But if you’re a professor, particularly one with tenure, you are in no such position. Yes, speaking up may cost you professionally. You may get invited to fewer conferences. You may get your grants funded at a lower rate. But other than in extraordinary circumstances, your career and livelihood are not likely to be in jeopardy.

Most people I know in academia are good, well intentioned people, people who do not actively participate in bad things. However, most are also extremely reluctant to speak publicly about injustice if there is a chance that there will be any sort of negative impact on their careers. And somehow we tend to act like that’s okay, like every professor is Jean Valjean, with a sister whose children will starve if they report a serial harasser to the Dean.

We need to acknowledge that yes, there is a cost associated with speaking out. But once you’ve made it past a certain point in academia, you can afford to pay that cost.

A lot of you went into your field in order to make the world a better place. Here’s your chance.

Balter Provides Some Background on Why Science Magazine Fired Him

Yesterday we learned that Michael Balter had been fired by Science magazine, and that it had something to do with his article last month on sexual harassment in academia. Today, he has published his promised blog post in which he has provided some additional background.

Based on the additional details he provides, it sounds like it was a combination of a couple of things.

First, a historical pattern of not being sufficiently deferential to the higher-ups. Particularly troubling was this tidbit:

I’ve already talked above about the culture at AAAS that allowed four colleagues to be fired precipitously in 2014, and will not elaborate on that here–except to say that just as I was beginning the Brian Richmond investigation, one of my editors asked me to delete a key blog post about that episode in which I criticized our Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt for parroting the party line put out by former AAAS CEO Alan Leshner. I declined to engage in this sanitizing of the historical record, not least because I consider that episode to be one of the proudest moments of my life. It’s not often that one gets to put one’s career on the line for something one believes in, and I have no regrets.

Second, it sounds like the editors, or at least some of them, were never fully on board:

But it is important to note that Science did not jump on the story when we first found out about the allegations concerning Richmond last August. There was discussion about whether we should focus on this one person, about whether Richmond and his alleged actions were important enough to write a story about, and related issues. I don’t think my editors will contest the fact that I pushed the hardest for us to do a story; but even after the Geoff Marcy sexual harassment case broke at Berkeley, and the astronomer was forced to resign, there was still a great deal of ambivalence about whether the Richmond case was newsworthy.

Balter seems to suggest that Science‘s reluctance was motivated primarily by an excess of caution — fear of lawsuits, and I’m sure that was part of the story.

But it is also important to keep in mind that Science is one of the most prominent mouthpieces of the scientific establishment. That’s one of the things that made the original article so powerful and important.

That’s not to say that the scientific establishment is pro-sexual harassment per se. But, the fact is that power, including sexual power, over young people has long been one of the implicit perks of success in academia. Some people exploit that power, and some don’t, but giving away power is rarely a high priority.

I’m not arguing for a conspiracy here. It’s just that the people closely associated with a publication like Science, whether as editors, or publishers, or authors, or journalists, are people who have risen to the top in the current system — often with good cause. But it is natural for them to be wary of things that challenge the status quo.

Natural, just not admirable.

As Balter notes, it will be interesting to hear what, if anything, Science says publicly about this. In the meantime, the good news is that there’s an excellent science journalist out there with some time on his hands. You should hire him.

Update: AAAS has issued this statement:

Michael Balter was provided notice on March 10, 2016 that his contract as a freelance writer for Science magazine was being discontinued. Mr. Balter has written many stories for Science‘s news section, including one published February 9, 2016 on a sexual misconduct case.

Science editors stand by the February 9, 2016 story as published. The goal of editing was to ensure that the story was both powerful and fair.

AAAS remains committed to providing leadership on stopping sexual harassment in science and empowering women in STEM fields.

Which, you know, okay.

Science Magazine Fires Michael Balter, Who Wrote That Sexual Misconduct Article

About a month ago, Science Magazine published an excellent long article on a sexual misconduct case involving Brian Richmond, the Curator of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History. The article framed the case in the context of the recent rash of high-profile misconduct cases at top universities and the culture of harassment throughout academia.

[Aside: If you’re an academic who is struggling to figure out when your behavior does or does not constitute harassment, I wrote this handy guide for you.]

It’s an infuriating issue, in part because it is typically so difficult to convince people in positions of authority to take it seriously. So, this very serious treatment in one of the flagship science journals seemed like a promising development, maybe even an indication that we — the academic community — were turning a corner of sorts.

Then, today, Michael Balter, the author of that article, announced on twitter that Science had fired him.

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Balter has promised a blog post to explain the details, but it sounds like yes, it was related to that article. Specifically, he says that his firing stemmed from conflicts in the run-up to the publication of the article, where he pushed back hard against the editors in order to not “water down” the article.

Update: Balter’s blog post is now available, as is my follow up.

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Hard to imagine what Science was thinking here. The only two scenarios I can make work in my head are 1) he really pissed the editors off, and was basically fired for insubordination, or 2) Science has been getting flack from somewhere, and had to appease someone. Presumably someone who does not

This little tidbit makes number 2 seem more likely

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Very much looking forward to that explanatory blog post — as well as whatever Science has to say for themselves.

Looks Like PLOS ONE Screwed Up the “Creator” Retraction, Too

Okay, that “Creator” paper has officially been retracted by PLOS ONE (previously, and here). Based on what we now know, that looks like the wrong decision — at once unfair to the authors and completely failing to address the actual issue.

When PLOS ONE first announced its intention to retract the article, they stated that “the peer review process did not adequately evaluate several aspects of the work”, which makes it sound like they found problems other than inclusion of the “Creator” language that meant it should not have been published. Now that the formal retraction has happened, here’s the official statement:

Upon receiving these concerns, the PLOS ONE editors have carried out an evaluation of the manuscript and the pre-publication process, and they sought further advice on the work from experts in the editorial board. This evaluation confirmed concerns with the scientific rationale, presentation and language, which were not adequately addressed during peer review.

Consequently, the PLOS ONE editors consider that the work cannot be relied upon and retract this publication.

The editors apologize to readers for the inappropriate language in the article and the errors during the evaluation process.

This is infuriatingly vague, but it makes it sound as if the primary issue was the “Creator” language. The authors have insisted that this was a translation problem. In the context of the rest of the paper, that seems entirely plausible to me. In support of this explanation, check out this comment from over at Complex Roots (spelling corrected):

I am so surprised that so many people assert that there is no way a translation error though they don’t speak any Chinese.

In fact, there is special phrase in Chinese, which is “zao wu zhe”. If we translate it literally and directly into English, it is “the one who creates” or ‘creator’. Ancient Chinese people use it a lot in poems, way long before Christian is introduced in China. The meaning is same as “nature” because they believe that nature ‘creates’ everything, not a special man, or a God. There is a sentence in a poem written in Song Dynasty (more than 1000 years ago) by Su Shi, which saying that ‘we can enjoy the the breeze of the river, the moon between the mountain; this is the inexhaustible treasure that the creator have, and all of us can appreciate them together’. So here ‘creator’ means nature. (poem link:

Or you can use google translator to check this page (a Chinese dictionary):
It will tell you that ‘zao wu zhe’, which means who created all things. It refers to nature.

However, in English, Creator is epithet of God because people firstly say it believe God creates everything. That’s the difference. The author used capitalized ‘Creator’ because he thought that the underling meaning of this idiom in Chinese and English is same.

Unless there were technical issues with the science, the authors should have been given the opportunity to edit the paper to correct the offending language.

As I argued previously, the fact that this error slipped through is troubling, not because it plays into some creationist agenda, but because it reveals a review and editorial process that involved absolutely no care or effort.

Now, it seems that PLOS has responded to the twitter/comment outrage by throwing the authors under the bus, while giving no reason to believe that any other manuscripts, present or future, are going to receive any more care and attention than this one did.

“Creator” Paper Retracted at PLOS One

Well, true to their word, the editorial staff at PLOS ONE acted quickly to review that paper from January that interpreted their study of biomechanical characteristics of hand coordination as evidence of “proper design by the Creator”. (Look here for background.) They issued this statement today:

The PLOS ONE editors have followed up on the concerns raised about this publication. We have completed an evaluation of the history of the submission and received advice from two experts in our editorial board. Our internal review and the advice we have received have confirmed the concerns about the article and revealed that the peer review process did not adequately evaluate several aspects of the work.

In light of the concerns identified, the PLOS ONE editors have decided to retract the article, the retraction is being processed and will be posted as soon as possible. We apologize for the errors and oversight leading to the publication of this paper.

The paper’s first author, Ming-Jin Liu, has posted multiple comments asserting that there was no creationist agenda, and that this was simply an issue of non-native English speakers misunderstanding the implications of using “the Creator” when they had meant “natural selection”.

Personally, I’m inclined to believe this explanation, and if this were the only problem with the paper, I would let them make a correction. If, in each of the three places where the Creator is credited, the authors were to cite their findings as “evidence of exquisite adaptation” or some such thing, the meaning would be largely unchanged, and no eyebrows would be raised.

Here’s the thing, though: at this point, I have no confidence that there is not something else dreadfully wrong with the paper. Including three references to “the Creator” — one in the abstract — raises such an obvious red flags that even a cursory read should have identified this as a problem. The capital C makes the word jump out if you even scan the abstract.

I think I would feel the same way if the paper were littered with errors involving there, their, and they’re: it’s a mistake a non-native speaker could make, and it would not make the science wrong. But the only way those errors make it all the way through to publication is if multiple people fail to do their jobs.

So what this says to me is that none of the people involved in the editorial and review process put in even a modest effort. I don’t know if there are major, even fatal, technical flaws with the paper. However, I am confident that if there are major flaws, the careless review process applied to this paper would never have identified them.

The question, then, is how much of an outlier this was. Can we trust that the rest of the articles at PLOS ONE are actually going through a legitimate review process (as imperfect as that is under the best of circumstances)? Or should we assume it has slid into the predatory open-access model of publishing?

In short, I don’t really care whether or not this particular paper is retracted. I do care whether or not PLOS can do something to shore up its review process.

Or is this another piece of evidence in favor of post-publication peer review? It is certainly true that an advantage of that model is that avoids creating a false sense of authority.

One bright side of the controversy is that it provides an excuse to revisit this piece of awesomeness from the New York Dolls:

“Mystery of the Creator’s Invention” at PLOS One


PLOS One published a paper in January with the title “Biomechanical Characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living“. And the abstract contains this line:

The explicit functional link indicates that the biomechanical characteristic of tendinous connective architecture between muscles and articulations is the proper design by the Creator to perform a multitude of daily tasks in a comfortable way.

The main text contains two more references to “the Creator”. The Introduction notes that

Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention.

And the end of the Discussion:

In conclusion, our study can improve the understanding of the human hand and confirm that the mechanical architecture is the proper design by the Creator for dexterous performance of numerous functions following the evolutionary remodeling of the ancestral hand for millions of years.

Today, someone seems to have noticed this “Creator” stuff and brought it to the attention of the journal, which issued a statement that they’re looking into it.

So what happened?

This does not read to me like it is part of some sort of conspiracy to infiltrate the biology literature with intelligent design propaganda. However, it is a good illustration of the issue with the PLOS One model as it is implemented in practice.

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PLOS One is based on an interesting idea. The papers are peer-reviewed, but evaluation is explicitly supposed to focus on technical accuracy, ignoring “impact”. This was a brilliant idea. Historically limited space (in print) and a pathological pursuit of citation metrics means that lots of good science has a hard time getting published, either because it is not flashy enough, or because journals are reluctant to publish things that do not fit squarely in the domain of what they imagine their readers’ interests to be.

In a sense, PLOS One aims to split the difference between traditional publishing and the preprint / post-pub-peer-review model. It is someplace where you can publish interdisciplinary work, weird little fun studies, negative results, etc. But in principle you get the benefit of knowing that the work itself has been vetted.

Or at least as vetted as you ever get with peer review, which is to say, imperfectly and highly variably.

As a result, PLOS One publishes lots of cool stuff, and it provides a valuable service to the community. But when something like this happens, it makes it seem like the editorial policy in practice is something more along the lines of “just make sure the check clears”.

A Field Test for Identifying Appropriate Sexual Partners in Academia

Last week’s issue of Science included an article on yet another case of sexual harassment in academia — this time in Physical Anthropology. This case involves a research assistant who claims that her supervisor at the American Museum of Natural History, Brian Richmond, sexually assaulted her at a conference in Italy. I won’t go into the details here, but I would encourage you to read the excellent article by Michael Balter.  The good news is that, the response of the institutions involved, and the broader field, seems to have been pretty appropriate, despite the fact that Richmond is a prominent member of the field.

Incidents like this typically happen in the absence of third-party witnesses, and we wind up with nothing to go on but the statements of the accuser and accused. This provides room for rationalization by the morons who reflexively defend anyone in a position of authority. And it leaves the rest of us (trained as we have been by political “journalism”) to assume that the truth must lie somewhere in between. And often — though perhaps not in these most recent cases — that uncertainly provides universities with an excuse for not taking substantive action against prominent (and well funded) faculty.

With that in mind, I think it’s worth looking at Richmond’s side of the story. From Balter’s piece:

Richmond, who was also at the meeting, has vigorously denied the accusations in a statement to Science and in email responses. (He declined to be interviewed in person or by telephone.) The encounter in the hotel room, he wrote, was “consensual and reciprocal,” adding that “I never sexually assaulted anyone.”

The piece also describes a long-term pattern of behavior by Richmond at the Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya, which led to his resignation from his role as an instructor there. Again, Richmond’s side of the story:

Richmond notes in his statement to Science that before the incident in Italy, “there had never been a complaint or report against me throughout my career,” including from students at the field school. He stresses that he “voluntarily resigned my affiliation” with the field school, and explained in an email that he hoped his resignation “would help address the anger Wood reported to me” from those accusing him of inappropriate behavior.

Richmond also says that his relationships with female researchers were consensual. Nevertheless, he says in his statement, “I take full responsibility for exercising poor judgment in the past by mixing my professional and personal lives, including having consensual affairs, and I have changed my thinking and my behavior. I am deeply distressed to learn that I have upset the women involved and colleagues in my field. I regret that I was not sensitive to how my academic position could impact the dynamics of consensual relationships.”

Here’s the thing that I don’t understand. Even if we assume that the truth is exactly Richmond’s version of events, his behavior was wildly inappropriate in a way that should be obvious to anyone who does not have a vested interest in perpetuating a culture of harassment and exploitation in academia.

I mean, it’s great that he now understands that “mixing [his] professional and personal lives” is a bad idea and that his “academic position could impact the dynamics of consensual relationships”. But there is no excuse for his not having understood these things before. It’s just not that complicated.

Here’s the rule: When you have substantial power over someone, don’t hit on them.

If you do, best case scenario, whatever happens between you is tainted by the fact that you can’t be sure if they’re really into you. Worst case scenario, you don’t care if they’re really into you, which puts you somewhere on a scale that runs between “manipulative creep” and “rapist”.

So how do you know if you’ve got substantial power over someone? Well, if you’re Curator of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History, you sure as hell have a lot of power over a research assistant who works for you. When you’re a prominent anthropologist, you sure as hell have a lot of power over young anthropology students attending a field school in Kenya. But what about the rest of us?

The Power of Destruction

Academia is hierarchical, perhaps irrevocably so. Senior academics have power over junior academics, because academic careers depend on connections and recommendations. Moreover, an academic career can easily be derailed by a phone call from the right person. As Paul Muad’Dib says, “The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it.”

Kyle MacLachlan Dune.jpg

It doesn’t matter that you would never destroy someone’s career just because they spurned your advances. If you could — or if they perceive that you could — the power dynamic is in there. And that academic power structure exists in addition to all of the power structures of society — the ones based on gender and race and age and socioeconomic status and everything else. You have somewhat less “power of destruction” over, say, a white male student whose parents are both professors at your university. You have more over a minority female student whose family lives in poverty in a third-world country, whose English is not great, and whose visa will be revoked if she leaves grad school.

To be clear, you should not sleep with either of those students. But the extent of your ability to threaten, coerce, and manipulate is very different in the two cases. Or rather, there is a big difference in the extent to which any advances on your part can not fail to be perceived as coercive and threatening.

A Field Test for Identifying Appropriate Sexual Partners in Academia

I’m going to assume that I’ve already alienated the remorseless sexual predators, and that if you’re still reading, you’re someone who wants to do the right thing, that you don’t want to exploit your power and reputation. But even with the best of intentions, it can be hard to tell where exactly the line should be.

The problem is that power differentials are often invisible to the people holding the power. To the extent that they do see their power, they feel entitled to it, and probably view themselves as benevolent dictators who would never abuse it. That makes it all too easy to ignore, or rationalize away the hazards of a sexual encounter with a student, employee, or junior colleague.

These issues are always matters of degree, and the right answer may depend on the details of the situation in a way that can be captured only very approximately by rules like “no relationships between a faculty member and a student in their department”.

I’d like to propose a thought experiment that you can deploy when you find yourself asking, “Should I hit on this person?”

Imagine that this junior person in your field — maybe a grad student or a postdoc — made a completely false allegation against you. You’ve never even been alone in a room together, but they accuse you of sexual assault. Maybe they’re just a pathological liar. You’re the victim here, but you feel a moral responsibility to make sure that this person doesn’t wind up in a position where they have authority over other people. Because you’re a hero. If that were to happen, could you stop an unsuspecting department from hiring them?

If you hypothetically could do this, then you have no business getting involved with this person — or anyone else with whom you have a similar relationship.

For fans of the mixed metaphor: If you insist on shitting where you eat, pick on someone your own size.

If we’re talking about a student, postdoc, research assistant, etc., who is under your subordinate, you absolutely have this power of destruction — so write that one off right away.

But what about other students in the department, or at other institutions? This is where the thought experiment is useful, I think. For example, if you’re an untenured assistant professor, you probably don’t have power of destruction over the career of a student who works under the chair of your department. There are a lot of other reasons why a relationship is probably a bad idea, but your power over the student might not be one of them.

On the other hand, if you’re one of the biggest stars in your field — you bring in millions of dollars of grant money, and your name comes up every year around Nobel-Prize time — you probably have power of destruction over not just all of the students in your department, but those at other schools as well. In fact, you would do well to steer clear of relationships with junior faculty in the field.

If you’re applying this to yourself, I think it’s important to use the test as I’ve described it — imagining the scenario where you’re the victim — as it will make it easier to recognize the power you have.

If you’re applying it as a third party, it’s maybe easier. If you can imagine saying to someone, “Don’t alienate Professor Whatsit. That could really mess up your career”, the corollary is that a relationship between that person and Professor Whatsit would also be inappropriate. Or, more concisely:

If Pat can’t afford to screw over Chris, then Chris has no business screwing Pat.

A Final Note on True Love

One of the objections that is always raised in these contexts is this: What about true love? What if your one true soul mate just happens to be a student in your laboratory? I’m skeptical of this argument on its face, given that most people just happen to find their soul mate — the only person they could possibly be with — within the vanishingly small fraction of the population they actually encounter. But, for purposes of argument, let’s entertain it.

If your defense is that each of you can’t possibly live without the other, that’s fantastic, and I wish you all the happiness in the world. The more senior of you just needs to quit your job. You can probably move to a new university, or, depending on the situation, maybe you just need to move to a different department.

What’s that? You say it’s hard to find faculty jobs? Well, you could leave academia! After all, yours is a love for the ages, one for which you would be willing to make any sacrifice, right? That’s what you told the folks in HR, anyway.

No? You couldn’t possibly rob the world of your singular intellect? And isn’t it unfair of the university to punish you for falling in love? Why should you have to sacrifice your career? Hmm, this is starting to sound less like “Star-crossed lovers find redemption in May-October romance” and more like “Entitled asshole deals with mid-life crisis through sexual exploitation of vulnerable subordinate while cynically exploiting naive romanticism to cover it up.”

Innocent Until Proven Guilty is Nonsense for Faculty Hiring

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.

Exactly how many sexual predators is UC Berkeley protecting?

Last week, the internet briefly paid attention to the issue of sexual harassment in academia when Buzzfeed published a story about Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy, who had been accused of “inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses, and groping.”

Despite having been found guilty by Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD), Marcy received what amounted to a stern talking to. Marcy gave a non-apology apology in the form of an open letter,  and he was put on some sort of double-secret probation, amounting to zero tolerance for future infractions, a set of “consequences” that the university described this way: “We consider this to be a very serious matter and the university has taken strong action.”

And that probably would have been the end of it, had the OPHD’s findings not made their way into the hands of Buzzfeed reporter Azeen Ghorayshi, and subsequently been picked up by others, including Berkeley Professor Michael Eisen and Jezebel.

But the story went viral, 22 of the 30 non-Geoff-Marcy faculty in the Berkeley astronomy department signed a letter calling for Marcy’s resignation, and an online petition started among the broader academic community. Shortly thereafter, Marcy resigned.

Marcy’s resignation was greeted with enthusiasm from most quarters, including Berkeley’s Chancellor and Provost. It is tempting, then, to think of this as a victory, and it absolutely was. But the saga exposes just how pathological and corrupt the system is.

There are a few things to keep in mind here.

  1. The system did NOT work. Some small piece of justice was meted out because a reporter got hold of the results of the OPHD investigation, which were not intended to be made public. If the system had worked as intended, the world at large would never have known about Marcy’s behavior.
  2. This went beyond sexual harassment. The fact that the media is referring to this as “sexual harassment”, rather than “sexual assault”, is disturbing, and seems to misrepresent the details of the allegations (of which Marcy was found guilty).
  3. UC Berkeley never did the right thing. Unless you count accepting Marcy’s resignation letter, or the person who leaked the investigation documents to Buzzfeed.
  4. This went on, and was covered up, for years. There are reports of harassment on the part of Geoff Marcy dating back at least to 1995, and clear evidence that Marcy’s behavior was brought to the attention of both the department and the university at least ten years ago. And, as is so often the case, Marcy’s behavior seems to have been an open secret in the astronomy community.
  5. The astronomy department stepped up, sort of. Although the current chair of the astronomy department signed the letter calling for Marcy’s resignation, his initial response (in an e-mail sent out to the faculty) was to urge the other faculty members to support Marcy in this difficult time. Plus, note that there are eight faculty members in the department who did not sign the letter. Some are adjuncts, and some are dual appointments with other departments, and they may simply not have had the opportunity to sign. But if I were considering becoming a student in that department,  I would certainly want to ask some questions before committing to work for or with any of those eight.
  6. Berkeley’s hands were tied, and that’s not a good thing. Even as the UC Berkeley top brass were celebrating Marcy’s resignation, they were defending their initial inaction, citing the lengthy and expensive process required to actually punish a tenured professor. First of all, “We could have done more, but it was too much work” is a terrible excuse. Second, UC Berkeley, the institution, is responsible for the policies that made actually dealing with Marcy difficult or undesirable.

All of this brings be back to the original question. Exactly how many professors are there at Berkeley (and every other university, for that matter) are being protected by the system? How many engaged, and continue to engage, in abusive, predatory behaviors and were given a light slap on the wrist behind closed doors? How many were not even given that, because the victims were discouraged, implicitly or overtly, from filing a formal complaint?

This one goes in the win column for justice, but not because the system worked. Geoff Marcy is leaving Berkeley because the system was circumvented. And that’s not a solution. The internet can not be responsible for shaming universities into doing the right thing.

And while this Geoff Marcy may be gone (although he may well land on his feet elsewhere), it is important to remember that he represents just the tip of a huge back-rubbing, kissing, groping iceberg of Geoff Marcys — and that if the system had worked as intended, we might never even have known about him.