#Penalty

August 7, 2013

Geoffrey Miller, a psychology professor, has been censured by the University of New Mexico, two months after he sent out a fat-shaming Twitter post that caused an angry Internet uproar.

It may have taken Miller less than a minute to write out this message and hit the “Tweet” button: "Dear obese Ph.D. applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth." But the consequences of that tweet will last much longer.

According to a university memo released on Tuesday, Miller — who has tenure at the University of New Mexico and was a visiting professor at New York University this summer — will be required to:

  • Not serve on any committee involving the admission of graduate students to the psychology department for the duration of his time as a faculty member at the university.
  • Work with the faculty co-advisers of the psychology department’s diversity organization to develop a plan for sensitivity training on obesity (for himself to undergo, said a university spokeswoman). The plan must be approved by a co-adviser or by the chair of the department.
  • Be assigned a faculty mentor for three years with whom he will meet on a regular basis to discuss potential problems.
  • Have his work monitored by the chair of the department.
  • Apologize to the department and his colleagues for his behavior.

Miller did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

After sending out two apology tweets, Miller made his Twitter account private and has not tweeted since. Miller told University of New Mexico psychology department chair Jane Ellen Smith that his tweet was part of a “research project.” This prompted the Institutional Review Board at the University of New Mexico as well as the IRB at New York University to open separate investigations of Miller’s claim. Both universities found that his tweet could not be considered "research” that would have required approval by an institutional review board.

Smith told Inside Higher Ed in July that she would seek input from faculty as well as Miller himself before making recommendations about his action. The University of New Mexico memo sent out today said that after methodical review, it was determined that Miller violated three different UNM Faculty Handbook policies regarding integrity and honesty. The first was a "Vision, Mission and Values" section, the second was a section on the "Rights and Responsibilities at the University of New Mexico" and the third was the "American Association of University Professors Committee B's 1987 Statement on Professional Ethics."

“The university is sensitive to the impact of the tweet and the subsequent media coverage on potential applicants to UNM and is very aware of the potential for harm,” the memo said.

Additionally, the memo mentions that “Smith is bringing an obesity stigma expert to UNM to help educate the community on this important issue.”

Bringing training to the entire university is an important step, said Sondra Solovay, who is the director of an company that trains higher education clients in harassment and discrimination prevention and who is also a law professor at San Francisco Law School.  

However, she noted that “obesity” is a word that may create stigma. Faculty members need to think about weight as a “diversity issue,” she said. Solovay hopes the university takes training a step further by incorporating weight-related stigma training into its other diversity or harassment prevention training programs.

Training about weight diversity shouldn’t be an “afterthought,” she said.

Solovay said the university’s requirements for Miller seem appropriate, but she thinks that besides not being able to serve on admissions committees for graduate students, he should not be permitted to evaluate graduate students either.

“I would say that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to be evaluating the work of students while he had this unaddressed bias,” Solovay said.

But Miller’s insensitive tweet may have some positive outcomes.

“I’m really hopeful that this will be an experience that we can actually learn from. This sort of stigma is very pervasive,” she said. “He’s certainly not the only person that is impacted.”

Results from a recent study seem to suggest that weight bias is a very real thing in graduate admissions: By following the progress of 954 applications to graduate programs, researchers at Bowling Green State University found that when face-to-face interviews are conducted, those with a higher body mass index are less likely to be offered a place than they are without face-to-face interviews.

 

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