Public Shaming

U.S. representative shares a previously confidential report about sexual harassment by an astronomy professor who went on to teach elsewhere and announces plan to require colleges to tell other institutions about such findings.

January 13, 2016

U.S. Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, is no stranger to women’s issues and has previously advocated for more accountability for colleges and universities concerning campus sexual assaults. So it was perhaps unsurprising that she weighed in on a matter of increasingly public concern -- that of sexism in science and, in particular, some institutions’ tendency to quietly allow professors who sexually harass students to move on to other institutions. The phenomenon has been called "pass the harasser."

Specifically, Speier proposed legislation that would require colleges and universities to reveal the findings of investigations of alleged violations by students, faculty and staff under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 -- which prohibits sex-based discrimination -- to their new institutions.

“I plan to introduce legislation to require universities to inform other universities of the results of a disciplinary proceeding,” she said. “When students, faculty or staff whose conduct violated Title IX transfer to another institutions, the university they are moving to should be aware of their past conduct."

But Speier’s tactic -- to reveal these kinds of findings against one professor in particular, to make her point -- surprised even the most ardent advocates for women in the sciences. Many called it a powerful instance of public shaming of which other harassers will take note, while some questioned whether it was the right move. Either way, it got people talking Tuesday.

Standing on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, Speier -- next to a poster featuring an image of a telescope pointing at the words “Stop Sexism in Science” -- referenced the recent case of Geoff Marcy, who resigned his astronomy professorship at the University of California at Berkeley after it was revealed that he had sexually harassed students for years. Then Speier said she’d been alerted to more harassment by several “brave women,” this time at the University of Arizona. She asked to enter into the record a report by Arizona concerning the conduct of Timothy Slater, a former professor of astronomy there who now holds an endowed chair in secondary science education at the University of Wyoming.

“This report was sealed for over a decade while Dr. Slater went on with his career,” Speier said. “His example shows why so few women continue careers in science and engineering. Some universities protect predatory professors with slaps on the wrist and secrecy, just like the [Roman] Catholic church sheltered child-molesting priests for many decades.”

Speier continued, “The incidents described in this report are lurid and disturbing. One graduate student was told regularly by Dr. Slater that she would teach better if she did not wear underwear. He asked another graduate student to give women pointers on oral sex techniques.”

Slater himself, according to the report, admitted that he gave an employee a vegetable-shaped vibrator and that he frequently commented on women’s looks to employees and students, Speier said. And members of her staff spoke with one female graduate student -- who has since left astronomy -- who was required to visit a strip club in order to discuss her work with Slater, she said.

Another former graduate student said Slater asked her when she was planning on having sex at his house, Speier added, since many other students had. Speier said the woman transferred out of Slater’s lab, losing years of work.

Speier’s remarks were brief -- about four minutes -- but caused digital jaw dropping as academics watched live on C-Span and, later, in YouTube clips. Some activists for women in the sciences said they’d heard that Speier had become involved in the issue, but had no idea she’d address it as she did, in so public a forum.

“Reaction to Rep. Speier’s statement this morning about women in science: Finally! Someone speaking the truth in a clear and unambiguous way!” tweeted Chiara Mingarelli, Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow in astrophysics at California Institute of Technology, for example.

“Yes! So excited to see Rep. Jackie Speier trying to build a mechanism so sexual harassers can't swap around universities,” wrote Sarah Tuttle, a research associate in astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin.

Kathryn B. H. Clancy, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who’s studied sexism in the sciences, also tweeted, “Rep. Speier, killing it in her discussion of harassment in science.”

Slater, the professor Speier discussed, did not deny that an investigation had occurred, but said that some of the incidents were described without appropriate context. There's more on that below.

Astronomy and Beyond

The problem isn’t just with astronomy, others pointed out. But astronomy has long had a reputation as being relatively inhospitable to women and it’s seen some high-profile cases of harassment. Those include that of Marcy, who was alleged to have harassed students on several campuses, with arguably minor disciplinary action from Berkeley (which said its hands were largely tied). Most recently, Science reported that Caltech suspended Christian Ott, a professor of theoretical astrophysics, for gender-based harassment. (In an email to Science, Ott said he couldn't confirm or deny the report.)

The American Astronomical Society discussed the issue broadly at its annual winter meeting earlier this month). And Meg Urry, the society’s president, wrote about the issue this week for CNN, saying a society survey indicated some 82 percent of respondents had heard sexist remarks from their peers, 44 percent heard sexist remarks from supervisors and 9 percent experienced physical harassment from peers or supervisors.

“The [society] is taking steps to solve the problem of harassment in astronomy,” Urry wrote. “It helps that there are many women astronomers these days.”

Joan Schmelz, deputy director of the Universities Space Research Association at Arecibo Observatory and chair of the astronomical society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy from 2009-2015, has long worked to bring harassment to light. She applauded Speier’s move, saying her “proposed legislation will be a great first step in changing the current system.” That way, she added, “anyone who has violated the sexual harassment policy at one university could not simply start over at another university.”

He Didn't Want 'Any Surprises'

There's no doubt “pass the harasser” is a problem when it comes to both students and employees. Such scandals have erupted in college sports and in disciplines outside the sciences, such as philosophy. But did Arizona pass Slater on to an unwitting Wyoming? The answer appears to be no -- but because Slater brought it up voluntarily.

“It would have been me that brought it up,” Slater said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed after being what he described as blindsided by Speier’s remarks. Slater said he disclosed the allegations against him when he was being vetted by Wyoming in 2008 because, at the time, the 2004 Arizona investigation was known to many in his discipline. And he didn’t want there to be “any surprises” for Wyoming down the line, he said.

Chad R. Baldwin, spokesman for Wyoming, corroborated that account, saying in a statement that the allegations against Slater were brought to the university’s attention in the hiring process. Wyoming inquired further and found that there were “no barriers to his hiring," Baldwin said.

Slater said he didn't have a copy of the report to which Speier was referring, since it was supposed to remain confidential to protect students. He said he wondered how Speier had obtained her copy and whether it was authentic, and that he was worried some of the details she disclosed even in her brief speech -- such as that one accuser left his lab -- could “out” the witnesses.

Slater didn’t deny outright any of Speier’s claims but said that they’d been taken out of context. He also didn't deny being a harasser by some definitions, but said he'd changed a lot since 2004. He said he never offered a vibrator to anyone, for example. Rather, he said, two people affiliated with the department who lived together exchanged gifts of a pickle-shaped vibrator and chocolate handcuffs at a large holiday party he hosted at his home.

Instead of an individual investigation against him, Slater described the 2004 inquiry as part of a broader investigation into the climate for women in the astronomy department. That inquiry determined that sexual innuendo and banter were both wanted and unwanted, and that faculty and students did a generally poor job of maintaining professional and personal boundaries, he said. Members of the department received harassment training and other interventions, and the issue was resolved, he added.

Slater said he was never again accused sexual harassment at Arizona or at Wyoming, and that he’s never sought to keep his past a secret. He’s even blogged about it, he said.

“This is bizarre,” he said of the day’s developments. “I’m not sure when there are other examples out there why [Speier] picked mine.” He said he never spoke with anyone from her office about the report, but that he’d heard in recent months some astronomers were contacting graduate students and others, trying to root out harassers in the field.

“I think there’s quite literally a witch hunt going on in the astronomy community,” Slater said. “They probably see me as a target because I haven’t really been secretive about this.”

Speier, after her remarks, released a copy of the redacted Arizona report. It backs some of Slater’s claims -- including that harassment was occurring across ranks and that the university sought to investigate a generally hostile climate in astronomy. But it also says Slater was named as a respondent based on early findings, and that he’d violated the university’s sexual harassment policy by making regular unwanted and unsolicited sexual comments. (The university found there was insufficient evidence to back retaliation claims made by two separate accusers.)

Contrary to Slater’s explanation, the report Speier shared alleges that Slater was accused of giving sex toys and chocolate handcuffs to a graduate student, and that Slater admitted giving a sex toy to a female graduate student in the course of the investigation.

In another example, Slater was accused of saying he would have invited a student over to swim, but decided against it because he knew she’d bring a bathing suit. Slater denied saying that during the investigation, saying he was not “exclusionary” by nature.

Four separate witnesses made numerous, similar claims. Slater denied some and admitted others -- such as that he’d probably told a witness to repeat him or herself, because a passing woman was too distracting. He described himself as "sexually overt," according to the report.

Christopher Impey, a distinguished professor and astronomy chair at Arizona, said he hadn’t and couldn’t authenticate the report because it was a private, internal document, and he was only the deputy department head at the time of the investigation. Following the investigation but not as a result of it, he said, he attended a training with the entire department to increase awareness among faculty, students and staff about such issues.

Chris Sigurdson, a spokesman for Arizona, said the university did what it was supposed to do in 2004 in "ending" activities that created a sexually hostile workplace. It originally launched the investigation after it learned some would-be complainants were worried about coming forward, he said.

“Our concern now is for the witnesses who cooperated with the university and gave testimony expecting it would only be used internally,” he said via email. “The [report] was released in error, and we asked that all copies be destroyed. Apparently, that was not the case, and we’re concerned about how the report’s publication could affect those witnesses.”

Impey, meanwhile, said Speier is to be “commended for being a champion of the women who were adversely affected, and for trying to make it less likely that serial offenders remain under the radar.”

Asked about Speier’s proposed legislation, Slater said that if universities used to try to keep quiet instances of sexual assault or harassment, “I think the pressure is exactly the opposite now. … Universities have very specific mandates from Title IX to be sure they’re monitoring and preventing sexual harassment by their employees.”

Anita Levy, of the American Association of University Professors, said having disciplinary records follow a faculty member from one institution to the next “is a new one for us.” The association’s due process policy regarding sexual harassment doesn’t even begin to address or even “envision” the idea, she added.

AAUP does know that procedural protections for faculty members accused of sexual harassment at many institutions don’t measure up to AAUP-recommended standards, she said, and an association committee is currently working on a report on academic freedom and the “uses and abuses” of Title IX.

For that reason, Levy said she’d be concerned about a mandate requiring that disciplinary records be passed from one institution to another “when the original proceedings may have been severely lacking in procedural protections, and thus the findings questionable -- even if that means some genuine serial harassers may slip through the nets.”

Lots of legal and technical questions about Speier's proposal remain. But as she's still working on drafting her bill, no additional details on just how it might work were available Tuesday.

Asked whether there was a “witch hunt” in astronomy, Schmelz said that if there really were “‘witches’ out there, you would want dedicated, ethical, knowledgeable people hunting them.”

But astronomers shouldn’t be worried about witches or witch hunters, she said. They "should, however, be worried about sexual harassers,” such as those the Berkeley and Arizona investigations revealed.

Asked whether Slater was the right poster boy, given that he’d voluntarily disclosed the allegations against him, Speier said via email, through a spokesperson, that it’s “not sufficient to rely on perpetrators to voluntarily disclose their own history of harassment in job interviews, nor can we confirm what [Slater] actually told Wyoming.”

From a public policy standpoint, she added, “We can't simply trust the better angels of people's nature and unfortunately we can't rely on universities to do the right thing every time, either. Federal law should require disclosure. I'm interested in what Arizona told Slater's next employer, not what he told them.”


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