Vigilante Astronomy?

Anonymous astronomers object to some of their peers' efforts to name and shame known harassers in the field.

January 20, 2016

Is there a backlash to the backlash against sexual harassment in astronomy? A group calling itself the Astronomy Underground sent an open letter to leaders of the American Astronomical Society on Tuesday alleging inappropriate, vigilante-style attempts to root out harassers in the discipline.

“We ask [the American Astronomical Society] Council and the [society’s Astronomy Education Board] to publicly explain how these actions have been allowed to occur for so long, and with what license [the society] has acted to investigate its members, damaging their careers, their personal lives and the health of the society in the process,” reads the letter.

The Astronomy Underground alleges that the society is somehow involved in such inquiries, and demands that it publicly explain how it intends to “1) repair the damage done to those who have been ‘investigated’ under the [society’s] name, 2) redirect the astronomy experience for our youngest members who have now spent their entire careers focused on these matters rather than on the science and 3) repair the reputation of astronomy on the national landscape, for the purposes of future recruitment and funding.”

The letter follows several recent high-profile cases in which known harassers have been named and shamed by their peers and, in one case, by a U.S. congresswoman. In October, Geoff Marcy stepped down from his professorship in astronomy at the University of California at Berkeley after a series of news reports revealed that he’d been harassing women for years on multiple campuses. Many criticized Berkeley’s response to its own investigation -- to warn Marcy not to repeat the behavior, or risk dismissal, rather than move to fire him immediately -- and called the public pressure campaign leading up to his resignation a success.

Most recently, U.S. Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, revealed embarrassing details of a sexual harassment investigation involving astronomer Timothy Slater, formerly of the University of Arizona (where the harassment took place) and now an endowed chair in secondary science education at the University of Wyoming. Speier said she’d been alerted to a 2005 report concerning Slater by several female astronomers, and she referenced it to introduce forthcoming legislation that would force colleges and universities to disclose sexual harassment violations of past students and employees to their new institutions.

Slater said he’d been blindsided by the congresswoman’s comments and said there was a “witch hunt” happening in astronomy to uncover past harassment concerns, some of which already had been dealt with -- his included. He said he’d participated in climate and other training, as mandated by Arizona following the decade-old investigation, and that he hadn’t engaged in harassment since. He said he didn't know why it was being brought up again, especially in so public a forum.

The Astronomy Underground letter addresses similar concerns to those raised by Slater, and alleges that the society is implicated in such efforts to name and shame harassers. It links to a post on the Astronomy Underground’s Facebook page, allegedly depicting an email from a student of astronomy, concerning sexual harassment in the field. It names Slater and his wife.

“The Astronomy Education Board of the [society] is collecting evidence about them in order to write a statement from the [society] and/or that people in the community can sign regarding future interactions with the Slaters (or lack thereof, we hope),” the email says. “Obviously no pressure for those people, but if you get the impression that they want to be part of the organizational-scale conversation I think that would be a good outlet.”

The email lists a member of the society’s education board as an anonymous contact for complaints. Neither of those named in the email replied to a request for comment.

Rick Fienberg, a spokesman for the astronomical society, said the association was still digesting the Astronomy Underground’s letter and would likely issue a formal response. In the meantime, he said, the society has been proactive about addressing harassment concerns in the field, including by creating a harassment hotline to report any incidents of harassment at a recent disciplinary meeting in Florida (he was not aware of any calls). But the society is not conducting any investigations into individual members’ behavior, outside of confidential investigations related to alleged violations of its anti-harassment policy, he said.

Such investigations are typically carried out by an impartial council member or officer selected by the society's Executive Committee. Those found to have violated the policy face a range of possible disciplinary actions, from a verbal warning to ejection from a meeting or activity in question and the reporting of the behavior to the respondent's home institution. Repeat offenders may be subject to further disciplinary action, such as being banned from future society events. Fienberg stressed, however, that the society isn’t a “policing” organization and has little authority over members' conduct outside of its own events.

Slater said he didn’t think that most people on the society’s governing council knew what was going on outside of official channels, but that the “documentation is pretty clear,” and the group of actors within the organization working to create a list of known harassers is “highly organized.” He named Joan Schmelz, the Universities Space Research Association's deputy director at Arecibo Observatory and chair of the society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy from 2009-2015, as one such actor, and accused her of improperly inserting herself into the Marcy case in various ways.

Schmelz said she had nothing to do with Slater's case but assisted complainants in the Marcy investigation because they came to her -- not the other way around.

“My involvement in sexual harassment cases has always been led by the needs/wants of the victims,” she said via email. “They contact me. They decide to file a complaint or not. Most do not. They decide to contact the media or not. Most do not.”

Addressing allegations that some astronomers’ efforts to halt harassment are distracting astronomers from their work, Schmelz said the “harm to the astronomy community has been done by those found in violation of sexual harassment policies. It is these harassers that have damaged the careers of young scholars and kept them from fulfilling their potential as scientific researchers.”


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