Fearing a Colleague

Professor at UC Irvine takes to Twitter to demand action on her complaint against a fellow instructor, whom she views as a harasser.

December 18, 2018

A department chair at the University of California, Irvine, took to social media Monday to shame her institution, saying it had failed to protect her from a colleague’s harassment. She did so from home, saying she was unable to visit campus due to concerns about her safety.

The live tweeting attracted a major following, with commenters asking Irvine why it wasn’t doing more and why institutions don’t generally do more to defend the female academics -- and, in particular, female scientists -- they claim to value against harassment.

Irvine said Monday afternoon that it had addressed the situation and that it is "committed to providing an environment in which ideas and knowledge can thrive without fear of harassment, mistreatment or retaliation."

Kathleen Treseder, chair of ecology and evolutionary biology at Irvine, started her social media campaign against Irvine last week, saying she was staying home Thursday because she didn’t feel physically safe from a faculty member in biological sciences. She tagged the university and the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health to get their attention.

On Friday, dissatisfied with what she described as Irvine’s nonresponse, Treseder again tweeted at the university, asking her chancellor, “Please authorize your adminis [sic] to hire me a security escort so I can go to work today. I don't feel safe from one of your faculty members. Your admin has all the documentation. (You may remember me as one of Ayala's victims.) #metoo.”

By “Ayala’s victim,” Treseder was referring to a high-profile harassment case in which she, two other female faculty members and a student accused Francisco J. Ayala, a longtime professor of genetics and major university donor at Irvine, of harassment. Ayala resigned over the summer after an investigation, with the stipulation that he not attend future university events. Some colleagues publicly defended Ayala, and he said his effusiveness had been misinterpreted. But Irvine announced that it would remove his name from university buildings, graduate fellowships, scholar programs and endowed chairs.

The Ayala case figures into Treseder’s new complaint in that she alleges another faculty member is retaliating against her for it.

Treseder declined an interview request Monday, saying she was too shaken to talk. But she posted to Twitter some of what her colleague, Richard Symanski, senior lecturer of ecology and evolutionary biology, has allegedly said to her.

A handwritten note delivered on Halloween, which Treseder said was the first of multiple such missives from Symanski, is essentially an invitation to read his self-published memoir, Bad Boy Geographer. Sharing a copy of the book, Symanski wrote in the note, in part, “Since you found yourself in the middle of a highly visible sexual harassment issue, and now apparently strongly identify with the Me Too movement, you may want to read about the formal sexual harassment charge filed against me in 1995 at this very university, the very long chapter in this memoir titled, ‘The Inquisition.’”

He added, “Be warned that if you do not want to read about my life, and a good deal that revolves around sex and prostitutes, I strongly suggest you ignore the rest of the book … Based on the facts I have seen, I of course do have some thoughts and opinions on the Ayala case and the way it was handled.”

Treseder didn’t say what had happened between Halloween and now, only that it gets “worse.” But she shared parts of Symanski’s book, including a passage about a novel he once wrote that includes the murder of seven academics in an unnamed department at a Southern university. Symanski also said he’d been known to call himself by the name of the protagonist of that book.

Some on Twitter said the book was an implied threat, with a few linking the passage to former University of Alabama at Huntsville professor Amy Bishop’s real-life killing of three faculty members at a meeting in 2010.

“They were taken into a seminar room and, with one exception (a coward who jumped out the window instead of facing the killer’s humiliating charges), were killed with a sawed off shotgun,” Symanski's book says. “Nearly an entire academic department was eliminated.”

Other commenters remarked that the book included numerous derogatory statements about women, such as the following:

"All these 'poor' and 'victimized' and 'oppressed' and 'sensitive' women don’t have the intelligence to see that men saying they want to fuck them is an enormous compliment, and if they don’t like the compliment, they can simply say: Thank you very much, but I think you’re too ugly or too old or I’m simply not interested. The reason women can’t do this is that beside their precious 'dignity,' they have their victimhood to worry about, and their quite fragile angry feminist egos to worry about, and more than a small handful have an overriding desire to emasculate men and make up for all the poor treatment they believe they have received since Adam met Eve."

The NSF on Monday replied to Treseder to say it was listening and to advise her of its reporting mechanism for harassment. Earlier this year, the agency said it was moving forward with a plan to link funding to appropriate conduct.

Symanski did not respond to a request for comment. But he allegedly wrote in his Halloween letter to Treseder that he planned to file for retirement in March, although he’d rather not have teach for one last semester. Cynically, it appears he got what he wanted.

The university said in a statement Monday afternoon that its School of Biological Sciences and administration "intervened immediately as soon as we became aware of Treseder’s concerns” and that it’s been “working closely with all involved parties to reach a resolution for several weeks.” On its face, the account conflicts -- at least in part -- with Treseder’s in that it has in part responded to her requests.

The university said it was unable to share many details about a “sensitive, personnel-related” situation. But it said it could “confirm that we arranged for a police escort this morning and contracted for private security services beyond today.” Symanski will not be teaching at Irvine in the winter quarter, beginning Jan. 7, it said.

More generally, the university said its police department offers a safety escort service.

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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