In an investigation published today, Science reveals that a Caltech professor received a one-year suspension for sexually harassing his students. A physics professor was academically punished by his institution to protect students?! That’s not how this usually works at all! Thank you, Caltech.
In June 2015, two graduate students at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena filed Title IX complaints, alleging gender discrimination in higher education. The subsequent university investigation found “unambiguous gender-based harassment” of both students, handed out a substantial punishment to an unnamed faculty member, and denied his appeal a month later. At the start of this year, the president and provost wrote a joint letter acknowledging the situation.
All of this was done anonymously, but from their investigation Science identified the professor as Christian Ott, a theoretical astrophysicist specializing in gravitational waves. Their attempts to contact Ott were met with, “I cannot comment on, confirm, or deny anything at this time.”
Sexual harassment is part of the toxic culture impeding women who dare become scientists. No incident is a good incident, and we wish no one ever had to undergo the trauma of being betrayed by their mentor. But it feels really, really good to write one of these stories to congratulate an institution on standing up for their students, not calling down public outrage for another incident swept under the rug. Thank you, Caltech, for upholding your legal and moral obligation to those under your care. Thank you for being the harbingers of a slow, painful change in a culture of cover-ups and denial. Just, thank you.
The professor is suspended without pay for a year, and banned from campus for the same time period. He’s also undergoing coaching on how to be a better mentor (we’re hoping it starts, “Step 1: Don’t harass your students.”), and will need to provide evidence of his rehabilitation before resuming his duties. To avoid interrupting his students’ studies, he’s still permitted to continue his research, although only by communicating through third party mediators.
We’re sure to hear more details of this in coming days.
Update 1: Feeling too happy about justice served? Go read this Mashable investigative report into Timothy Slater, the astronomy professor who switched universities from Arizona to Wyoming to escape the report on him blatantly sexually harassing his students. Classy.
Update 2: Well, that was fast! Here’s Buzzfeed’s investigative report into Christian Ott. Key points: He fell in love with one of his students, fired her because of it, then confessed it all to another of his students. Unrelated to the Title IX complaint, he also abruptly fired other students for apparently arbitrary reasons. Overall, the sappy overdramatics and erratic behavior read more like an overwhelmed angsty middle schooler than a mentor and university professor.
Top image: Caltech’s Astrophysics department is being fantastically sane and sensible in its response to sexual harassement. Credit: Ben Lepley