The ETH Zurich in Switzerland dissolved its institute for astronomy in August.

ETH-Bibliothek/Wikimedia Commons

Swiss university dissolves astronomy institute after misconduct allegations

In August, ETH Zurich in Switzerland quietly dissolved its institute for astronomy. Today it launched an official investigation into allegations that led to its closure: that a leading professor there mistreated graduate students for more than a decade, while the administration ignored complaints against her. The professor’s spouse had been head of the institute.

The allegations came to light Sunday in a story in the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper, which did not name the professors involved. The former head of the institute was cosmologist Simon Lilly, and his wife is astrophysicist Marcella Carollo. Both are now on sabbatical.

The university administration today issued a statement describing how several students brought complaints to the university ombudsperson early this year, charging that “a female professor” had “demonstrated inept management conduct toward many of her graduate students.” The university’s executive board took on the case in February. It decided in March that the affected students would be reassigned to a different supervisor and that the professor would be given “close support” if asked to supervise students in the future.   

The statement adds that the institute was disbanded because having a married couple—hired together to launch the institute in 2002—serve as professors in the same institute “was not ideal,” and reorganization was necessary “to reform the inappropriate personnel structure as quickly as possible so as to rectify the situation.” Carollo and Lilly were given separate professorships, and other staff were reassigned to a new Institute for Particle Physics and Astrophysics. The external inquiry “allows us to take an even closer look at the facts and decide whether further measures still need to be taken,” ETH President Lino Guzzella said in the statement.

The accusers’ identities have not been made public, but—according to the NZZ report—students charged that Carollo expected “superhuman commitment,” including being reachable on weekends, rarely taking vacations, and participating in evening meetings that would sometimes go until midnight. According to the report, Carollo would criticize students’ postures and tell them to spend less time on makeup and more on research. The article says that one-third of Carollo’s Ph.D. students failed to graduate, and many of her postdocs left the field after they failed to publish enough papers. An accompanying article says a key problem is the Swiss academic system, in which Ph.D. students are selected and essentially hired by a single professor rather than being accepted into a department, as is common in the United States. When conflicts arise, students have few places to turn.

Carollo and Lilly have said they can’t comment on the situation, but several colleagues and former students have come to their defense. In an open letter of support, they write that Carollo and Lilly are leaders in the field who have “built an absolutely world class astronomical institute in less than a decade.” The letter notes that Carollo’s first five Ph.D. students all are now in tenure-track positions—something that happens to only about 15% of Ph.D.s, the letter says. It adds that a 30% dropout rate is not unusual in prestigious Ph.D. programs. “She has been unusually dedicated to her students,” the letter says. “If at times she comes across as a relentless task master, this owes to her commitment to her students and desire to maximise their career chances.”

Two colleagues from the ETH physics department note that Carollo is one of two women among 50 physics professors at the university. “Thinking that any woman can function well without issues at ETH is … folly,” says George Lake, a physics professor who signed the letter. “If they aren’t as aggressive as males, they get steamrolled. If they are even half as aggressive as males, they are witches.” Carollo could be tough on her students, he says. However, “I could list 5% to 10% of my colleagues who are guilty of the same and get no blowback.”

Ursula Keller, a physicist at ETH and another signatory to the letter, agrees. “We need to realize that unconscious bias plays a role in how behavior is perceived,” she says, especially in such a predominantly male department. She also says the university exacerbated the situation because it has no standard procedure for dealing with misconduct allegations. She urged the university in May to launch a formal inquiry and give Carollo a proper chance to defend herself. She says today’s announcement is a step in the right direction. “It is great that they have started a process that can accommodate this complexity and give everyone a fair hearing. Something like this can make a university stronger.”