Francisco Ayala resigned from the University of California, Irvine, effective 1 July, in the wake of a sexual harassment report.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Report gives details of sexual harassment allegations that felled a famed geneticist

The investigative report that triggered the ouster of prominent evolutionary geneticist Francisco Ayala from the University of California (UC), Irvine, found that his behavior included telling a pregnant colleague “you’re so huge” and regularly putting his hands under a female administrator’s jacket and rubbing them up and down her sides. According to the report, he told a female professor that she had been so animated while giving a talk that he thought she would “have an orgasm.” In another instance, he invited a junior professor in a crowded meeting to sit on his lap, saying he would enjoy the presentation more that way.

The 97-page report, completed in May and obtained by Science, describes a long-standing pattern of behavior by Ayala that continued even after he was warned to stop in 2015. The report detailed off-color remarks and repeated unsolicited compliments on women’s physical appearances—behaviors witnessed by one or more of the 61 people interviewed for the investigation. The investigators said women felt professionally undermined by his conduct and they concluded that Ayala, 84, violated UC Irvine’s sexual harassment and sex discrimination policies in the cases of three of the four women who lodged complaints against him. In response, the university terminated Ayala on 1 July and plans to strip his name from its science library and biology building.

In responses included in the report, Ayala strenuously denies most of the allegations. He told investigators that the entire complaint of Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) professor and chair Kathleen Treseder, who reported the “you’re so huge” and orgasm comments, “was a lie.” “I saw my compliments as courtesies. And they turned those courtesies into sexual harassment,” Ayala told Science in an interview today.

“I have never intentionally caused sexual harassment to anybody,” he wrote in an email to UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman days after the probe was launched. “To the extent that my actions may have caused harm to others … I apologize from the deepest of my heart and of my mind.”

“I’m just shocked that this man’s life was ruined over this collection of reactions to his behavior,” says Elizabeth Loftus, a UC Irvine experimental psychologist who has vocally supported Ayala. After reading the report, she said the “thin” allegations “are far, far from the obviously bad behaviors that we want to be punishing. I feel like: ‘Who’s next?’”

But Jane Zelikova, an ecologist at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and a founder of the international advocacy group 500 Women Scientists, says: “No form of harassment is OK. … He could have corrected his behavior. He did not. Being fired for doing something that is illegal is justice.”

“Unlike many harassers who have sex with students or pressure them directly for sex, Ayala did not cross those boundaries,” notes Ann Olivarius, a senior partner at McAllister Olivarius in Saratoga Springs, New York, who specializes in sexual harassment and reviewed the UC Irvine report at Science’s request. “But he clearly made multiple women feel degraded. … Senior university officials warned him to stop acting in these ways, but he continued.”

“Norms are changing really fast and I think this 84-year-old got caught in a norm shift," adds Robert Cook-Deegan, a science policy specialist and historian of science with Arizona State University who is based in Washington, D.C.; he also read the report.

I just learned that women don't like to be told they're beautiful, but I know you don't mind.

Francisco Ayala to an assistant dean, as quoted in a University of California, Irvine, investigation report

Ayala was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1980 after doing pioneering work in Drosophila speciation. In 1995, he was president of AAAS, which publishes Science. In 2011, Ayala gave UC Irvine $10 million, which was dispensed in $2 million annual allotments over the following 5 years. His firing has drawn praise from some scientists and criticism from others on the UC Irvine campus and in Ayala’s native Spain. Critics questioned whether he received due process, and urged the university to detail the charges against him. Until now, those specific charges have not been publicized.

Ayala’s behavior extends back to 2004 and he was cautioned about it well before the current investigation began in November 2017, according to the report. One witness recalled wearing a conservative, button-down shirt while being interviewed for a tenure-track job by Ayala in 2004. She told investigators that she was shocked and discomfited by Ayala’s focus and comments on her appearance.

In 2015, Ayala made the "sit in my lap" comment to complainant Jessica Pratt, an assistant teaching professor, as she prepared to present at a crowded faculty meeting. Ayala admitted the comment to investigators, calling it a one-time lapse showing “a horrendous lack of judgment.” (A graduate student on whose dissertation committee Ayala served and who was interviewed as a witness described a separate occasion on which she said that Ayala invited her, too, to sit in his lap during a meeting.)

Pratt complained to the then–EEB department chair, prompting Ayala to visit Pratt in her office, according to the report. Ayala told investigators that he “apologized profusely” to Pratt, telling her he intended the comment to be playful, like he was addressing a niece or granddaughter. But when Pratt told Ayala that then–department chair and others had overheard the comment, a fact corroborated by investigators, Ayala called her a liar. She lodged an informal complaint with UC Irvine’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity. Pratt told investigators that Ayala’s continued emphasis on her appearance had “started to make her question whether he respected her work. … She even began to question her own merit as a scientist.”

As a result of Pratt’s complaint, Associate Chancellor Kirsten Quanbeck warned Ayala to watch his language with women and told him that his conduct was viewed as unwelcome and was out of line with university policy. The chair of the EEB department gave him a similar warning, according to the report.

However, Ayala’s behavior continued. The report makes clear that Ayala’s habit of kissing women on both cheeks on greeting and his regular compliments on their appearance were unwelcome to some female students and staff who, because of his power, felt unable to complain. His expressions of pleasure at encounters with female graduate students in the mail room or elevator were so frequent that students nicknamed them "the mail room comment" or the "elevator comment."

Franciso Ayala’s $10 million, 2011 gift helped fund the University of California, Irvine’s School of Biological Sciences, which is being stripped of his name.

Alicia Robinson/Orange County Register via Getty Images

One complainant, Benedicte Shipley, an assistant dean in UC Irvine's School of Biological Sciences, felt she had no choice but to put up with his attention because of his power as a major donor, she told investigators.

"I just learned that women don't like to be told they're beautiful, but I know you don't mind," Shipley recalled Ayala saying in 2016, rubbing her sides while kissing her cheeks—a behavior that occurred regularly, she said. A male professor noted the encounter and asked Shipley afterward whether she was all right, according to the report.

Shipley told investigators she was relieved when Ayala’s attention shifted to Treseder, whom she said Ayala was “glued” to at a department social event not long after. Distressed, Treseder asked a male colleague, who corroborated her claim, to attend events with her. 

The report details how in 2016 Ayala met with Treseder to tell her he was nominating her for membership with NAS. She told UC Irvine that Ayala spoke extensively of the process of blackballing NAS nominations, which she interpreted as a reminder of his power to scuttle her nomination, and that he sat behind her at her computer and put his hand over hers on the mouse. According to the report, Treseder "felt uncomfortable but did not want to say anything because [Ayala] was nominating her.”

Ayala denied touching Treseder or saying that one member could blackball a nomination, which he told investigators was untrue. However, investigators felt that the preponderance of evidence—the standard used for Title IX investigations—supported Treseder’s version.

[Ayala] has engaged in a campaign with the highest University officials to influence the outcome of this investigation.

University of California, Irvine, investigative report

In early November, before the complaints against Ayala were filed, Treseder, who had recently been named the department chair, proposed a code of conduct concerning sexual harassment at a faculty meeting. Ayala pushed back, telling her not to share the code with the "ladies" in the dean's office because they wanted him to hug and kiss them.

In the fourth complaint, graduate student Michelle Herrera alleged that Ayala put his hands on her bare shoulders—a behavior Ayala admitted to—and leaned his front against her back as she sat at a picnic table. Ayala vigorously denied leaning against Herrera. UC Irvine investigators concluded that the incident probably occurred but could not conclusively be said to be gender-based as Ayala might have leaned on a man in the same way.

The report also states that Ayala “has engaged in a campaign with the highest University officials to influence the outcome of this investigation.” It says that he wrote to Gillman and Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, pointedly reminding them of his financial and academic contributions to UC Irvine. According to the report, Ayala told senior UC Irvine investigator Erik Pelowitz that the probe “needed to end quickly and in his favor and [that] he had lawyers waiting if [it] did not.”

In an interview with Science today, Ayala countered, “I didn’t say anything about lawyers.” He added that he wanted to avoid a protracted legal struggle so he could focus on his science.

The case highlights a deep disconnect between how Ayala perceived his actions and how the women received them, notes Alexandra Tracy-Ramirez, a lawyer with HopkinsWay in Phoenix who specializes in gender discrimination and who also reviewed the report. "Professor Ayala repeatedly said he would never intentionally harass anyone. I don’t see a reason not to believe him," she says. "But it still stands that there are many instances of [his] conduct that complainants and witnesses found uncomfortable, offensive, belittling, or unwelcome. … Even the lowest-level kinds of behaviors can add up to substantial impact over time."

Adds Olivarius: “Dr. Ayala’s very public punishment will send a loud signal that times are changing—that harassment … does not mean just extreme misconduct.”

*Update, 17 August, 9:30 p.m.: Science has removed a link to the report in response to a recent request from several people close to the case. 

*Update, 24 July, 4:10 p.m.: This story has been updated to include additional comments from Elizabeth Loftus and Jane Zelikova.