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Christian Ott and other Caltech astronomers are housed in the Cahill Center on campus.

Christian Ott and other Caltech astronomers are housed in the Cahill Center on campus.

Lance Hayashida/Caltech Strategic Communications

Caltech suspends professor for harassment

For what is believed to be the first time in its history, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena has suspended a faculty member for gender-based harassment. The researcher has been stripped of his university salary and barred from campus for 1 year, is undergoing personalized coaching to become a better mentor, and will need to prove that he has been rehabilitated before he can resume advising students without supervision. Caltech has not curtailed his research activities.

The university has not disclosed the name of the faculty member, but Science has learned that it is Christian Ott, a professor of theoretical astrophysics who studies gravitational waves and other signals from some of the most violent events in the cosmos. Born and educated in Germany, Ott joined the Caltech faculty in 2009 and was awarded tenure in early 2014.

According to Ott’s website, as of last week he was advising five graduate students. He is the principal investigator on two active grants from the National Science Foundation, including a prestigious, 5-year CAREER award for promising young investigators. Part of that award helps support a summer workshop for dozens of graduate students in astrophysics from around the world.

The case comes to light as harassment has become a major flashpoint within the astronomy community in the wake of an investigation by the University of California, Berkeley, that found astronomer Geoffrey Marcy had committed serial harassment over a decade (Science, 23 October 2015, p. 364). The university faced a storm of criticism after giving Marcy little more than a warning; he ultimately resigned. Caltech took a different approach, says Fiona Harrison, head of Caltech’s physics, mathematics, and astronomy division. “I think that Caltech was extremely responsive and proactive and did the right thing,” she asserts.

The Caltech investigation began in June 2015, after two graduate students filed complaints under Title IX of a 1972 federal law aimed at preventing gender discrimination in higher education. The university has released neither the names of the complainants nor the details of the complaints. Two faculty members led a committee that found the complaints to be valid and recommended action. This past September the provost meted out the penalty, Harrison says, and an appeal was denied later that month.

In an email to Science, Ott wrote that “I cannot comment on, confirm, or deny anything at this time.”

The university issued a brief statement in late September saying only that there had been a “violation” of university harassment policies and that it had taken “disciplinary action.” More details became known last week, after a website posted a two-page letter from Caltech’s president, Thomas Rosenbaum, to faculty and students.

The 4 January missive, which includes the actions taken against Ott, described “[t]his painful incident,” as well as the university’s plans for improving support for all graduate students. Those steps include forming a council that will conduct a campus-wide review of “student experiences with their advisors,” the addition of staff to assist graduate students, and initiating activities, such as discussion groups, aimed specifically at supporting female graduate students.

The 3-month gap between the two statements, Harrison says, was the result of university efforts to balance privacy and transparency. The goal of last week’s letter, she says, “was to make clear that the university has absolutely no tolerance for harassment and discrimination.”

Meg Urry of Yale University, president of the American Astronomical Society, says that she’s heartened by Caltech’s response. “The letter says the institution is committed to doing better and that it plans to do a variety of things to make women feel welcome and supported on campus. So good on them.”

Those who have studied gender disparities in science say that the broader challenge for Caltech and other elite research institutions is creating a more welcoming environment for women. That may require increasing the number of women in certain scientific fields. (There are roughly six men for every woman among faculty in Caltech’s physics, mathematics, and astronomy division, and in engineering and applied science the ratio is nine to one.)

“The research has shown that there’s such a thing as a critical mass [in the number of women],” Urry says. “And until that happens, you just can’t assume that there will be a culture of equity.”

Large egos may also contribute to the problem, Urry believes. “The more practitioners in a field talk about themselves as the second coming, the fewer women there are in that field,” she says. “It may be a chicken and egg phenomenon: Do women avoid those fields, or does the culture work to exclude them?”

Yesterday, a member of Congress asked federal officials to weigh in on whether universities have a responsibility to share the results of a Title IX investigation of a faculty member with a new employer if that person changes jobs. Representative Jackie Speier (D–CA) says that the current rules allow universities to “protect sexual predators,” referring to those found guilty of harassment.

Ott, whom Harrison refers to only as “the faculty member,” has begun the coaching program, which “is specific to his particular situation,” she says. It is not part of the regular orientation on harassment given to faculty members and students, she notes.

Harrison says “a third party” is mediating the faculty member’s interactions with his graduate students. The university decided that such an arrangement was the best way to intervene while allowing the students to remain on course for their degree. Rosenbaum’s letter explains that the faculty member must exhibit “a demonstrable change in behavior and mentoring” before he is allowed normal interactions. Harrison says she is responsible for determining “when and if” those changes have taken place.

The faculty member was banned from campus for a year “for the protection of students,” Harrison says. His courses have been reassigned, she adds. At the same time, Harrison says “there are no restrictions on continuing with his research.”

*Correction, 12 January, 4:45 p.m.: Our story improperly described the composition of the investigating committee. It was led by two Caltech faculty members, not Fiona Harrison, who was not a member of the committee.