Firing scientists for sexual misconduct is not enough


When Jason Lieb was a professor at the University of North Carolina, he was sleeping with one of his own graduate students. He was investigated by UNC for sexual harassment, and then left for Princeton. He left Princeton within a year, and was hired by the University of Chicago.  The search committee at Chicago was fully aware that he was having sex with his own graduate student at UNC, because Lieb told them this fact. And they hired him anyway.

Did I mention that Lieb has three concurrent R01s? You don’t think that’s a mere coincidence, do you?

The University of Chicago put prestige and money ahead of the fundamental safety of its own students. And then, Lieb raped one of the graduate students in the department during a retreat. I doubt this is the first such incident.

The University of Chicago was informed of a history of sexual harassment at UNC and Princeton. When he was at UNC, having sex with your own student was explicitly banned by the university. But the folks in Chicago said they couldn’t judge him without evidence. EVEN THOUGH LIEB OPENLY ADMITTED TO HAVE SEX WITH A STUDENT.

I wonder which university is going to hire Lieb next.

Here are some other scientists found to have committed sexual misconduct:

Christian Ott, CalTech. Geoff Marcy, UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. Timothy Slater, University of Wyoming and University of Arizona

And this is only within the last few months.

This is hideous, but am I entirely wrong for seeing the recent news as a step forward? Assault and harassment of women in science — and in everything else — has been the norm for far too long. Now, academic science, in part thanks to leadership in the Astronomy community, is actually doing something about some very high-profile scientists who have been the most overt in their misconduct. They apparently thought that their positions of relative power could shield them from their criminal acts. I find the fact that these people are now experiencing real consequences — and exposure of misdeeds to the public — an improvement over the shadows.

But it’s not enough.

Slater, Marcy, and Lieb were hired into their current posts after their misdeeds were already known to their colleagues on other campuses. It seems everybody was fine keeping their own mouths shut to get rid of the danger to their own students, only to enable further predatory behavior at a different institution. When we identify sexual misconduct, we cannot pass the buck to other institutions.

There has been concern that Ott has gotten off light at CalTech — he will have unpaid leave, including training in appropriate behavior. When he gets back to campus, he won’t be able to interact with students or underlings without direct supervision. If CalTech didn’t do this, then I presume what would have happened is that he would have been fired. And then like Lieb, would then just get hired by another university. I’m okay with a zero tolerance policy throughout all Science. But Science is not a monolith, and merely kicking the predators off campus only shifts them to another venue. I don’t have the answers. But I know that hiding what they’ve done, and letting someone else hire them without knowing the circumstances, is wrong. Obviously.

After seeing what Lieb and The University of Chicago has done, I thought the least I could do is discuss it here. How, as a community, should we handle harassers and assaulters, other than just firing them? I see what isn’t working, but I don’t know how to make things work.

By the way, here is the coda of a great post from Diana Crow about Lieb:

For too long the victims of harassment– often women and minorities, but not always– have been afraid to come forward with stories about sexual harassment in science.

They’re afraid that if they bring up sexual harassment, people will judge them based on their role in the harassment case rather than their scientific work.

I want that to change. Instead of students and lab technicians living in fear of bullies who end up running labs, I want the powerful “rising star” scientists–often white and often male, but not always– to be the ones who worry about what a sexual harassment scandal will do their standing in the field.Jason Lieb has some good ideas, and I hope he finds a way to share them with the molbio community, but at this point, it’s fairly safe to say he shouldn’t be trusted to run a lab or teach students. But even before The New York Times story broke, the mere possibility of Lieb’s harassment history stopped me from sharing his ideas.

The campaign to end sexual harassment isn’t just about addressing the human harms (although we should never lose sight of those); it’s also about how harassment tears a rift in the fabric of empirical science– by stopping people from being able to engage in and exchange ideas.I hope my sharing this account of Lieb’s science helps people realize what sexual harassment is costing science…but I doubt it will.

11 thoughts on “Firing scientists for sexual misconduct is not enough

  1. Be careful here. How can one separate consenting adults and predators? When the student feels they have no authority on this negotiation…..that is very bad.
    However, I know of many successful marriages created by meeting their spouse in this situation (not necessarily a faculty advisor but on the faculty). There are many famous husband and wife scientific teams and sometimes the women is the senior partner and sometimes it is the man! If a student felt he or she was compelled to date or be sexually involved with a faculty member…that is different but many faculty members are young and all humans are looking for love and sex. I would not cast a stone on this issue. It is so nuanced.

  2. While I rarely side with the abstinence crowd I’d actually say that the phrase “true love waits” is applicable here. If you fall in love with a student wait to express that until they are no longer your student. There is a real and important power imbalance between faculty and students and claiming that love conquers all doesn’t eliminate that. I absolutely agree that successful relationships can develop between students and faculty (or other scenarios, TA and student etc). I also think that if it’s the real thing then waiting or making changes (e.g. switching advisors, waiting until the course or degree are done to begin a reltionship) is the best way forward to protect students who are in potentially vulnerable situations.

    It’s also important to be clear that most of these cases do not involve consensual relationships but harassment and even assault. That’s not a fuzzy line.

  3. I’ve always felt that graduate school is basically a job, and it’s normal to develop relationships with people at work. You’re with them for 40+h a week after all. I have a friend who had a quite normal, healthy relationship with a prof. However, he wasn’t her PI. When it comes to PIs this is tricky because the PI has more power over your future than a boss at any other job. When I was an undergrad, there were 2 psych professors who were found to have repeatedly committed rape by coercing grad students in their shared lab to sleep with them using career threats (took 2 years to fire them due to the wonderful tenure system). The power imbalance is too great. A PI should never get involved with his/her own student, for many reasons, including the possibility that the student may feel some pressure to begin or continue the relationship when they don’t want to.

  4. Two separate comments:
    (1) Recent cases in the press have focused on the most serious types of harassment. It’s good to see. But it also begs the question, what if the situation doesn’t escalate to contact? I know of one case of a faculty member trying to prevent a student from graduating after she’d repeatedly turned down his advances. (He was on her committee.) He was eventually removed from her committee, but not before causing the student much distress. I imagine the other committee members knew why he was replaced, but to the student’s knowledge he was never sanctioned. Maybe the faculty didn’t consider it worth the trouble, since it hadn’t escalated to physical contact. But events like that contribute to the belief, held by both perpetrators and victims, that there won’t be consequences for committing or reporting harassment.

    (2) Let’s say someone gets fired and can’t get rehired in academia. On the one hand, that’s good because it holds people accountable. On the other hand, it just shifts the danger to a private sector setting, which, recent cases in the media have shown, often don’t do any better to protect women. Firing is a start, but it’s not that different from shuffling a problematic faculty member off to another academic institution.

  5. Thank you, Terry, for continuing to bring this problem to the forefront.

  6. Sexual harassment and assault aside (yes, these PIs should be fired immediately), but what happens when the student is the aggressor? I’ve also seen too many cases of PIs/professors having consensual relationships with their students, regardless of who initiated the relationship. This affects other students and creates an environment of favoritism and awkwardness. It’s unacceptable.

    At the graduate level, these students should know better than to have a relationship with their professor. There should be a consequences for both the professor AND the graduate student in this case. Tolerance of even a consensual relationship poses a liability for the school. I know of one case of a high profile and highly funded (and married) PI at NYU who was sleeping with his student. When he tried to end the relationship, she retaliated by threatening to go to his wife and the administration and claim sexual harassment. She also started refusing to do some of her work and made him write the papers and grants. How’s THAT for problems with a professor/student relationship? The administration was made aware of the situation but they brushed it under the rug because he brings millions of dollars into the school.

    • If a professor is sleeping with his student, and a student decides to tell the university and his wife, that’s not a problem created by the student, it’s merely the possibility that someone in authority might be held accountable for their misdeeds. Male professors are not victims when they sleep with their students, as the ones with supervisory authority is is their obligation to not engage in that behavior. They’re the ones in authority and it’s their professional responsibility to keep it in their pants.

      • Oh I agree 100% that it’s up to the person in authority to establish and enforce boundaries. But I do feel that at the graduate level, the student is old enough to know better and should also bear some responsibility for entering into a consensual relationship with their PI. To deter this kind of situation, both parties need to understand the gravity of wrongdoing. It’s like prostitution or drug trafficking – you have to prosecute both the seller and the buyer to deter the behavior.

        • True, especially when it’s sexual harassment/rape and there is a blatant abuse of power. But when it’s two consenting adults who knowingly and willingly engage in improper behavior, it also becomes about accountability.

  7. I am with Terry on this one. I liken it to a statutory rape situation. If a 14 year old girl is literally throwing herself at me who is 49, I will still be convicted of stat. rape if I decide to go ahead and have sex with her. I know its not the same as what you are describing Max but the underlying principle is the same.

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