When the trash gets passed


The term “passing the trash” is commonly used to describe when sexually abusive K-12 teachers and priests get quietly shifted to new schools and parishes, where they assault more people.

We also use this term in higher ed, when professors who commit sexual misconduct are allowed to slink out of their universities with the approving silence of their administration, only to harm more students in their new jobs. If you are a regular reader of recommended reads here — you’ll be familiar with deep list of the cases where the university-level conspiracy fell apart, and it leaked into the news media. The first ones that come to mind are Leib, Marcy, Slater, and Harwood. And, Christian Ott, whose pillow-soft landing was in the news this week, after he harassed his own students at CalTech.

After the media publicizes these misdeeds, what are the consequences for the perpetrators? The sick truth is that they typically end up much better off than their victims.

As I was reckoning with a passing-of-the-trash situation in my own professional life, word came down the pike that Ott landed a university research position in Finland. Considering Ott’s egregious actions at CalTech, it’s hard to imagine why or how a university could choose to put their own colleagues at risk. Let’s hear their explanation:

The University of Turku has a policy of zero tolerance towards harassment and bullying. Dr Ott’s past was known during the recruitment process, and the matter has been carefully considered… Reason for Dr Christian Ott’s recruitment to the University of Turku has been the strong evidence of his scientific merits of which several statements were received.

Here’s how I read that statement:

Blah blah blah. Blah blah blah. We prioritize his career over the safety of people on our own campus.

Is that a fair reading on my part? I dunno, but that’s how I feel when I read it.

The University of Turku has no good excuse for hiring Ott when there are many people of at least equal talent, who have no history of sexual misconduct, who are waiting in line for such positions. He’s in a research position, dealing with folks in the research community, and inevitably they’ll be enabling interactions involving power differentials with people at and beyond their institution.

For all I know, they’ll be requiring a year of training, he’ll be wearing a body camera, and have a person shadowing him 24/7. My guess is, though, that they will be falling far short of such a standard. And since they absurdly proclaim “zero tolerance”, then it will be even more difficult for women on campus to report incidents to the university.

In the Ott situation, the university is going in with open eyes. I imagine they think they are capable of protecting everybody from campus from him, which is of course not possible. (As an expert has pointed out to me, universities are perhaps the worst kind of workplace for preventing sexual misconduct.) They didn’t have to put their community in this situation, as there are people who are far more qualified (in part, because they’re not harassers). Unlike the Ott situation, in some cases, universities make a hire and legitimately don’t know what they’re getting into, and then find out afterwards.

All places of employment should have a climate and regulations that universally prevent misconduct, but I don’t think such a place really exists. To some extent, knowing about a history of claims of harassment can help an institution take steps to deter harmful actions. I would hope, for the safety of my own community.

In academia, serial sexual harassers are still getting away with it. It happens everywhere, and only a few names have made it into the news. These guys continue to get promotions, get big grants, and get more people in their sphere of influence to exploit and victimize. And when they do get caught, firing them isn’t enough.

It’s imperative to focus on the victims of sexual harassment. When a harasser is chasing women out of the academic field, then getting this harasser a new job should isn’t even any kind of priority.

We have to stop passing the trash. We’re not even close to that point though, because universities keep misconduct a secret, and victims get further victimized when they speak out. And, so, the trash ends up getting passed.

Based on the rates of sexual harassment, and the mobility of academics, I’m going to assume that both your workplace and mine are a recipient of the trash. And that presumably your administration has gotten rid of a faculty or staff member without letting it be known to their new employer what they were getting into. We’re in a world where the trash gets passed, rarely with brazen openness (like the Ott situation) but far more often, in secret. And what harassers do is harass.

For this reason, I’m concerned about what happens to these harassers after they get fired. Because, somewhere, somehow, the trash does inevitably get passed. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of victims, of course, to worry about what happens to these men down the road. Regardless, unless these guys are pushing retirement or are independently wealthy, then, someway, they’re going to end up somewhere getting a paycheck of some kind. And in any kind of employment capacity, there will be asymmetries of power of one kind or another, and an opportunity to harass women.

They shouldn’t be running a research lab, or supervising students, or managing funds that support staff, or being part of collaborative projects. We shouldn’t allow them to be in a circumstance where they can find new victims — but of course, almost anywhere is such a circumstance. Usually, when we’re talking about men with predatory behavior, the general plan is to get rid of them. By committing sexual misconduct, harassers should have to forfit their place in our academic community. And clearly, of course, guys who harass don’t deserve a spot.

Unless a revolution does away with capitalism in the US as we know it, these guys will probably move on to get a job. (Far too often, it’s a promotion, or still some position in academia where they still are empowered to hurt people.) If we are successful in kicking someone out of our the university environment — which is a obviously good thing — have we fully solved the problem, or have we just kicked the problem down the road to someone else?

This week, I’ve become all too familiar with one particular case, in which a person was railed out of the the nonprofit sector, and then entered a different professional milieu, and as a result, claims of misdeeds were kept secret long enough for the guy to land a new job. If weren’t for the efforts of journalists and our free press, then nobody but the victims, and some lawyers and administrators, would know anything about these allegations. So, a university ended up making a dud hire, because they didn’t know anything about the (alleged) misdeeds until the contract was inked. In other words, the trash was passed — in this case, because the guy landed a job outside of the community that he worked with previously. The people who knew about the prior misdeeds didn’t know who to warn until they saw that he was already hired to start a new job. When these men leave their community and go elsewhere, I fear it’s that much easier to find oblivious employers.

The harassers who have rockstar academic visibility, who we see in the major news outlets, are far too successful at landing new academic positions from universities that care more about grant money and scholarly fame than they do about the safety of women. With these guys, it’s important for us to publicly recognize that their actions are despicable and public banishment from the field is an important precedent.

And for every one of the cases you see in the news, there are several orders of magnitude more men whose misdeeds don’t make headlines, but who have been just as destructive for the lives of people in their circles. If we are successful in kicking them out of their job, we are lacking a reliable a mechanism of protecting people after that. Nobody should ever want to hire a guy with this history. But still, they end up getting jobs of some sort, which means there will be a new community at work. Whoever takes on these duds deserves to know what they’re getting.

If these guys are not going to rot in prison forever, then where should they be? Someone’s going to be a recipient of the trash. Universities are perhaps the most dangerous place, and I imagine industry is a mixed bag. But if they just move on to a whole new sector of employment — and in the case that I’ve grown familiar with, change their name — then information about this guy’s predatory past might be lost, which increases the opportunity to create harm elsewhere. Even if they’re bagging groceries or dressed up as the Statue of Liberty and waving a sign to advertise a tax preparation service, their history of misconduct means that people will be at risk. It’s not in our own academic community, but it’s still a very real problem.

Sexual harassment is rampant because universities tolerate this behavior, punish the victims who speak out, and pass the trash. When harassers are identified, I think we need to think about more than just getting rid of them, is we’re trying to protect people from them. A systemic solution means requires us to prevent the silent passing of the trash, but our system is pretty much the opposite of that right now.

Change is required on many fronts. We need to advocate heavily for major culture change, where men speak out against misconduct at the moment it occurs, and hold other men accountable when they contribute to a hostile work environment. Men in senior positions need to take leadership to create equitable policies. We need to wholly revamp how reporting happens, and how investigations occur. Preventing misconduct from happening is critical, and part of that means making sexual misconduct universally viewed as despicable and unprofessional, and a career-ending move.

I think part of this prevention means being concerned about where harassers end up. Here in the US, we are wholly lacking in the legal and regulatory mechanisms to let the consequences of harassment carry from one job to another. The situation is a disaster. If we are successful at making sure that a harasser has negative consequences, then they’ll disappear from our sphere of influence. It’s not like these guys will be cured of their ways. This is something I worry about a lot. One guy left my university several years ago, he’s not working in his field anymore, and I have no idea where is. And now this happens to us. This secret passing of the trash, when perpetrators are capable of escaping the whisper network to land new jobs from oblivious employers, is continuing to put our campuses at risk.