When universities prosecute the victims and protect the perpetrators


I just read this piece in Science yesterday and I was floored.

It’s the story of what’s happening to Dr. BethAnn McLaughlin in her job at Vanderbilt. After a university committee recommended her for tenure, they revisited their decision and unanimously decided to not grant tenure. One thing is clear: this doesn’t have to do with her job performance — it’s about her activism against sexual misconduct in STEM, her outspoken concerns about the lack of action from NIH and the National Academy of Sciences, and her successes with AAAS, #MeTooSTEM, and her awards for work from SfN and the MIT Media Lab. The latter is an award for disobedience.

As her friend, I am astonished and appalled. As an academic, I am stunned that Vanderbilt doesn’t recognize what an asset she is, and in many quarters, she’s making the institution look better than they ever have. By orchestrating an effort to cancel her scientific research, Vanderbilt identifies itself as retrograde a barrier to progress.

The founder of #MeTooSTEM is being denied tenure because she spoke out at work about what happened to her.

That encapsulates precisely why we need this movement. And why we need to press on.

To understand how this is happening, note that Vanderbilt’s prior actions are essentially the trigger that started #MeTooSTEM. They held up her tenure case because she filed and “won” a Title IX complaint. This story (originally told anonymously, but since then, she has pointed to it as the author) explains how her university sought to punish her for having the temerity to complain about how she was the target of sexual misconduct at work.

If you’re trying to make sense of the Science article, this history helps.

It’s not too late for the administration at Vanderbilt to do the Right Thing. This can be a victory for them, or it can be a stain that the scientific community will remember as a malefactor in the #MeTooSTEM movement. What do you say, Vanderbilt?


correction 13 Feb 2019 11:12am: An astute reader pointed out an error. The line that originally read, “The founder of #MeTooSTEM is being denied tenure because she founded #MeTooSTEM” now reads, “The founder of #MeTooSTEM is being denied tenure because she spoke out at work about what happened to her.” Based on the date in the cited article, the decision at Vanderbilt preceded the emergence of  #MeTooSTEM as a movement. More generally, I’d like to observe that (as I know all too well, unfortunately) that what happens in tenure decisions (particularly at private institutions) is typically veiled in secrecy, and real motives are often intentionally obscured by the decision making parties. I think in this case, though, it’s not that hard to connect the dots for a highly credible narrative.

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