Archive for the Harassment Bullying etc Category

Speak Out about Bullying in Academia

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc, Maynooth with tags , on April 4, 2023 by telescoper

I was interested to learn, via 9th Level Ireland, that local TD Bernard Durkan recently tabled a written question in the Dáil Éireann about harassment and bullying in Irish third-level institutions:

To ask the Minister for Education and Skills to indicate the extent to which his Department continues to monitor incidents of professional bullying throughout the higher education system; the extent to which bullying is evident in colleges throughout the country; the action taken or being taken to counter this; and if he will make a statement on the matter.


The response from the Minister Simon Harris contains the following:

The Deputy will be aware that there are a number of Programme for Government (PfG) commitments aimed at addressing bullying, including a commitment to commission surveys of staff and students in the areas of harassment, sexual harassment, and bullying in higher education.

It also contains this:

The Deputy will also be familiar with the ‘Speak Out’ tool which my Department has funded. Speak Out is an online, anonymous reporting tool for staff, students and visitors to higher education institutions that was developed by the Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland with financial support from my Department, the Department of Education and the Higher Education Authority.

I must either have missed the news about Speak Out (or forgotten it) but I see that it can be accessed via my own institution, for example, here. Other universities and colleges have their own links. The dialogue page says:

The big problem with taking a bullying complaint further than mere anonymous reporting is that the legal definition of bullying is far less clear than the others. One definition I’ve found is:

Bullying is an ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm.

Even this is problematic because “intent” is difficult to prove. Power relationships in academia are often distorted by the hierarchical management structures, so bullying is not just contained within the academic staff and students but also from senior management and to support staff. For that reason there’s a lot of this about. Reporting is good but I’m not sure what it actually achieves. Universities seem to be keen to hide bullying, conniving with those responsible shield them and avoid institutional harm, just as they do with harassment and other forms of abusive behaviour.

Guest Post: Hannelore’s Story

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc with tags , on January 30, 2023 by telescoper

In November last year I published an anonymous guest post entitled The Bullying of Hannelore by a Professor of Astronomy, recounting the bullying of a member of administrative staff (referred to pseudonymously as Hannelore) in an Astronomy Department in the UK. Among other features of the response to that post, it was remarkable how many people from different institutions contacted me to suggest that this post was about their institution, which strongly suggests that bullying of the sort described is endemic in UK universities.

This is Hannelore’s side of the story. As before, all the names have been changed and the institution is not identified. I think you should read it.

Hannelore’s Story

Hannelore has been employed by her University for over 10 years on fixed term contracts. She is also an alumna of the University.

She works with a large international astronomy collaboration, as their project manager. She supports the research of colleagues in her Department, as well as the coordination of the exams.

Four years ago, she made a mistake.

Hannelore became an active bystander to a colleague (in his absence), when she refuted allegations and insinuations the Head of Department was making about his financial mismanagement. She knew they were untrue.

Thereafter, her professional life changed.

Previously uncomplicated processes were tightened up, layers of control and approval were imposed, responsibilities removed. She was cut out of email communications, two successive applications for promotion were turned down, the locks to an office she could previously access were changed, timesheets were thrown on her office floor. Grant applications became an obstacle course, the Head of Department imposing sole approval rights and driving proposal submissions to the deadline until all of his conditions were met, with new rules and arbitrary policies emerging all the time.

Unbeknown to her, the Head of Department was also making insinuations about her work, her trustworthiness, her confidentiality and her behaviour. He was eroding her reputation, the professional relationships she had forged with others and slowly also her confidence.

Every time she reacted to the incidents, things only became worse.

A confidential report was commissioned into her behaviour. An HR professional concluded that her worries were real to her, “but imaginary”.

Within days, her Head of Department was busy leaking his ”substantial concerns” about her mental health which had been highlighted in the recent investigation, and which the Department did not have the means to address.

Seemingly exonerated, her Head of Department intensified the bullying. Within three weeks of the report, she received an end-of-contract letter. She had been put in the formal process of redundancy. This was while still supporting the Examiners in her department.

Hannelore was being dismissed from her job.

She had guaranteed funding from the European Community to support her for four years. But, it was a fixed term contract, so it still needed final approval from her Head of Department.

But, the Head of Department argued … well, anything really … so as not to sign. He said that there was no PI to support the project, that there was no space in the Department, that the project was scientifically valueless, that the grant should be transferred to another UK institution, that the Department had no “bandwidth to support a mentally unbalanced woman”.

It all became too much for her. She was very close to breaking down.

The Head of Department was also one of the Examiners.

Hannelore used the very little that was left of her resources to make sure the examinations were properly supported. In spite of prospective joblessness. In spite of belittling by the Head of Department/Examiner.

One of the other Examiners saw her distress and blew the whistle on the Head of Department’s aggressive behaviour. The redundancy process was momentarily paused.

Then, a document was written by two colleagues: a factual description for review by the academic staff of her grant’s approval process. To prevent exposure, the Head of Department gave in to matters being taken out of his hands. The funding was signed off the next day, though not by him.

Hannelore would have her job, after all.

But, the Head of Department was furious. He issued not one, not two, but three formal Grievances against each of the Professors who had helped her in her distress. He said he had not been doing any bullying — it was everyone else who had been bullying him. The three Professors all remain under investigation to this day.

Eighteen months later, Hannelore can see how the bullying has affected her.  

When bullying goes on for so long, people modify their behaviour and start to behave oddly. They lose more support. Everybody then thinks that person is odd. But it is because of the bullying.

She can see this happened to her in a mild fashion for two years, in a stronger fashion for one year and in an unacceptable fashion for the final two months, before the Head of Department was exposed.

And the University … well, they are not interested in Hannelore.

They are only concerned in avoiding a major public scandal.


The Verdict in the Ott Case

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc with tags , , , on November 17, 2022 by telescoper

Just time for a very quick post regarding the court case I mentioned last week initiated by Christian Ott.

You will recall that Christian Ott resigned from a position at Caltech in 2016 after being found guilty of gender-based harassment against two graduate students, I wrote about this case and some of the issues it raised here. Little information about the case was divulged publicly by Caltech at the time.

After leaving Caltech, Ott was offered a position at the University of Turku in Finland but that offer was rescinded after protests about this apparent case of “passing the harasser”. Syksy Räsänen and Till Sawala initiated an open letter that was signed by a large number of academics calling for Ott’s appointment to be cancelled. Syksy blogged about the case here (in Finnish; scroll down to see the English translation). Ott now works as a software consultant.

Not being at all knowledgeable about Finnish law, I wasn’t sure of the legal basis on which Ott’s case was being pursued but it seemed to involve an accusation of “aggravated defamation”; the second charge was “aggravated dissemination of information that violates privacy”.

Anyway, the relevant court issued its judgment today. The charges against Räsänen and Sawala were dismissed.I am delighted and relieved by this news. The only coverage I have seen so far is in Finnish – see here for example – but I’ll update with more when it becomes available.

Here is the text of a press release from Syksy Räsänen and Till Sawala about the verdict.

Two astrophysicists win defamation trial after calling out harassment

Two astrophysicists at the University of Helsinki, Finland, were today acquitted of “aggravated defamation” and “aggravated dissemination of information that violates privacy” in the district court of Southwest Finland in Turku [1]. They had spoken out when Christian Ott, an astrophysicist previously suspended due to harassment, was hired at the University of Turku. The prosecutor had demanded suspended prison sentences or substantial fines, while Ott demanded €60,000.

“I am relieved that our right to speak out was affirmed today, but I remain concerned how people in positions of power downplayed harassment in this case. The issue is harassment, not the fact that people are finally talking about it”, says Till Sawala, one of the defendants. “Too much attention has been paid to protecting the reputation of institutions or the perpetrators of harassment. Our attention should be on the rights of the victims and on creating a community where everyone can feel safe.”

 “I welcome the acquittal after over three years of process. I hope this case will set a precedent”, comments Syksy Räsänen, the other defendant. “No one should have to fear fines or a prison sentence for simply speaking out against harassment based on widely and reliably reported facts. The threat alone can have a chilling effect that can set back work against harassment. We had the financial resources, and support from our scientific community, to contest the baseless charges against us. If someone in a less secure position, such as a PhD student, were to be put in this situation, they might not fare so well.”

In 2015, an investigation at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) had found that Ott had committed “unambiguous gender-based harassment” of two graduate students. The case received international media attention [2, 3, 4, 5, 6]. Ott had been placed on unpaid leave for nine months and his suspension was extended after he breached its terms. During the Turku trial, it was revealed that Ott received his full salary of over $200,000 from Caltech in 2017.

Following Ott’s resignation at the end of 2017, in January 2018, it emerged that Ott was due to be hired at the University of Turku [7]. Just prior to this, Ott had been offered a job at the University of Stockholm, but the offer was withdrawn after staff protests. Alexandra Veledina, who had recruited Ott to Stockholm, also works in the group of Juri Poutanen, the director of the observatory in Turku.

Räsänen and Sawala wrote a letter to the University of Turku leadership expressing their concern over the appointment. Räsänen and Sawala also published a statement against harassment in astronomy, which was signed by the majority of Finnish astronomers [8]. Referring to the response of the scientific community, the University of Turku cancelled the appointment [9].

Juri Poutanen acted as a witness for the prosecution in the trial. In emails shown in court, he had told Räsänen: “In my view there is no evidence” that Ott harassed anyone. When presented with Caltech’s findings in court, he responded that ”it really makes no difference what happened at Caltech“.

Poutanen also commented that only one of his staff had expressed concerns to him. Documents and testimony in court showed that several other astronomers at the University of Turku had reported their concerns to the rector, the university leadership, and to their trade union. The staff member who had spoken to Poutanen became the subject of a police investigation after Ott filed a criminal complaint, alleging they spoke to the press about the matter. They were ultimately not charged.

The prosecutor claimed that Sawala and Räsänen’s statements about Ott’s conduct violated privacy, in part because Caltech is a private institution. The prosecutor also alleged that the defendants’ writings were defamatory, arguing that being guilty of harassment implies being guilty of a crime, of which Ott has never been charged. The prosecutor also argued that because Ott’s actions had not involved physical contact, they did not constitute sexual harassment. Ott’s lawyers claimed that the defendants had repeated false claims from a “gossip website”.

Räsänen and Sawala argued that they were speaking about a matter of professional concern in their own scientific field, a protected category of speech under Finnish defamation law [10]. They also argued that the facts of the case were widely known and reported by many credible sources, including Caltech’s own public statements and the world’s premier scientific journals.

The court concluded that Räsänen and Sawala had spoken about a matter of public interest, based their statements on credible sources, and had at least not knowingly disseminated information they didn’t have good reason to consider true. As such, the violation of privacy and defamation charges were both dismissed.

As grounds for the financial compensation, Ott had stated that the sum of €50,000 was a “token”, intended “to hurt, but not bankrupt the respondents”. He asked for a further €10,000 in damages. Both claims were dismissed along with the criminal charges. Ott also appeared to dispute the findings of Caltech’s investigation, calling it a “kangaroo court”. According to Ott, the investigation started after “an activist got involved and urged the student to file a complaint”.  Caltech has stood by its process and findings. A 2019 investigation by NASA and the National Science Foundation found that Caltech followed the appropriate procedures in its Title IX investigation [11].


Blog entries on the case by Syksy Räsänen

Sources referenced in the text

[1] Verdict (in Finnish):











The Ott Case Revisited

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc with tags , , , , on November 13, 2022 by telescoper

It is hard to keep up with everything that is surfacing these days to do with bullying and harassment in astronomy. A number of people have contacted me about the anonymous guest post that appeared here recently, all from different universities, and all convinced that the unidentified Department referred to in the post was theirs. I can only infer that there must be a lot of this sort of thing about.

Anyway, there was news of a different sort last week when the magazine Science reported on a legal case initiated by Christian Ott against two Finnish astrophysicists, Syksy Räsänen and Till Sawala. The verdict in this case is due next week, on 17th November to be precise.

Christian Ott resigned from a position at Caltech in 2016 after being found guilty of gender-based harassment against two graduate students, I wrote about this case and some of the issues it raised here. Little information about the case was divulged publicly by Caltech at the time.

After leaving Caltech, Ott was offered a position at the University of Turku in Finland but that offer was rescinded after protests about this apparent case of “passing the harasser”. Syksy Räsänen and Till Sawala initiated an open letter that was signed by a large number of academics calling for Ott’s appointment to be cancelled. Syksy blogged about the case here (in Finnish; scroll down to see the English translation). Ott now works as a software consultant.

Not being at all knowledgeable about Finnish law, I’m not sure of the legal basis on which Ott’s case is being pursued but it seems to involve an accusation of defamation and the publication of confidential documents. As far as I understand it in Finland defamation is a criminal offence, rather as it in Germany, and can lead to a substantial fine and/or a prison sentence on conviction. I sincerely hope that it doesn’t come to either of those, as I believe that Syksy and Till took a principled stand in this matter regardless of what the law says.

According to the Science article

Sawala’s lawyer, Jussi Sarvikivi, said the prosecutor’s position appears to be that “any commentary on the Caltech finding demonstrates an intent to harm” Ott because it inevitably casts Ott in a poor light.

I had better not say any more about this until the verdict is delivered, at which point I expect the defendants to make statements. I will say though that I doubt it was Ott’s intention to draw attention again to his past behaviour but that is something this case has definitely achieved…

Is Astronomy the worst for Bullying and Harassment?

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc on November 3, 2022 by telescoper

I don’t mind admitting that I’m deeply depressed about all these stories of bullying and sexual harassment in Astronomy that have surfaced recently, and I’m sure there are many more that haven’t yet come to light. I’ve experienced some toxic behaviour in my time but nothing on the scale of what has emerged recently.

I wonder whether all this means that Astronomy is worse than other areas of academia or whether everywhere else is just as bad?

I put up a totally unscientific Twitter poll to see what my readers think. Please feel free to let me know your opinion:

Guest Post: The Bullying of Hannelore

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc on November 2, 2022 by telescoper

I am publishing this guest post from someone who works in Astronomy in a UK University. The author is anonymous (though I know who it is), the Department is not identified (though I know what it is) and all the names have been changed (for the reason that there is an ongoing legal case). Despite these restrictions, in the wake of the Tim de Zeeuw scandal, and others, I think these stories should be told.

The Bullying of Hannelore

I am an Astronomy Professor at a UK University. In June last year, I witnessed acts of bullying by my Head of Department against a junior administrative assistant on a fixed-term contract.

The administrative assistant — her name is Hannelore — was assigned to help me with the Examinations, in the time of COVID.  She was in a visibly wretched condition, weeping uncontrollably on zoom calls. I am sure Hannelore hated appearing in such a dejected and tearful state on zoom with someone she barely knew. She was a proud woman once, but it had all gone. 

She told me a harrowing story of sustained bullying by my Head of Department, culminating in an (illegal) dismissal notice from my University at the end of the academic year.

By the end of the Examinations, Hannelore was not sleeping. I remember going to bed after zooming one evening, and wondering what to do, who to contact, whether Hannelore would be alive the next day. I remember being relieved on checking email the next morning that there were messages from her through the night. She may not have slept, but at least Hannelore was still alive. 

What to do? Till then, I had been very friendly with my Head of Department, a (superficially) genial and charming man. We had written research papers together. By contrast, I hardly knew Hannelore. 

My University regularly pumps out tweets about breaking the silence around bullying and harassment. It has compulsory ‘active by-standing’ online courses for us all to attend. My University has ‘Dignity at Work’ representatives and ‘Well-being Advocates’ in every department. It has multiple Equality, Diversity & Inclusion committees to protect, amongst other things, the interests of women. It trumpets its ‘people strategy’ and ‘people action plan’. 

But, when I told others about the bullying of Hannelore, they were not interested. The Departmental ‘Well-being Advocate’ thought it was someone else’s problem. The Chair of the Departmental EDI Committee declined to intervene and repeatedly acted to protect the abuser. No-one wanted to believe that bullying on this scale was actually taking place, right under their noses, in my University.

So, I blew the whistle. I covertly recorded what was going on and made a witness statement to my University. By now, news of this distressing scandal had begun to reach the top. Senior managers were taking the decisions.

My University was aghast at what had happened.

Not at the bullying. At the covert recording.

And then my genial and charming Head of Department wielded his knife. I had always known that there was a streak of cunning and malice beneath the jokey bluster. My Head of Department said that it was all the other way round.  I had been harassing him. I had been deliberately causing stress and anxiety to Hannelore, so as to trap him and smear him as a bully.

At first, I thought this was some kind of sick joke. Surely no-one would believe such a far-fetched and improbable story. It was like Boris Johnson saying he was the victim and complaining that other people were bullying him by going on and on about lockdown parties.

I was wrong.  My University thought the allegations against me were so serious that they warranted an immediate investigation. It has an excellent, detailed and well-constructed grievance policy, which it proudly publishes on the web. The first step is that the accuser produces some evidence in support of any allegation. But, senior managers decided that my Head of Department’s allegations were too grave to warrant asking for any evidence. There was no need to be hampered by a well-constructed grievance policy. An investigation into my activities by an external and highly-paid barrister was commissioned to probe the extent of my wrong-doing.

My University’s investigation into me continues to this day, 15 months later. I have been forced to hire lawyers to defend myself (at my expense).

Hannelore did not kill herself. Some inner core of doggedness somehow pulled her through the darkness. The bullying has abated, though not stopped. Her insecure job was reluctantly returned to her. Hannelore was withdrawn and almost catatonic for many months afterwards. She still cannot talk easily about what happened to her. She is too frightened to complain formally to my University. She has been receiving counselling (at her expense).

The genial and charming Head of Department continues to hold sway with the top-level managers who run my University. He still enjoys exercising power over people, especially ones he dislikes. 

And I … I have learnt some very ugly things about my University. Things I would rather not have discovered. 

I have learnt that the current power and methods of my University’s management directly contradict the values my University purports to have. They are abusive of basic trust, integrity and decency. I have learnt that many of my departmental colleagues are ready to look the other way, if it involves challenging a powerful man who controls promotion or resources.

I have learnt that my University prefers sloganizing to action, prefers tweeting about ‘people strategies’ to safeguarding.  I have learnt what it is like to be a female member of staff on an insecure contract. As a male Professor with a good salary and tenure, I had the resources to hire lawyers to defend myself against my University. The Hannelores stand no chance.

The Leiden Sexual Harassment Case: Update

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 25, 2022 by telescoper

When I wrote less than a week ago about the case of an (unnamed) Professor at Leiden University being “removed for extremely unacceptable behaviour” I did not know the identify of the culprit but predicted that “it’s just a matter of time before the identity of the Professor concerned is revealed”.

Well, Leiden University still hasn’t officially revealed the Professor concerned but this article by Dutch news agency NRC gives a name: it is Tim de Zeeuw. The Wikipedia page I linked to there has already been updated with:

In 2022, Tim de Zeeuw was suspended from the University and barred from campus after being found to have violated professional conduct policy pertaining to harassment and sexual harassment of women employees. [10] This misconduct was found to have occurred repeatedly over many years. As of 18 October 2022 he is currently suspended (with pay) and allowed to use his university affiliation on his research papers but barred from campus, interaction with students, and all administrative and department responsibilities.

There may be some frantic editing of that page, but the cat is now well and truly out of the bag. I don’t know Tim de Zeeuw personally but he is indeed an eminent scientist in the fields of galactic dynamics and galaxy formation & evolution. For many years he was also Director of the European Southern Observatory, a position of great power and influence. If he has done what he is alleged to have done, however, this distinction counts for nothing and he should be removed from his post. Indeed that should have happened some time ago but I think there may be unresolved legal issues preventing his outright dismissal.

UPDATE: Tim de Zeeuw has now issued a statement, among other things confirming he is the person at the centre of this case but not showing very much in the way of contrition…

Non-disclosure Nonsense at Leiden University

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc with tags , on October 19, 2022 by telescoper

I saw last night that a Professor at Leiden University has been “removed for extremely unacceptable behaviour”. The announcement from the University can be found here though it has been modified; the original form said “dismissed for gross misconduct”.

A related article (original in Dutch) says in English translation about the case:

It concerns a systematic pattern of denigration, abuse of power, gender discrimination, belittling in public, and the constant threat that the complainants’ careers would be damaged. The professor also made comments ‘with a sexual charge’ and the committee found that in one case ‘he had approached an employee in an undesirable manner’.

My initial reaction to this was dismay that someone had behaved in such a way for what seems to have been a considerable period of time, but relief that a case had been brought against this “Professor”.

But wait.

A statement from the Executive Board at Leiden University includes:

Because the committee has also established that the scientific quality of this professor is indisputable, there is no reason to deprive him of his professorship.

So the Professor is not actually being dismissed. He will be able to carry out research, presumably on full salary, His punishment for toxic behaviour thus effectively amounts to an indefinite period on sabbatical. Perhaps I am being excessively cynical, but I read the above statement as implying that the Professor has a portfolio of research grants that the University wants to keep.

Worse, the name of the Professor has not been released, presumably because there is a non-disclosure agreement covering this case. Neither I nor anyone I know at Leiden knows who it is; at least some may but not be legally allowed to say. Nor do I know what field he works in. It may or may not be related to Astronomy. This is a nonsense, for at least two reasons.

The first is that someone who has behaved in such a way should be named on principle, so that potential collaborators and future employers know what he has done. In previous posts on this topic I have defended confidentiality (e.g. here) during an investigation, but I do think that once it has been decided that a disciplinary offences have been committed there should be full disclosure.

The second is that failing to identify the individual concerned has led to a proliferation of rumours inside and outside Leiden (none of which I am prepared to repeat here). As a result, the finger of suspicion is no doubt now being pointed at the wrong people and that will continue to happen until the name of the abusive Professor is revealed. The environment at Leiden must be very difficult right now.

The hands of Leiden University may well be tied by a legally-binding non-disclosure agreement, but I think this case just demonstrates what a nonsense what such agreements are. And in my view it’s just a matter of time before the identity of the Professor concerned is revealed anyway. It will only take one person to leak it.

P.S. Please don’t email me to ask who it is. I honestly have no idea!

The Christopher Backhouse Case

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc with tags , , on October 13, 2022 by telescoper

I want to thank everyone who has contacted me about the Christopher Backhouse harassment case I blogged about yesterday. Based on what I’ve been told, the details revealed in the Guardian article – which are bad enough – are just the tip of the iceberg. I can’t say any more in case there are further legal developments.

I saw this reaction from Erica Smith yesterday.

This experience must have been absolutely dreadful for her and I sincerely hope yesterday’s announcement allows her to bring some closure to the matter. Many would have given up given the lack of action from the police, but Erica Smith had the courage to pursue a civil action getting a sub poena that led to the identity of her harasser being revealed.

Some of the people who have contacted me are people involved with DUNE. Although the harassment went on for years, none of them knew anything about the case until very recently. They are all very disturbed that this was going on in their midst for so long.

I am not a lawyer but it remains a mystery to me why Dr Backhouse has not faced a criminal prosecution. This seems to have enabled him to simply walk away from all the trouble he has caused?

I have been told that because the online harassment was anonymous – because Backhouse used proxy servers – the US Police could not pursue the matter. However, now Backhouse’s cover has been blown and the evidence is clear, shouldn’t the matter now be referred to the UK Police for him to be prosecuted there, or even extradicted to the USA to stand trial there?

In England & Wales Some crimes of harassment are dealt with summarily (i.e. by a Magistrates’ Court) which means the maximum custodial sentence on conviction is six months. However, more serious offences can be tried in the High Court and according to the Sentencing Council guidelines much longer sentences are possible for more serious offences. I’m no in favour of sending people to prison unless it’s absolutely necessary, but the harassment alone seems to me to warrant it in this case.

Anyway, my purpose in writing this post was really to point out that however strongly I feel about this there is little I myself can do of a practical nature, except encourage people who have further information on this case to take it to the proper authorities and urge others in similar situations to be inspired by the example of Erica Smith.

Update: some further information clarifying some matters related to this case is available on this Twitter thread

The Christopher Backhouse Harassment Case

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc with tags , , , , on October 12, 2022 by telescoper

I hardly know what to say about the harassment case involving Christopher Backhouse, a former researcher at University College London covered in today’s Guardian, except that everyone should be aware of just what a shocking case it is. The opening paragraph of the Guardian story gives a taste:

A former academic at University College London must pay almost £50,000 in damages to a former colleague after falsely portraying her as a sex worker on social media as part of a months-long campaign of harassment.

I don’t know Backhouse personally, but he is (or was) apparently a Royal Society Research Fellow working on the DUNE experiment, an underground neutrino physics experiment.

The whole story is very disturbing, not least because the harassment went on for so long. One strange aspect of this case is that the victim of Backhouse’s campaign of harassment, Erica Smith, had to pursue a civil action against him to put an end to his behaviour. One would have imagined that a criminal case would have been more appropriate. I for one think he should be in prison; the description presented in the Guardian article seems to constitute harassment as defined under the Public Order Act 1986 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. If such an offence is committed with intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress, the offender can be given 6 months’ imprisonment or a hefty fine. Why has Backhouse not been prosecuted?

The article ends with

A UCL spokesperson said Backhouse was no longer employed by the university.

I’m glad at least of that, but I wonder what UCL did during the “campaign of harassment” carried out by Christopher Backhouse and whether he left voluntarily or was sacked. I wonder what they have done to help Erica Smith put her life back together after this horrific episode. Does UCL have a vicarious liability?

This case on its own raises grave questions about the way harassment cases are handled in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at UCL but this is far from the first such case there that has gone public; see e.g. here.

UCL clearly has a lot of work to do to put its house in order.

In more general terms, I’ll repeat what I have said in earlier posts on this issue:

Failure to act strongly when such behaviour is proven just sends out the message that the institution doesn’t take sexual harassment seriously. In my view, confidentiality is needed during an investigation – to protect both sides and indeed the person doing the investigation – but if the conclusion is that misconduct has taken place, it should be acknowledged publicly. Justice has to be seen to be done. Sexual assault, of course, is another matter entirely – that should go straight to the police to deal with.

I’ve talked about protocols and procedures, but these can only ever apply a sticking-plaster solution to a problem which is extremely deeply rooted in the culture of many science departments and research teams across the world. These tend to be very hierarchical, with power and influence concentrated in the hands of relatively few, usually male, individuals. A complaint about harassment generally has to go up through the management structure and therefore risks being blocked at a number of stages for a number of reasons. This sort of structure reinforces the idea that students and postdocs are at the bottom of the heap and discourages them from even attempting to pursue a case against someone at the top.

We are obviously very far indeed from eliminating harassment or the conditions that allow it to continue but although cases like this are very painful, I think they at least demonstrate that we are beginning to see the extent of the problem, and how the measures taken to deal with it are inadequate. We have to work much harder to stop this sort of thing from happening in the first place.