Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Cancel my subscription!


by Michael Balter

For telling me what I don’t want known
For showing me what I don’t want shown
For making me hear the victims groan
Cancel my subscription.

For making me think new kinds of thoughts
For tying my world view up in knots
For trying to turn all my naughts to oughts
Cancel my subscription.

For saying I voted for the wrong guy
Though he promised me the moon and sky
For not even giving him time to try
Cancel my subscription.

I’ll find other publications that do
Their best to confirm what I always knew
And assure me all my opinions are true 
So cancel my subscription.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Brian Richmond, accused of sexual assault, resigns from AMNH, but still maintains his innocence. The fight against sexual misconduct goes on

Brian Richmond
As many readers of this blog will know, Brian Richmond, the curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), is resigning his position effective December 31. According to AMNH communications VP Anne Canty, Richmond's resignation ends an investigation that began early this year into various allegations of sexual assault and harassment. But it should be clear to all that it was actually the investigation's findings that led to his resignation, which would not have been voluntary; in my original reporting on this case for Science last February, Richmond told me that he had been asked to resign in early December 2015 but had refused to do so.

I will offer some personal reflections on this news below. But first I want to comment on this ending to Richmond's career at AMNH and his reaction to it.

An important point is that the museum's most recent investigation--the third it has conducted since late 2014--covered all of the allegations concerning Richmond, which include an alleged sexual assault on one of his coworkers and a long series of allegations of sexual harassment that go back at least a decade (the source of that statement is Canty herself, who made that clear to me when the third investigation began.) Some, but not all, of these episodes are detailed in my original Science piece. In addition to what appears there, I heard testimony from numerous other women about inappropriate sexual advances that Richmond had made to them; some of these witnesses also became part of the museum's broader investigation, which was carried out by T&M Protection Resources in New York City. T&M, with the enormous resources made available to it by AMNH (estimates are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars) was able to talk to some sources I was not, and by all accounts their inquiry was extremely thorough and professional.

Thus there can be little doubt that Richmond would not be resigning at the end of this month had T&M not confirmed, and expanded on, the incriminating evidence from my original investigation. In other words, the preponderance of the evidence must be that Richmond was guilty of repeated counts of sexual misconduct. In addition, the central charge, of sexual assault on a "research assistant" who worked with him at the museum, must also have been upheld. My own reporting produced very convincing evidence that this episode took place and that it was not consensual, as Richmond has always claimed.

But amazingly, after two years of investigation and negative publicity leading to Richmond's resignation, he still appears unwilling to admit to any wrongdoing. Although I communicated extensively with Richmond during the preparation of the Science story, he has not responded to me for many months now. However, he did provide a statement to my former Science colleague, Ann Gibbons, for the story she did on his resignation. As Ann reports:

This week he told Science that the details of his departure are confidential and stressed that only one formal complaint had been lodged against him. “I plan to focus on my family and the next steps in my career,” he wrote in a statement, including “to publish the outstanding discoveries that my colleagues, former students, and I made.”

 In other words, as Richmond (and his attorney) told me nearly a year ago, the fact that none of the other alleged victims of his sexual advances pressed formal charges means that their testimony does not count as evidence against him. But again, many of those alleged victims did talk to T&M. If Richmond was innocent, or if the charges could not be sustained, why is he resigning? That is a question he is apparently not willing to answer.

The fact that Richmond still admits to no wrongdoing will, and should, have a significant negative impact on his future career. After the accusations began to become public, one of his colleagues told me that he had talked to Richmond about how he should handle the negative reaction he was getting from the anthropology community, which tended to believe the research assistant's charges--largely because his prior pattern of behavior was already well known among many of them. This colleague suggested that Richmond should stop denying what everyone knew was true and begin to find a way to apologize for his behavior. But in my Science story, Richmond is quoted as only apologizing for "consensual affairs," and not for any other aspects of his behavior, many of which constitute sexual harassment according to most definitions.

Richmond would have done well to read an excellent piece by Janet Stemwedel, a philosopher of science at San Jose State University, entitled "Advice for the Reformed Harasser on Rejoining the Scientific Community." Stemwedel provides a number of criteria by which we could even think about considering someone found guilty of sexual misconduct to have seen the error of their ways. They include "Own what you did," "Accept the descriptions of the harm you did given by those you harmed," "Have your defenders stand down," and "Don't demand anyone's trust." There are others, but so far it is clear that Brian Richmond has not adopted any of them. (I also cite Stemwedel's brilliant article in my story about sexual misconduct at the Smithsonian Institution and Texas Tech University which appeared in The Verge in October; in that case, at least, the alleged aggressor did admit to two incidents he was involved in, although it did not save his position at the Smithsonian.)

In Richmond's case, many members of the anthropology community tell me that he has virtually no chance of ever finding another job in academia. And while I can't be entirely happy that the career of a talented researcher is now over, it seems clear that he has no one to blame but himself. I see no evidence that the AMNH has ever been out to get him in any way; indeed, the museum has long been criticized for having protected him despite the serious allegations, a subject discussed at length in my original story for Science. And, to paraphrase something Yale astronomer Meg Urry said to me last year, any sympathy that we might be tempted to have for fallen sexual harassers needs to be tempered by our compassion for the hundreds or thousands of women who have left science because they were being harassed by their advisors or other faculty.

I would like to conclude with some brief personal thoughts. I have now spent more than a full year investigating sexual misconduct allegations. My stories have led to real and serious consequences for the alleged perpetrators. For me, they have been draining, depressing, insomnia-producing, not at all fun, and they have occasionally made people mad at me whom I would normally not want to antagonize. Fortunately, I am not the only one doing these stories; as always I want to acknowledge the pioneering role played by Azeen Ghorayshi of Buzzfeed, whose exposure of the Geoff Marcy case at Berkeley opened the doors wide open to this kind of reporting.

They would not have been possible were it not for the courage of researchers, junior and senior, who stepped forward to help with my reporting. I have often had to protect the identities of the junior researchers, who still fear retaliation and other negative consequences for speaking out. I have even had to protect the identities of senior, tenured researchers who have less to fear, but who could still face consequences of various types. And some scientists have been brave enough to come out publicly; by doing so they have made a huge difference. I hope that as time goes on more will find the courage to do so. And I also hope that media outlets, both scientific and general media, will assign more reporters to cover these issues, and make available the resources--time, money, and lawyers--needed to carry out these investigations. Right now, there are too few reporters, and, unfortunately, too many stories yet to be done.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Texas Tech biology faculty speak out on sexist remarks caught on video

Texas Tech Museum, site of sexist remarks by biology faculty
(Image: Billy Hathorn/Wikimedia Commons)
Last month, I reported in The Verge on a case of sexual assault at the Smithsonian Institution, which ultimately led to the admitted aggressor, a mammalogist and visiting scientist there, being banned from the SI's National Museum of Natural History. The mammalogist had done some of his graduate training in the biology department at Texas Tech University, which, my reporting showed, had a long history of sexist attitudes among some faculty. Those attitudes were clearly reflected in remarks at a retirement party captured on video, excerpts of which we included in our original story. They led to one of the speakers involved, department chair Ronald Chesser, being forced to step down pending an investigation by the university.

I have now received word from Sean Rice, an evolutionary biologist in the department, that a number of faculty there have signed a statement they wish to make public. I will first quote Rice's explanation to me, with his permission, and then the statement in its entirely. I think it represents evidence that many faculty are taking the problems of sexism and harassment seriously--even if, as Rice explains, not everyone in the department signed it for various reasons. Whether the university administration will respond with equal seriousness to these longstanding issues remains to be seen, as its investigation is still ongoing.

Dear Mr. Balter,

Attached is a statement, by some of the faculty in Biological Sciences at Texas Tech, expressing our views about the video that you featured in your Verge article. Many of us had not seen that video until your article drew our attention to it, and we found it shocking.  The University's own inquiry is ongoing, so our statement addresses only the video, which is not in dispute.

Please keep in mind that some members of the faculty, especially those without tenure, might reasonably feel uneasy about signing a statement of this sort. Others hold administrative positions that preclude them signing as individuals.

Sean Rice

A statement concerning attitudes towards sexual harassment

  Education and science are collaborative enterprises that thrive only when every participant
respects the basic human dignity of those with whom they work. We believe that respecting
the basic human dignity of our students and colleagues requires more than just protecting
them from direct harassment; it also means providing an environment in which the prospects
of harassment or discrimination are not considered to be within the range of normal behavior.

  We would, ordinarily, think that this should go without saying. However, we are saying
it publicly now because of a video, recently circulating online, that gives what we feel is a
misleading and offensive impression of our department. Though the video is from a retirement  party, the fact that some members of our department appear in it, and that the department's webpage linked to it, compels us to respond.

  The lighthearted portrayal of sexual harassment in this video is appalling and antithetical
to our beliefs about how faculty should treat students or any other members of our community. The fact that the offensive statements were intended as jokes does not reduce their offensiveness. Jokes are meant to be funny, and the teller of a joke conveys clearly that they hold the views necessary to make it funny. The teller further conveys that they assume that their audience shares those views. Whatever the original intent of the jokes, we do not hold the view that the implication that a colleague engages in sexual harassment should be seen as anything other than an accusation or a slur. It is certainly not the stuff of lighthearted fun.

  This is not an attempt to impugn the motives or reputation of any of the people appearing
in the video -- we assume that they intended only to honor a friend, and that the audience
took it this way. This is also not a statement about whether or not any university rules were
violated. We understand that the university is currently investigating events that may be
related to this video, and we have every reason to expect that this inquiry will be thorough
and fair. Regardless of the outcome of any official inquiries, however, we think it important to  affirm that we respect the dignity of our students and will not subject them, or anyone else in  the department, to an environment in which the idea of harassment is treated as an amusing  personality quirk or as a joke.

James Carr             Michael Dini               Breanna Harris                   Lewis Held

Scott Holaday          Liam Mcguire             Matt Olson                         Reynaldo Patino

David Ray                Brian Reilly                Sean Rice                          Ken Schmidt

Dylan Schwilk          Gene Wilde                Zhixin Xie                           Kai Zhang

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

We gambled the future of our country on a deeply flawed candidate, and we lost

Marc Nozell/WikiMedia Commons
In August 2014, I took an oath that I would never vote for Hillary Clinton under any circumstances. There are witnesses. Why? Because her reaction to Israel's invasion of Gaza that year--which left well over a thousand civilians dead, including several hundred children--was as cold and heartless as could be imagined. She staunchly defended Israel and never once, that I was able to tell, expressed any--any--regret about the deaths of the children nor the adults. I found that hard to believe, and still do, but as much as I have searched for an expression of those regrets I have never found them. If any readers of this blog can uncover such sentiments, please forward them on and I will correct this. But the main point is that she cheered on Israel in one of the most murderous campaigns it had ever conducted, one that much of the rest of the world was condemning. And she continued to take the same position when she debated Bernie Sanders on the matter this past spring.

My antagonism towards Clinton, which was based on her politics and not her gender, goes back a long way. She defended nearly every retrogressive policy of her husband, former president Bill Clinton, including "welfare reform" and racist anti-crime policies (perhaps that's why African Americans did not support her with huge enthusiasm in this election, many remember the "super-predator" comment and other statements. Apologies or not, they remember.) As for her vote to support the war in Iraq, is there any doubt that she did that--reportedly at the urging of Bill--as an opportunistic move to protect her reputation as a possible future Commander-in-Chief? In other words, she voted to sacrifice the lives of thousands of Iraqis and Americans to preserve her options as an eventual presidential candidate, without seriously studying the matter, and without heeding the wisdom of those brave few legislators who saw through the Bush bullshit on WMD.

Similarly, she failed to back same-sex marriage and a serious minimum wage until political considerations pushed her into it, and she only adopted more progressive positions this year as Bernie Sanders began to seriously challenge her during the primaries.

(An aside about Bill Clinton: His affair with Monica Lewinsky would be recognized by many of Hillary's supporters as a non-consensual sexual relationship due to its severe power imbalance. But somehow the idea of having Bill in the White House doesn't phase many of them--yet it's a powerful negative image for Republican voters, including those who don't necessarily approve of Trump's sexist words and deeds.)

When Hillary won the primary, I went back on my vow never to vote for her. Of course I did not want to see Trump win. But I feared, as did so many of us who supported Bernie, that her candidacy would hand us a Trump presidency. It didn't matter that Bernie himself might have difficulty defeating Trump. Clinton was a known quantity with serious baggage and negative ratings as bad as Trump's. Her candidacy was a disaster waiting to happen, and it did. That's because so few of us liberals and progressives were willing to believe that we could so misread the American public--yet we did, as did so much of the news media.

During the past months I refrained (usually) from criticizing Clinton online, even though I knew that the minute she won honest progressives would have to start doing it again. We would need to hold her feet to the fire and insure that she became the president she was promising to be--even if that meant alienating some of her most fervent supporters, to whom all her clear flaws were inventions by right-wing activists and politicians (those pesky emails would never have given Comey a chance to sabotage the election if she had not used that private server in the first place, a glaring symptom of her deep character flaws and her selfish approach to her brand of entitlement politics.)

Moreover--and here is where I am bound to get into serious trouble, but it needs to be said--the kind of take-no-prisoners feminism that was clearly out to intimidate anyone who raised questions about her character left little room for serious discussion. That kind of rhetoric has now seriously backfired, with its dishonest talk about "Bernie Bros" (almost all my women friends voted for Bernie, and the great majority of Bernie supporters voted for Clinton) and its bullying approach. Just today I came under fire from some feminists on Facebook because I dared to suggest that Clinton was a seriously flawed candidate, despite my concrete track record as a fighter (journalistically) on sexual misconduct issues.

We desperately needed a woman president, to right the wrong of more than 230 years of exclusive male rule. We needed an anti-sexist, anti-racist candidate who had the interests of all Americans at heart, especially after 8 years of a frankly very disappointing Obama presidency. I actually thought, as election night approached, that Clinton might be that candidate; that she might, with her mixture of long-time liberal politics and pragmatism, actually succeed where Obama mostly failed. But I was only fooling myself. Of course, Trump was able to tap into a thick, venomous vein of racism and sexism to secure his victory. If I thought Hillary Clinton was the right person to counter that, I was forgetting who she really was. Those fellow Americans who voted for Trump include racists and sexists, to be sure, but they also include millions who didn't have any illusions about Clinton and could not bring themselves to vote for her. They did not forget who she was. Like it or not, they will have to be taken into account in any plans that progressives and liberals think they might be making for the future.

For now, however, we are the losers, Bigly.

Update: I was glad to see Frank Bruni express regrets about Clinton's candidacy, and criticisms of the judgements it represented, in the New York Times. A key quote:

"There was an arrogance and foolishness to lining up behind Hillary Clinton as soon as so many Democratic leaders did, and to putting all their chips on her.
She fit the circumstances of 2016 awkwardly, in the same way that Jeb Bush did."

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Is the Texas Tech administration lying to the public, or is the leadership of its biology department--under fire for a culture of sexism and sexual harassment--lying to the administration?

Texas Tech University, Lubbock
As regular readers of this blog know, on October 24 I published a lengthy investigative piece in The Verge that traced a trail of sexual harassment from Texas Tech University to the Smithsonian Institution. The trail began in TTU's biology department, where, according to numerous present and former department members, a culture of sexism had reigned for decades. The article included some video excerpts of the department chair, Ron Chesser, making some pretty incredibly sexist remarks during a retirement party last year for mammalogist Robert Baker.
TTU's communications chief, Chris Cook, confirmed for the article that Chesser had been made to step down as department chair on an interim basis while an investigation was conducted. This action is confirmed in the memos I reproduce below. Chesser also issued an apology to the department for his remarks at the party, although some researchers found it wanting.
Today I am told by department members that Chesser is, in fact, still acting as chair of the department, occupying the same chairman's office and issuing memos signed with his name and title. I queried Chris Cook about this, who said that he did not know about it and that he had alerted the "appropriate" administrator or administrators. The latter supposedly took action, although Cook did not know what action. The department members sent me several emails signed in this way by Chesser in just the past days. I will not bore readers with the details of the memos  Chesser signed, as they are of little general interest, but I am cutting and pasting the signature he used here:
*Dr. Ronald K. Chesser*
Chairman & Professor
Department of Biological Sciences
Texas Tech University
Lubbock, Texas 79409-3131

Also today, I received a message from a Vice-Chancellor at the university, John Huffaker, asking me to encourage my sources for the story to talk to the administration for the investigation. I am also reproducing this message below, with Mr. Huffaker's permission. As I explained to both Chris Cook and Mr. Huffaker, it would be difficult for department members to trust the administration with their identities and their stories given this clear evidence that Chesser is still the head of the department and that the investigation could be a sham. However, if anyone cares to do so, you now have the contact details for him.
Is someone lying here? Is the administration lying to me about making Chesser step down, or is the department leadership (and possibly a dean) misleading the administration into thinking that Chesser had stepped down when he had not? Several members of the biology department have concluded that the investigation is just a sham. I hope they are wrong, or that TTU will get serious about this.

John Huffaker to Michael Balter today
In your recent article, “From Texas to the Smithsonian, …” you refer to comments attributed to former students, and, in one instance, a current student, which comments tend to confirm concerns regarding the Texas Tech Biology department.  After inquiry, our office has not been able to locate any complaints made on this subject  in the several years for which records are available.  While we recognize that your sources may wish to maintain confidentiality, would you consider contacting these individuals to determine if they would be willing to speak to representatives of my office?  It would aid our efforts in this inquiry.

John Huffaker
Vice Chancellor & General Counsel
Texas Tech University System
P.O. Box 42021
Lubbock, TX  79409
(806) 742-2155 (Phone)

First memo concerning the department chair

To:       Faculty and Staff in Biological Sciences
From: W Brent Lindquist, Dean
Re:      Temporary change in department leadership
Date:  October 5, 2016

Prof. John Zak will be assuming the duties of chair of Biological Sciences
effective Oct 6, 2016 for a temporary period of time.

Please address questions regarding this temporary change to Dr. Zak.

W. Brent Lindquist
Dean, Arts and Sciences
Professor, Mathematics and Statistics
Professor, Geosciences
Texas Tech University

Second memo concerning the department chair
October 6, 2016
To all members of the Department of Biological Sciences

As indicated in the memo from the Dean yesterday afternoon, I will be temporarily assuming the duties of Chair of Biological Sciences as of Thursday, October 6th. This temporary change in the department has been implemented to help facilitate an internal investigation by the University with regards to the enquiries and acquisitions made by a reporter from The Verge against our department. The change is to help facilitate the process, and provide transparency; nothing more. 
I will be over primarily in the afternoons for a couple of hours to deal with departmental issues and to take care of our collective business as a department. We will continue with all of our on-going activities and weekly events as planned. I will keep you updated as I learn more about the process over the next week.
I would also ask that you refer all external questions concerning any aspect of previous events or enquires from the media to Chris Cook (Managing Director for Communications). Please copy me on all e-mails to Chris. 
If you have any questions or other issues you need to discuss, our department has always had an open door policy and a willingness to listen to each other. Please stop in to talk as I am available during the day or after 5:00 in the Dean’s Office
We have a great department because we do try to help and support each other. We will continue to do so every day during this process.
Thanks much,

John Zak

Update: Meanwhile, mammalogist Miguel Pinto, who came straight out of Robert Baker's lab and the apparent seething sexism of some corners of the TTU biology department, has been banned from the Smithsonian for a pattern of sexual harassment that began in Lubbock and ended (hopefully) in Washington, DC.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

National Museum of Natural History director Kirk Johnson responds to sexual misconduct issues

Ocean Hall at the NMNH (WikiMedia)
Yesterday, in response to an article last week in The Verge relating the story of a research student named "Angie" who was sexually assaulted at the National Museum of Natural History, NMNH director Kirk Johnson issued the followed statement to staff, fellows, and other museum associates. Also yesterday, Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) called upon the Smithsonian Institution (which runs the NMNH) to investigate the mishandling of this case. I discussed both of these developments in an update story yesterday, but we did not have space to reproduce the entire statement from Johnson (although we did reproduce Rep Speier's letter to the SI's Inspector General in its entirety.)

I will leave it to readers to judge the seriousness of Johnson's memo, but one thing did strike me: The presentation on sexual harassment mentioned at the end will take place at an all-staff meeting the morning after the U.S. presidential election. I'm not sure how well NMNH researchers and staff will be able to concentrate on the subject immediately after a major historical event. Perhaps not the ideal timing for such an important discussion?

Dear NMNH Colleagues,

I’m sure I am not alone in the dismay and sadness I have felt in recent months as report after report has underscored the serious threat of sexism and sexual misconduct in the workplace. This is an issue that affects all of us, and one that weighs heavily on my mind as the person who bears responsibility for the safety and well-being of all members of the NMNH community. This is a responsibility that we all share. I’m writing to you to acknowledge those among you who have courageously raised your concerns about whether we are doing all that we can to ensure a harassment-free environment, to invite further discussion within our community, and to highlight the important protections that are already in place at NMNH.

As communicated by Secretary Skorton to all Smithsonian staff on October 7, we address reports of workplace harassment (including sexual harassment) through a formal process led by the Office of Equal Employment and Minority Affairs. These procedures are outlined in the Prevention of Workplace Harassment Policy Statement issued to all employees, and codified in Smithsonian Directive 214. All Smithsonian staff must complete prevention of workplace harassment training every three years. An anti-harassment hotline (202-633-6620) is available for individuals who do not feel comfortable discussing the issue with their supervisor or supervisory chain.

I would like to reinforce these policies and reaffirm that all members of our community (employees, contractors, fellows, agency partners, volunteers, and interns) should know that they have the right to confidentiality, and that they will have support if they bring to light any incident of sexual harassment, or harassment of any kind.

Our next all-staff meeting will occur on Wednesday, November 9, at 10:30 AM and will include a presentation on our procedures for preventing and responding to sexual harassment.

I am committed to dialogue on this important subject, and to making improvements to ensure a safe, harassment-free workplace. I am grateful for your support on this important issue and I invite your feedback and suggestions.



Kirk Johnson
Sant Director

Friday, October 28, 2016


Earlier this week, I published a story in The Verge entitled "From Texas to the Smithsonian, following a trail of sexual misconduct."  It told the story of "Angie," a student researcher at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History who was sexually assaulted in 2011 and has spent the past several years trying to get the museum to do something about it. The story tracked Angie's aggressor, a mammalogist named Miguel Pinto, back to Texas Tech University, where he admitted to an earlier episode of sexual harassment (probably assault) on an undergraduate student. There have been a lot of reactions to the story, mostly positive. And just yesterday, another former student who was allegedly assaulted by Pinto, Susan Tsang, came forward on her Twitter feed and her Facebook page to tell of her own experiences. She has much more to say about Pinto and the larger context for her experiences, as you will read below. She has kindly given me permission to reproduce her post in its entirety, and I think it speaks for itself. Some background: Susan is now at the Smithsonian, and, like Pinto, is a bat researcher. Kris is Kris Helgen, a mammalogist at the NMNH and Pinto's adviser while he was there.

                                                                               * * * 

Sorry, but I'm a shit stirrer so it's #UnpopularOpinion and #HardTruthstime.
I really really did not want to be the one to address this. I thought very long and hard about if I should be the one to say anything, and I know I will probably piss off a lot of people by posting this, but the muted response in our bat/mammal community, especially in comparison to other harassment-related news lately, disturbs me. I don't know if this hasn't been getting much attention because a) people genuinely did not know this was out, or b) people really don't know how to respond because of all the mixed emotions they probably have about those involved. But I feel like if we don't have this out in the public sphere at all, then the experiences of this student and the failures of these institutions will never get the public forum they need.

If you don't know what I am talking about, please see the following article:…/smithsonian-sexual-misconduct-inv…
Followed by this:…/how-to-apologize-or-no…
(Please note that I have blocked Miguel from my facebook)
I am still waiting to see what the institutional responses really are from TTU and NMNH, but needless to say it's disappointing that it's mostly been silence. We can do better than this.
The environment at TTU is one that many spoke of previously as being sexist; it just doesn't surprise me that the video exists to prove that. The non-apology from the ex-chair at TTU really pissed me off. And of the two other players in this, I have rather differing opinions, and it should become clear why by the end of this.
I do share the understanding of why women often do not report. I was 22 when I started my PhD, I was new to my field, I did not know anyone who could act in my defense should I need it, and I wanted to succeed. I was unsure of myself, but determined, and if it meant I had to put up with sexual harassment, I would. And I damn well did until I was 26. No one has ever dared to say or do that kind of shit to me since because I grew into myself a bit more, and I felt I had a community that would have my back should this ever happen again.
Of course, I am disappointed in Kris. Kris is my mentor, colleague, and friend, and I know he made the wrong choice with this matter, but I think this can be a teachable moment. I am not only doing this because I respect him greatly for his expertise, but I genuinely feel like Kris can become a better ally if he knew what he should have been doing. He did not understand the severity of the matter, and that is on him. I have been having an ongoing conversation with him regarding matters related to sexual harassment and hostile workplaces in greater detail for some time now. We've sat down for some long chats about this lately and I have pointed out to him that I do feel like he was a cog in the institutional machine that allowed this to happen. He was very upset and willing to learn and listen. And I think most men can--they just have no idea that some of the stuff happening around them constitutes sexual harassment and is making a hostile workplace for women. It's better to teach the men in our institutions to be allies instead of immediately lash out at ever single one of them. I realize this is 2016 and shouldn't need saying, but I think our political discourse this year already shows that perhaps we do need to clearly list what sexual harassment encompasses.
Now, Miguel is a different story. I do not believe that Miguel has reformed, and I do think it is a pattern of behavior from him. The fact that this story is now PUBLIC and he has admitted to these acts, but has yet to issue a direct apology to the young women he has wronged throughout the years makes me feel like he is just saying the words he knows we want to hear and he doesn't really quite know why. That Miguel is kind of a creepy, socially awkward guy is not new to me--we were in the same grad school cohort for 6 years. That's a lot of department parties, journal clubs, seminars, and other social events that I have had to interact with him. I have always been professionally courteous (and even helpful at times, since we both work on bats and were in the same classes!), but I have never liked him personally. He always gave off a creepy vibe, and I know I am not the only woman to have felt that from him.
There is another complicated layer to this, which I will never ever report on an official record anywhere (and if you try to include me in any salacious reporting, I will just not take part--I do not need someone else representing my experiences or twisting my words). I, too, was previously sexually assaulted by Miguel. Multiple times. And I do mean assault and not just harassment or a hostile workplace. Miguel might think of it as just trying to flirt with me, but physically invading my space is not flirting. Miguel laid hands on me on three separate occasions while we were in grad school. I was not flirting with him. And even if he thought I was interested, the manner in which he did (grabbing my face and kissing me on the lips (Spring 2010), grabbing my butt (Fall 2010), and trying to forcibly kiss me while holding onto my hand (Spring 2011) are all not ways to go about showing interest. I was obviously not comfortable reporting this back then, and I only want to be known for my work, not anything else, so I have never felt the desire to be on record anywhere about this. I do now think back about if it would have helped some other women had I said anything back then, but there were so many instances of sexual harassment I was going through from my first through third years that I did not want to have to sit in an ombudsman office and report and follow-up with every single possible thing I have had happen to me. I would just never have graduated if that were the case. Not necessarily because my department would have shunned me or anything, but because I would be stuck in the bureaucratic morasse of filing so many sexual harassment cases.
On any other occasion where someone showed unwanted interest in me, they have respected my space when I told them I am not interested. Miguel has clearly not based on the MULTIPLE transgressions with me, and he has never apologized after when he had supposedly reformed. I am not afraid of Miguel, and I most certainly do not see myself as someone who was victimized by him, and I do not need nor want an apology. But this does deeply color why I feel he is not reformed. Clearly, the young lady in the story, "Angie," has not felt that he has been properly dealt with and he has not made any real effort besides checking the institutional boxes to be cleared. At the very least, even if she does not want it, I think having him publicly admit to his wrongdoing directly to us (the scientific community), and not just admit it to a reporter would at least convince me he is trying to really learn and do right by the women he wronged.
I have trained and am still training mostly female students. I have informally mentored my female peers through some tough times. I sit on a selection committee for Women in Bat Conservation. And I don't want young women who are in bats/mammals to think that because a couple of cases of terrible people getting away with sexual harassment means that our entire field is like that. I want to see more women in leadership roles, not have women leave the field because it is a hostile place to work. I just want the young women out there to know that this kind of behavior is absolutely unacceptable in our community, and I am not going to be cute and half about it and only imply anything. I repudiate Miguel and absolutely do not want to work with him nor associate with him in anyway way in the future. He has seen no repercussions for his actions and that is abhorrent to me. I am willing to put myself in a precarious position in academia to say this very explicitly--THIS SHIT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE AND PEOPLE NEED TO STOP REWARDING HIM.

Image credit: By Amanda - originally posted to Flickr as National Museum of Natural History, CC BY 2.0,

Monday, October 24, 2016

How to apologize--or not--if you are a department chair caught on video making extremely sexist remarks

Earlier today The Verge published my investigation into a trail of sexual misconduct that led from Texas Tech University to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. I tell the story of "Angie," a young researcher who struggled for several years to get help and justice after a sexual assault at the Smithsonian. The article relates the possible origins of the attitudes of her attacker in the sexist environment of the biology department of his former university, Texas Tech. The story includes a video of the chair of the biology department at Texas Tech making extremely sexist remarks at a retirement party last year, complete with Powerpoint. He is now the former chair, at least on an interim basis, pending an investigation by the university.

When the story came out, a source within the department sent me the following letter of apology that the former chair, Ronald Chesser, sent to faculty some days after he was forced to step down. I had not been made aware of it earlier. I will leave it to readers to judge whether it is an adequate explanation of what happened and a sincere apology, given the extreme nature of the remarks recorded on video. Further updates will be published in The Verge or on this blog.

 11 October 2016 

Dear Friends and Colleagues, 

In June, 2015, prior to becoming Chair of the Biological Sciences Department, I was asked to give a “roast” of Dr. Robert J. Baker in commemoration of his retirement. In the course of my roast I gave some exaggerations, and embellishments (all untrue) of Dr. Baker that some may have considered distasteful or derogatory to women. Although all who know me will realize that this was neither my intent nor reflective of my true feelings, I am deeply sorry for any disrespect my statements may have implied. Jokes are almost always absurdities; otherwise they would not be funny at all. Nevertheless, some have recently voiced concern. I take full responsibility for my misguided jokes and understand that interpretation supersedes intent. Please accept my sincere apologies for any perceived insensitivities on my part. You can rest assured that I will never again accept a similar request.

The faculty of the Department of Biological Sciences know that I have vigorously pursued any and all complaints or concerns regarding Title IX and EEO matters. The safety of our students and faculty and the integrity of the department have always been paramount priorities for me. I do not wish my statements to imply otherwise. 

Furthermore, I do not want my absurdities to overshadow or taint the incredible accomplishments of Dr. Robert Baker. I worked with Robert for 35 years at Texas Tech, Chernobyl, Mexico, and several US locales. He was protective of all of his graduate students, including the females working under his mentorship. I never knew him to treat his students with anything but complete respect while demanding their adherence to the highest academic standards. In the time I have worked with Dr. Baker I am not aware of any complaint or grievance issued against him. Dr. Baker has told me that he enjoyed my roasting of him and had no issues whatsoever. Still, I regret roasting him and for my participation in the ceremony. 

With profound apologies and respect, 

Ron Chesser

Afterword: Readers will note that Dr. Chesser states he has "vigorously pursued any and all complaints or concerns regarding Title IX and EEO matters." However, according to a message I received from Texas Tech communications chief Chris Cook just a couple of days ago, in response to my records request for all sexual misconduct complaints in the Biological Sciences department during the past 20 years:

"Our EEO office has checked retained files back to 1997 and did not find any complaints involving the Department of Biological Sciences or Dr. Baker."

Of course, this does not mean that sexual misconduct did not take place. Given the results of my reporting, it more likely reflects the fear that alleged victims felt in coming forward. As one student in the department put it to me, quoted in my article: "Chesser perfectly sums up Baker."

Update: Readers might be interested in listening to a 20 minute interview I did with John Batchelor about this case.