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.

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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.