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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.

14 comments:

Kristina Amadeus said...

I am not an academic and have no knowledge of what goes on in the halls of Academia, but I can say this: in every place of employment between the ages of 15 and 60 I was groped or touched inappropriately by men. The workplace became the running of an obstacle course. One wanted to be friendly with co-workers but needed to monitor one's tone so that it could not be miscontrued as flirtation. One wanted to look attractive ('front office appearance' appeared in the ads for the jobs) but not so attractive that it might encourage a man to touch. And if the man were one's boss,then the choices were clear: be silent and keep your job, or join the unemployment line. then I got the impression that a preponderance of males imagine incitement and encouragement in every word or action emanating from a girl or woman. A woman in this position has to maintain a constant vigilance which is enervating and takes most of joy out of working life, and life itself. Indeed, old age came as a blessing - white haired, plump and matronly - my body is my own at last.

Michael Balter said...

Thanks Kristina for those eloquent but painful comments.

A former student in the department wrote me as follows about Chesser's "apology:"


I read the apology from Chesser on your blog just now and this is what i understood:

1. It happened before i was chair
2. I am sorry you were offended; it was just a joke
3. As a chair, I have always done right by Title 9 (although since that is all secret, how would you know?)
4. Baker is a legend and I was definitely just kidding
5. Baker thought it was funny

Former Student said...

Thank you for writing this article, although it was uncomfortable to read on several levels.

I was a female undergraduate in Baker's lab in the early 2000s and can attest that I was also warned to watch out for him before I started in his lab. He only hugged women, as far as I can recall, and he certainly only gave the female students presents. I can also think of at least three male graduate students in his lab that hit on me or made remarkably sexist comments during my time Baker's lab and after, which I brushed off. Much like the former student in your article, I just wanted to get through my research project. I also "knew" nothing would change if I complained. He had too much grant money and too much power.

Whether my assumption that nothing would change was correct or not, I can't possibly know. But it certainly didn't seem like it would change at the time.

Michael Balter said...

Dear Former Student,

Thanks very much for sharing your experiences, which confirm once again what I was told by numerous sources.

This helps explain why there were no formal complaints against Baker or other department figures during the last 20 years, despite the rife atmosphere of sexism.

Should you like to get in touch with me privately (contact email on my Web site michaelbalter.com) I would be happy to talk to you.

best, Michael

Iain Davidson said...

So I thought Chesser was just an asshole for going along with stuff that Baker had done, to roast him on his retirement. But his inarticulate and ungrammatical letter clearly implies that he made up the examples himself. So he is a much bigger asshole.
And his so-called apology is like all forced apologies, not an apology at all.

Anonymous said...

I was a grad student at Texas Tech. I wasn't a Baker student, but I can attest to the culture of the department. I too was warned to stay away from Baker. My advisor was someone who would likely never be accused of contributing to the culture in the same way that Densmore and Baker did. Yet, when one of his male graduate students pinned pictures of naked women on his computer in the open office shared by all graduate students, the concerns of the female graduate students were dismissed by my advisor with "It's his right to post those because of free speech." They remained up the entire time that student was at TTU.

Even a decade later, nothing had really changed. I was back in the department giving a seminar and one of the professors who I had thought was pretty innocuous thought it was OK to tell me that he thought I was hot when I was a student there. Just eeww.

Michael Balter said...

Thank you for telling your story, more and more people are coming forward and it should make a difference.

As I said to Former Student, please feel free to get in touch with me privately if you like. Contact at michaelbalter.com

jqb said...

"that some may have considered distasteful or derogatory to women"

In other words, he doesn't consider his sexist "jokes" to be distasteful or derogatory to women.

"Although all who know me will realize that this was neither my intent nor reflective of my true feelings"

So even though he is a misogynist, no one who knows him thinks so. The proof of this is that he says so.

"I am deeply sorry for any disrespect my statements may have implied."

His statements may not have implied any disrespect, but he's deeply sorry for the disrespect that may not have been implied anyway. Of course he himself didn't imply anything or disrespect anyone. I guess he was sleepwalking on Ambien and wasn't a conscious agent, or aliens took over his brain and made his mouth move, or something.

"Jokes are almost always absurdities; otherwise they would not be funny at all."

His distasteful, derogatory, disrespectful, sexist comments and images were funny! Can't anyone take a joke?

"interpretation supersedes intent"

He didn't intend his distasteful, derogatory, disrespectful, sexist comments and images to be distasteful, derogatory, disrespectful, and sexist. He used a random number generator to select words and images and the ones he ended up with just showed up by chance.

"Please accept my sincere apologies for any perceived insensitivities on my part."

It's your fault. Get your perceptions fixed.

"You can rest assured that I will never again accept a similar request."

Because agreeing to do a roast necessitates presenting distasteful, derogatory, disrespectful, sexist comments and images. He simply had no choice.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this article and bringing awareness to the sexist politics and environment in Biology at TTU. I wish I could say that this department is the exception but anyone that has been at TTU know that this is not true. Overall TTU is an institution that is run by "good ol' boys" and the unfairness of this system extent beyond those that involve women to minorities in general. As someone that was there for a while, I am happy to say things are much better (even if not perfect) at different institutions!

Finally, many people wondered by Baker went for so long without anyone taking any steps towards stopping him. While many factors that have play a role have been mentioned, I want to point out that his "buddy" and former student Robert Bradley is (and has been for a long time!) Associate Chair of Biology. While Bradley is also promoting an unfriendly environment for women (in my experience in different ways from Baker), he is clearly a barrier from any concerns issued by students and faculty. I knew very clearly that it was useless to try to bring up any issues with Bradley by the side of John Zak or Lou Densmore. A first step is to also look beyond who is the Chair but more carefully pruning needs to be done in that department!

Michael Balter said...

Many thanks for the above commenter for these insights into the biology department and Texas Tech.

Robert Bradley was the "emcee" of the retirement party captured on video in my story in The Verge and is rightly seen as part of the culture there.

Please feel free to get in touch with me privately if you want to share more of your insights, in full confidence.

Anonymous said...

I work in the biology department. That video is absolutely appalling. I wasn't at the reception but I heard there were students and kids in attendance.... Chesser's "apology" was just pathetic on so many levels. He has worked with Baker for 35 years and he "never knew him to treat his students with anything but complete respect while demanding their adherence to the highest academic standards". So when Chesser was asked to say something funny at Baker's retirement party in public, these are the jokes he could come up with. What does that say about the two of you? So far Texas Tech hasn't done anything yet. Chesser was supposedly put on administrative leave but he is still acting like the chair and sending out e-mails to the department like the chair as if nothing happened.

Chronic nepotism is another major issue with the Baker-Bradley-Chesser clan. Over the years, they promoted the hiring of their former students, postdocs, spouses under very dubious conditions. The torch has been passed.

Michael Balter said...

Thanks once again to those members of the biology department who are coming forward, even if anonymously, to confirm my reporting on the department and provide additional information.

I would be grateful if you could send me, again anonymously, the emails that Chesser is sending to the department which show that he is still acting as chair. Please do that at the contact page on michaelbalter.com

And I would encourage other department members to continue to post here as they see fit.

Anonymous said...

In Dr. Chesser's apology letter, he said the roasting occurred in June 2015 before he became the chair. But the video was dated in October 2015 after he was named the chair. Which way is it? Shouldn't be hard to figure out.
Seems trivial but there was indeed a retirement reception for Dr. Baker in June 2015. The dean and TTU president were among the attendees so I sure hope Dr. Chesser didn't say those things there!

Michael Balter said...

Chesser says he was "asked" to give the "roast" in June 2015, not that he gave the roast that month. There was indeed an earlier event in June 2015, as this commenter says, but the video in my story is from the October 2015 retirement party. Neither John Zak nor the university administration have responded to my question as to whether he--now a dean--was present himself, but it is certainly possible given that he was a former chair of the biology department.