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