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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.

Best,
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


2 comments:

pcwt5872 said...

Glad to see the faculty in that department taking a stand, despite their chair's apparent attempts at intimidation and obstruction. I have two daughters attending Texas Tech and I hope the university will do the right thing.

Michael Balter said...

Thanks for your comment. I'd be very interested in hearing more about the attempted intimidation and obstruction. Anyone who has information about that should get in touch with me.