Saturday, December 29, 2018

An accused sexual harasser has committed suicide. Who is to blame? [Updated]

Earlier this month, Rod Scott, a talented plant geneticist at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, took his own life. He leaves behind two grieving families: One consisting of three young adult children, whose mother, Scott's ex-partner, died from cancer last fall; the other, a very young daughter and his mother, Scott's current partner.

He also leaves behind many grieving colleagues and students in Bath's department of Biology and Biochemistry, where he earlier served as head of department for many years.

Finally, he leaves behind a number of current and former female students in the department, who say they were the subject of unwanted sexual attention from Scott--behavior which, according to numerous sources, was known by many in the department and by University of Bath officials.

At the time of his death, he was under active investigation by the university for sexual harassment, and had reportedly been suspended during that investigation. I knew about this because, as a reporter looking into allegations of bullying and harassment by several of the department's faculty, I had earlier reported on the allegations concerning Scott. This prompted the university to issue a statement about the situation in Biology and Biochemistry, acknowledging the problems and vaguely describing some of the investigations that had already taken place. These included allegations of bullying, which were more or less upheld, by paleontologist Nick Longrich, who subsequently lost a million pound Leverhulme Trust grant as a result. (Shortly after my own blog post on this development, Nature also reported the news.)

When someone takes their own life, there are usually multiple factors involved. I do not claim to know exactly why Scott took this action (the recent death of the mother of his adult children probably played a role), but there is considerable circumstantial evidence that the sexual harassment allegations against him were also an important factor. For one thing, sources have reported to me that some family members and colleagues are blaming both me as the reporter, and the victims who have made formal or informal accusations against him, for his death. I received an email just the other day from a researcher close to the situation who blamed me directly for causing Scott's death. **

Some readers might assume that I am feeling defensive about this. Here's what I will say: Any death saddens me, and I think the circumstances of Scott's death are tragic because I believe it could have been prevented. And in what I write here, I have tried to respect the privacy of the individuals affected by not naming them and giving as few details as I feel necessary to make clear what happened. On the other hand, such a widespread history of sexual harassment in a university science department is a matter of public concern, and full exposure and transparency is the only way that the culture of harassment will change--something that the #MeToo movement and its supporters have made clear in their advocacy.

But I will make my own accusation: To the extent that the sexual misconduct allegations played a role in his suicide, I blame the University of Bath administration, and certain leaders and colleagues in the department, for not taking the harassment situation in hand much earlier, even though they have known about it for many years. Had victims not been discouraged from filing complaints; had Scott's behavior not been excused time and again with "oh that's just Rod;" had he been issued a serious zero tolerance warning early on, and it made clear to him that his job was in jeopardy if he did not heed it; perhaps then his behavior might have been modified early enough to avoid what has now come to pass.

Instead, department leaders and university officials, through their inaction, gave harassment victims little choice but to contact a reporter and tell him their stories. The system betrayed them, and so they did what was necessary to get the truth out.

Moreover, Scott was not the only harasser in the department. Multiple witnesses also told me about the late Richard Cooper, a plant pathology researcher, who died last fall. Although not quite as notorious in his misconduct as Scott, Cooper was also well-known for harassing female students. (There are allegations against other faculty members, but I have not yet investigated them.)

Nor was Longrich the only accused bully in the department: I also wrote about the case of Stephanie Diezmann, an expert in infectious fungi. Diezmann, who has now moved to the University of Bristol, was cleared by the university of the bullying charges against her, despite clear evidence that should have upheld at least some of them.

A history of years of harassment

After I reported on Longrich's case, I was contacted by two women in the department who told me about Rod Scott's behavior for the first time. They also referred me to other sources, including former students, who had either been harassed by Scott themselves or witnessed him doing it to fellow students. So far, I have talked to five* women--current and former department members--whom I consider direct, first hand sources on Scott's misconduct. In addition, other sources who had known Scott over the years provided insights into his character, personality, and complicated family situations, as well as the culture of the department in general.

(To protect sources, I am not giving details of the numerous incidents of sexual harassment described to me by victims, as the specifics might tend to identify the women involved.)

The direct sources made clear that sexual harassment was endemic in Biology and Biochemistry. Some of this took place at social events, where inevitably a lot of drinking was done. "I have seen gross, lecherous behavior at several social events, by several members of senior male academic staff," one woman told me. In other cases, the harassment was in more private settings, from which the victims found it more difficult to extricate themselves. Yet there have only been a few formal complaints made, for fear of retaliation. Indeed, in at least one case, Scott himself attempted to retaliate against a woman who had filed a complaint against him.

"Sexism is rampant in the department," a source told me. "Especially with older members of staff towards PhD students. The problem is everyone, including myself, is too afraid to speak out, for fear of some form of repercussion in the future."

(Because of fear of retaliation, all of the women I talked to asked to remain anonymous. However, this post relies strictly on first-hand information, and not rumors or second-hand allegations.)

How long has this been going on? My investigation has relied so far on either current members of the department or researchers and students who left the department less than ten years ago. However, based on my reporting, the department and the university (more specifically its Human Resources division) had been aware of allegations concerning Rod Scott since at least 2013. Other sources tell me that it was well known in the department going back until at least 2011 that Scott was a serial sexual harasser. "During my time at Bath, the sexual harassment issues of Rod Scott were very widely known within and beyond the department," says one researcher who was there during that earlier period.

The current head of department, David Tosh, has been aware of Scott's behavior for at least three years and possibly longer, and the deputy head of department, Adele Murrell, had been aware for some time as well. (So far neither Tosh nor Murrell have responded to my requests to talk with them, and the university press office has said it will not comment further beyond acknowledging that various investigations into misconduct have been taking place.)

In fairness, department sources tell me that since the Nick Longrich affair, and my earlier revelations concerning Rod Scott, both Tosh and Bath's HR division have begun taking the situation more seriously, and actively communicating to the department and the university at large about its strict policies against bullying and harassment. Will that make victims of bullying and harassment feel more comfortable about speaking out and, if necessary, filing formal complaints?

That remains to be seen. But as I state above, all of this comes too late to save the life of Rod Scott, a talented scientist, but one who clearly behaved very badly when he was alive. Yet department and university officials waited so long to take the situation in hand, and did so much to discourage victims from speaking out, that, in this #MeToo era, it was inevitable that a deluge of accusations would be released against him--a flood that Scott's already fragile mental state may have been too weak to withstand.

I call this a preventable death; and, based on my reporting, I hold the University of Bath to be largely responsible for it.

* This number is increasing as new witnesses have contacted me since this blog was published, see update below.

** After giving it a lot of thought, I have decided to reproduce here the email I received from a researcher who is the partner of a former faculty member in the department. This and other indications that some were blaming the victims and I for Scott's suicide prompted me to post this blog earlier than I had originally planned, to set the record straight:

You are unbelievable. Not content with causing a man's death, you have to go on twitter to blame his grieving colleagues? You gonna follow this up with an expose on the role his kids played in his death? I can understand not wanting to take responsibility for your actions when they include a year-old baby growing up without her dad but couldn't you for once shut the fuck up? At least until the goddamned holidays are over? ***

In fact, Scott was still trying to hit on female students while he was living with the mother of the baby referred to. I hope it would be clear that anyone who accuses me of being responsible for Scott's death is, in effect, accusing the victims of his harassment of being responsible, since I am simply the messenger helping those women to tell their stories.

*** I made clear to this researcher that his email to me was on the record, because I had not agreed otherwise. After still more reflection, I have decided to identify him. It is Heath O'Brien, a genome evolution researcher at the University of Cardiff, and partner of accused bully Stephanie Diezmann.

Update: As often happens, the publication of this blog post earlier today has led new sources and witnesses to contact me about the situation in Bath's Department of Biology and Biochemistry, and specifically about Rod Scott. I said above that my reporting so far has established that members of the department knew about his behavior going back as early as 2011. The new information indicates that it was widely known among both students and faculty at least 10 years earlier than that. It is truly amazing that this was allowed to go on for so long, and the evidence greatly supports my contention that the department and the university were derelict in their duty to protect students. What continues to be so disturbing is the increasing evidence that senior faculty knew about Scott's bullying and harassment of students, and sexual relationships with them that many considered inappropriate, and yet nothing was done about it.

I would just add that there is a great deal about Scott's behavior and treatment of women over many years that I have been reliably told about but have not included in the above report, in an attempt to keep the focus tightly on actionable misconduct and harassment. It is terrible that he died, but he cannot be sanctified.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is a lot to unpack here, and I make no judgements about your reporting. I have a story to tell about this situation and past. If you would like more information, let me know how to contact you in a non-public forum as I believe I can add a bit to the story that you have not yet focused on.