Why I have taken a leave of absence from Science: to protest the abrupt firing of 4 colleagues

The following was sent to Science's news editor this morning:

6 October 2014


Dear Tim,

As you know, I have been writing continuously for Science for the past 24 years. I have been on the masthead of the journal for the past 21 years, serving in a variety of capacities ranging from staff writer to Contributing Correspondent (my current title.) I also spent 10 years as Science’s de facto Paris bureau chief. Thus it is particularly painful and sad for me to tell you that I will be taking a three-month leave of absence in protest of recent events at Science and within its publishing organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

I am taking this action to register my profound dismay about two related developments:

1.     The recent dismissal of four women in our art and production departments, with essentially no notice in three cases and very little notice in the fourth case.
2.     The failure of AAAS CEO and Science’s Executive Publisher, Alan Leshner, and Science’s Editor-in-Chief, Marcia McNutt, to make any serious response to sincere and heartfelt concerns expressed to them, by the overwhelming majority of Science’s news staff, about the way these dismissals were handled.

As you know, the dismissals occurred during the week of September 22. Two colleagues from our art department, and two from production, were the victims. Although the termination of each was handled somewhat differently, a common feature was the brutality and insensitivity with which they were dealt with by AAAS senior management and by our Human Resources department. One colleague was summarily fired and escorted out of the building; when she was allowed to return a few days later to clear out her desk, she was not permitted to talk to any of her former colleagues. A second colleague, who had been at Science for 16 years, was offered a demotion, and when she declined to take it, given essentially one day to leave as well. Our print production director, a veteran of 23 years service to the organization, was told that her position was being eliminated, and given two weeks’ notice. The circumstances of the termination of a fourth colleague are not clear, because she apparently vanished without a trace. For various reasons, I am one of the few people in the news department who knew her; she was a highly competent and serious employee.

Amazingly, even though the news staff worked closely, on a daily basis, with three of these colleagues, no explanation was provided for their departure, and no acknowledgement of their contributions to the organization over many years was forthcoming—nor has it been as I write. I, along with most members of the news staff, had to assume that it was related to the digital media reorganization of AAAS and Science currently being spearheaded by Rob Covey. And by all indications Covey, who earlier this year was given the title Chief Digital Media Officer (more on this shortly), was directly involved in the dismissals of the four colleagues. Thus some of us expected him to make some explanations, if not about the individual dismissals, at least about how these actions fit into the reorganization now under way. When our art director was suddenly terminated last spring, for example, we were at least given a somewhat detailed explanation by Marcia McNutt. She described a staff a meeting that Alan Leshner and Rob Covey had with the art director—another veteran employee, who had graced Science’s cover with so many beautiful images--to explain why her position was being eliminated. Many of us were very disturbed at the insensitivity with which that matter was handled, but little was said at the time.

Yet in the case of the four women dismissed last month, no such explanation was made, nor even a formal announcement that they were gone. Instead, on September 25, Covey wrote a short email to Science staff telling us who the new contacts were for magazine makeup and magazine layout. No mention whatsoever was made of our terminated colleagues. As one fellow colleague expressed it to me: “Brr.”

So on September 26, the great majority of our news staff came together to communicate its shock and concern to Alan Leshner and Marcia McNutt about the way these dismissals had been handled. I am not authorized to reveal the contents of this very eloquent communication, but I know that you are familiar with it. Leshner apparently received this communication just at the time that he was drafting a short note to the staff, which he sent later that same evening. The note reminded us of the “strategic transformation” that AAAS is currently undergoing, to enhance its engagement with its members and to be in the forefront of the “multimedia landscape of the future.” Then, in reference to the dismissal of our four colleagues, Leshner stated: “Some of you may have heard that these changes this past week have negatively affected some of our colleagues. These changes, while very difficult decisions to be sure, were a necessary part of the strategic and organizational changes that we are undertaking.”

Other than a brief email to one of our editors, in response to the communication from news staff, stating that he could say nothing more, Leshner has made no other reply to the concerns expressed. Nor has Marcia McNutt, although it is unclear just what her involvement was in these decisions.

By way of background: I wrote my first article for Science in 1991, and was appointed as a Contributing Correspondent in 1993. I later spent several years as a member of staff. Although others have far outshined me in terms of production, I have nevertheless produced more than 350 news and feature articles since coming on board, and about 250 online stories. I have made Science my primary home as a journalist. Why? I can trace my turning point back to 1995, when Science and AAAS held a joint “retreat” in Washington, DC, and I met many of the colleagues I still know today. You, Tim, in your then role as features editor, were there if I recall correctly, and I also met the editor with whom I have worked for nearly 20 years, our anthropology editor Elizabeth Culotta. I remember so well how blown away I was by how smart, talented, and just plain nice all of my colleagues were, up and down the hierarchy of AAAS and Science. Never before or since have I encountered an atmosphere so creative, collegial, and supportive.

I think that this collegial atmosphere continued to dominate until earlier this year, when the changes that we are currently living through began in earnest. Rob Covey came on board at AAAS in September 2013, and at first many of us thought that he was serving mostly in an advisory capacity; after all, he had a reputation for helping media outlets achieve their design and digital goals, a role he had played at National Geographic, Discovery Communications, and elsewhere. I count myself among those who were happy about many of the changes he brought about, including the redesign of the magazine, the ramping up of our multimedia presence, etc. But somewhere along the way Covey began to take on more power and more authority for personnel decisions, an evolution that has generated increasing consternation among the staff in all of Science’s departments.

(In addition, according to all the information I have been able to gather about it, Covey was responsible for one of the most embarrassing recent episodes at Science, the July 11, 2014 cover of the special AIDS issue. This cover, for which Science has been widely excoriated, featured the bare legs [and no faces] of transgender sex workers in Jakarta, which many saw as a crass objectification and exploitation of these vulnerable individuals. Marcia McNutt was forced to publicly apologize for this cover, although she partly defended it as the result of “discussion by a large group.” In fact, my understanding, based on sources I consider reliable, is that a number of members of Science’s staff urged Covey not to use the cover, to no avail.)

In what seems like one short year, we have gone from a culture appropriate to a nonprofit, membership organization like the AAAS, to the culture more typical of a Manhattan publisher or a Wall Street corporation—a culture in which even long-time, loyal employees are expendable and can be let go with essentially no notice. While the U.S. economy appears to be recovering, the job market is still very tough; such policies and practices not only jeopardize the future livelihood of our colleagues (three of the four women dismissed are over 50), but they undermine their sense of self worth, a common side effect of being abruptly terminated by an organization they had regarded as a home. I wonder how many AAAS members would approve of such practices if they knew about them, especially since they have been endorsed by a CEO who himself earns just over $1 million/year (with the compensation for Science’s publisher at about $860,000/year according to the lastest available report to the IRS.)

And much as we grieve for our departed colleagues, we must now fear for our own jobs, as there is no reason to think that anyone at AAAS and Science is secure from similar treatment—including the news staff itself, even if we are not (apparently) threatened with immediate changes or reorganization.

Tim, I want to make absolutely clear that in my opinion none of this reflects on your leadership of the news team, to which you have brought the talent, insight, respect for writers, and vision that sent a major thrill through the staff when we learned that you were coming back to Science after so many years away. Speaking personally, I have felt nothing but strong support from you for my many projects at Science, and I cannot express adequately how much I appreciate the understanding you have shown for the passion that I try to bring to them. So it really hurts me, with a visceral pain, to have to write this letter, even if my three month leave of absence is primarily a symbolic gesture. I have no illusions that Science can’t do without me for that short period of time. But I do hope that this gesture, and my decision to make it public, might help in the larger effort by our colleagues to return the AAAS to its former humane values.

Yours truly,

Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent

Post a Comment


William Shear said…
Good for you, Michael. This is a principled action, potentially with serious consequences for you personally. I admire your forthrightness and courage.
Michael Balter said…
Thanks William, this is getting a lot of attention, more frankly than I expected. That is very heartening.
Mark Finley said…
The one who was fired and escorted out of the building was treated like a criminal.

Whatever happened to a gold watch and "thanks for your service"?

Their Human Relations Dept. lacks humanity.
bijoo said…
Mr. Balter

During the years in which I worked for and with others, I was continually dismayed at the seeming lack of solidarity of co-workers in the face of injustice, regardless of relative gravity.

I applaud your thoughtful morality, your supportive gesture, your ballsy insistence that no boardroom decision be divorced from adult respectful humane treatment of one's peers.

Michael Balter said…
bijoo, thanks so much for the kind and supportive post. best, Michael
Amy Charles said…
Thank you for being public about this, and please do keep speaking. Don't assume everyone already knows -- I just found out via facebook, and I wish I could say I'm shocked, but am only angry.

A charitable read would say that AAAS leadership is simply unaware of editorial cultures, and not all that knowledgeable about sci comm, and thought it was doing something sensible and businesslike. It might be helpful then if a letter signed by many of us in sci writing and publishing went to AAAS leadership saying, "this is not how it's done, you've already been embarrassed by this cover that thought it was being flashy but was instead merely bigoted, and there are healthier ways to achieve your goals, but in the meantime we don't want to be associated with this product."

I hope also that others will understand that although this does involve principle it's not exactly stepping off a cliff, careerwise. What I see is that demand for capable translators of science is intense.
Michael Balter said…
Thanks Amy, and I do think that any communication with the AAAS leadership would be helpful. Please let me know what you do.
Axel Berger said…
I have added my small voice to yours: http://blog.berger-odenthal.de/wordpress/?p=1372
Anonymous said…
Thank you, Michael. How refreshing to hear this. You have restored my faith for today.

Michael Balter said…
Thanks to all for your kind words and support.
I think I fat - fingered my previous comment into oblivion.
A thoughtful and brave posting. Expect the sack, or victimisation by the management when you return.
Michael Balter said…
It's always possible that they would terminate me but that would be public too... and I have done nothing that violates my contract. So I consider myself at least partly protected.
Anonymous said…
Congratulations to you from someone with vast experience of the kind of injustice and obtuseness you have described. So happy to have retired from this game, if not completely enough. Neither you nor anyone at Science ought to be experiencing a jumpy stomach upon beginning the work day, but that's exactly the symptom such behavior produces first. Get off your hosses, you miserable bosses!
Anonymous said…
As someone who's been in the sciences for 55 years and who has been closely involved with professional societies during that whole time, I've been watching Science's rapid devolution into something more closely related to Wall Street than to academia with a degree of horror. How can an allegedly honorable society escort people into the street as though they were common criminals? How can AAAS management not know that they are destroying their own image, carefully built up over the last century and a half? Hyperion to a satyr, indeed. Very sad.
Former AAAS Management said…
Thank you for your public attention to this. Finally, someone speaks out about the inappropriate restructuring and devaluation of dedicated professionals at AAAS. Shame on leadership to allow this to happen under their watch, it’s a disgrace to AAAS and should have warranted much greater attention.

I would like to note that you are likely not aware of many of the other dedicated employees that Rob Covey affected. Apparently he was given full reign to dismiss anyone regardless of their value to the organization. This may have been a collaborative effort on the part of AAAS leadership, however I find this hard to believe of a CEO that lead the association to success for so many years.

I too was a veteran manager dismissed after 13+ years of service and dedication (AAAS was my home). I was dismissed without warning, recognition or acknowledgement of my substantial 13 year contribution. I was told not to return to the office for the next few weeks of employment because it made Rob Covey uncomfortable (really?).

In prior years leading up to this, I received accommodations and bonuses for my service to Science. I was consulted and requested to participate in many high-level AAAS affairs. In fact, I applied for the position that Rob now holds and was praised for my value to the organization by Dr. Leshner, and other high-level leaders, for my contribution. I was assured that there was a leadership role waiting for me in the reorganization. Then I was suddenly terminated without cause.

AAAS lost a tremendous amount of talent; editors, online-editor, creative managers/director, IT staff and many other high value employees within the organization. From what I understand Rob hired the staff from his previous employment, and this was allowed. I guess this callus firing of valued employees is the new strategic AAAS digital media reorganization plan.
Michael Balter said…
Thanks former AAAS management, I know who you are (but will keep confidential) and other sources have verified your account.
Umberto Albarella said…
Well done Michael, this is a whole familiar story regarding how institutions (mis)behave. Our generation spent years building a sense of solidarity between human beings but a certain political climate has led to such deterioration - it's happening all over the world. WE MUST react, and symbolic gestures like yours DO MATTER.
In solidarity,
Michael Balter said…
Thank you, Umberto, thanks to social media it is now possible to get the word out quickly. Many thousands have now read this and some are making their views known to the AAAS senior management.
Paulo said…
Exceptional behaviour in a world where mere common sense has become a species in danger of extinction. Your stance and solidarity do you honour.

Hats off to you, sir!

Paulo Magalhães, Ph.D.
Anonymous said…
When I knew Alan Leshner when he was at NIH, I knew we could all count on him to focus on the science. He didn't play politics. He didn't allow subordinates to take control. He was always in charge, calmly and with humor.

Alan - what happened to you? You need your dedicated staff more than this one-year old employee, no matter how flashy he comes across.
Linda Felaco said…
The irony, of course, is that a 23-year veteran at Science would have been hired when Science was a print-only publication and have already weathered the initial shift from print to digital and countless other shifts in digital technology over the years, including the dreaded "Y2K"—anyone remember that one?—only to be deemed unfit to weather the transition to "digital first," whatever that is. But of course a new broom never wants anyone around who might recognize when their "bold new ideas" are just old ones with trendy new names. Plus the new broom covets the relatively high salaries of the longtime employees, which can then be reallocated toward themselves and their pet projects, or their friends/sycophants. Nothing new about that, sadly.
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