Letter to an apparently unreformed harasser on rejoining the scientific community

A researcher found guilty by CalTech of "unambiguous gender-based harassment" is threatening to take legal action against me for making truthful statements about him on social media. This is not the first time that a scientist has threatened to sue me and the publications I work for, and it goes with the territory of being a #MeToo reporter; nor is it the first time that someone found guilty of misconduct has similarly threatened the reporters who made the facts public. Nevertheless such attempts to stop exposure of misconduct and rewrite history must be countered whenever possible. Thus this blog post.

From 2008 to 2017, Christian Ott was a theoretical astrophysicist at CalTech in California. When he left in 2017, in the wake of the university's findings that he had harassed two graduate students, he was a full tenured professor. Ott was one of several scientists publicly exposed for harassment in 2015 and 2016; at that time, several science writers, including Jeff Mervis at Science, Azeen Ghorayshi at BuzzFeed, Amy Harmon at the New York Times, and myself (again at Science), broke a number of stories on this subject. The accusations against Ott were first published in Science by Jeff Mervis, who reported that he had been suspended from the university without pay for a year; Azeen Ghorayshi then expanded on this reporting in at least two important articles. In August 2017, Azeen reported that Ott had resigned from CalTech after his projected return to campus was met by student protests.

Ott subsequently obtained a two-year research position at the University of Turku in Finland. However, early this year, he was fired from that job after astronomers in Finland protested (Azeen Ghorayshi again reported this news.)

In October of this year, I saw a Twitter post claiming that Ott was now working at USC. In looking at Ott's Twitter home page, I saw that indeed he described himself as a "Computational & Data Scientist" at USC's Viterbi Data Analytics Certificate Program. I then Tweeted the news that he was at USC, and reminded readers of his history both at CalTech and the University of Turku. Why did I do this? Because I believe that reporters, and anyone else with knowledge of a known harasser's behavior and whereabouts, has a duty to warn possible future victims. To me, this duty to warn is a matter of principle and not just something one should do if it is convenient or lacking in personal risk.

On November 4, Ott emailed me and asked me to delete these "inaccurate tweets." (I am reproducing the full text of his email below in fairness to his position.) Upon learning that he was a student in the USC program and not "working" there, I immediately issued a correction but advised him that he should change his own misleading description of his role there. We then engaged in a series of email exchanges, each of which Ott insisted were private and not for publication. In the last few days, Ott made statements that were clearly intended to signal that he would seek legal action against me. I informed Ott, however, that I did not agree to put the communication off the record (both the reporter and source must agree that communication is "off the record" for it to be so.)

Here is my most recent email to Ott (which makes reference to an article I am planning about the subject of whether harassers can be reformed), and below it is his first email to me. I think they state things clearly. But the most important question is that raised by San Jose State University philosopher Janet Stemwedel in the commentary I link to in my letter to Ott: What does it take for a harasser to be "reformed" and rejoin the scientific community? At a minimum, acceptance of what he or she has done and the effect it has had on the victims.

Dear Mr. Ott,

I believe that the statements I have made about you are correct.

You were found guilty by CalTech of “unambiguous gender-based harassment” and suspended for a year. I used the term “harassment” in my Tweets which is correct. You were not suspended because you used “poor judgement” in advising students, although that might have been true as well, but because you engaged in harassment that seriously affected their lives.

You had hoped to come back to campus after your suspension, but your return was met by student protests. The overall context of events, and even the letter you sent me, make it clear that you did not leave to pursue other opportunities, but because you were no longer welcome on campus by much of the CalTech community. You were a full tenured professor of astronomy at CalTech; your claims that you left “voluntarily” are not credible and true only in a narrow, technical sense that belies the truth of the matter. I believe my statement that you were forced to resign captures that truth very well.

You were hired by the University of Turku and then fired after protests by astronomers in Finland.

The only thing I got wrong, which I immediately corrected upon your pointing it out, was that you are a student in the USC Viterbi program and not “working” there. However, you yourself bear responsibility for that error, due to the misleading description you have maintained on your Twitter home page. There you identify yourself as a “scientist” with the program and not a student. You might consider correcting that erroneous profile, although I have kept a screen shot of the original version.

It’s not my role as a reporter to offer you advice, but I don’t feel good about the fact that a talented astrophysicist such as yourself  now founds himself shunned by the scientific community. But you will have no hopes of rehabilitation as long as you continue to engage in denial about what happened. Might I suggest that you read this very wise commentary on the subject?

I will keep you informed about the progress of my article. As always, all of our communications are on the record as I have not agreed otherwise.

Best of luck,

Michael Balter

Ott's email to me of November 4, 2018:

Dear Mr. Balter,

I'm writing regarding your tweets of October 10. They are inaccurate and
don't reflect the truth.

I was not forced to resign from Caltech for harassment. Caltech did not
find me responsible for sexual harassment.

I made mistakes in the advising of graduate students and displayed poor
judgment. I underwent a program of retraining encompassing more than 100
sessions of executive coaching, mentoring, and counseling. I apologized
to the students involved. I was fully reinstated by Caltech on August 1,
2017 and resigned effective December 31, 2017 to seek opportunities

I don't work at the USC Viterbi Data Analytics Certificate Program. I'm
a student in this program. The other students are working adult
professionals like me. I don't interact with USC undergraduate or
graduate students. Your tweets may have a negative impact on my
participation in this educational program.

I kindly ask you to delete your inaccurate tweets.

Thank You and best regards,

  Christian Ott

Update: This week I had asked CalTech's press office for all public statements it had made concerning the Ott case. Although I had seen various communications distributed to the campus community, I wanted to have their public and official view of things. The press office got back to me today, saying that actually none of the communications had been intended for public dissemination; but that the following letter could be made public. I think it adds in a helpful way to the context I tried to provide above.

To:      The Caltech Community
From:  Thomas F. Rosenbaum, President
            Edward M. Stolper, Provost
Date:   August 1, 2017
Re:      Important Update

In previous notes from us to the campus community, as well as from Professor Fiona Harrison to the PMA division, we promised to keep you informed of the resolution of the disciplinary process regarding Professor Christian Ott and, in particular, his possible reinstatement as a professor. Today, we write to let you know the outcome of that process.
The committee chaired by Professor Jonas Zmuidzinas to evaluate Professor Ott’s readiness to return to campus consulted broadly with Caltech students, postdocs, faculty, staff, and with Professor Ott himself. It submitted a recommendation to Professor Harrison as Chair of the PMA division, who in turn provided her recommendation to the provost for final determination. The recommendations, including evaluations submitted by professional resources, acknowledged that Professor Ott made significant progress with regard to the issues that led to the disciplinary action against him, but also acknowledged that because of his past history at Caltech, Professor Ott remained a divisive element on campus. The recommendations were shared with Professor Ott, who has decided to resign from Caltech, effective December 31, 2017. Dr. Ott’s office will remain off campus through December 31, 2017.
This has been a difficult situation for our community. We appreciate the positive engagement and input of so many students, postdocs, faculty, and staff in the process and we remain committed to fostering an open dialogue on issues that affect the well-being of the Caltech community. 

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