While dating in the workplace is not inherently bad and cannot be effectively forbidden there are certain rules that go with that. Don’t date subordinates, if you do find them a new supervisor, if you end it don’t also end their employment/threaten their career. Christian Ott violated all three of these basic rules in how he treated Io Kleiser his student. The old case of Timothy Slater is more troubling in what happened, reassuring in what was done about him, but should trouble any who believe in due process and redemption for what is happening now.
As Meg Urry observes in her article at CNN in cases like Christian Ott’s the problem is when the “romance” is over and how you handle that. Plenty of couples exist in astronomy without problems.
Timothy Slaters case is a different category of good old fashioned “Mad Men” sounding behavior. Except in those days it was acceptable for a woman to slap a man when it was called for.
Christian Ott broke three basic rules of work place dating.
1.) Thou shalt not date, in any sense of the word, a direct subordinate.
2.) Thou shall inform hr / your supervisor if feelings develop anyway.
3.) Thou shalt not fire or harm the career of a subordinate due to your feelings.
The first rule is easy enough. Just don’t date subordinates in any workplace EVER. It causes problems. Being at the top of the organizational chart means you have to keep everyone at an objective professional distance. This only matters if one has more actual power. Simply being more senior in a parallel part of a company or school, or having more experience isn’t necessarily the same. Plenty of people date in the work place who don’t have exactly identical years of experience etc. without problems.
The second rule is what happens if you break the first. It exists because people are not in conscious control of their heart. We say people “fall in love” because it is an unexpected and uncontrollable thing. What matters is how we react to it. Ott not only feel for her but in his mind linked her research work to his feelings for her that were personal. That situation could only, theoretically, work if the supervisor can compartmentalize feelings and work. Most people can’t, that’s why this isn’t the first rule. Don’t date a subordinate.
The third rule If the first two rules fail is there to say how to end either the professional relationship or the personal relationship. In any case do not harm the career or life of the person who is subordinate. The superior should, if anything try to implement the second rule and find someone else to act in a supervisory role to the one they are interested in. Either that or the supervisor should be the one to leave
What complicates the case of a professor like Christian Ott is that if he were to have quit then, or be fired now it would trash the career of all of his students, and the whole web of researchers that depend on him as a principle investigator.
“Because Christian still has a place at Caltech, I feel that I don’t,” - Io Kleiser
Firing Christian Ott may make Kleiser feel better the truth is the world does not turn on anyone person’s feelings. It is a little childish to think that it should. To do so smacks of the kind of revenge typical of a ended personal relationship of some sort. From the sound of things it does seem that he hurt her feelings as much if not more than he objectively and quantifiably hurt her career.
At least one of them needs to be mature about this and that person due to his age and senior level needs to be Prof. Ott.
As for Timothy Slater, Oy Vey.
I want to address the other sexual harassment news regarding former University of Arizona professor and current Endowed Chair of Science Education Professor at the University of Wyoming Timothy Slater. He was accused of things that make what most of what Geoff Marcy was accused of look tame. Other than one “crotch grab” which had no real evidence behind it Geoff Marcy was accused of rubbing a student’s neck/a pat on the upper back and looking at someone. Timothy Salter made comments, touched, gave sexually inappropriate gifts, had met students at strip clubs to discuss their work. His conduct makes Geoff Marcy look like Mr. Rogers.
To illustrate it for you dear reader and save you from reading the lurid details…. The lab Tim Slater ran at UA sounds like it was his own version of M*A*S*H and he was Capt. Hawkeye Pierce. (But there was no Maj. Burns or Maj Houllihand to check him.) Think about it, much of what we all found funny about that show was sexual harassment of people who, depending on the situation had power. In the OR Hawkeye “chief surgeon” out of the OR arguably Major Houlihand outranked him and was professionally hostile. *
That said, as he and his wife put it this was over ten years ago now. He went through the disciplinary process, was punished, reformed, and hasn’t had any more such problems. As Slater himself puts it he has been subject to more scrutiny in the last ten years than most and has a clean bill.
Why I advocate for due legal process, and those who think that is a bad thing are misguided at best.
Personally as a transwoman of color I know more people than most astronomers who have been accused of crimes, tried, convicted, went to prison, then got on with life and are clean and successful now. Many of these were other transwomen who in doing what they had to to survive committed “sex crimes” i.e. prostitution.
I am also part of a minority that is too often victim to mass hysteria over bathrooms.
I have also had something I was accused of and exonerated for used against me years later.
So I have to support their right to accuse one of the people dredging up this old news of sexual harassment and sue them. I understand that person feels aggrieved but at some point you have to let it go. That person was helped/used by Pamela L. Gay . There are accusations of jealousy and a real back and forth.
I don’t know who is right but like any person trying to really be fair I want more facts. Specifically, why a complaint in which actions were taken in line with then current policy is relevant ten years later?
This is why these things should go to court. People ought to sue and countersue. Hire lawyers and handle this the way everyone else in the world does. To act like academics should not is to place ourselves on a higher level than the ordinary folks.
I read online that a lawsuit has been filed by the Slaters against Gay, if Gay wants to defend herself she may possibly countersue. My advice to her and the women behind that issue is view a lawsuit not as a threat or some sort of injustice. View a lawsuit as an opportunity to take your case before a competent tribunal and win some measure of real justice. Even if you cannot get money, having a judge condemn the man’s actions in some way could be emotionally healing.
That said, the idea I have seen expressed here around the web that accusations mean guilt, and guilt should mean firing and some sort of life time ban/ scarlet letter is just absurd. It comes from a place informed by white feminism and privilege just as bad as any of the men these women are railing against.
Simple Solutions are hard to implement:
The solution for problems like the above would be some sort of academic management training for all new professors, instructors, lecturers etc. The real truth is that even the most lowly adjunct with three course with thirty people in each course is a supervisor to from 30 to 90 students. Each and every professor even an “entry level “ adjunct professor is a supervisor too. Academia needs to realize that taking people who were students of various levels from 17 to 30 or 35, and suddenly giving them the power of career life and death over dozens of people… is just asking for trouble.
As I alluded to we can give women permission to slap the face of men who touch them in an unwanted fashion.
*Just realized that in this day and age there are plenty of 20 somethings and younger who have never really watched an episode of MASH. Too bad for them. Back when it was on we could just laugh at things like this.