Caltech astrophysics and harassment: Lessons learned
Casey Handmer 2019
What is this?
In the wake of major catastrophes, it is common practice for organizations to publish a “Lessons Learned” report to help prevent future occurrences. The largest public catastrophe in which I’ve ever been involved occurred in the Caltech astrophysics department between 2010 and 2019. Former Caltech professor and internationally disgraced astrophysicist Christian Ott harmed, harassed, and abused numerous students, postdocs, and research fellows. Despite thousands of hours of investigation, no public “findings” or “lessons learned” report has ever been made available. This document is my attempt to fill this need.
It has been historically conventional to conceal this sort of institutional malpractice, with the effect that the hard-learned lessons are forgotten and that harassment, particularly of underrepresented minorities, is still common. The intent of this document is to undermine the traditional assumption that abused students will graduate or drop out, taking their memories and shame with them. It is to provide historical perspective before the memories fade. I’m not writing this to reopen old wounds or promote conflict. My intention is to be as fair as I can, so that readers can understand why this sort of problem is not unique to Caltech or science. It is an organizational failure mode and it will recur without constant vigilance.
This document is not a personal attack against the individuals whose failings enabled Ott’s abuse, some of which are named below. On the whole I have found officials everywhere to be consistently positive in intent and motivation. Despite that, it cannot be denied that grave harm was allowed to occur and to continue. I would hope that the subjects of this report read it with interest and curiosity, so that the vulnerabilities in the systems that they operate may be better understood.
For several reasons, I have an unusual degree of insight and knowledge about this particular issue. I blew the whistle on this particular issue in March 2015, after discovering it while conducting a journalistic investigation for the Caltech student newspaper. My remarks here are a result of my personal experience and my discussions with more than 30 people involved in this situation. The few people who know more about the matter are, I believe, strongly disinterested or legally constrained from writing about it.
I welcome contributions and I am happy to update this document in the future. I have previously been quoted by name in news media covering this issue, as I had graduated and left academia by the time the story broke and was therefore less terrified of speaking out.
This document has been needed for years, however I have opted to wait until the last of Ott’s victims had graduated. It is telling that some of the victims took many more years to finish their PhD, despite being exceptionally capable scientists. To me, this is indicative of an unredressed injustice, of the sort specifically covered in the Caltech honor code. I will address this in more depth below.
What does a career in academia look like, or why are grad students particularly vulnerable to harassment and abuse?
I have written a book (free, Amazon) about the unique challenges of grad school, if any reader is interested in tips for handling these and other challenges.
Academia is a different sort of career choice. Without going into too much detail, I will describe how people get to Caltech graduate school, where they go after they leave, and what they do while they are there. This section is focused on science, specifically physics, in the US. Your mileage may vary elsewhere.
After completing an undergraduate degree, students looking to obtain further education can apply to study at graduate school. Unlike undergraduate education, grad school focuses on a particular area, has a number of gates including oral assessments, and in the case of a PhD, generally takes 5-8 years while the student learns all the skills they need to perform original research. By the end of a PhD, most students have published a few papers and are the world expert at something.
For grad students who don’t leave academia during or immediately after grad school, the academic career track progresses to a series of postdocs, in which the scientist must apply for funding grants and typically moves to a new university every two or three years. Scientists who are particularly successful at publishing or (more importantly) obtaining grants can apply for a permanent job at a university as a professor. This job is tenure-track, which means it is under probation for six years, after which a committee of senior professors in that department will decide whether to hire them. Just over half of tenure-track candidates are denied tenure, though many will subsequently pick up tenure at another, perhaps less prestigious university. In all, for every tenured job, there are about 100 grad students, so the competition is fierce.
Grad school is an interesting lifestyle. You get to study the bleeding edge of knowledge and technology surrounded by geniuses in an intellectually stimulating campus environment. Your work is mostly self-directed and hours are flexible. On the other hand, because you’re officially a student, you are paid less than $30k a year with limited benefits and no Title VII protections against workplace harassment. Postdocs are paid maybe double this, but that’s still half of what equivalently qualified people are paid in industry. In addition, many scientific fields have no upper bound on the amount of work required.
Caltech has a fearsome reputation in this regard, generating unofficial and humorous slogans such as:
“Welcome to Caltech, where you can work any 80 hours of the week you like.”
“Welcome to Caltech. The school requires that you get 10 days of leave a year, so let me know at your earliest convenience which Sundays you would like.”
“Welcome to Caltech. We have work, sleep, and nutrition. Pick any two.”
“Welcome to Caltech. Where your best just isn’t good enough.”
While this experience isn’t universal, it is not uncommon. The fact is, despite the enormous value of scientific research to society, it is barely funded and enormously competitive, so research universities cannot stay in business without warehouses full of poverty-stricken naïve and hopeful grad students doing all the work.
Indeed, nerd culture romanticizes the toxic exploitation, hazing, and poverty wages, such as in phdcomics.com. There is a reason Marxism is more popular among the scientific proletariat.
I knew 90% of this going in. At 23, it seemed like a reasonable bargain. The lifestyle is perfectly compatible with ascetic youthful bachelorhood. Do not attempt to reproduce.
As will become clear, at 23 I wasn’t always worldly enough to know the line between unusual, unconventional, and unethical. I would hope the intervening eight years of hard won lessons has given me enough perspective to write about this issue with circumspection, but I won’t pretend this isn’t a first person account. It will have blind spots. As I fill out this account and summarize the lessons learned, it will become clear there were other participants who, with the benefit of greater age, experience, and power, should have more keenly observed the lines being crossed and intervened, and yet almost universally chose not to. Why?
Review of news coverage
News coverage of Ott’s disgrace was led by Azeen Ghorayshi at Buzzfeed, with this article. I agreed to be interviewed and quoted by name – by the time this article came out I had left academia and, unlike other students, felt I was less likely to suffer personal retaliation.
The matter was subsequently reported in Nature and Science, the two top scientific journals, and in many other newspapers.
In summary, of the many people who came forward with reports of abuse by Ott, two grad students, Dr Io Kleiser and Dr Sarah Gossan, had the courage to make a formal complaint under Title IX, the law designed to protect students from harassment. The articles detail some of Ott’s abusive behavior towards these two students, but it is important to note that while Caltech was absolutely rigorous about applying legal privacy protections to the perpetrator, they failed repeatedly to ensure that Kleiser and Gossan were protected from retaliation, which is also legally mandated. To provide just a sample, Ott was found to have retaliated by obtaining access to simulation servers and deleting data and account info, by spreading lies and slander, and by violating no-contact and campus-exclusion bans. Caltech’s response to these repeated breaches was to issue yet another warning, despite evidence they were being actively ignored.
As far as my knowledge of the matter goes, I found the primary reporting to be mostly accurate. Much of the reporting that derived from Ghorayshi’s article unfortunately misrepresented the situation between Kleiser and Ott as a failed romance or worse, as “romantic unrequited affection”. The reality is that Ott, who was about 34 at the time and married, appears to have become creepily and secretly obsessed with Kleiser, who was about 23, and who he barely knew. Kleiser had no knowledge of this obsession until some time after she was fired, apparently for failing to live up to Ott’s fantasy. According to Buzzfeed, Kleiser was shown a blog where Ott pseudonymously published nearly a hundred bizarre “love” poems. Ott repeatedly complained about his emotional desperation to Gossan, in writing, despite this being both unwanted and completely unprofessional.
The other failure of secondary reporting was lazy references to the mythical trope of the “genius asshole”. That is, the stereotype of a professional scientist who is both intellectually brilliant and, in compensation, socially clueless or even mean-spirited. Despite propagation in popular culture such as The Big Bang Theory, there is no evidence that links these two traits in the real world. Nor did the reporting provide any evidence that Ott was particularly brilliant, or have any excuse for social cluelessness. I find these tropes particularly corrosive since their primary application seems to be in inflating the perceived quality of a senior researcher’s work, who themself compensates for relatively poor performance by taking it out on their powerless underlings. This same trope came into play in reporting on Andy Rubin’s departure from Google.
I also understand that the reporting failed to capture most of the detail around Gossan’s conflict with Ott. Not only do I not feel that I am sufficiently familiar with it to relate it in detail, it is Gossan’s story to tell. I remain appalled by what I do know.
To this reporting I can add a little more context based on my own experience.
Christian Ott was an enthusiastic drinker. As I am a known teetotaler, Ott would often designate me as a driver, even for events to which I hadn’t been invited. Not having a car, I would sometimes leave the lab late on foot, meet the drinking party and drive them, including Ott, to their respective homes in Ott’s or other people’s car. Ott would often drink to the point where he had trouble standing up unassisted, including at evening events at Caltech. On one occasion in 2012, I was driving Ott and a couple of postdocs, including a visitor, between events when the topic turned to Gossan’s annoyance at her last-minute exclusion from the festivities. Ott, who is married, explained that he was worried that drinking with Gossan would lead to them making out. I expressed surprise and asked if something like that had ever happened before. Ott replied “not since grad school”. Not long after, Kleiser joined the group and Ott apparently shunted his undesired lust from Gossan to Kleiser, instead using Gossan to confess and complain about his frustrated desires, despite her repeatedly expressed lack of interest in such non-professional communication.
In 2013, Ott and I had a dispute over whether he was allowed to threaten me with firing and access to promised funding for failing to comply with his arbitrary order to park my bicycle outside the building. At the time I was commuting 10 miles a day by bike, had had two bikes stolen or tampered with, and was following Caltech Security’s recommendation to park the bike inside the building. I indicated that I did not believe that Ott had the right to exert coercive force on me and that I would not cooperate. Shortly after this he accused me by email of failing to respect him and told me to find another adviser. Fortunately for me, my research was unconnected with Ott’s work so my main project continued unaffected, except for my loss of funding. Several postdocs who had been forced to acquiesce to his bullying stopped by my office to stare at me for a while, convinced they were witnessing a spectacular breakdown in real time. The reality is that I learned to stand up to bullies a long time ago, and later several confided to me that they had been intimidated by his threats to write bad reference letters and grudgingly complied with his ever-escalating and hysterical demands.
At APS (the American Physical Society conference) in 2014, I was speaking with some colleagues in the corridor outside a lecture hall when a passing attendee did a double take and stared at my badge.
“Your accent is Australian?”
“And you’re from Caltech.”
“By any chance are you the fellow Christian fired for parking his bike in his office?”
“I have a story to tell you.”
I made my excuses and stepped away. My interlocutor told me a hair-raising story about Ott’s visit to UT (University of Texas) during his days as a postdoc, c. 2006. Apparently within a day of his arrival he was such an asshole to the administrative assistants who were processing his airfare reimbursements that they threatened to resign. Further, he quickly identified who was worth impressing and who was beneath him. Unknown to Ott, my interlocutor, who was at that point senior to Ott, was privately engaged to a junior postdoc in the same department. Every evening, they would compare the emails Ott had sent to them both, revealing their vastly different style and mood. In short, Ott was delighted to abuse and harass anyone with less power, but always cautious to flatter and impress more senior people.
Indeed, at the same meeting (APS 2014, a year after I was fired) Ott “joked” about throwing me over the balcony, in front of other members of the group and a prospective postdoc. Surprisingly, they didn’t rush to join our group.
Knowledge of duplicity is standard for anyone at or above middle management in private industry, but Caltech departments are run, for better and worse, by the professors who often lack managerial experience. Worse, they are generally unaware of this shortcoming, assuming incorrectly that management is trivially easy compared to their topics of study and merits minimal effort. We have now seen the consequences of this lack of attention.
Ott was hired as a tenure-track professor by Kip Thorne at Caltech, starting in October 2009. Although he wouldn’t normally be due for final review until mid 2015, shortly after firing me in 2013 Ott informed his tenure committee that he had received an offer for a tenured position at a European university, prompting the committee to commence their final review early.
Despite at least two members of the tenure committee being aware of serious issues surrounding Ott, not only were no students interviewed by the committee, his fast-tracked tenuring proceeded seemingly without a hitch. Once a professor has tenure they are much harder to fire. The whole point of the tenure track process is to enable relatively easy firing after a period of probation, which has to evaluate their suitability for a permanent position. This includes grants, research papers, conferences, and also any evinced tendencies to harass and abuse anyone they can.
Even today, I struggle to understand how the tenure committee could have gotten this so wrong. The best, though still unsatisfying, explanation I have gotten from anyone in the committee or immediately adjacent is that since, at that time, review guidelines did not mandate that they solicit feedback from anyone or consider interpersonal issues, they simply did not.
In my view, a positive tenure review still contains an implicit assumption of the professor being in “good standing” with the scientific community. If it was discovered, for instance, that the candidate had falsified aspects of their resume or committed scientific fraud, the committee’s failure to discover it does not erase the candidate’s responsibility and culpability for their actions. It is trivial to extend this natural principle to other forms of professional misconduct.
In my view, Ott’s tenure committee’s failure to discover repeated and flagrant violations of basic human decency does not erase the fact that Ott continually abused and harassed numerous students during his tenure review period. In my view, Ott not only failed to disclose his misconduct, he actively and deliberately deceived the community and tenure committee by constructing a false persona of allyship and support for minorities in science. I believe that Ott’s tenure was granted under false pretences and should not have protected him from the consequences of his numerous personal and professional failures.
Review of Caltech’s official communications on the matter
Caltech has sent several emails to the community describing the matter and its evolution. While for the most part this report will omit primary documents in the main body, here I include the text of all official emails so I can comment on the timing and specific wording.
September 29, 2015
In any community there will be instances where individuals do not conduct themselves in a manner consistent with community standards. Caltech is no exception. Recently we confronted a situation, involving the advising of graduate students, in which there was a violation of our policies on discrimination and harassment. We conducted an investigation and took disciplinary action.
I write to reaffirm that the Institute is dedicated to fostering a supportive and diverse community [https://codeofconduct.caltech.edu/]. Every member of our community deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. We cannot be successful with this goal unless each of us is willing to step forward when we are falling short and to work together in good faith to change for the better.
Beyond individual awareness and action, we are dedicated to providing a campus safety net for those confronting inappropriate behavior. For our graduate students, the divisions will be reviewing their practices, including the Ph.D. research advising and committee structure, and collecting feedback on the student experience. The newly created office of Assistant Vice President for Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion Initiatives and Title IX Coordinator, the offices of the undergraduate and graduate deans, the health advocates, and the residential life coordinators are all available should a student experience discrimination or harassment of any type.
Caltech is a special place, offering an unparalleled education to exceptional students by an exceptional faculty. In order to provide the best scholarly milieu for all, we must as a community ensure that every person who spends time on this campus has a safe and healthy environment in which to live and learn.
Thomas F. Rosenbaum
Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
In its first official communication on the matter, more than six months after I blew the whistle and some time after their initial Title IX investigation in response to the official complaint had finished, Caltech did not specify the nature of the offenses, nor the identities of anyone involved. Beyond appeals to decency and our collective better natures, no tangible procedural changes of any kind were announced, except for the creation of the new position of Title IX coordinator.
The key takeaway of this first official communication is that the one person who was best positioned to prevent Ott’s wrongdoing and ongoing harm, and who failed to do so, was promoted.
To: Members of the Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, President
Edward M. Stolper, Provost
Date: January 4, 2016
As some of you know, recently two graduate students raised complaints of harassment by a faculty member. Although the details must remain confidential, we nevertheless feel that this situation is sufficiently important that enough information must be provided to permit our community to evaluate the situation and to contemplate the changes required to minimize the chances of anything like it happening again.
The Institute followed its formal procedures for evaluating the allegations and per policy the allegations were communicated to the chair of the division. This resulted in a comprehensive investigation of the situation by a faculty committee that reported to the provost. The faculty committee concluded, and the provost concurred, that there was unambiguous gender-based harassment of both graduate students by the faculty member. The faculty member was placed on unpaid leave for a full academic year, and he is restricted from coming on campus. Importantly, in order to make sure that the two students involved and other students are protected against continuation or new instances of such behavior – while also endeavoring to ensure that their academic progress is not adversely affected – communications between the faculty member and members of his group are being carefully monitored. In addition to these professional and financial sanctions, the suspended faculty member must undergo professional coaching and training in how to mentor students before returning to campus. A demonstrable change in behavior and mentoring approach will be required before unmonitored interactions with students can resume. Structural changes in the division’s advising approach are being put in place to ensure that students are properly and effectively mentored. The faculty member appealed these imposed disciplinary actions, but the appeal was denied.
While we believe that our process for reviewing such situations when they arise proved to be robust and timely, and that the disciplinary and protective actions firmly and effectively address the particular situation, there are important, broader lessons to be drawn from the events that led to the harassment of the two graduate students. Consequently, the Institute is embarking on an effort to address the conditions that made such a situation possible. Caltech can and must do more to create an environment where every member of the community is positioned to succeed and receives the support necessary to flourish. The process of introspection in the wake of these incidents is only beginning, and it must involve all of our community: faculty, students and staff alike. We describe here briefly the efforts that are presently underway.
We have begun, and will continue and expand, a campus dialogue to identify steps to move us forward. At the Institute level, we have begun three significant initiatives that will serve both to help identify discriminatory and harassing behavior earlier than was the case in the current situation, and to help improve mentoring and provide additional resources for all students.
First, Dean of Graduate Studies Doug Rees is assembling a dean’s advisory council to review the range of student experiences with their advisors. The council will develop recommendations regarding best practices related to the faculty mentoring and advising process, and it will make recommendations for how to best support the graduate student experience at Caltech.
Second, the graduate student/faculty colloquium has been scheduled for February 11, 2016. This is a student-led initiative that will include presentations and structured sessions to discuss the graduate student experience and the ways that Caltech can enhance opportunities for graduate student success. Convened by graduate students, this conference will provide a significant touch point for students and faculty to discuss important issues.
Finally, option-specific opportunities have been added for the community to learn about Caltech’s resources to protect against and remedy harassment and discrimination.
We are exploring as well opportunities for meeting with our graduate students before the graduate student/faculty colloquium on February 11, inviting smaller group discussions.
Changes in the divisions
We have asked the division chairs to take tangible steps to improve graduate student advising, mentoring, and monitoring; to improve divisional resources available to graduate students who are having difficulties with their advisors; and to provide mentoring for faculty in order to ensure that Institute expectations are communicated and to minimize the chances of such problems occurring in the future. The division chairs, provost, and president discuss regularly how to share best practices about graduate education among the divisions so that we can move forward most expeditiously and effectively.
Each division has initiated discussions and tangible modifications to the infrastructure supporting graduate students in order to address more broadly issues associated with graduate student mentoring and quality of life. Although each division’s culture is different, we have asked that in every case graduate students and faculty be broadly consulted and involved.
Across the divisions, chairs have instituted programs to make sure that every graduate student has an opportunity to learn about and discuss the numerous campus-based resources available for students who might want advice or help.
Divisions have established or are in the process of establishing advising structures and other mechanisms to make sure that every graduate student has a faculty member other than their advisor with whom they can consult about their progress and position.
Interventions established in some divisions and under consideration by others include:
Conducting periodic surveys of graduate student satisfaction and respond to important issues that surface via that process.
Introducing “women in …” programs where the women graduate students get together regularly to talk about careers, invite prominent women to speak on campus, etc., in order to establish important mentoring connections and expand professional connections across institutions.
Funding a professional graduate program coordinator to meet regularly with students, track student progress actively, work with the graduate option representatives when there are issues, help build community by organizing academic and social events, and serve as a confidential resource for students within the division.
Setting up a graduate student life committee chaired by a faculty member and including graduate student members, charged to examine and provide recommendations for changes to the advising structure, classes, orientation, recruiting, and graduate student quality of life outside of the laboratories and research groups.
Although these various efforts demonstrate that there is a commitment to progress across the Institute, there is clearly a lot of work remaining for us all to do. We will provide updates and share innovations periodically, and we welcome your involvement. Please contact Felicia Hunt, Assistant Vice President for Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Initiatives, at email@example.com for further information.
This painful incident reminds us that shared community values need constant attention. Improving our procedures and systems is essential, but at the same time we must reaffirm our commitment to excellence by creating an environment where every member of the community is valued and supported as an individual so that their talents can be fully expressed and their accomplishments soar. Together, we can and must strive to reach this goal, working together to bring change for the better.
Three months later, we received this updated email, partially in response to ongoing reporting on the issue that underscored the generally poor working conditions of grad students in general and minorities in particular. Accordingly, the email hits all the right talking points as far as a PR press release goes, but fails to actually get to the bottom of the problem.
The problem is that no quantity of student-led dialog initiatives can shift power against a member of the faculty, especially if their intent is to avoid accountability for their actions. In short, students lack power and other faculty refuse to exercise theirs, which creates a haven for abusers. If Caltech’s aim is to create a haven for students and researchers, then they need to provide real mechanisms of power so that all members of the institute can hold each other accountable.
The email begins with the idea “never again”. It explains that steps will be taken to prevent this from ever occurring. But without explaining how it was allowed to occur in the first place, it is impossible to judge whether the avalanche of proposed and largely optional tweaks can be effective.
In particular, the Ott-specific measures, including banning from campus and email monitoring, were immediately and repeatedly ignored by Ott, who correctly understood that the school was unwilling to force the issue by, say, calling the police. Ott set up new email addresses to communicate with his remaining (and ever-diminishing) students, held clandestine meetings on campus, and even walked around campus openly at lunch time.
The latter part of the email lists three processes designed to reflect the broader lessons of the issue, namely a deans’ advisory council, a one-off student-faculty colloquium, and some division-specific training about student resources, such as more local points of contact for discussion. To the best of my knowledge, the first two changes resulted in no concrete actions being taken. Some of my colleagues participated in these ever-evolving dialogs but universally reported that if Caltech had intended the process to be frustrating, pointless, and toothless, they could hardly have done a better job. This may have been an innocent error – the solution to failures caused by diffusion of responsibility is concentration of power, not committee creation. The third process was basically a rebranding exercise on already existing administrative mechanisms, and had a very low chance of success due to its inability to actually provide student-owned power mechanisms.
Note that among this flurry of changes and ideas, there was never any suggestion that faculty be subjected to mandatory training on 2015-era expectations surrounding professionalism, boundaries, and dispute-resolution procedures. While I don’t accept for a second that ignorance is a defense for administratively-empowered members of faculty, the lack of any suggestion that they need to materially improve their skills and knowledge is an indication of just unwilling Caltech is to hold anyone in power accountable.
Finally, we are told that “The division chairs, provost, and president discuss regularly how to share best practices about graduate education among the divisions so that we can move forward most expeditiously and effectively.” If these best practices were ever agreed on I don’t believe they were codified and disseminated. What I wanted to see was “The division chairs, provost, and president held a series of meetings to update the Caltech code of conduct to reflect contemporary expectations of academic professionalism.” While I have no doubt Caltech wants to move forward on this issue both expeditiously and effectively, it is important that in doing so it doesn’t leave the students behind.
It is important to note that despite all the high-minded rhetoric about understanding root causes and altering process, Ott was not named in any general communication until two weeks later, when the Caltech Graduate Student Council finally broke the taboo.
Hello graduate students,
Many of you have seen and discussed the recent articles regarding sexual harassment in our community. The Caltech Graduate Student Council Board of Directors, consisting of representatives from the options and graduate students at large, has issued the following statement:
January 19, 2016
We, the Caltech Graduate Student Council Board of Directors, believe that sexual harassment has no place on our campus or in academia. In two letters from Caltech’s President over the last few months, we learned that a Caltech professor has been found responsible for gender-based harassment of two graduate students. This professor has been suspended for the remainder of the academic year. Last week, we learned that the two graduate students have chosen to identify themselves, the faculty member, and some details of the harassment in an online article.
We write this statement to applaud the courage and strength demonstrated by our students, Sarah Gossan and Io Kleiser, in both the process of making the Title IX complaint as well as going public with their story. We are proud of them and we support their decision to share their story and to name their offender as Christian Ott. We believe that Io and Sarah’s actions are important to our community and science in general because these actions draw more attention to the problem of harassment in science and will take away places for harassers to hide.
We also write this statement to express and offer support to graduate students who have experienced or are experiencing sexual harassment or any other type of discrimination on our campus. Please know that your GSC representatives support you and can help connect you to resources on campus. Please also know that we support you whether you come forward publicly or confidentially. If you need to talk to someone, you can seek confidential help and/or speak to our Title IX Coordinator.
And finally, we write this statement to challenge faculty to take action in improving the climate and environment for graduate students on campus. We look forward to the opportunity on February 11, at the Student-Faculty Colloquium, to have faculty and students work together to tackle important issues on campus. Our campus has a lot of work to do. We are optimistic that this campus, with its commitment to providing a quality education for all its students, will continue to move in the right direction and we look forward to working with Caltech students, faculty, and administrators to act on the proposals suggested in the President and Provost’s message.
— The Board of Directors of the Caltech Graduate Student Council
Chair, Caltech Graduate Student Council
After this strong-looking start, very little actually happened. Several close friends of mine volunteered to serve on these panels. One described the experience as reminiscent of the Soviet party. I am inclined to think that in their haste to look like they were doing something, the Provost Ed Stolper diffused his responsibility to take positive action among too many other people, all of whom lacked a mandate. The result, of course, is destructive interference and the solidification of the status quo.
Indeed, within 6 months it leaked that Ott was preparing to return to campus and normal duties, under nominal supervision. To the student body, it looked like the Caltech administration was softening up the community to accept the re-injection of the notorious bully into the same community which had only just managed to eject him, and at great cost. Several independent letter writing and postering campaigns were organized, and the undergraduate student body conducted a “sit in” protest.
There was some discussion in the press about inadequately specific codes of conduct in science, as though fully grown adults need precise instructions on what constitutes an unprofessional workplace interaction. Indeed, on this point I once challenged a member of Ott’s tenure committee to construct a hypothetical code of conduct which would excuse or permit even a tenth of what Ott was then publicly known to have done. The mere idea is laughable, and so it was not necessary to be specific about which particular infractions were disqualifying from ongoing membership of the academy. The “ivory tower” exists for a reason, and some people are not worthy of it.
I heard it expressed that the manner in which Caltech officials apparently assumed that widespread and deep concerns would be assuaged by a lot of talk about accountability and counseling (for the perpetrator!) betrayed how little they understood about the situation or cared about the humans harmed through their negligence.
Not long after, we received our (thus far) final mass email on the matter.
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.
To me, what this email doesn’t say reveals as much as what it does. Ott’s planned reinstatement was hastily canceled and, in the process, he somehow forced an institution as powerful and rich as Caltech to protect the perpetrator by signing a non-disclosure agreement. This bidirectional NDA, a common privilege for fired harassers all over, also happens to protect Caltech from any other nasty secrets Ott may have been otherwise inclined to divulge. The Caltech General Counsel has since resigned, and I hope the next one is more inclined to use Caltech’s legal and financial heft in the interests of justice as well as expediency.
In none of these emails do we get any kind of apology or acknowledgement of responsibility. Nor do we get closure on the circumstances in which Ott departed Caltech.
Review of my communications to Caltech on the matter
At Caltech I had the good fortune to routinely write articles on a range of topics for The California Tech, the student newspaper. In late 2014, I decided to interview all my female colleagues and write a series of articles about how they experienced grad school, both good and bad. As a result of this reporting, I was the first to become aware of a pattern of behavior on the part of Ott, specifically involving multiple students, postdocs, and research fellows in my own department. I was very wary of allowing my own biases to color my perception of other people’s accounts, especially given that the previous year I’d been fired by Ott! But I decided to relay my concerns to a senior professor in our department, and someone who had been on Ott’s tenure committee, Sterl Phinney.
Phinney graduated from Caltech (legend has it) at the age of 16, returning after his PhD to become a professor of astrophysics. Phinney and I had a 45 minute conversation on March 24, 2015. Based on what I know now, Phinney should have immediately escalated the various issues revealed to the deans, but instead told me that there were instances in the past of professors “who were unable to keep their hands or lips off grad students” and that some sort of quiet “deal” had to be worked out.
Through April of 2015, Phinney suggested I submit an “anonymous” account of what I had discovered, while also asking me to assemble a list of Ott’s students to be interviewed by the department chair Tom Soifer. I pointed out that it was unethical to require me, one of the victims, to spearhead an independent investigation. It surprised me then, and now, just how long it took Caltech officials to exhibit any degree of professionalism when it came to investigating substantiated allegations of serious misconduct.
I had the wherewithal to write up a 20 page memo of this conversation, which I printed and handed (on May 12 2015) to Felicia Hunt, then the graduate student dean and later the Title IX coordinator. Hunt and I had met within days of my arrival at Caltech and were well acquainted through coordinating previously on a variety of student welfare issues. I have always found Hunt to be an empathetic and effective communicator, and someone who understands her role as minimizing conflict between students and the school. A place like Caltech will see a decent slice of the student populace encounter severe problems and Hunt’s role was effective as a way to safeguard student welfare against certain sorts of problems, and as a stopgap against the odd spate of student suicides that occur from time to time. That said, Hunt, like HR professionals everywhere, is paid by the organization and ultimately functions to safeguard the organization. In instances where she was confronted with undeniable evidence of wrongdoing on the part of professors or other officials, she ran out of answers.
I had personally told at least half the members of the tenure committee about how Ott had abused his power in punishing me, and one could assume innocently enough that their job description includes double checking if a prospective permanent member of the faculty had serious issues. When I once suggested to Hunt that members of the tenure committee may be bending the truth when they stated that they had no idea that Ott had tendencies towards abuse and harassment, she stated that she saw no alternative to taking the committee members at their word. It is a well known fact of human nature that people bend the truth to cover up personal responsibility for bad events. I presented evidence that either this or gross negligence had occurred. Hunt’s response was to defer to Caltech employees above her in the pecking order.
As graduate student dean, Hunt was one of the few people who had good visibility into Ott’s harassment of his students well before the start of the investigation. While Hunt may be legally constrained from commenting on some of the specifics of issues she deals with among the Caltech student body, I regard her failure to warn Ott’s tenure committee as one of the critical points of failure within Caltech governance. Yet, the first thing Caltech did in the wake of their investigation was to promote Hunt to the position of Title IX coordinator. She has since been promoted again, to Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs and Residential Experience.
Tom Prince is a senior professor in the Caltech astrophysics department, a former chief scientist of JPL (my current employer), and a member of Ott’s tenure committee. I knew Prince well since I taught his class (Ph 20/21/22) about 10 times during my PhD. In a way, Prince precipitated Gossan’s formal complaint against Ott because, in direct violation of protocol and his personal assurances, he broke confidentiality after a conversation with Gossan and (Prince told me) immediately discussed the matter with Ott, whose office was three doors down. This resulted in Ott’s first round of punitive retaliations against Gossan, leading to her complaint. Ott’s retaliation continued unabated for years, despite Caltech’s legal requirement under Title IX to protect complainants against retaliation.
Prince and I have had several robust conversations on a variety of issues during and after my PhD, and I’m grateful to him for taking the time to explain his perspective on the matter of censuring tenure committees who get it as wrong as Ott’s committee did. Of course, he has served on many tenure committees and would seek to avoid the possibility of punishment for dereliction of duty, but I also appreciated his argument that finding professors willing to serve on committees is difficult in the first place. Even in ideal circumstances, serving on tenure committees is a huge hassle and an uncompensated distraction from teaching, advising, grant writing, and research. On the other hand, they are the only gate protecting research universities from bad eggs, so one would think university management would be strongly incentivized to find a way to make it worth the professors’ while to do their jobs. On top of that, while students come and go, tenuring a real asshole will ruin a committee member’s work environment until they retire.
After Ott’s Title IX investigation finally confirmed what Gossan and Kleiser had alleged, Caltech put into place one of my core recommendations, which was that tenure committees are mandated to consult with students and postdocs. It is telling that prior to this rather obvious seeming idea, not one member of Ott’s tenure committee, despite the multiple firings and resignations of students they knew personally, consulted with a single person who Ott had advised.
After Ott fired me in 2013, Ott and I met in Frank Porter’s office (2pm 10 July 2013) to finalize the end of our student-advisor relationship and attempt to ensure no ill will going forward. Frank Porter, a professor in the Caltech physics department, was at the time in charge of assigning students to TA classes and a few other administrative matters, so I knew him relatively well. He advised me not to make a formal complaint about my firing, as there was (and is) no formal Caltech policy about bullying and I was not a member of a protected class under Title IX. In addition, I saw making a formal complaint as a good way to give the Caltech administration all the information I had, destroying my strategic ambiguity without getting anything in return. Further, I doubted Caltech would be willing or able to protect me from retaliation – Gossan and Kleiser (among others) later discovered this to be true. Ott arrived at the meeting 15 minutes late, slurped Diet Coke the entire time, and complained that I had shown him disrespect. When I insisted that I did not recognize his authority to exercise coercive power against me, I was able to get Porter to agree that there was no written policy which allowed it. In short, professors are not allowed to order you to do anything, even if they are providing funding.
As an aside, Ott had reason to believe I was in severe financial difficulties (which can happen on a salary of $24k) and that withdrawing my funding would make it difficult for me to pay my rent (to Caltech), preventing my re-enrolment the following year. This wouldn’t be a huge issue except that my legal immigration status (F1) depended on being enrolled. In short, Ott knew that withdrawing my funding could get me deported, a fate I avoided by about $5.
By this point, Porter was thoroughly familiar with the situation but insisted after Ott had left his office that there must be something other than bike parking at issue. He asked me if either of us had slept with the other’s partner. (I myself wondered if there was some other issue at play until years later I was accidentally CCed by Ott on his draft student-advisor relationship manifesto, which made explicit mention of bicycle parking right curtailment.) I later overheard Porter meeting with another one of Ott’s students who he had harassed and mistreated. Porter insisted there was nothing he could do nor any way to help the student, who had had her research stolen by Ott. Needless to say Porter, with decades of institutional experience and an unusual degree of knowledge about Ott’s misdeeds, was one of the key individuals who could have actually done something and stood up for decency and professionalism. But he did not do so.
Alan Weinstein and David Politzer are two other professors (Politzer has a Nobel Prize) with whom I have had a good working relationship, and with whom I discussed aspects of these matters, including the circumstances under which I was fired. Both agreed that it was pretty terrible and both agreed with me that they didn’t like Ott on a personal level at all. But, for a variety of reasons, neither saw it as their responsibility to enforce basic standards of professionalism in their own academy. Like the rest of Caltech’s officials, they would do nothing until forced, preferring to let the burden of dealing with their leadership failures on Ott fall to the powerless, downtrodden graduate students who had their backs against the wall.
Dr Mark Scheel is a senior research fellow in the Caltech astrophysics department. He and I worked closely for several years as I developed new capabilities within SpEC, the Spectral Einstein Code, of which he is a core developer. Scheel’s office was next door to Ott’s, and over the years he took his fair share of abuse from Ott. When Scheel’s collaborator, postdoc Dr Daniel Hemberger, was bullied by Ott and denied authorship on papers to which he had made substantial contributions, Scheel could have blocked the paper by withdrawing his own co-authorship. Indeed, Ott did this to his less-favored students on a regular basis. But despite Scheel’s seniority, relative career security and solid publication record, he acquiesced to Ott’s bullying, apologizing to Hemberger. “What do you want me to do, resign?” Hemberger, who was not sufficiently privileged to enjoy this choice, resigned and endured unemployment for about a year.
I include this story only to illustrate the toxic power dynamic that excuses senior cowardice at the cost of junior livelihood and career prospects. Scheel’s actions are natural for anyone who is averse to conflict, and this normalization of ethical expediency creates the environment in which abusive, transgressive bullies like Ott can thrive.
In contrast with Hemberger, consider another contemporary postdoc, Dr David Radice. After Ott was suspended and (ineffectually) banned from campus, he continued to perform research and advise his few remaining students and postdocs. Eventually, someone would be his first co-author after his public fall from grace. That person was Radice, who I knew socially within the group and strongly advised to withdraw his authorship, in solidarity with his young daughter and his wife, who is also a scientist. Radice ignored me, continued to publish with Ott, and is now an associate research scholar at Princeton University.
I also discussed my firing in 2013 with several administrative staff at Caltech. I knew all these staff quite well and still occasionally catch up with them. The administrative staff at a place like Caltech are the nervous system and the long term memory, and I was interested to learn from them that I was not the first student that Ott had lost his temper at, or fired. I am not sure of the identity of any earlier students than me to be fired, but together with the account from the University of Texas, it establishes that Ott was widely known to have had severe temper and interpersonal issues dating from before he was even hired at Caltech.
In 2018, I noticed that several former grad student colleagues were still not listed amongst the graduating class that year and resolved to write to the Caltech President to plead their case. My principal concern was that under the Caltech Honor Code, unfair advantage or disadvantage is to be removed, as a tenet of restorative justice. Seeing that some of Ott’s victims still hadn’t graduated, they must still be suffering an unfair disadvantage. In addition, I felt it likely that it was difficult to assemble a PhD defense committee without including someone who was directly culpable for their mistreatment. I included several specific recommendations to ease their passage to a PhD, which, in the end, were apparently not necessary. I received no reply.
In 2019 I had a chance meeting with Caltech President Rosenbaum at an event celebrating the end of the mission of the Opportunity rover at JPL. I indicated that there was a matter left over from his predecessor at Caltech (President Chameau) which I wanted to discuss, and we agreed to meet. A few months later I met him in his office and we had a cordial discussion about the fate of the students who hadn’t yet graduated. He said he thought that the last one had just defended, which was pleasant news to me. My final request was that Caltech, within the limits of its largely self-inflicted non-disclosure agreement with Ott, write an official letter to Ott’s victims and apologize for their poor treatment. I’m still waiting.
Caltech geobiology professor Joe Kirschvink is an institution. I got to know him well while driving for his class Ge 136 a dozen times all over the American southwest. Kirschvink is active in advocacy, particularly LGBT, on campus, and I ended up house sitting for him for a few months after I finished my PhD. Oddly enough, of all the outrage surrounding Ott, it was the story of Uschi Gamma which bothered him the most, despite the fact that it directly harmed only imaginary people.
The story of Uschi Gamma was broken by Buzzfeed, though of course the students involved knew about it all along.
In summary, Ott created the fake identity of Uschi Gamma including an email address, website, and forum posts. He then added her to grant applications to increase his group’s diversity score, and forced some of his students to add her to papers as a co-author.
I spent a few pleasant evenings tracking down every grant referred to in every paper that mentioned Gamma, and deduced that she was probably most instrumental in winning a large grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation (SFF), though she was also mentioned in papers funded by the NSF. Ott routinely spent the week before SFF’s annual visit to our department straightening the furniture, hounding us to get haircuts and wear nice clothes, and then lining us up to be “seen and not heard” during the visit.
By total chance, I met on a plane a science grant consultant who had worked for SFF, who confirmed to me that the foundation had been aware of the Uschi Gamma fraud, had investigated, and decided to take no public action about it in order to avoid embarrassment.
By not censuring Ott for defrauding the foundation through the invention of a fictitious researcher, SFF emboldened him and strengthened his belief that he was above the rules.
Who was harmed?
By my count, more than 24 grad students, postdocs, and research fellows were fired, harassed, bullied, abused, slandered, or forced out of academia. Gossan and Kleiser, the two students who had the courage to make a formal complaint, suffered delays of at least two years to their degrees, plus associated trauma. To this day, no apology or restitution of any kind has been forthcoming from Caltech to any of Ott’s victims.
Ott was put on administrative leave and eventually agreed to resign in a secret deal. I do not know what the terms of the deal are, but they evidently include non-disclosure on the part of every official I’ve discussed it with. In my opinion, such non-disclosure perpetuates the harm Ott’s victims suffered since much of their maltreatment, and Caltech’s investigative blunders, can now not be officially disclosed or acknowledged. If Caltech paid Ott severance to resign, they certainly have not paid any of Ott’s victims.
Ott’s tenure committee was never censured, nor did any professorial-level members of the faculty suffer any harm to their careers.
Discussion of lessons learned
When I became a pilot, I was trained in cockpit resource management. In particular, accident investigations found that almost all catastrophes did not have a single cause. Instead, a series of relatively minor glitches, combined with sub-optimal decision making, compounded in a chain to result in a big problem. Pilot training teaches us to recognize this cascade of impending disaster and interrupt it before it leads to tragedy.
Similarly, through this narrative of institutional failure, we see that any one of numerous Caltech professors and officials, acting in accordance with their job description for which they are well paid, could have neutralized Ott’s ability to harm his students, and maybe even rescued Ott’s career. Instead, without exception, they took the path of least resistance, finding excuses to avoid confrontation, and thus enabling and emboldening his appalling behavior.
We cannot learn from this mistake if we don’t understand how it occurred. The solution is not to exhort Caltech functionaries to “be braver” or “stick up for students” especially if doing so continues to carry a strong risk of awkwardness or confrontation. Instead, we need to understand how the responsibility for dealing with this issue was diluted and diffused between so many people that ultimately none of them did anything until it was much too late, and even then, failed to protect the most defenseless members of the Caltech community.
To add insult to injury, Ott’s actions are an indelible stain on the reputation of Caltech and the legacy of Caltech’s contribution to the understanding of General Relativity and gravitational waves. In my opinion, Kip Thorne’s Nobel Prize is tainted until Caltech makes appropriate reparations.
Unlike many private companies, Caltech is ultimately run by and for the faculty. This is actually a good thing when it comes to defending academic freedom and protecting the autonomy of the academy. Where this model fails is when the academy fails to take basic steps to protect itself from being infiltrated by people who are happy to abuse the trust of their colleagues and hide behind defenses designed to protect faculty who are acting like responsible adults.
Caltech undergraduate and graduate student bodies have representative councils (the BoC and GHC respectively), which, among other things, are responsible for enforcing academic standards. If a student is found to have committed plagiarism, the council’s job is to protect the integrity of the student body by punishing the student and removing their unfair advantage. If such a body exists among the faculty, it is clearly ineffective. In its absence, the responsibility falls ultimately to the Caltech President to exhibit leadership and begin the firing process. Yes, this carries with it the possibility that the fired faculty member will attempt to sue Caltech. That’s why Caltech has counsel. The University of Turku had no difficulty doing the ethically right thing after it mistakenly hired Ott a few years later.
If Caltech wants to vest its professors with almost absolute power over the careers and lives of their students, then it needs to be much more serious about enforcing standards of professional conduct among its faculty. In my view, this is preferable to disempowering professors entirely.
The next two sections are concerned with recommendations specific to the Ott case, and recommendations more generally.
Recommendations specific to the Ott case
Every few months I get a phone call from Caltech development doing the rounds of alumni, asking if I’m ready to donate to my beloved alma mater. I usually explain that until I see “honest signaling” from Caltech on the Ott issue, I am enjoying donating my money to other causes.
Honest signaling is a way for Caltech to prove that it is serious about dealing with the institutional issues that caused this problem, and others like it. Unfortunately, announcements made to great fanfare of informal and unpaid grad student committees with no power are not honest signaling. For the signal to mean something, it has to actually involve the preferential allocation of real resources, because power follows money.
These are my recommendations:
- Official explanation of circumstances surrounding Ott’s resignation, including the terms of the NDA.
- Caltech-sponsored event for victims to voluntarily give public testimony of their experiences, to enable them to be entered into the public record and to propagate their memory.
- Official, written apology to Ott’s victims with specific acknowledgements of wrongdoing and responsibility.
- Consultation with victims over future steps and remediation.
- Some of Ott’s victims were forced out or unable to complete their studies. They should be unconditionally re-admitted with full funding at or above their current salaries to complete their studies.
- All of Ott’s victims suffered career setbacks and reduced wellbeing due to Caltech’s failure to protect them. They should be offered financial compensation at the going rate. As the advocate for this restitution, I am willing to recuse myself from any payments to avoid the appearance of self-dealing.
- Ott’s tenure committee to be formally censured and their salaries partially docked in recognition of their dereliction of duty, and to help fund restitution for victims. In compensation, committees of new faculty who meet metrics for success after five year intervals, including student wellbeing, to receive a financial bonus.
Causes and Recommendations more generally
How can we know that positive changes have occurred, or that students are adequately protected? What are some objective measures that can be employed to assess the integrity of the academy?
Catastrophes like the Ott debacle are caused by a combination of elements, and in the absence of serious systemic efforts, will continue to recur. Since this is generally agreed to be a bad thing, in this section I expand on how these elements can be addressed.
Explanation: In any organization that normalizes secrecy, wrongdoing becomes difficult to discover and impossible to fix. Academic culture remains obsessed with secrecy, and not just with unpublished results. Ott was able to exploit Caltech’s culture of secrecy to continue his abuse for years, to obstruct the investigation, to retaliate without consequences, to obscure the findings against him, and to resign without public scrutiny.
Recommendation: Caltech can take steps to overcome the stigma of disclosing abuse by rewarding victims and punishing perpetrators. Caltech should routinely publish a report containing metrics of student wellbeing and score cards for complaints, binned by division. Metrics and data-gathering methodologies should be regularly updated to avoid gaming the system and overfitting.
Cause: Lack of seriousness in investigation.
Explanation: Serious allegations merit a serious response. Ott’s colleagues and Caltech officials took years to recognize the magnitude of the problem, during which time much of the harm occurred. If they had acted with appropriate levels of seriousness, initial bungled investigations would not have occurred and most of the harm might have been avoided.
Recommendation: The formal complaint process needs to be improved, so that serious allegations spanning multiple complainants can be tested without revealing who made allegations. This is not always possible but in Ott’s case it would have denied Ott the ability to target his accusers. It is also standard procedure for law enforcement dealing with organized crime. As an example, two professional investigators conduct blind interviews with potential victims, and check boxes corresponding to particular classes of offense. Where their assessments align, disciplinary actions can be taken without revealing to the perpetrator specifics of accusations that would de-anonymize complainants.
Cause: Lack of seriousness in tenure process. Dereliction of duty by tenure committee.
Explanation: Ott’s tenure committee either failed to discover or ignored copious evidence of grave wrongdoing, against multiple people, over several years, within meters of their offices. Serving on a tenure committee is seen as a hassle and obviously not taken particularly seriously by all faculty. Conversely, tenure decisions are the most important actions, in terms of total impact to future science, that faculty ever make. Tenuring the wrong person can be catastrophically expensive, harmful, and can set back a field by decades. It can also, as in the Ott case, taint the reputation of an entire school and its community’s members.
Recommendation: Committees of newly hired faculty who meet metrics for success conducted at intervals of five years, including student well being, should receive a financial bonus. This creates an incentive not only to hire great people, but also to mentor them and help them reach their full potential even after they are tenured.
Conversely, committees of new faculty who are found to have engaged in academic misconduct, including fraud, fabrication, falsification, or abuse, should be financially penalized. The penalty should be shared equally between tenure committee members as a percentage deduction of their salary until the costs of cleaning up their failure, such as lawsuits or compensation, are met. This creates a strong incentive to get hiring decisions right, though steps must be taken to prevent a perverse incentive wherein a tenure committee member, becoming aware of malpractice, seeks to help hide it to avoid personal consequences.
Mandatory consultation of every committee member with every grad student and postdoc, research fellow, and admin on hiring and tenure decisions. Consultees to be compensated for their time, to ensure that their contributions are valued.
Cause: Power of professors over funding, lack of accountability.
Explanation: Professors, being humans, are unfit to wield absolute power over anyone. Despite that, advisors have disproportionate power over students, being able to influence their future careers, write letters, and unilaterally revoke financial support without a shred of process or accountability. In Ott’s case this power, combined with immaturity and an uncontrolled temper, was a weapon whose use he was unable to resist. Regulating this degree of power is a balancing act, as abrogating it to administrators could harm academic freedom.
Recommendation: Remove a professor’s power to unilaterally revoke student funding without due process. While it is possible to imagine situations where a student will merit revocation of funding, such as through job abandonment or gross misconduct, the default state should be that funding commitments, once made, are permanent. Funding revocations must obtain the consent of the graduate student council as a mechanism for oversight.
Provide students with real mechanisms for balancing the enormous power of professors. How? First, ensure financial security by guaranteeing continuity of funding and increasing stipends. Second, enforce protections against retaliation. Third, normalize the firing of professors who grossly undermine professional standards, to protect the integrity of the academy.
Cause: Miscast role of student advocacy and intervention.
Explanation: There is an implicit assumption that because graduate students lack the salaries and legal protections of real employees, their time is essentially disposable and their existence fungible. By normalizing multiple layers of unpaid student committees and advocacy groups, Caltech administration retains the power to ignore and silence any speech they disapprove of. Because unpaid committees cost nothing, they are not valued and they have no power. This is a mistake, because anyone doing work that serves the interests of the institution is performing valuable labor, especially when doing so expends resources, including time, that would otherwise be spent serving individual interests.
Recommendation: Students involved in upholding the integrity of the academy must be generously compensated for their time, their expertise, and their personal risk.
Cause: Lack of concern for negative outcomes on students, provided that they don’t cause bad publicity.
Explanation: For too long, Caltech treated the Ott debacle as a PR management issue, issuing carefully crafted press releases and assuming the problem would just go away. Bad press, while embarrassing, was just a symptom of the actual harm that continued to occur to Caltech’s own students, who talked to the press only as a last ditch attempt to attain some agency in the process. Beneath the scramble to fix a public narrative the harm continued, and Caltech’s failure to address the causes of that harm has done more damage to Caltech’s public credibility than the original allegations.
Recommendation: The Caltech Honor Code is a blueprint for ethical treatment of students within the academy. Metrics of student welfare, including health, wealth, happiness, and productivity can be measured. Caltech can exploit its preeminent position among US universities to pioneer ethical treatment of US grad students, bringing them more in line with standards in other developed countries.
I have summarized the ways in which Caltech failed to grapple with the Ott issue. In addition to categorizing and explaining the common organizational failure modes, I have also provided practical recommendations to modify the culture that enabled these modes to propagate.
It is entirely possible to operate a research institution with zero instances of harassment, bullying, and abuse, and I see no reason why Caltech, one of the world’s top universities, should be unequal to the challenge.
Many thanks to Susan Brown for legal advice.
One thought on “Caltech astrophysics and harassment: Lessons learned”
Congratulations and thanks for stepping up even at the risk of your career. Any scientific “advance” is still a big nothing in the grand scheme of things. Not worth that shameful behavior from all concerned. Goes to show how blinded we* are at times (or most or all the time) by a weird and problematic aka unethical and ultimately self defeating attitude.
(*) Taking the fifth here myself, but at least I didn’t harm anyone really, besides myself.