How Sexual Harassment Gossip Interrupts Improving Astronomy Teaching

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming,

Most of us want basically the same things in our teaching—for our ASTRO 101 students to be informed about astronomy and, simultaneously, think that astronomy is awesomely cool.  To reach such a worthy goal as a community of astronomy educators, we have to learn and share from one another.

Learning and sharing to become a better astronomy teacher takes courage.  Most astronomers have been schooled to think that they can expand their reach to solve any problem and that their opinions are automatically well informed.  That posture doesn’t get us very far. To become a better teacher, one has to have sufficient courage to declare that they don’t know everything there is to know about good teaching.

Most ideas about teaching are not new; but not everyone knows the old ideas,” says Euclid.

Moreover, learning how to teach astronomy better this year than you did last year from (or with) someone else requires mutual respect and trust.  Unfortunately, broad swaths of our astronomy community are suffering from a lack of mutual respect and trust.  Far too much of this is due to the ongoing and disgustingly UN-discerning rumor mill surrounding sexual harassment.

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education headline says that one in four women have been sexually assaulted. Sexual harassment and sexual assault can be terrible and disgusting things.  No one should have to participate in a sexual quid-pro-quo in order to advance professionally in one’s career.  And, no one should have to tolerate sexual assault—assault is a criminal act.  I know that these things do happen in astronomy too often, and are often unreported because the victim believes, or has been told, that their careers will be ruined if they reveal the perpetrator’s identity.  I know that these things have happened to people in my immediate academic family, and it is devastating. Less than ten years ago during her graduate school education, my wife was sexually assaulted, by a senior astronomy statesman, who told her he would ruin her career if she ever told anyone.

Although the precise details can vary from institution to institution, sexual harassment policy violations also can occur when someone is the target of unwanted sexual advances they are unable or unwilling to stop.  And, despite what the media seems to enjoy reporting, I understand that the most common sexual harassment policy infractions can occur when employees trying to meet their job requirements are unable to when they hear excessive sexual joking, banter, or innuendo.  This includes the sometimes extremely creepy and unwelcome “hugging” greeting.

It is no secret that sexual harassment has occurred within my own professional life.  More than a decade ago, a group of my colleagues and I violated my University’s sexual harassment policy by allowing a hostile work environment to exist that was characterized by sexual joking, banter, and innuendo that was both welcome and unwelcome, solicited, and unsolicited. These colleagues included Dr. Edward Prather and a number of post-docs, graduate students, and supervising administrators. I am reluctant to reveal confidential information that would embarrass or perhaps irreversibly damage the professional careers of those involved or who gave confidential testimony, as many who have put this incident far behind them would be put in a situation to deal with it again; and, it is unclear to me that these matters, from more than a decade ago, are the business of anyone outside of that group. As a result, all of us involved were required to participate in formal sexual harassment training. Further, Ed Prather and I took additional management training to help us be sure it didn’t happen in the future.

More than ten years later, the rumor mill now enthusiastically whispers that I am a serial sexual harasser. All ongoing gossip to the contrary, no further evidence of sexual harassment has ever been presented to a mandated investigative authority since that time. On the contrary, through multiple reviews, both the University of Arizona and the University of Wyoming formally determined that our conduct is sufficiently safe to grant both Dr. Prather and me tenured positions that require us to interact intensively with both undergraduate and graduate students.  Although it has been suggested that sexual harassment training doesn’t work, it definitely worked for me. I now continuously educate my graduate students—male and female—about sexual harassment and how to be sure it doesn’t happen, how to avoid being a victim, and how to report it when it is observed. We learned our lessons for how to make a more productive research team.

As evidence that I’m not a serial sexual harasser, in the last decade, my performance, including my interactions with faculty, students and staff, have been exhaustively reviewed no fewer than three times:

  • In 2006, the University of Arizona conducted a 360-degree management review of me that surveyed supervised employees, peer colleagues, and my supervisors. This review was voluntary. No piece of data related to sexual harassment was reported. If evidence had been found, another formal investigation would have ensued as required by US law, and this did not occur.
  • In 2008, when I was being recruited to my Distinguished Professorship at the University of Wyoming, a full inquiry by the University of Wyoming was conducted to be sure that I was not found guilty of any violations since a 2004 investigation of activity, conducted by the University of Arizona. No evidence was found, and I was awarded tenure and the rank of Full Professor.
  • In 2014, my Departmental colleges were investigated for a potential racial discrimination violation. In such an investigation, there were many opportunities for evidence of sexual harassment or sexual discrimination to be revealed.  No evidence in either case was revealed, and no violations were found by competent professionals trained in evaluating evidence for discrimination and harassment.

It would not be a large exaggeration to say that I have been subject to more instances of scrutiny than any other astronomy professor in the United States for more than a decade.  During that time, there has been no evidence of sexual harassment, and no finding of sexual harassment, within institutions that have a vested interest in finding and exterminating occurrences of this nature.

In the United States where I am a citizen, an individual’s employer is the mandated, competent authority for investigating sexual harassment violations.  Not a Facebook group, not a committee of a professional society, not an Academic Department, not even the Police Department. Over the course of the past decade, my two employers, the University of Arizona, where I was a tenured faculty member, and the University of Wyoming, where I am now a tenured full professor, holding an Endowed Chair for Excellence in Science Education, have received no complaints of sexual harassment, either through direct complaint, or through comment in any investigation that they have conducted on any faculty or department at their respective institutions.  If they had, they would be federally mandated to investigate and make a finding.  Obviously, this didn’t happen, although the rumor mill might make one think it did or perhaps that a University might have some vested interest in protecting sexual harassers.

My repeated observation is that gossip surrounding anything sexual can be painfully funny because it is rarely even scrutinized as plausible by those spreading the gossip themselves—that’s because juicy stuff is more fun to spread than facts!  Recently, I have been forwarded emails or seen online posts feeding the rumor mill about me that say completely false things.


What does all of this talk about sexual harassment have to do with blocking the improvement of astronomy teaching?  The problem is that when uninvolved people hear that there has been a sexual harassment violation, they are often extremely quick to pass moral judgment, even when they don’t know all the facts or the contexts.  And, because most sexual harassment investigation reports are confidential in order to protect those who testify, people naturally fill in the blanks of what they don’t know with the worst or most juicy possible scenarios.  Even people who testify in the investigation itself rarely know all the details. What follows then is the rapid, widespread, and uncontrolled gossip about our peers—the rumor mill ensues destroying everyone and every actionable, good idea in its path.

Even though it has been more decade since our violation happened, I and my group members constantly run head-long into the destructive gossip-driven rumor mill.  This ongoing gossip blocks us from doing what we are really good at doing; helping professors be better and more effective teachers.

Even many years later, I still have been suddenly removed from professional mentoring-programs, asked not to speak at conferences, been denied grant funding to do faculty workshops at minority institutions, been questioned about if I should chair certain committees, and have been morally chastised online by people I have never met or spoken to, all because of what people continue to imply about an alleged and inflated history of sexual harassment.  When people do take the time to question rumors, they are easily corrected.  Today, it can be unnecessarily hard to recruit new graduate students, even when the numbers clearly show I have been very successful graduating female students, that my group still is predominately female, and that the journal I publish and the meetings I host feature female scientists more prominently than male scientists. No one ever seems to bother to actually talk to my graduate students and ask, “How is it going?” or “Has sexual harassment ever happened with your advisor?”, or even “Why would you work with Slater given the history we hear in the rumor mill?” because the facts of today wouldn’t be as exciting to share as imagined stories of discrimination and harassment of the past. Worse, blocking proven pathways to success in this way only serves to handicap the growth of our community unnecessarily. In other words, this gossip, whether or not it is about me specifically, unnecessarily blocks the improvement of astronomy teaching by making it nearly impossible for the mutual respect needed for learning and sharing of ideas to happen.

I know that sharing my story won’t change anyone’s mind that’s already set: A jury of public opinion rarely seeks truth. On one hand, one would reasonably expect that this many years later, I’m a surely different and more mature person than I was as a younger, more indulgent man; I’ve learned a tremendous amount from my students, colleagues, family, and church.  Becoming a Christian and having the good fortune of recently marrying a solidly-grounded, Christian woman has helped me tremendously to have more compassion and deeper empathy, whereas before I mistakenly had too little.

On the other hand, I too often clearly see a severe lack of real substance in discussing today’s astronomy’s social-cultural issues.  There are those astronomers who ask, “is she female enough to speak on women’s issues” or “is she too privileged to make judgments about black issues” or “as a previous sexual harassment violator, should he be allowed to participate ever again,” instead of intellectually considering the value of what is being proposed.  Just the same as people who mistakenly make judgments of people based on their skin tone or a guess at their genitalia, too many astronomers use a what-does-the-gossip-say filter before they think.  This is wrong and impedes our community’s progress.

I am inclined to lay much of the blame of this on the Boards and Councils who created Committees for purposes of advice, but then they never provided these individuals with seriously needed oversight.  These overzealous and unsupervised committee members then can do unthinkable things, such as try to publicly shame their targets or create coordinated attacks on individuals who have differing points of view.  The problem now is that these committee members have exposed the members of supervising Boards and Councils to legal action.  One might try to argue that these individuals are working independently of their convening association, but it is a pretty easy legal argument to show that because they were initially organized under the banner of an association’s committee, that the association is itself libel.  If these sub groups working within professional societies continue to try to serve as investigators, judge, jury, and sentencers, I suspect that we’ll quickly see each of the professional society Board and Council members quickly scrambling for their own lawyers.

I do hope that sharing my story will encourage astronomers to pause—even if just for a moment—before passing on unconfirmed gossip about other astronomers they’ve never actually met, especially for things they weren’t involved with themselves. These are real people, with careers, spouses, children, and grandchildren you are crushing. My kids read what you post on the Internet too, where nothing is really private. The astronomy community, and the broader college STEM teaching community, is cracking under the weight of the ongoing, destructive rumor mill, and I am at a loss of how to stop it other than calling it out for what it is—gossip.  This gossip is stopping everything, especially our ability to be good teachers and to create communities where others want to belong.



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  1. Pingback: CAPER Statement on Sexual Harassment Issues in the Astronomy Community | CAPER Astronomy Faculty Lounge