CAPER Statement on Sexual Harassment Issues in the Astronomy Community

Stephanie J. Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research,,

In 2004, the University of Arizona began an investigation into the conduct of the astronomy education research group at Steward Observatory. This particular investigation was based upon comments provided by witnesses in an investigation into possible retaliation in a unrelated investigation, which was in turn part of a wider investigation of sexually hostile work environment. The UA astronomy education research group, an early version of the Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research (CAPER), led by Dr. Timothy Slater, Dr. Edward Prather and Gina Brissenden, was found to operate in violation of the Universityʻs sexual harassment policy, but was not found to have violated the Universityʻs policy related to retaliation.

In the investigation, it was found that the research team members often engaged in sexually charged dialogue and humor, and that the behaviors cut across ranks. The behavior was found to be both welcome and unwelcome, both solicitied and unsolicited.

As a bachelors-level administrator, Gina Brissenden was not named as Respondent in the investigation. As leaders of the research team Dr. Timothy Slater and Dr. Edward Prather were named as Respondents and both were found to be in violation of the Universityʻs sexual harassment policy in allowing a sexually charged environment to occur in the workplace. As a result, Dr. Slater, Dr. Prather, Ms. Brissenden, Dr. Chris Impey, and a number of postdocs and graduate students were required to attend training related to sexual harassment. Dr. Slater and Dr. Prather were required to attend additional management training.

Dr. Slater left Arizona to take an Endowed Chair at the University of Wyoming in 2008. Dr. Prather was subsequently offered a tenure line faculty position, and eventually received tenured at the University of Arizona. Ms. Brissenden still works at the University of Arizona and works for the American Astronomical Society in a position related to education.

Dr. Slater has made no attempt to hide his role in, or the lessons learned from these events occurring more than a decade ago, from colleagues or students. [Tim’s blog post about this from last year is available here.] As a result, some version of these events is familiar to most members of the astronomy community who are familiar with Dr. Slater and his work.

Although this matter is well known within the astronomy community and occured over a decade ago, this story is currently being recirculated amongst news organizations, as a part of a larger story of how professionals who are found to be in violation of harassment policy may continue their careers. As the senior party in the matter, the news reports have a focus on Dr. Timothy Slater who serves as a Senior Scientist with CAPER.

CAPER believes that sexual harassment is a serious workplace issue, in which the employer is responsibile for ensuring a safe and productive work environment. We stand opposed to the recent attempts to re-appropriate these issues in the name of a social justice war. We further stand opposed to the dissemination of investigative documents, as such witnesses in such cases provided testimony under the assurance of confidentiality. We believe that such acts are corrosive to due process for both complaintants and respondents, and are in opposition to the advancement of social justice for vulnerable parties.

As an education research group, CAPER believes in the redemptive power of effective intervention. Like all educational experiences, sexual harassment and management training have the potential to redirect individuals’ energies toward more productive activity. In such cases, our community should make the most of individualsʻ talents and skills, working toward progress in the field.

As the Director of CAPER, and in fulfilling the roles of observer, spouse, colleague, competitor, friend and adversary to Dr. Slater, Dr. Prather, and Ms. Brissenden for more than a decade, I possess extensive evidence that leads me to believe that the University of Arizona’s training program was effective. This evidence includes: information about subsequent reviews of Dr. Slater’s workplace performance; documentation from the University of Wyoming that Dr. Slater is not, nor has been subject to civil rights discrimination complaints or investigations; and notarized affidavits from a number of current and former graduate students, stating that they have not experienced or witnessed harassment while working with Dr. Slater.

We do not believe that allegations made in the media, by individuals who have the capacity to file formal complaints through legitimate channels, but who have not chosen to do so, constitute evidence. Trial-by-media is not a legitimate pathway to objective truth; rather, it stands poised to interfere by providing an inappropriate platform for attention-mongering and professional vengeance. CAPER stands firmly opposed to such actions. We are an organization that consistently demands evidence-based reasoning in determining the proper course of action related to the human aspects of STEM, and extend that decision-making paradigm to issues within the culture wars.

CAPER heartily hopes that the astronomy community will rapidly mature in its understanding of civil rights discrimination issues, and believes that such advances will be fostered by a reliance on research completed by individuals trained in the field, and through guidance given by competent, legal authorities.


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