A prominent molecular biologist at the University of Chicago has resigned after a university recommendation that he be fired for violating the school’s sexual misconduct policy. His resignation comes amid calls for universities to be more transparent about sexual harassment in their science departments, where women account for only one-quarter of senior faculty jobs.
The professor, Jason Lieb, made unwelcome sexual advances to several female graduate students at an off-campus retreat of the molecular biosciences division, according to a university investigation letter obtained by The New York Times, and engaged in sexual activity with a student who was “incapacitated due to alcohol and therefore could not consent.
If you want to get all technical about it this is what is known as “rape.”
Dr. Lieb, who has received millions of dollars in federal grants over the last decade, did not respond to requests for comment.
Always the dollars.
At Chicago, students praised the university for swift and decisive action. But some students and faculty members also raised pointed questions about whether the university had placed female graduate students at risk by hiring Dr. Lieb . . . He was put on staff despite potential warning signs.
Before he was hired, molecular biologists on the University of Chicago faculty and at other academic institutions received emails from an anonymous address stating that Dr. Lieb had faced allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct at previous jobs at Princeton and the University of North Carolina.
Hmmm, better get our crack investigative team on this one.
Yoav Gilad, a molecular biologist at Chicago who was on the committee that advocated hiring Dr. Lieb, said he and his fellow faculty members knew that in February 2014 Dr. Lieb had abruptly resigned from Princeton University, just seven months after having been recruited from the University of North Carolina to run a high-profile genomics institute.
That’s what you call an industrial-sized red flag. So we check the story out and . . .
But Dr. Gilad said that when it was contacted, Princeton said there had been no sexual harassment investigation of Dr. Lieb while he was there.
OK these GUYS are scientists not lawyers, but do you really have to be a lawyer to recognize how meaningless such a statement from the previous employer is under these circumstances? (For instance, have these people never heard of a confidentiality agreement, or the potential difference between looking into claims of sexual harassment and a formal “sexual harassment investigation?”) In short, shouldn’t your candidate have some super-convincing explanation about why, although this all looks really bad on its face, it’s not what it appears to be? Yes, he should! And Leib’s explanation for flat-out quitting a better job than the one you’re deciding whether or not to offer, seven months into the better gig, in the wake of an allegation that this was the second time he had gotten out of Dodge ahead of the posse was:
[Gilad] said efforts to find out more about what prompted Dr. Lieb’s departure proved fruitless.
Well not exactly:
Faculty at Chicago said that Dr. Lieb had told them during the interview process that Princeton faulted him for not informing them about a complaint of unwanted contact filed against him at North Carolina, where he had taught for 13 years. But he told them he had seen no reason to do so because the investigation had not found evidence to support the claim.
Subsequently, he gave permission to Princeton to examine his personnel file. Chicago, too, received permission to look at the file, Dr. Gilad said, adding that the examination of the records did not raise red flags.
Separately, Dr. Gilad acknowledged, during the interviews of Dr. Lieb, he admitted that he had had a monthslong affair with a graduate student in his laboratory at the University of North Carolina.
Maybe these people were born yesterday, but was it in the afternoon? Again, he quit his tenured position at Princeton seven months after he got there, and was flat-out unemployed when Chicago was interviewing him.
At Chicago, the hiring committee struggled, Dr. Gilad said, to balance a desire to protect students with a desire not to convict someone without evidence. He said Dr. Lieb had not been found guilty of any offense at North Carolina. The department of human genetics voted unanimously to hire him.
“It’s hard to say this in retrospect,” Dr. Gilad said, “but what’s the value of investigating anything if an unsubstantiated allegation itself invalidates the candidate?”
OK, again, not lawyers, but — come on. This isn’t a criminal trial. Or a civil action. Or an investigation of a current employee, where considerations of exactly how much evidence you need before you take somebody’s job away from him are vastly more difficult and pressing. This is a job interview. And there’s a lot of at least circumstantial evidence that your potential candidate might be kind of rapey. Why in the world would you hire him — in a world full of superbly qualified candidates for this kind of job — especially after “efforts to find out more about what prompted Dr. Lieb’s [extraordinarily suspicious] departure proved fruitless.” (Not actually a true statement of course, but accepting it as true for the purposes of evaluating the decision to hire Lieb in the light most favorable to the quasi-defendant here, i.e., Chicago).
But Joe Thornton, a faculty member in the department who raised objections before the vote, said in an interview, “I don’t think that’s the right standard to use.” He added, “It may be a legal standard, but we should be capable of making more nuanced judgments about the environment we’re creating for human beings that are doing and learning science.”
Bless you, other Joe Thornton, for talking some basic common sense, but it sounds as if somebody tried to snow you with the claim that it would in some way be violating Lieb’s legal rights not to hire him under these circumstances. If so, that claim was absolute nonsense. “We think there’s an unacceptable risk this guy may sexually assault a student or three at some point” is — check this out — a perfectly legal basis for deciding not to hire somebody.
So why did they hire him anyway?
Dr. Lieb brought scientific cachet and a record of winning lucrative grants to a department that had recently lost two of its stars to other institutions.
Meanwhile, the world’s top science journal noted recently:
How many senior scientists — usually men and usually with significant power over the careers of those in their labs — have been sanctioned and disciplined by their universities for sexual harassment? Nobody knows, especially not young researchers who eagerly apply for their first jobs, spend long hours on fieldwork and feel under pressure to socialize and make contacts after hours and at academic conferences. How many times have colleagues turned a blind eye to inappropriate comments and actions, and made excuses for people who should know better — and who are morally, legally and contractually obliged to behave better? How many young scientists have left positions, or left science completely, because of such behaviour, or because it is seemingly not taken seriously?
We don’t know the answers to those questions. But one thing we do know is that sexual harassment is a serious problem in science. And we know that young female scientists are speaking up about it. We know this not because universities are being transparent about such complaints and how they are dealt with, but because, dissatisfied with the official responses, victims, journalists and others are bringing the facts about these complaints to light.
This was the social context in which the University of Chicago decided to “take a chance,” as they say in parole board hearings, on what they apparently decided was the spectacularly unlucky (but extremely well-funded) Dr. Lieb. Shame on them.