Why do universities cover up high-profile harassment? Look for the money

How can professors get away with years of sexual harassment or abuse of graduate students without their universities taking any action?

I don’t think money is the entire answer, but I do not think it is a coincidence that these professors generated millions in grants for their institutions.

This week, a story of the disciplinary action against Christian Ott at Caltech was told by Azeen Ghorayshi from Buzzfeed (“He Fell In Love With His Grad Student — Then Fired Her For It”). Last fall Ghorayshi also broke the story of the allegations of long-term sexual harassment by astronomer Geoffrey Marcy at UC-Berkeley, which ultimately led to his resignation. People reading the Ott story are rightly amazed that a department would fail to take action as a professor has a succession of nine graduate advisees leave in a span of a few years. Different fields and institutions have different standards, but this remarkably high attrition is a clear signal that something serious has gone wrong. So how could an entire department ignore the signs?

The story of Timothy Slater at the University of Arizona was made public this week by Congresswoman Jackie Speier, as detailed in a Mashable story: “Congresswoman reveals prominent astronomy professor’s history of sexual harassment”. Speier also expresses frustration and amazement at the failure of universities to take effective action to end instances of harassment, as quoted in a Wired interview (“Rep Jackie Speier on Why She’s Taking on Sexual Harassment in Science”):

In my work on sexual assault in the military and sexual assault on college campuses, the pattern is there. Typically predators are in environments where there is a closed institution, where they have their own code of conduct—whether the military code of justice or the code of conduct at a university. Often times these cases are not handled appropriately. They sweep them under the rug. It allow sexual predators to reoffend. Often times it’s six or seven times before they are actually caught because everyone believes it’s a one off situation.

In the three cases that have been made public, the universities (the University of California-Berkeley, University of Arizona and California Institute of Technology) investigated and took disciplinary action against the professors in question. In response to the public relevations this week (and with Geoffrey Marcy last fall), people have been speaking out to criticize these institutions’ responses. Critics have focused on the weakness of the disciplinary actions, the lack of protection for future students or adequate response to the injustice suffered by past students. Rep. Speier in particular has emphasized that in two of the cases, the faculty member successfully moved to another institution in a senior high-salary position despite sexual harassment investigations or disciplinary action at their previous institution.

These cases are outrageous. These are not cases where a department made a bad hire that no one could have anticipated. High-salary scientists do not make mid-career moves into endowed positions without the special involvement of university administrators. Each of these universities has profited handsomely from its association with these scientists. The three cases now public involve more than $17 million in NSF and NASA funding.

I’ve been surprised at how little attention has been given to the financial aspect of these cases. Federal grants are public records, and we are not talking about small amounts of money. When people ask why university administrators have not been forthcoming about sexual harassment and abuse of students, I believe we must look at how those administrators continue to benefit from looking the other way.

A hint about the importance of funding in this issue comes from the Mashable article that discusses Slater’s case.

Slater began his career as a Kansas high school science teacher in 1989 and has since become one of the most renowned names in astronomy education. Slater said that, over the course of his career, he has received more than $30 million in federally funded grants, and in developing the curriculum for a new generation of astronomy teachers, has received several awards and prestigious appointments.
In 1996, he took a job as a physics professor at Montana State University, where he founded the Conceptual Astronomy and Physics Education Research (CAPER) program that his wife Stephanie today runs as an independent nonprofit. In 2001, he was hired as an astronomy professor at the University of Arizona.

I did a public records search for NSF and NASA awards for each of these three scientists. I could not confirm the $30 million claim based on searching for awards at NSF and NASA. My search is only as good as the online systems for federal grant searches, and it is probable that Slater has significant funding from other federal grant sources. I found a total of $5,450,737 in NSF awards credited to Timothy Slater as either Principal Investigator or Co-Principal Investigator. Additionally, $652,637 was awarded to Slater by NASA at the University of Wyoming and $85,977 at the University of Arizona.

NSF records credit Christian Ott at Caltech with $5,106,789 for grants upon which he is listed as Principal Investigator (PI) or Co-Principal Investigator (co-PI). NASA credits him with $150,000 as PI.

The total in NSF awards credited to Marcy as PI or co-PI is $3,636,399. NASA additionally credits $2,612,545.98 to Marcy as PI since 2005. As large as these amounts are, they are small compared to the $100 million in funding from the Breakthrough Prize Foundation (“Internet investor Yuri Milner joins with Berkeley in $100 million search for extraterrestrial intelligence”). Marcy’s work on extrasolar planets was publicly recognized as a factor behind this award, and he was prominent in the public announcement.

These scientists are not merely successful at grant-getting, they are rainmakers for their universities and departments. In times of increasing challenges for state support for these research universities, the funding brought in by such scientists keeps the budget afloat.

Many people who are not familiar with the U.S. federal grant system may not know that much of this money goes directly into university budgets instead of the project for which the funds were granted. Nature News did a nice article on indirect costs in 2014 that explains them well: “Indirect costs: Keeping the lights on”. When a federal agency funds a grant, the agency provides an additional amount of funding directly to the institution, above and beyond the direct costs of the project budget. These “indirect costs” are intended to help fund the institution’s research enterprise—buildings, laboratory space, electricity, personnel to administer the grant accounting and compliance with federal regulations. Each university negotiates an indirect cost rate with the federal government, which is applied to every federal grant awarded to the university.

Negotiated indirect cost rates differ greatly among institutions. At Caltech, the current indirect cost rate for on-campus research is 64.3% of direct costs, meaning that every budgeted dollar of direct costs comes with a supplementary fund of 64.3 cents to the university. At the University of Arizona, the current rate is 53.5% for on-campus research. Off-campus research indirect cost rates are much lower, in the mid-twenties. Indirect cost rates have consistently increased year-over-year, so grants funded 10 years ago may have had indirect costs from 45% to 55%, not the 50%–65% common today.

Indirect costs mean that when we look at the amount of grant funding awarded to the three scientists in these cases, each university has taken in millions of additional dollars of federal funding to its bottom line. That money was not allocated to these scientists’ particular projects, it solved budget problems for administrators.

Each case that becomes public teaches us more about a culture of neglect when it comes to sexual harassment and abuse of students. Harassers are not the majority, they are a tiny handful of scientists. But they are powerful, and too many departments are full of faculty who do nothing to stop them. That culture comes from treating grants and publications as the only important standards of performance assessment.

I am discouraged that every time I hear about one of these cases, the accused faculty member invariably has been a big NSF grantwinner.

Funding and training are strongly connected at universities. Many federal grants of this kind include direct funding for the salaries of graduate student research assistants and postdoctoral scientists. Most applications address graduate student training as part of their intellectual merit and broader impact. Additionally, when a university’s policies are not protecting its graduate students, we should consider other ways that the federal government is funding graduate education at the institution. Among the most pertinent is the IGERT program by which NSF directly funds interdisciplinary graduate work: more than $6 million at UC-Berkeley and $400,000 at the University of Arizona.

What kind of oversight could NSF and NASA implement to change this? Astronomy is not alone. Anthropologists are now discussing our field’s history of sexual harassment in light of the SAFE study, which showed the extraordinarily high fraction of students who are sexually harassed or abused during fieldwork research experiences. A research project should not be a fiefdom in which the PI has droit de seigneur. But this will persist as long as PIs are rewarded for this culture of abusive behavior.

The culture needs to change. The harm to students is irreparable. The harm to science will be a legacy across the next thirty years haunted by the shadows of promising careers that were stopped before they began. Grant reviewers and panels need to take seriously their responsibility to training the next generation of scientists. At a minimum, that means demanding evidence of a project’s demonstrated success in training students, including evidence about a university’s or department’s track record.

Rep. Speier has rightly criticized the universities for keeping the cases quiet. Each university profits from silence. Universities will hide this behavior as long as administrators believe that future funding will keep rolling in. If we want to end the secrecy, we need to stop the money.

We know about the cases only because victims have spoken out, and particularly we owe much to dogged investigative reporting by Buzzfeed and Ghorayshi. Many important voices have yet to be heard, including some who may draw attention to additional cases both inside and outside of astronomy. We need to keep listening.

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