Chicago Professor Resigns Amid Sexual Misconduct Investigation
[ by AMY HARMONFEB. 2, 2016 | via The New York Times ]
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, 43, 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.”
Dr. Lieb, who has received millions of dollars in federal grants over the last decade, did not respond to requests for comment.
“In light of the severity and pervasiveness of Professor Lieb’s conduct, and the broad, negative impact the conduct has had on the educational and work environment of students, faculty and staff, I recommend that the university terminate Professor Lieb’s academic appointment,” reads the letter, signed by Sarah Wake, assistant provost and director of the office for equal opportunity programs.
Dr. Lieb stepped down last month before any action was taken.
Both the University of California, Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology have fielded criticism recently for failing to publicly acknowledge their own conclusions that a prominent male scientist on each faculty had harassed female students until the details were uncovered by news media. A third case was reportedly unearthed only because of a bureaucratic error at the University of Arizona.
“Although institutions proclaim that they have zero tolerance for abuse of the policies that they claim to enforce, too often their primary concern seems to be secrecy and reputation management,” the science journal Nature wrote in a Jan. 20 editorial headlined “Harassment Victims Deserve Better.”
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, who brought scientific cachet and a record of winning lucrative grants to a department that had recently lost two of its stars to other institutions.
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.
“Both U.N.C. and Princeton launched investigations,” the email read.
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.
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. He said efforts to find out more about what prompted Dr. Lieb’s departure proved fruitless. A Princeton spokeswoman said the university does not comment on personnel matters.
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.
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?”
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.”
Chicago, North Carolina and Princeton declined to answer questions about the details of the North Carolina case.
Universities say they need to protect victims of harassment from being identified and that there are also cases of false accusations. Some universities may be subject to state laws that prohibit the disclosure of certain information. They may sign nondisclosure agreements with departing employees to avoid tarnishing each other’s reputation, legal experts said.
Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, is considering introducing legislation to compel schools to disclose any sexual harassment record of faculty members when they are changing jobs, though it is not clear how the measure will fare.
Some Chicago students, too, say they believe there should be a record shared among universities.
“Even if they did a full investigation and didn’t find anything, notes should be available to potential employers,” said Erin Fry, a graduate student in Chicago’s department of human genetics. “They say it’s to protect privacy, but in the case of sexual misconduct it just protects people like Jason Lieb.”
Dr. Lieb’s behavior at Chicago became widely known because it took place in part at a crowded party attended by dozens of graduate students and several faculty members. As students returned to campus from the resort in Galena, Ill., where the retreat was held, faculty and staff received multiple harassment complaints that universities are obligated to investigate under the federal law that guarantees all students equal access to education.
Many of the graduate students at the party would have been candidates to work in Dr. Lieb’s laboratory; some already had. Ms. Wake scheduled a meeting with graduate students on Wednesday to discuss the findings.
Informed by a reporter about the circumstances under which Dr. Lieb had resigned from Chicago, William Kier, the chairman of the biology department at North Carolina during the time that Dr. Lieb was under investigation, said he was dismayed. He could not comment on personnel issues, he said.