It seems that yet another prominent scientist has been caught behaving badly—this one hit a little closer to home for our students, as the professor was not “safely” in another field, but was one whose lab they might have joined as a postdoc:
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.”
As I’m sure most of my readers know, sexual harassment is not mostly about sex, but about power and the abuse of power, which is why most universities now have regulations prohibiting even “consensual” sex between faculty and their students. Sometimes the rules seem to be written in an overly puritanical way (apparently prohibiting any sort of romance between anyone who might at sometime in the future have some sort of professional relationship), but the intent is clear—those who have power over others because of their professional relationship should not be allowed to abuse that power for sexual favors, even if the victim seems willing.
In a post about sexual harassment, Dan Graur points out
In summary, Big Money that comes from Big Science allows people the “opportunity” to exercise power over subordinates in the form of sexual harassment. Of course, the majority of them do not take take advantage of this “opportunity,” but a few do.
In recent years, all the people in the academia who were exposed as sexual predators and were protected teeth and nails by their academic institutions were either Big Money/Big Science people or athletes who bring even more money to their university than Big Money/Big Science people.
The only person who in recent times was dealt with in an expeditious manner was an English professor from the University of California Riverside. Some people think that in this case “the system worked.” I don’t know the circumstances, but the fact that he is gay and an English professor, who does not bring millions to the university, makes me doubt that “the system worked.”
Luckily Dan Graur was only partly right in his assessment here—Jason Lieb was passed from institution to institution for a while, with unproven charges against him, but U. of Chicago did the right thing finally when there was strong evidence of his misbehavior and did not sweep his sins under the rug, as has been too commonly done in the past with him and with others.
I have no intention of ever sexually harassing anyone, nor of cheating on my wife, so I’ve not paid a lot of attention to the nuances of the rules about harassment and sexual assault, but I’ve often wondered how one distinguishes between sexual harassers and clueless dudes in love. Is it a matter of intent? of the reaction of the victim/loved one? Of the existence of a power differential?
In the case of faculty/student relations, the definition is usually based on the power differential, which makes for fairly simple, clear rules, but for student-student harassment the definitions must be different, as there is usually little difference in power. The basic notion driving the law and adjudication of sexual harassment cases appears to be “consent”, whose legal definition appears to have changed over the years. Right now in California, there is a big push to change the culture of students to affirmative consent—”yes means yes”, so that any sex without explicit consent of all parties is considered sexual assault. This change has required a considerable social shift from 40 years ago, when it was considered shameful for women to give more than subtle indications of consent.
If the new rules include a matching shift in what people consider polite behavior, it will be a great benefit for shy and socially awkward individuals, who could not accurately read the subtle signals of 40 years ago (which were already much clearer than those of 100 years ago). No longer will well-meaning but socially inept kids blunder on reading subtle signals and be accused of major crimes though procedures that give them little in the way of due process. It will still be difficult for shy kids to ask for consent, but at least the answers should now be comprehensible.
I’m a little worried, though, that rules of politeness have shifted more slowly than the legal definitions, and shy kids will simply be cut out entirely—increasing their isolation in a society that already regards shyness and introversion as flaws that need to be eliminated (look at the almost universal insistence on group work and team spirit in schools).
I’ve also wondered about the “incapacitated due to alcohol and therefore could not consent” standard. I’ve never drunk enough to be so incapacitated—I drink only enough to get a mild buzz and slight lowering of inhibitions—so I’m not sure how young people are supposed to distinguish between someone in that state (which many seek in order to lower inhibitions enough to have sex) and someone who is too drunk to consent—particularly if they are somewhat (or very) drunk themselves. Extreme cases are easy—someone who is passed out, vomiting, or incapable of coherent speech is obviously too drunk to consent—but drunkenness is not a binary phenomenon—it is a continuum. There will always be a grey region where some will claim “too drunk” and others “not that drunk”, and I expect that many of the sexual assault cases under the “yes means yes” rule will hinge on this sort of judgement.
On an individual basis, it is probably best never to get so drunk that consent (and determination of others’ consent) is impossible, but drunken youth is baked into our culture—whatever we set up to reduce sexual assault and punish transgressions should not fall apart or become massively unjust in the presence of alcohol.