Friday, February 5, 2016

Red flag? I don't see no red flag

I challenge UC's call. Credit: PFT
You may have heard about this New York Times story by Amy Harmon about Jason Lieb, the University of Chicago molecular biology professor who resigned after the university administration made conclusions about his behavior at an off-campus retreat (this is a longer post, so the rest is after the jump.) 
...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....
I think this case would be sadly run-of-the-mill*, if not for this little tidbit about his hiring process at the University of Chicago (emphasis mine):
...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...
I have got to ask: what the hell were these people thinking?** I know this sounds incredibly prudish of me, but you don't [defecate] where you eat. Sleeping with junior coworkers the help*** is a terrible, bad, fattening, immoral and stupid idea, and I am stonkered that the University of Chicago decided to take a chance on Dr. Lieb. It's not like there's some terrible shortage of grant-winning molecular biology professors, even in today's age of difficult paylines.

Over the years that I've been involved in the interview process, I've rarely seen a red flag as big as Dr. Lieb's. In the one particular case I am thinking about, there did not appear to be any red flags that indicated the multitude of problems that were later encountered, although I suspect that stronger digging among references and references of references might have unearthed the issues that were ultimately encountered.

So, beloved reader, I ask you, what's the worst red flag (hidden or unhidden) that you've seen during interviews? What happened? And how can you make sure red flags are addressed?

*Academia seems to be rife with these stories; industry somewhat less so. Does this have to do with the incredibly large power differential between PI and lab worker, versus employer and employee? Signs point to yes! 
**Yes, yes, I know that the hiring process for faculty is complicated and opaque and not particularly understandable to those who were not intimately involved in the process. 
***Reworded on second thought.


  1. I'm surprised this kind of stuff doesn't happen more often. I would have done whatever the hell it took to make my advisor happy and stop the psychological beatdowns.

    The strong culture of silence in academia doesn't help either. I'm not surprised that the Jerry Sandusky coverup happened at Penn State; when I was in grad school it was understood that you do not talk about things that might embarrass the department. We never had anything quite that extreme happen, but in general, the dirty laundry was always hushed up.

  2. I am not surprised in the least (sadly). If you've got some big grants swinging, they'll hire you on regardless, especially if the red flags haven't hit the Dena/Provost level when they care about the $$$ more than the morals of the person.

    1. In this particular case, there's going to be a classic "were you evil or were you stupid?" debate going on amongst the hiring committee, the department and all the admin folks who had to sign off on the hire.

    2. ...noting of course that "evil/stupid" is an overgeneralization and the true thing I am getting at is, "did you decide to sign off on this, knowing this bad thing, or did you not know about this bad thing?"

    3. I was pretty appalled by this. For hiring decisions, the burden of proof for wrongdoing should be lower than for firing decisions. Having an affair with one of your own graduate students while at UNC should've raised a lot of red flags, regardless of whether or not UNC found enough evidence to take disciplinary action.
      At the very least, UC should've discretely put out some feelers (pun intended) to Princeton and UNC to see what it could find out through the grapevine. It's not hard to do this given the few degrees of separation between scientists within a field. Affairs with graduate students and propositioning them at retreats are not the kind of thing that go unnoticed amounst the grad students/postdocs at a school.

    4. A lot of the issue is the ambiguous nature of the allegations. Sexual harassment claims are mired (as noted above and in the original article) in issues of power and thus often the perpetrator gets away with a series of such cases where nothing is proven, but the flags are there.

      Is it permissible to ask in interviews of any previous disciplinary actions (including exonerations)? Lots of stuff is off limits of course (spouse, kids etc,) unless the interviewee brings it up first.

  3. I think it depends on the environment. Where I am now, lots of couples were formed by people who worked together, and while there is a survivor bias, most of them seem to have turned out OK (although at least one that did not was messy, and another ended in a case of workplace violence - the internal relationship was unknown to the external spouse). Now, however, policies forbid relationships within the same department, and I know of at least one couple formed under those conditions. I don't think there are any conditions under which a relationship with a subordinate/superior would have been acceptable.

    In grad school, though, your phrasing was what the view of most people in the department. My advisor talked with one of the students in our group when he had gone out with an undergrad in the group (they were working on different things, so there was no supervisory relationship), so even then it was not viewed positively and kept track of. On the other hand, we knew of at least one professor-student relationship (or at least had begun as such), so at some point, if you got big enough, such behavior was acceptable to someone (though there did not appear to be any interference from it).

    Perhaps the phrasing should be "If you're important, don't get caught (defecating) where you eat."


  5. My post-doc advisor had a school and region-wide reputation for chasing and dating grad students. He married one 25 years his junior. Not a thing happened...probably helped that he brought in about 1 million a year in funding.

    My observation about these issues is that, fortunately, there is a system in place to handle ethics issues, but often it will not be activated unless the right person pulls the cord.

    1. PI in the henhouseFebruary 5, 2016 at 3:12 PM

      Reminds me of a similar (same?) decades-old case of a move from Cornell to Princeton that was precipitated by some similarly egregious situations. To their credit, open-door office hours were stipulated by the department, so at least they tried to be somewhat proactive...

  6. This is similar to what happens in pro sports.

    -Are you good at your sport? We'll forgive you for beating your wife/getting multiple DUIs/breaking the steroid policy repeatedly, etc.
    -Are you bad at it? Get the hell out of here! We don't tolerate that kind of behavior!

    I suspect everybody knew about Lieb's philandering, but he brought in enough money to turn their heads.

  7. A relationship with a graduate student, even if socially frowned upon, probably won't be enough of a reason to deny someone a job, especially if the relationship had been consensual and led to marriage and if the professor didn't have any other seedy history. There have been cases where graduate students and professors have gotten married to each other. In fact I think it was honest enough of Mr. Lieb to admit to the relationship upfront; it was the other dark parts of his personality that were unacceptable.

    1. A relationship with someone else's graduate student from another department/program may not be actionable, even if it seems in poor taste. Dating your own graduate student is almost certainly taking advantage of the power differential between the two parties and is certainly enough to justify not making a job offer in my book. Even if the student is in another lab in your department, there's enough ability to make life easy or hard for the student that I wouldn't condone the relationship. I'm putting this in the "clearly thinking with the wrong organ" category.

      (FWIW, my time at UNC overlapped with Lieb's tenure, and we were both affiliated with the same program, albeit not his or my primary affiliation. I only knew him by sight and reputation. He seemed to be a popular PI. Perhaps that's part of the problem, when PIs want to be seen as one of the boys.)

  8. So the NIH will gladly fund a rapist but not me. How... flattering.

    1. Why so surprised? The NIH funds a killer--twice over.

  9. I don't get it, what's the problem with old male professors in a position of power having affairs with young impressionable women whose future prospects they exert an inordinate amount of influence over?

    In two of the three chemistry departments I have been involved with there were male profs who had married former grad students decades their juniors, so to me this seems normal....To be clear, I'm generalizing that's it's old male profs, but I'm pretty comfortable in my assumption (in hindsight, I do recall a female prof. marrying a younger male grad student at one school, but that was a biochem dept.). Presumably this perk is a reason academics accept less $?

  10. I haven't seen the following covered on any chemistry-related blogs, but recently the NSF has told universities to investigate harassment complaints seriously or risk losing their funding:

    NASA recently issued a similar statement. These two actions were brought about by situations involving two astronomy professors, Geoff Marcy (Berkeley) and Christian Ott (Caltech). Just google their names to read up on them and their actions, and how their universities responded to complaints about them.

    On a related front, what is changing is that the public is finding out about these professors and their behavior, so it is becoming increasingly difficult for universities to sweep this stuff under the rug.

    As for Jason Lieb - there appear to be two red flags: He admitted the affair with a grad student, and he suddenly resigned from Princeton, without any apparent explanation. What did the U. of Chicago think they were hiring? Or was this a case of Lieb 'promising' not to engage in any more suspect behavior?

    Although I've had to deal with harassment at one of the companies I've worked at, I am eternally grateful that in grad school I worked for a decent professor who acted like a professional and not like some drunken frat boy.

  11. Well... he was a 'molecular biologist', so not a chemist (hopefully not a biochemist)? Yes! We're safe, we're safe. Chemistry is in the clear! We'll just keep that knowledge of someone who married his grad-student back in my grad school department, and the one who married her postdoc at my postdoc university under the rug...

  12. I'm absolutely not defending Lieb or blaming victims, but an "an off-campus retreat of the molecular biosciences division" where (or did this happen somewhere else?) a student was "incapacitated due to alcohol" sounds like an event is bound to cause all kinds of trouble, not only sexual harassment. Why do some university departments/research groups organize such things?

    1. Well, its supposed to inspire creativity and a family atmosphere for the department, I suspect. This probably helps faculty, in part, by making grad students and post-docs feel a little less exploited.

      So what Lieb did, in this context, might be considered "incest"?

      Overall, I'm not surprised. Any time you have a mixture of older, powerful men and young women, this is going to happen. It's difficult to stop human nature.

  13. I'm anon 9:55 pm from yesterday -

    I've been wondering why we haven't seen anything in C & E News about the NSF announcement. Given the number of chemistry departments that must have grants from NSF, you would think this would be of interest to professors.

    But then again, maybe they'd just rather not acknowledge any of this.

    Back to Lieb - I've noticed in photos of him that he is wearing a wedding band. Habitual harassers like him are usually married. It's not that they are looking for a wife. They are looking for casual sex, and they focus on the nearest targets.

    I'm always flummoxed when I read the opinion that men like Lieb are looking for wives. This isn't the case at all; it just makes their sordid efforts look more legitimate.

    1. The fact that he's married proves that he's a scumbag looking for casual sex on the side, and not some awkward guy making clumsy, unintentionally creepy attempts to flirt.