Monday, September 18, 2017

Sexual harassment in academia

In this week's C&EN, a cover story by Linda Wang and Andrea Widener on sexual harassment: 
It started innocently enough. He was a prominent chemistry professor at a major research university, and she was eager to make a good impression. “I was a pretty insecure grad student in my early years, and the fact that he was paying attention to me and interested in my work and how I was doing in his class was kind of flattering,” says Tara (not her real name). 
The professor was not her adviser. Nevertheless, “He invited me to lunch a few times and just sought me out quite a bit. And then he invited me over to his house to watch a movie. He didn’t do anything inappropriate. But after that night, I was like, ‘Something’s weird here; he has a family.’ And his family was away for the weekend.” 
Those seemingly innocent actions became increasingly inappropriate. “The culmination was when he wrote me a love note. It was a proposition note, I guess. It basically said he wanted to have an affair with me. I stormed into his office and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This is offensive. I thought you were hanging out with me because I was talented.’ ” 
After that incident, Tara went out of her way to avoid the professor. “It was really hard,” she says, in part because his office was along the hallway she traversed between her lab and desk. Yet she didn’t report the situation to anyone. “I felt guilty, like I had somehow done something to have brought this on,” she says. 
Tara’s story is a common one in university chemistry departments nationwide, echoing the problems of sexual harassment in the larger science community and the nation. While chemistry hasn’t had a sexual harassment case come to national prominence yet, most female chemists can tell stories of harassment or discrimination of themselves or their colleagues. It may be among the reasons women aren’t reaching parity in chemistry Ph.D. programs and faculty positions. 
“It was one of the many factors why I ultimately was unsatisfied and uncomfortable in science,” says Tara, who completed her Ph.D. but decided to leave chemistry and is now working in an unrelated field....
Read the whole thing.

70 comments:

  1. Does any 20-year old woman get invited over to a 40+ year old man's house while his family is away and not think something is amiss? Aside from this professor being morally reprehensible, he approached the situation somewhat professionally.

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    1. I agree she probably should have realized something was off BEFORE going to a professor's house for leisure activities (which is why this part of her story seems off to me), but it's pretty irresponsible to say an authority figure slowly (as opposed to aggressively I guess) propositioning a grad student at the same institution is somewhat professional. It's NEVER professional for a professor and a grad student in the same department or even institution to have a sexual relationship. Maybe "professionally" wasn't the right word for you meaning. Maybe you meant something like "not rapey," with reference to how one might seek out a consensual relationship.

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    2. He also likely had defined barriers (a department sexual harassment policy) which he either didn't bother to know or ignored or chose to transgress. There could have been uncertainty on her part as to what his intentions were, but he should have known what his intentions were (and that they were wrong).

      I am advantaged because I don't have to keep thinking about how others might want to take advantage of me - if I did it'd be a lot harder to actually do anything. It'd be a pretty good reason to choose to do something else, maybe.

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    3. I'm really hoping you somehow chose the wrong word, since there is absolutely no way for this to have been approached "professionally" as you suggest. Even if you meant something like "appropriate"/not rapey, as anon 8:22 suggests, that's still wrong since there's no way for this relationship to BE appropriate and your suggestion otherwise is emblematic of a culture that condones this kind of sexual harassment.

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    4. Why would there be no way for a potential relationship between two consenting adults to be appropriate? This person was not her adviser, and assuming he had no responsibilities over her, I don't see the problem. Puritanism and fostering a victimhood mentality is not productive in battling the true egregious sexual assault cases.

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    5. i do agree this really isnt sexual assault, but your boy was married and actively looking for an affair. from a position of leadership. he shouldnt be working there any more

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    6. Anon 10:07 because there is inherently a power dynamic at play that he is exploiting. You're incredibly naive if you think that a senior faculty member, even one who is not her advisor, has no power over a first year/early year graduate student.

      It's not puritanism to assert that exploitation of a professional power dynamic for sexual purposes is inappropriate and has no place in academia.

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    7. Anon 10:19 perhaps I ascribe more agency to individuals than you do, and believe more in personal responsibility than playing to a victim narrative than most in academia.

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    8. Stop with the victim blaming for a moment. Hindsight is always 20/20, but when you're in a situation it may not always be clear what's going on. Perhaps he didn't tell her his family was away, perhaps she assumed other people would be there, perhaps he hung out with the grad students often and it didn't raise suspicions, etc. I was in grad school in the mid-90's, and one of my committee members often socialized with some of the grad students in the department. My friends worked for him and I got drunk with him many times, went over to his house on several occasions, etc. There was nothing sexual to it, and he was a great mentor and friend to many grad students throughout the years. If I had then encountered another prof who hung out with students a lot and invited me over to his house I might not have been particularly suspicious initially.

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    9. Victim blaming, lol.

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    10. anon 10:32 I fail to see how my stance that "powerful people using that power inappropriately for sexual purposes is wrong" undermines anybody's agency and/or makes this into a philosophical argument about personal responsibility, but OK

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    11. OP here from 6:15am. Glad to see my comment sparked such lively discussion!

      I agree that my choice of the word "professional" was a little heavy handed, but of all the ways for a man to approach a female for sex, a note seems the most innocuous.

      From the story I gathered there was little, if any, power dynamic between 2 consenting adults. Again from limited information it seemed like nothing more than a man asking a woman for sex, and being shot down, if from there he used his power to push her further or made her uncomfortable then there is an issue. Do we really want to start calling these situations sexual harassment? I think it belittles true cases of harassment.

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    12. Anon 10:07 here, thank you OP, that was my point as well. There may have been some miscommunication from either side, but if we start labeling the prof as a sexual criminal, given his actions, then no one is safe from prosecution. I've been married to one of my former students for 13 years (TA, no dating and grading), but I would have been ejected from my program in the current climate, and labeled a sexual harasser. My life would be very different.

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    13. In response to OP, isn't it ironic that the headline quote in the article is the following:

      “The shame of being involved in a harassment situation is quite overwhelming. You don't want anyone to know because you think they will wonder how a smart woman could ever get into a situation like that.”

      While it's true that preventative actions are key, as a female chemist I find that questioning what could have been done is unhelpful in this particular situation. In particular, why aren't we asking for what could have been done instead once the student felt so uncomfortable that she had to leave altogether?

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    14. Hey, here's a thought. Each and every one of you taking the stance that she should've known something was up are engaging in an ugly sort of victim blaming, made uglier if you said as much anonymously (tends to make me think that in your heart of hearts, you know how slimy it is). That's kind of the definition of victim blaming, and giving voice to that kind of thing makes you part of the problem. Also, if you think this is just a thing between two consenting adults, with no power dynamic at play, I'll bet a large sum of money that you're a white dude with a terminal degree.

      How about this? Don't have sex with students. Is that really all that difficult?

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    16. It's always "some white dude" isn't it?

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  2. My academic friends on Facebook are always on their moral high horses about feminism, sexism, etc, but behind closed doors, they'll say something like "Professor So-and-So brings in a lot of funding. You need to keep your mouth shut about this."

    I argued for universities to have real HR departments in my "I left grad school" story. I hope the idea gets a push from this article. The culture of academia is truly toxic, and I'm glad to be in industry.

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    1. It's an institutional culture problem. If there's protracted harassment the real questions go like "who let XY carry on despite years of credible rumours" or "why did they cover up for XY instead of firing him". These are the questions that chairs and deans would rather not answer. HR isn't the answer in an environment of low expectations, they are the arm of upper management, and upper management isn't going to turn against itself.

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  3. When someone invites a girl to his house for dinner and movie, while his family is away, there is is no double meaning in it.

    I once took a nice junior colleague to a lunch, and because it was going to be a longer discussion and I did not want to be cheap I chose a nice, somewhat fancy place. It was misunderstood because it resulted in invitation from her to go out for a dinner and movie, (which I politely turned down). It was not a romantic advance from me, I really needed to discuss the project and the problems in our team, and since our medchem boss was giving her such a hard time that she was crying at work, I did not want to sound like I am critical of her, hence the long lunch in nice restaurant...

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  4. why would that chick accept the offer to watch a movie at this creepers house?? lol she shouldve nipped it in the bud and stopped right there. that prof is a weirdo though and shouldnt be trusted around students. should probably be removed from his position.

    when i (male) was a TA for both gen chem and organic, i had 2 cases of attractive female students coming on to me during lab, after lab, and when they would see me out at the bars on the weekend. i was invited to hang out with one of them after class but politely turned it down. you can tell when a student is doing this to help her grades, and you need to be able to realize when people are using you. shoot it down right away before it blows up

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    1. "that chick"... Thanks for your input Don Draper.

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    2. Nice humble brag as well... Not just 2 cases of female students, but attractive female students...

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    3. You were a TA that shot down a student that came on to you. Good for you. Now imagine you are the TA coming onto a female student. Would that be creepy? Maybe put her in an awkward position? Maybe she'd find it difficult to politely say no? Now does power differential make sense to you?

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  5. Conversely, myself (male) and a friend (also grad student in chem) were falsely accused of sexual harassment by a female grad student. The student went to the title 9 office to report it and it was a very serious deal, for both myself and my friend. Fortunately for us, she had a long, drama-filled history with her advisor (a female prof) and when the story eventually got to her by word of mouth, the prof told her to drop the case or GTFO. Eventually the case was dropped and off the record, the chem dept chair informed both myself and my friend that a male grad student was accused of harassment a few years prior to our tenure by a woman but he was successfully removed from the university only to find out that the woman was lying, much like our case. He also informed us at this time that he was backing us in the matter because he knew both of us prior to this incident and knew of the females past.

    I'm fortunate to have survived that because I'm not sure what I would have done if I was officially kicked out of the university for something I did not do. Ironically, I heard she cannot keep a job in the industry and I personally still wish her the worst.

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    1. Sadly this is an all too common story. Yours ended well, but most do not. This is a direct result of the recent trend of catastrophizing that ends up trivializing real cases of sexual harassment and assault. Yours is a perfect counter example to anyone that claims we live in a rape culture. Your life was almost ruined by a false claim of sexual impropriety. That doesn't happen in a rape culture.

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    2. Thanks for sharing. People should know that this should go both ways. People should avoid putting stereotypes here.

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  6. Tell us more about Men's Rights and how they're the real victims here

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    1. whoops meant as a reply to Anon 10:46

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    2. The same academics who condemn Men's Rights types the loudest are the ones rationalizing why harassment of female grad students needs to be hushed up when it happens in their own departments. But, but, it could hurt our recruiting and funding if this gets out!

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    3. I don't see anything about men's rights (are men's rights inherently a bad thing? Honest question) from Anon 10:46 and actually agree with them.

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    4. Here's the Wikipedia page on the men's rights movement: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Men%27s_rights_movement

      With that in mind, this is very far afield from topic of the post. There are many other places on the internet to discuss the men's rights movement.

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    5. I don't mean to wade into controversial territory here, because that's exactly what the Men's Rights Movement is. But I do think it has some valid foothold here in that it perpetuates some of the attitudes that are discussed in the article. The idea is that the cards are stacked in favor of women (child custody cases being the most prevalent argument for this) and that men are treated like 2nd class citizens. Someone claiming that rape culture doesn't exist because a woman can ruin a man's life with a fake rape allegation is typical of the MRA victim ideology. Similarly, you'll hear about a man who makes persistent and unwanted advances on a woman and then get the explanation "you can't even talk to a woman without getting charged with harassment!"

      I won't delve into it more than that, but this IS relevant to the discussion. It just always goes in an ugly direction and I understand why you want to prevent that. But this is an ugly topic and chemistry is 10000% a good old boys club, so this attitude is pervasive there too.

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    6. Making unspoken things spoken: Further discussion on this subthread will be deleted by me.

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  7. I need to send this article to the university where I did my undergrad. Both my female friends, who were grad students, were subjected to behavior that is classified as sexual harassment. One involved actual touching; the other inappropriate comments "you are the most beautiful person I ever met and I would marry you in a second". In the case of touching, she reported it to her male advisor, who just told her next time bring me with you but didn't take it further. In the case of the inappropriate comment, it was her advisor. I could tell she was miserable and asked what the problem was and that's how I found out. Perhaps the tenure system empowers these men to think they can do whatever they want. Maybe also the heavily exaggerated importance of those with academic titles makes them feel they are above the "implorables" of society.

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  8. Did no one else read the full article and feel sick to their stomach that OUR colleagues are doing these things?

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    1. I did, and it did. I would like to assume that it happens much more rarely in Chemistry than in a lot of work places. This isn't excusing the bad actors, a single case is one too many, but it's important to get a hold of some firm data about the prevalence, severity, and scope of the problem before we start witch-hunting our male colleagues.

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    2. Not my colleagues. I work in industry, where sexual harassment isn't tolerated. The problem isn't chemists; the problem is the sick, twisted culture of academia.

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    3. @Anon 3:27 - Why would you assume that chemistry is different from other workplaces?

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    4. Jyllian, because of the higher than average intellect required to do the job. Maybe I have too much faith in humanity in thinking that as we become more intellectually advanced we are less likely to be terrible to one another.

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    5. To Anonymous at 3:50 pm: since when does intellect stop someine from being a creep?
      The article did make me feel sick at what chemistry faculty are doing.

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    6. Is this where I put the #notallmalechemistryprofs?

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    7. Anon 5:01, you are literally part of the problem and you clearly didn't read the article or missed the main points.

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    8. Synthetic chemists tend to be more sexually frustrated because they don't get out of lab too often, and Asperger personality hinders interactions with strangers. Also explaining your research project is typically a turn-off.

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    9. I suspect a good number of the serial harassing professors are not sexually frustrated or have Aspergers. A good number of them are likely married, as was the case with the professor in the beginning of the article and seemingly well-adjusted individuals (for academia, at least).
      These men are engaging in this behavior because A. They are looking for casual sex, and the nearest younger women are those in their departments. B. They are looking for women who they have power over, so they can more easily manipulate them into saying yes, or retaliate against them if they say no. C. They do it because they can get away with it, due to having tenure and bringing in funding to their departments.
      I think too often these incidents of harassment are framed as some sort of potential romance good bad, rather than being viewed as an adult taking advantage of a power differential to take advantage of another human being.

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    10. "Synthetic chemists tend to be more sexually frustrated because they don't get out of lab too often, and Asperger personality hinders interactions with strangers. Also explaining your research project is typically a turn-off."

      Stereotype much, milkshake? These sorts of statements do not help explain this behavior one bit. So, are you saying this is a Synthetic chemists issue? Other chemists (physical chemists, analytical chemists) get out of the lab often and are great interacting with strangers? How about Physicists? Are they better than Synthetic chemists? This has nothing to do with being a Synthetic Chemist (or whatever profession you feel like trying to throw under the bus), but rather the behavior explained by Anon 9:35 pm.

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    12. It's probably at the same level as other professions. Makes me think of the church sex scandal. Just a different facade.

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  9. Huh? By what twisted logic is saying that not all male chemistry professors are sexual harassers, a statement of fact I might add, contribute to sexual harassment? Please enlighten me.

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    1. One of the central themes in the article is that sexual harassment is under-reported because there's a lack of belief that there's a real problem or the university would rather not have such a blemish on their reputation so they cover it up/do nothing to stop it. By claiming that not all male professors act this way you perpetuate the attitude that "this isn't a real problem because not all men act this way." This isn't behavior that should be condoned, whether it's 1 professor or 1000. This is a bigger problem than people think; it's not just a couple rogue professors acting this way. There were at least 3 in my department alone and I didn't go to a big school.

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  10. #notallmalechemistryprofs is a riff on #notallmen

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NotAllMen

    it's a joke, and a sigh, and mockery.

    whenever something X hideous that men do, that is repeatedly implicitly condoned and hushed up and minimized by the predominantly male power structure - is finally brought to light -

    some men immediately say "not all men do X!" which comes across as a reflexive "look at MY behavior it's good"

    ......the point of mocking "not all men!" is that these issues reflect systemic problems and appeals to individual good behavior of men are BESIDE THE POINT.

    internet feminism 101 lesson over.

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  11. Thanks for posting this CJ. As a male in academia, I need to be reminded (unfortunately) as to what I can say and not say to the opposite sex. Its easy to be charmed by them and temporarily forget to act with strict professionalism.

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    1. Seriously? As a person in academia I never forget to act with professionalism and treat people with respect. It's not that difficult.

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    2. I'm pretty sure that by saying "academia" this person was suggesting they are still in high school...even so, it's still an appalling statement

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    3. I'm hoping this is sarcasm, because if not it really is appalling, I agree.

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  12. I re-read the article, and the majority of incidents profiled involve senior professors harassing grad students, post-docs or new assistant professors. It's not peers harassing peers, or and it's not new professors who aren't aware of how they should interact with others.
    Even if a person is not themselves being harassed by a professor, seeing one of these serial harassers present in a department is still a negative, since these situations are usually not well-kept secrets. Observing that a department tolerates this behavior simply reinforces the status quo, that the behavior is actually not-so-bad after all.

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  13. Treat everyone professionally and don't make romantic advances at folks you could potentially teach or advise (either as a peer or an instructor/mentor).

    To repeat a sentiment that I made in another recent CJ post, that bar isn't terribly high.

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  14. Meh...this comment thread is proof positive that there's a big problem in academia, especially chemistry. As a lowly grad student, I observed this behavior, heard people report it, and nothing happened. No accountability or consequence to the tenured professor. Maybe we need to give tenure a serious re-think as well as the funding system that empowers this unchecked power. I do understand the potential harm of false accusations, but we all know that it's typically a pattern of behavior by the guilty party and rarely a one-off occurence. Usually, if you start digging, other victims and behaviors emerge. I've been in industry know 10+ years and thankfully the few times of seen this pattern, it has been addressed with a proper, diligent investigation and documentation followed by a prompt dismissal with cause. I really cannot comprehend why we feel that the academy gets to play by its own rules. Hold them to task and fire them if cause is shown, tenure be damned. This isn't complicated. Perhaps this is an excellent arguement for filing large lawsuits against both the Prof. and the Universities that enable them. Guess what...when Universities start losing $$, they will respond. Legal action sure spurred change in the private sector. Rant finished...

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  15. Gross. Learn to control yourself and understand that women are people.

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  16. If you're famous they let you do it

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  17. Zaire's quote is timely. A Professor at my graduate institute got into some trouble, not because of what he did but because of what he allowed one of his workers to do. He was tenure-track. Apparently, the faculty wanted to keep him but the lawsuit that was filed encouraged higher powers to deny him tenure (possibly he had to leave before being evaluated, I don't know). As Zaire noted if you can bring in money someone else will pick you up. And in fact another "top 10 school" did hire him.

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  18. In an article about Geoff Marcy, who was mentioned in the C&EN article, it says,

    "A Berkeley spokesperson subsequently told BuzzFeed News that Marcy was barred from physical contact with students, other than handshakes. He was also prohibited from socializing with students, providing them with alcohol, entering their living spaces or inviting them to his own, and discussing sex with them."

    Shouldn't this be the baseline for all faculty? There is no reason to touch somebody beyond a professional handshake. And, aside from maybe a group party to celebrate a holiday or milestone, no reason to have students in your house, be in theirs or provide alcohol. Definitely never talking about sex. This should be obvious to any adult in a position of authority.

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  19. "And, aside from maybe a group party to celebrate a holiday or milestone, no reason to have students in your house, be in theirs or provide alcohol"

    I think this is ok as long as professional boundaries are followed and are part of the culture. For instance, Arnold Sommerfeld and Max Born both used to regularly invite students to their place (both in groups and alone) for meals and discussions on science, philosophy and politics. So did Robert Oppenheimer; in his case the activities involved reading the Bhagavad Gita and listening to Beethoven together. Niels Bohr used to go for days-long hikes with his students, sometimes with just one student (as he did with Heisenberg).

    In fact I don't even have to look that far: my father who was a beloved economics professor regularly used to have students over for dinner (they loved my mother's cooking). And this kind of bon homie was a big part of what made these people such effective and endearing teachers; this kind of mentoring outside the formal classroom. So it can be very context-dependent. I think one of the tragic consequences of the kind of inappropriate behavior documented in this post that it has cast suspicion over what used to be perfectly normal and reasonable practices.

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    1. Fair to say Born, Sommerfeld and Oppenheimer (mostly) had male trainees. If going to someone's house, hotel room, or private space isn't a comfortable and safe environment for everyone, you don't get to do it with anyone. Sometimes we don't get to have nice things because assholes ruin it. This is an example of said principle.

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    2. Yes, these scientists as well as my father did provide a very safe and welcoming environment for their students (of both genders in case of my parents). They also made the professional and personal well-being of their students very high priorities. I think the culture also plays a huge role. Impropriety with students was not something that would have ever crossed the minds of Born or Bohr (not that women were otherwise treated equally in their societies), partly because of the very strict boundaries drawn between teacher and student. Interestingly, I think because of this reason more socially conservative societies can actually do better in respecting some of the boundaries.

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    3. I don't think we actually agree. This is the sort of mindless reminiscent of the good old days that is insensitive at best and willfully ignorant at worst. Let me offer an edit or two for you to ponder, Wavefunction.
      You said: 'As this kind of bon homie was a big part of what made these people such effective and endearing teachers; this kind of mentoring outside the formal classroom'.
      You meant: 'As this kind of bon homie was a big part of what made these WHITE MEN such effective and endearing teachers TO OTHER WHITE MEN; this kind of mentoring outside the formal classroom'.
      The good old days excluded women, minorities and LGBTQ people. I don't miss the good old days because I would have relegated to making babies.
      As for your statement that "more socially conservative societies can actually do better in respecting the boundaries", sexual harassment and outright discrimination are widespread in science in Germany and Asia. Or perhaps those societies aren't conservative enough and you had others in mind?
      You can either live in the past and miss something that helped a few people or realize that the diversity requires evolution.

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  20. I believe that the fundamental point here is that we don't have to pine for the past in its entirety in order to borrow elements from it. As an analogy, I wish that our political discourse were less polarized, more civil and similar to what it was in the 50s. That does not mean I want society to time travel back to the 50s; as you rightly indicated, that would be terrible for women and people of color.

    Similarly, we can use Oppenheimer or Bohr's interactions with their students as model examples of teacher-student interactions that today, unlike then, would apply to students of all genders, ethnicities and faiths. We can abstract out the qualities that made these interactions so successful and desirable without extolling less desirable, period-specific aspects of them.

    The same analysis applies to my quip about more conservative societies like India or Germany endowing the student-teacher relationship with a certain amount of purity and distance which made any kind of impropriety between the two an alien concept. It does not mean we have to endorse the general status of women in Indian or German society; nor does it mean that there were no cases of harassment plaguing this relationship.

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