Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Readers speak on potential prison time for Professor Harran

Last week, I asked if anyone thought that Professor Patrick Harran should go to prison. As I've said before, the felony charges are likely to be an opening gambit between the prosecutor and the defense. No one expects that he will serve the maximum prison time (4.5 years), which is the harshest punishment available to the state in this case.

That said, I was curious to know if there was anyone who thought that he should go to prison, other than to teach all chemistry PIs a lesson (an option, I note, that I find unjust. Patrick Harran should not go to prison for the sins of all academic chemistry.) I did receive two responses from people who thought that he deserves prison time. The first response by VT:
Harran deserves some prison time.  
Lots of people sell pot. Only some get caught. Those who are caught get punished. I think someone in one of your comments section compared it to drunk driving. I think that this analogy is actually the best. You can drive drunk. You may or may not get caught. If you do get caught, you are going to be busted. If you get caught after having an accident which kills someone, you will be charged with involuntary manslaughter. And, unless your lawyers are good/your pleas for mercy are stellar/your judge is understanding, you are doing jail-time. 
Harran was unsafe. He got caught. He got caught when there was an accident that killed a student. The question here is severity of the punishment. Harran did not kill his student (as in the DUI analogy). But he was responsible for her safety. I think he gets time. 3-6 months.  
I don't see how he gets out of jail-time for this. Especially considering that his jury of peers will most likely not include any scientists.  
It is my opinion that, if Harran serves time, he deserves to go back to his current job at UCLA. 
The second contribution is from KO (one notes that Sangji was an employee, not a student -- the concept of personal responsibility still holds, in my opinion):
I do believe that Professor Patrick Harran deserves jail time.   
This opinion is based off the structure and nature of the student/PI (principal investigator) relationship.  A graduate student is not considered a full time employee of the University.  Therefore, not subject to the oversight of OSHA or other federal regulatory offices and this is therefore a direct liability.   In the case of industry, individual employers are generally protected from personal liability due to the nature of corporate law.  Since the university cannot claim the student as a full time employee, they accept full liability for said student.  And the person in charge of the student's training and direct oversight is the PI.  It reasons that the personal liability rests on the PI shoulders and the University takes liability for the system ensuring compliance and safety.  In this case both are at fault.  However, since you cannot arrest a university, the university should be held financally responsible and the PI held personally responsible for the safety and well being of the students.   Since the PI is not running a corporation or even an LLC then the PI is not protected and hence fully liable.
After reading all the comments, I think there are 3 or 4 general strains of thought about why Professor Harran deserves prison time:
  • Harran going to prison will encourage chemistry PIs to change their ways. 
  • Professor Harran's the PI, he's the captain of the ship, someone died on his watch, he deserves punishment. 
  • He was being unsafe, he got caught, he's subject to the letter of the law. 
  • If this happened in a meatpacking plant and Harran was the supervisor, he'd be facing charges and prison time. Why is it different if it happened at a laboratory? 
Finally, I want to highlight this comment from Anon011720120457p:
I think his tenure should be revoked. As for community service, if he gets probation and no jail time: volunteer work in a rehab hospital that treats burn patients. That will bring home the seriousness of his negligence in supervising Sangji.
This to me seems to be a punishment that's probably closest to what will actually happen.

Readers, what do you think?


  1. I think the analogy to drunk driving is the most persuasive and appropriate. That combined with volunteering in a burn ward would probably be the most appropriate punishments if he is found guilty.

  2. I subscribe to points 2-4. Use an example to others, eh, not a good enough reason.

  3. So: Will Harran still be at UCLA when all is said and done? Will he be in academia at all? If convicted, will it ruin all job prospects like a cocaine arrest in college would?

  4. Hey! Quit talking about my past!


  5. @ Cpt Pegleg: I know a guy who is a college professor now and he went to Harvard. He had a brief juvenile incarceration stint for stealing expensive cars in the highschool (he was not selling them, just taking joyrides and wrecking few in the process). A drug offense is different matter though, a friend of mine was busted for peddling oxycontin as a grad student (he got addicted himself on the stuff and got into drug dealing to support his increasingly expensive habit and ended up ratted out by one of his customers who needed a plea bargain...) and sure enough, after a jail time it was a long road back to reuild his life and his dreams of becoming a research chemist came to end when he got a very un-supportive responses from grad school administrators. So he ended up going into business school. in a win-win situation I think as being chemist sucks and running business is something he will be definitely very good at.

  6. For the drunk driving analogy, What if the other driver did not wear a seat belt? (Sanji did not wear a lab coat) Would the drunk driver be persecuted with involuntary manslaughter? That's very debatable and this analogy is far from being appropriate.

  7. For those calling for prof. Harran to go to jail I would recommend to read The New Yorker article "The Caging of America" in this January issue, to understand how completely deranged is the US industrial-penal system. Also, the family of Sanji is free to sue the socks off prof. Harran and the university (which I am sure is something they considered already/

  8. The story is fairly incomprehensible to non-Americans. In most other countries that have a stable and respected contstitution, serious concern is being expressed because the prison population is creeping above the 1/1000 level. in the USA, it's about 10 times higher. Are successful economies necessarily jail economies?

  9. Chemistry jobs should be paid a premium.

  10. "What if the other driver did not wear a seat belt?"

    And what if the drive was not driving a Volvo with enhanced safety features? This is a ridiculous argument, as Harran was equally responsible to ensure that his students were obeying safety regulations.

    Re "The Caging of America", well, it would make NYC a lot safer if there were fewer Americans on the streets.....

  11. I think it's too much to convict Prof. Harran of a felony, or to revoke his tenure, just because he didn't force his students to wear lab coats. (If she had asked for a flame-retardant lab coat and was told, no, that's not in our budget, that would have been a different story).

    For the record, I didn't wear a lab coat when I was a graduate student, and the ones that were available were untreated cotton and had weird brown stains on them.

    1. And I mouth-pipetted in bio labs while doing undergrad research, and I was taught to do so. In the late nineties. Doesn't make it okay for me to teach that now.


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