Science

Prominent geneticist out at UC Irvine after harassment finding

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Francisco Ayala

Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

The eminent evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala has offered his resignation to the University of California, Irvine (UCI) , effective 1 July, the university announced yesterday. The move comes on the heels of an investigation of alleged sexual harassment by Ayala that began last November and included complaints from four women  – two professors, an assistant dean, and one graduate student—in the School of Biological Sciences. The biological sciences building was, until this week, named after its benefactor—Ayala.

“Given the number and breadth of the substantiated allegations, along with the power differentials at play, I believe that keeping Professor Ayala’s name in a position of honor would be wrong,” UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman wrote in announcing that Ayala is resigning without emeritus status, will “abstain” from future campus activities, and will have his name removed from both the biological sciences building and UCI’s science library.

Gillman said the university had interviewed more than 60 witnesses during its probe of the allegations. “While reporting misconduct is always difficult, the actions of these women were particularly courageous because their reports involved one of the most prominent members of our faculty,” Gillman wrote.

Gillman added that Ayala’s name will also be stripped from several graduate fellowships, scholar programs and endowed chairs. Ayala gave the school $10 million in 2011, which was to have been disbursed over 10 years. The university would not comment on how much has been disbursed, or how the remaining portion of the gift will be handled. It also declined to comment on details of the sexual harassment allegations, which were not described in Gillman’s statement.

Ayala, who was hired at UCI in 1989, released a statement that reads:

“I deeply regret that what I have always thought of as the good manners of a European gentleman—to greet women colleagues warmly, with a kiss to both cheeks, to compliment them on their beauty—made colleagues I respect uncomfortable. It was never my intent to do so. Nor do I wish to put them, my family, or this institution through the lengthy process of further investigation, hearings, appeals, and law suits. I have too much respect for them, and too much work still to do. I will continue my research with renewed vigor, and I thank my colleagues around the world for their support.”

The four complainants, who asked to be identified, are all in the School of Biological Sciences: professor Kathleen Treseder, assistant teaching professor Jessica Pratt, assistant dean Benedicte Shipley and graduate student Michelle Herrera. 

Treseder and Pratt referred questions to their attorney, Micha Star Liberty, a sexual harassment lawyer based in Oakland, California. Shipley and Herrera could not be reached by deadline.

In an interview today, Liberty said her clients–three of the four complainants–are considering “all available legal options.”

“It’s frustrating and completely disingenuous for UCI to say they got a complaint in November and took swift action,” Liberty says. “That’s simply not true. They didn’t do an investigation when a complaint was filed 3 years ago.”

The university declined to make any comment in addition to Gillman’s statement.

Liberty would not identify the complainant of 3 years ago, the nature of that complaint, or the mechanism by which the alleged complaint was made. But she says that complainant is also one of the four women whose complaints launched the probe that began in November 2017.

Liberty further alleges: “UCI seemed to care only about making sure that their famous and profitable professor was taken care of, rather than being employee-focused on the employment law rights and the Title IX rights of these women.” Title IX is the federal law that makes sexual harassment in educational settings illegal.

Liberty alleges that Ayala’s behavior toward female students, staff, and colleagues was permeated with unwanted touching and sexually based language and statements, often in front of other people. For instance, she says, he once told a professor who was giving a report in a meeting: “Why don’t you sit on my lap while you give the presentation? It would be much more interesting.”

Ayala’s attorney, Susan Estrich, says: “The comment about sitting on his lap was a bad attempt at humor in a crowded room in 2015, for which Professor Ayala apologized some years ago.”

Liberty also alleged that Ayala discussed in front of Treseder, whom he had nominated for membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS), how blacklisting of nominees was typically carried out—comments that she took as a veiled threat to blacklist her nomination. Ayala is a NAS member and only members can nominate—and vote on—new members.

“Professor Ayala has made absolutely clear, repeatedly so, that he would never blackball a candidate for the Academy, much less a candidate he nominated,” Estrich responded.  

According to Liberty, Ayala’s behavior toward Herrara, the graduate student, triggered the investigation that began in November 2017. Ayala’s actions were witnessed by Herrara’s supervisor, she says, who also complained at that time, in support of Herrara. In the process of the investigation, the two other women came forward as complainants. One was the woman who had complained 3 years before.

They came forward, Liberty says, because “they were tired of witnessing this type of behavior, they were concerned about this graduate student, who had a lot less power than they did, being victimized and they wanted this conduct to stop. They were also tired of enduring this behavior themselves.”

Liberty alleges that as the investigation proceeded, UCI represented to her that Ayala had threatened to sue the university and the complaining women for defamation.

Estrich says: “At no time was suing for defamation ever considered.”

Ayala, 84, has become a prominent presence in American biology since he left his native Spain and the Dominican priesthood in 1961 for graduate studies at Columbia University. He did pioneering work in molecular evolution and genetics and made a groundbreaking discovery about the parasites that cause Chagas disease, a sometimes-fatal ailment that afflicts million in the tropics.  He is a former president of AAAS, which publishes Science; an NAS member; and a 2010 winner of the $1.5 million Templeton Prize for making an “exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Ayala has been outspoken on the ethical issues related to the study of human evolution, and a prominent spokesperson in the debate between evolution and creationism. He is also a vintner, who at the time of his donation to UCI in 2011 owned more than 2000 acres of vineyards in northern California.

Kristen Monroe is one of Ayala’s colleagues and political scientist who directs the UCI Interdisciplinary Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality, where Ayala regularly attended meetings and was a founding member. She says: “I’m baffled and surprised at the charges against Professor Ayala since nothing in our interactions, over some 20 years, suggests he treats women with anything but respect and courtesy.”

Ayala’s colleague Camilo  Cela-Conde, an emeritus professor at the University of the Balearic Islands in Spain, who has co-written six books with Ayala on human evolution, put out a statement today under the heading “Professor Ayala’s Sentence.” “I read with stupor, shame and displeasure,” of Ayala’s name being stripped from the UCI buildings, Cela-Conde wrote, noting that Gillman stated that keeping Ayala’s name on the buildings “would be wrong.” Cela-Conde added: “I wonder whether [the university’s] keeping the more than U.S. $4 million donated to UCI by Professor Ayala and destroying his scientific career would be right.”

Cela-Conde noted the university’s interviews with more than 60 witnesses.  “What the statement does not mention is that only a fraction of the witnesses proposed by Professor Ayala were actually interviewed,” he wrote. “The lack of fairness throughout the whole investigation process is highly evident. Fake news seems to give birth to fake investigations.”

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