ETH Zurich shuts as­tron­omy in­sti­tute over bul­ly­ing claims

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - David.matthews@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

One of the world’s top-ranked uni­ver­si­ties has closed its In­sti­tute for As­tron­omy fol­low­ing al­le­ga­tions of bul­ly­ing of PhD stu­dents by an aca­demic.

ETH Zurich – Swiss Fed­eral In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy Zurich (pic­tured be­low) con­firmed that the in­sti­tute had been shut and that the pro­fes­sor in ques­tion had had her doc­toral stu­dents re­as­signed to other su­per­vi­sors while it in­ves­ti­gates claims that doc­toral stu­dents were de­nied hol­i­day and forced to at­tend meet­ings that ran past mid­night.

The univer­sity’s ex­ec­u­tive board learned of the bul­ly­ing ac­cu­sa­tions in Fe­bru­ary, said an ETH spokes woman, and “sub­se­quently con­ducted in­ter­views with all in­volved par­ties”.

“Th­ese were se­ri­ous ac­cu­sa­tions re­lat­ing to man­age­ment mis­con­duct. This type of be­hav­iour is not tol­er­ated at ETH Zurich, and the univer­sity re­sponded im­me­di­ately with cor­rec­tive mea­sures,” she said in a state­ment.

“The top pri­or­ity was to pro­tect doc­toral stu­dents; this was done by as­sign­ing them to a new su­per­vi­sor. The In­sti­tute for As­tron­omy was closed, and in­di­vid­ual pro­fes­sors were in­te­grated into the In­sti­tute for Par­ti­cle Physics and Astro­physics,” the spokes­woman con­tin­ued.

The pro­fes­sor ac­cused of bul­ly­ing no longer has any doc­toral stu­dents, and can take on new ones only un­der the “close su­per­vi­sion” of the univer­sity, she said. The pro­fes­sor and her hus­band, also an aca­demic at the in­sti­tute, have now been placed on leave, a spokes­woman said, al­though only the for­mer is ac­cused of bul­ly­ing.

Peter Coles, pro­fes­sor of the­o­ret­i­cal astro­physics at Cardiff Univer­sity, crit­i­cised ETH’s re­sponse on his blog, ask­ing: “What com­pen­sa­tion or other re­dress is be­ing of­fered to those who have been bul­lied in the In­sti­tute for As­tron­omy dur­ing this time?” The ac­tion that ETH has taken is not an “ad­e­quate re­sponse to a sit­u­a­tion so se­ri­ous that it ne­ces­si­tated the clo­sure of an en­tire in­sti­tute”, he said.

Ac­cu­sa­tions of bul­ly­ing at the in­sti­tute span­ning more than a decade were re­vealed by the Swiss news­pa­per NZZ am Son­ntag in an in­ves­ti­ga­tion pub­lished on 21 Oc­to­ber. The pro­fes­sor, who is not named, had ex­pected doc­toral stu­dents to show “su­per­hu­man com­mit­ment”, it re­ported, al­low­ing them barely any hol­i­day and set­ting late meet­ings that ran un­til past mid­night.

She had also told fe­male PhD stu­dents to spend less time on their make-up and more on their re­search, the pa­per re­ported. About a third of her doc­toral stu­dents failed, well above the univer­sity av­er­age, it found.

In ad­di­tion to hav­ing taken “im­me­di­ate” mea­sures that had “de­fused” the sit­u­a­tion at the in­sti­tute, the univer­sity will now also com­mis­sion an “ex­ter­nal expert” to look at what hap­pened at the in­sti­tute. It will fo­cus “on the ques­tion of how bet­ter to en­sure that reports of poor man­age­ment con­duct can be swiftly es­ca­lated to a higher level within the or­gan­i­sa­tion, and in se­ri­ous cases di­rectly to the ex­ec­u­tive board”, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from the univer­sity.

As well as ex­am­in­ing struc­tures and pro­cesses at the in­sti­tute, the in­quiry could also lead to fur­ther dis­ci­plinary mea­sures against the pro­fes­sor.

The univer­sity de­cided to ini­ti­ate this ex­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion in Oc­to­ber, the spokes­woman said. She de­clined to con­firm the names of the pro­fes­sors placed on leave.

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